100th Anniversary of the Romanov Executions

In the summer of 1998, just before I was about to begin junior high school, my cousins introduced me to the Fox animated musical Anastasia. It had just been released on home video (remember videos, those artifacts?), and I found myself thoroughly enchanted by the film while even more intrigued that it was based upon actual events. Not long after watching the movie, I asked my mom to take me to the local library, where I nabbed a couple of books about Anastasia and the Romanov dynasty. Upon reading these, I discovered that this cute musical cartoon glossed over some of the realities of what actually happened to its titular heroine – namely that her entire family and a group of their faithful attendants were savagely murdered by their Bolshevik captors in the cellar of a house where they had been held under arrest. This was rather jarring for my eleven-year-old mind to process, but then I came upon a rather coincidental link with this gruesome event – the date of the Romanov murders was July 17, 1918. My birthday is July 17. In a strange way, I suddenly felt connected to these people and the terrible fate that befell them.

What was even more, during that same summer, on July 17, 1998, the eightieth anniversary of the executions and also my twelfth birthday, I saw in the news that a lavish funeral ceremony took place in St. Petersburg, Russia, presided over by then-President Boris Yeltsin and attended by a number of foreign dignitaries, European royalty, and surviving members of the Romanov family. All of this attention to the Romanovs that transpired that summer, coinciding with my own discovery of this tragic chapter in history and realizing the connection of my birthdate, triggered a deep interest in European history – Russian history and the history of European monarchies, in particular. This would culminate in the pursuit of my degree in history and in my recent certification as a credentialed social studies teacher.
The Romanovs just before their executions, as depicted in the
1971 Oscar-winning film "Nicholas and Alexandra".

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Romanov executions. The story of that horrific night has been told (in admittedly varying ways, depending on the source) numerous times over the years. The generally accepted version is this – in the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, the imprisoned Romanov family were awoken, ordered to dress, and came down from their bedrooms. Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, Empress Alexandra, their four daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, their only son, the Tsarevich Alexei, along with four attendants who agreed to join the family in captivity – their personal physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin; the empress’s maid, Anna Demidova; the tsar’s valet, Alexei Trupp; and their cook, Ivan Kharitonov – had been held under arrest in the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg, a mining town in the Ural Mountains. The Red Army of the Bolsheviks, who had seized control of Russia in October of the previous year, was embroiled in a brutal civil war against the White Army, made up of anti-Bolshevik forces, many of which were loyal to the overthrown tsar. The Red Army had been struggling to hold on to Yekaterinburg, allowing for a very real possibility that the White Army would reach the town, liberate the Romanovs, and potentially restore Nicholas II to power.
The Ipatiev house, the Romanovs' final prison.

Something had to be done with these highly valuable prisoners.

After emerging from their quarters, the guards moved the Romanovs and their entourage to the cellar of the house, where they were told to wait until a truck came to evacuate them. The family suspected they would probably be moved, as they had been able to hear the distant cannon fire of the Red and White forces for days now. The commandant of the guards at the Ipatiev house, Yakov Yurovsky, informed the family a photograph would be taken, in order to dispel rumors that they had escaped. After arranging the eleven prisoners within the cellar, Yurovsky returned with a group of guards standing in the doorway facing them. Yurovsky pulled out a small piece of paper and, addressing the tsar, read aloud from it –

“Nicholas Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”

The imperial children - Grand Duchess Maria, Grand Duchess Tatiana,
Grand Duchess Anastasia, Grand Duchess Olga, Tsarevich Alexei.
Startled by what he had just heard, Nicholas turned to his wife, who quickly crossed herself, and then turned back to Yurovsky, asking with bewilderment “What?” At that moment, the guards pulled out their guns and began firing upon the family. Nicholas died instantly, having been shot point-blank in the head. Empress Alexandra and her eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga, were also killed immediately. The execution was far from organized – the guards, crowded in the doorway, fired erratically over each other’s’ heads and shoulders, as the remaining victims ran about screaming and crying in the small cellar. The gun smoke from the executioners’ weapons filled the room and made it difficult for them to take aim. When the gunfire ceased, the guards found that the three younger grand duchesses and their brother, along with the maid, Anna, were still alive though badly injured. The son, Alexei, was finished off with a bullet in his ear, while his sisters were savagely murdered with the bayonets of the guards’ Winchester rifles. Once the victims were all still, the guards began searching their clothing and discovered pounds of jewelry sewn into the corsets of the daughters, while the maid Anna had jewels sewn into the lining of a pillow she was carrying. This was reportedly done on the orders of Empress Alexandra, who wanted to secretly hide their valuables in case they should be liberated and needed to cash in their jewels for money to support themselves. The bodies of the imperial family and their staff were brought outside, loaded into a waiting truck, and driven to the woods outside of town for a hasty and ignoble burial. Despite the botched manner in which the remains were disposed of, they lay hidden until the 1970s, though the existing political environment meant that the two men who found the gravesite did not publicly reveal their discovery until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The site of the Romanovs' original burial site near Yekaterinburg.
Less than a week after the murders, the White Army marched into Yekaterinburg. They raced to the Ipatiev house, only to find it wholly vacated. Some of the imperial family’s belongings – books, clothes, diaries – were left behind, but not a single living soul remained in the house. They went into the basement and found the walls and floor riddled with bullet holes. Something had happened to the family.

Just one day after the executions of the tsar and his family, Empress Alexandra’s sister, Elisabeth, who had also married into the Russian imperial family, was murdered in the woods near Alapayevsk along with a group of Romanov princes. Elisabeth, who had renounced her royal life and became a nun by the time of her death, was later canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, and her effigy stands above the door of Westminster Abbey in London along with other figures regarded as “Twentieth Century Martyrs”.

The executions of the Romanov family remains among the darkest chapters in Russian history. It preluded what became a savage century for the country, as the autocratic rule of the tsars swept away by the 1917 revolution gave way to seven decades of totalitarian rule under the communists. For the crowned heads of Europe in 1918, most of whom were relatives of the Romanovs, the murders in Yekaterinburg left them shaken to the core. The hardships of World War I and the surprise victory of the communist revolution in Russia left the monarchies across the continent feeling vulnerable about their positions and terrified of their fates if their countrymen decided to turn on them. The gruesome fate of the imperial family hung like a specter over Europe for years – a harbinger of what could happen if royalty failed to earn the love of their people.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the funeral service
for the Romanov family, July 1998.
The 1998 burial ceremony served as a sort of reckoning between Russia and the brutal killing of its final monarchs. Nicholas II had his shortcomings as a ruler, to be certain. He was woefully unsuited to the job of an autocratic tsar. Many have speculated that if he had been a constitutional monarch, like his cousin and close friend, Britain’s King George V, he would have been far more successful. He was a devoted husband and father, sincerely loved by his relatives and friends, a God-fearing man committed to the welfare of his beloved Russia. Politically, however, he was a spectacular failure. He was weak, indecisive, unimaginative, utterly blind to the vastly changing world taking shape around him in the early twentieth century, and pathetically ignorant of the challenges facing his country at a time when reform would have gone far to save so much. How utterly different world history would have been if he had listened to reason and gave Russia the reforms it badly called for. Or, perhaps, the revolution and its aftermath were inevitable. Perhaps Nicholas II, his country, and the twentieth century as a whole were condemned from the start. Even a full century later, Russia still feels the effects of its unprecedented revolution, and the rest of the world continues to feel it too in one form or other.
The Empress with her daughters.
However we analyze the impact of the events of 1918, at the core of this tragic story is a family – a loving, kindly husband, his beautiful, yet melancholy and occasionally domineering wife; their four pretty, obedient daughters, and their handsome, imperious and sickly son. Fewer families were devoted to one another as the Romanovs. In the days after his abdication in March 1917, Nicholas II refused all suggestions to escape from Russia and meet his family at a later time – he would not go anywhere if his wife and children were not at his side. In April 1918, the Soviets ordered Nicholas to be moved from the family’s imprisonment in Siberia, ostensibly so that he could be taken to Moscow for trial by the Bolshevik government. His hemophiliac son Alexei, however, was recovering from a bleeding attack and unable to travel. His wife Alexandra agonized for hours over whether she would accompany her husband towards whatever fate lay in store for him, or stay behind to care for the son she devoted her life to. She chose to follow her husband, saying “I must leave my child behind and choose to share my husband’s life or death”. The night before Nicholas and Alexandra’s departure, the parents and their children sat huddled together sobbing, uncertain whether they would see each other again. Mercifully, they would be reunited, in the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg, where they lived out the final three months of their lives in misery and isolation at the hands of rude, lecherous guards. But they were at least together. In the end, as savage and cold-blooded as their deaths were, the one saving grace was that the family all died together.


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