In the summer of 1918, with Civil War raging and its outcome still uncertain, Russia’s last Tsar was murdered along with his family and four servants. Their killers disposed of the bodies hastily, as the execution was part of a plan to retreat. The bodies were left in a shallow grave, but there they would remain until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The former Tsar had actually been a model prisoner. Even at the beginning of the Revolution, he had been compliant, sincerely trying to do what was best for Russia. In February 1917, when the first wave of the Revolution created a new Provisional Government, Nikolai II abdicated on his own behalf and on that of his son, Aleksei. Under the Provisional Government, he and his family were not permitted to go where they would, but at first they were held at a familiar estate at Tsarskoye Selo. While Nikolai II was aggrieved at the decline in fortune with which his family had suffered, there is also reason to believe that he was relieved no longer to carry the burden of Russia’s fate. He had never had the temperament of an Emperor, and at last he could focus his attention on his family alone. Later in the summer, they were moved to Tobolsk, where the terms of their arrest remained largely the same.
Their fortunes changed radically with the October Revolution. The new government was both vastly more hostile to him and to what he represented, and far more attentive to power and the elimination of potential rivals. Moreover, the proclamation of a Soviet state resulted in a series of revolts all over the country, leading to a protracted Civil War. At the same time, the outright elimination of the Royal Family was an act that the Soviets could not yet contemplate in a casual manner. The ties of kinship that the Romanovs enjoyed with European royalty, including the English Royal Family, made the prospect of their murder a potential international incident. In the early days of the war, with a hold on power that was still all too fragile, the Soviets could neither kill the Romanovs outright, nor could they permit a shift in the fortunes of war to allow their enemies to acquire such a useful asset.
In April, 1918, they were transferred to Yekaterinburg, a remote city in the Ural Mountains. It was not a smooth operation; communications were still primitive, and all the more so in the wilder parts of the country. Rumors, such as the belief in Tobolsk that monarchist elements were trying to capture the former Tsar, and the assumption in Yekaterinburg that the Royal Family would just be killed on the way to their city, overshadowed much of the official communication. Still, the Romanovs arrived safely in Yekaterinburg, and after a day’s delay, they were installed at the Ipatiev house.
The Soviet government saw mixed results on the battlefield that summer, and their hold on power was not yet secure. A particular worry for the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg was a group of Czechs who were enjoying a great deal of success along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. They were a force of about 40,000, and had previously been prisoners of war from the Austro-Hungarian army; the original idea had been to free them and equip them to fight against the Austrians under the banner of freedom from the Dual Monarchy, but the Bolshevik takeover of power put a stop to that plan, leaving the force trapped on the rail lines in the heart of Siberia. Local conflicts made these Czechs an enemy of the Soviet state, and so this well-trained and mobile force made common cause with other White Russian forces. By the middle of summer, the Czechs dominated a great length of the railroad, which was the only line that connected European Russia with its far eastern holdings; and then they mounted an offensive for Yekaterinburg.
During the middle of July, a series of telegrams were sent between local authorities and Y.M. Sverdlov, the Chairman of the Central Executive Committee and Lenin’s representative. Even as Lenin was denying the rumors in the West that Nikolai II was dead, the decision had been made that he would be executed; at this stage, however, it was expected that there would first be a trial.
It was the speed of the Czechs’ envelopment that forced a change in plan. Local Red authorities became skittish, and decided to kill the Tsar without first having the formality of a trial. Somehow, this decision was transformed into the execution of the entire family, with their four servants. A little bit after midnight, on the morning of July 17, the Romanovs were roused from bed and ordered to take shelter in the basement, as a battle was being joined. They complied, and while they waited, a vehicle’s engine was started outside in an effort to muffle the sounds of gunshots.
The leader of the guards, Yakov Yurovsky, returned presently to announce the decision to kill them all. The intended victims were said to have reacted with shock; as the Tsar asked, “What?” Yurovsky shot him, and then his son Aleksei, with his pistol. The ten armed men with him fired on the other victims: the Empress Aleksandra, the princesses Olga, Tatyana, Maria and Anastasia, Doctor Botkin, the maid Anna Demidova, the cook Kharitonov, and the butler Trupp. Even the gunmen were unnerved by what they found when the smoke cleared: several of their victims were still alive. Surprisingly, the hemophiliac Aleksei was among them. Less surprising is the fact that the princesses survived the volley, as they were unintentionally armored by the jewels that had been sewn into their clothing for safekeeping. The gunmen undertook to finish the survivors off, some with additional shots, but others with bayonets.
The disposal of the bodies took a couple of days, as the first site chosen was quickly seen to be insufficient. The Bolsheviks then tried cremation, but the bodies were too wet, and in the end, nine of the eleven bodies were buried in a shallow trench, with the bodies of Aleksei and Maria buried separately nearby.
The local Soviet reacted with some horror when they realized that everyone had been killed, and tried at first to hide this fact in their communications with the central government. However much accident might have entered into the situation locally, Lenin can hardly have disapproved. As it developed, it was not just the Tsar himself who was slated for death, but all of the Romanovs left in Russia. The first to be killed had been Grand Duke Mikhail, and his murder had been more than a month previous. Other relatives were taken by the secret police, the Cheka, on July 17 as well, and the deaths would go on until January 1919. It is unlikely that the Royal Family would have lived long if Yurovsky had kept with the original plan.
Yekaterinburg did fall to the Czechs just over a week later, but in the end, the Soviets prevailed, and the city was renamed Sverdlovsk in honor of the same Sverdlov whose telegrams had conveyed the intention to kill the Tsar. For a while, Ipatiev House was a museum, but in 1977 it was razed. The fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 allowed the name of the city to revert to Yekaterinburg, and also permitted the exhumation of the bones. The story generated a great deal of interest, not least in Russia itself, but the analysis of the remains took some time. The last of the skeletons, those of Aleksei and Maria, were only identified by DNA in 2008.
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