The mounting pressures of World War I, combined with years of injustice, toppled the rule of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917. Forced to abdicate, he was replaced by a Provisional Government committed to continuing the war.
Increasing losses at the front and the fear of a German advance on Moscow eroded what little support remained for the war and undermined the Provisional Government's authority. Capitalising on this situation, the Germans secretly transported the exiled Vladimir Lenin in a sealed train from Switzerland to Russia in the hope he would enflame the turmoil. German expectations were realised on the night of November 6-7 when Lenin led the Bolsheviks in a successful attempt to grab the reigns of power in St. Petersburg. Anti-Bolshevik forces (the White Russians) immediately took up arms to oust the Communist regime and Russia was plunged into a brutal civil war. The following March the Communist regime signed a treaty with the Germans ending Russia's participation in World War I.
For the Bolsheviks, once they took power in November 1917, the Romanovs simultaneously became a bargaining chip and a headache. Russia needed to negotiate its exit from World War I while also avoiding a foreign invasion. The country’s enemies would be watching what happened to the former rulers, but if the Romanovs remained alive they would forever be a symbol for the monarchist movement. Some wanted them sent into exile, some wanted them put on trial for their perceived crimes, and some wanted them to disappear, for good.
At first the family was sent to the palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Security concerns then sent them to Tobol’sk, east of the Ural Mountains. They were not treated badly, and Nicholas even seemed to thrive. He enjoyed the outdoor, rural life and did not miss the stress of being tsar. The family retained a generous staff: 39 servants altogether. They kept many of their personal possessions, including their beloved family leather-bound photograph albums. It was still possible in these early days of their imprisonment to dream of a happy ending. They might reach England and live in exile with their British cousin King George V. Better still, perhaps they would be allowed to retire to their estate in the Crimea, the scene of many happy summers.
They did not understand that, little by little, each escape route was closing until only one was left, the worst one: the road to Yekaterinburg.
The most radicalized city in Russia, Yekaterinburg was strongly communist and fanatically anti-tsarist. “I would go anywhere at all, only not to the Urals,” Nicholas is reported to have said as the train approached his final residence. The family stayed in a large building known as the Ipatiev House, after its former owner. A high wooden palisade was constructed to cut off the outside world. They had the use of a garden for exercise. The man in charge, Avdeev, was corrupt (his men stole freely from the Romanovs) but not cruel. The guards were ordinary men, recruited from local factories. As time went on they became familiar and even friendly with their charges.
It couldn’t last. The local Bolsheviks replaced Avdeev with Yakov Yurovsky, the man who would orchestrate their murders. He stopped the petty thieving that had gone unpunished by his predecessor, but he instituted a much harsher regime and recruited stricter, more disciplined guards. He maintained a distant but professional relationship with Nicholas and Alexandra, even as he planned their deaths. Nicholas—getting it wrong yet again—even seemed to like him.
Life at Tobolsk during the first few months was another idyll of domestic calm and undisturbed tranquillity. The ex-Tsar breakfasted, studied, walked, lunched, exercised, dined, taught history to Alexis, and held family reunions in the evening to an extent never possible before. Special religious services were held for the royal family in. the town church and they were permitted to leave the house for that purpose. The children prepared and enacted dramatic pieces in French and English. The townspeople showed themselves courteous and sympathetic, frequently sending gifts, particularly fresh food, and saluting the members of the family respectfully or blessing them with the sign of the cross when they appeared at the windows of the Palace. It was only, the unending monotony, the drab Siberian monotony that oppressed, together with the almost complete absence of news.
The first rift appeared in September 1917. Two new Commissars, Pankratov and Nikoisky, arrived, with authority from the Provisional Government to supersede the humane Khobylinsky, who remained, however, in a subordinate capacity. Had his régime been too mild? In any case, the new Commandants, who were Social Revolutionaries, one of1a genial but fanatical and the other of a vulgar mentality, instituted a propaganda which rapidly demoralized the guards and initiated a progressive persecution of the prisoners. Insulting inscriptions began to appear on the walls and the fences. The soldiers now refused to return the salute which Nicholas scrupulously accorded each in passing. Permission to attend divine service in the outside church was withdrawn. Nicholas was ordered to remove his epaulettes. The harmless 'snow mountain,' which the whole family had built as a joint recreation and which gave them much distraction, was demolished.
The last civilians to see the Romanovs alive were four women who had been brought in from the town to clean the Ipatiev House. Mariya Starodumova, Evdokiya Semenova, Varvara Dryagina, and an unidentified fourth gave the family a small amount of relief from the boredom of their confinement, and one final contact with the outside world.
The testimony of these women has given the most penetrating and humane portrait of the doomed family. Forbidden to speak to the Romanovs, the cleaners nevertheless had the chance to observe them at close quarters. At first, they were struck by the contrast between the tales of the family’s arrogance disseminated by anti-tsarist propaganda and the modest people they found before them. The grand duchesses were ordinary girls. As for poor, broken Alexei, he looked to Semenova like the epitome of delicate suffering. Like so many before her, she was particularly struck by his eyes, which were soft and callow, but which appeared to Semenova to be full of sadness.
The family, however, was delighted with the diversion. The sisters threw themselves into helping scrub the floors, taking the opportunity to speak with the cleaners in defiance of house rules. Semenova managed to say a few kind words to Alexandra. One of the scenes Semenova and Starodumova both remembered with great clarity was when Yurovsky sat down next to the tsarevitch and inquired after the boy’s health. A scene of rare kindness and sympathy made retrospectively sinister by the fact that Yurovsky was perfectly aware that within a short time he would be the child’s executioner.
The visit to the Ipatiev House made a deep impression on the women. The Romanovs were to be killed because they were the supreme symbols of autocracy. The irony was that, in Yekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks had turned them into the opposite of aristocrats. In the words of Evdokiya Semenova, “they were not gods. They were actually ordinary people like us. Simple mortals.”
On the night of July 16, a telegram was sent to Moscow informing Lenin of the decision to carry out the murders. Rousing the family and the four servants from bed at 1:30 a.m., Yurovsky informed them that fighting between Red and White forces was threatening the city and that they must be moved down to the basement for their own safety.
No evidence survives to suggest the Romanovs reacted with anything but docility. Carrying the tsarevitch in his arms, Nicholas led the family and the four servants—family doctor Eugene Botkin, maid Anna Demidova, chef Ivan Kharitonov, and footman Alexei Trupp—down to the cellar. Gathered together in a small, bare room, they still appeared oblivious to their fate. Chairs were fetched for Alexandra and Alexei while the others stood.
Yurovsky approached them, with the executioners behind him in the doorway, and read from a prepared statement to the astonished prisoners: “The presidium of the Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, has decreed that the former Tsar Nicholas Romanov, guilty of countless bloody crimes against the people, should be shot.” When, he finished, they began firing on the family. Accounts are conflicting, but most say that the tsar was the main target, and that he died from several gunshots. The tsarina died from a bullet to the head.
As the room filled with gun smoke, discipline among the killers vanished. The grand duchesses seemed unharmed by the bullets, which had ricocheted off their bodies (it was later discovered that diamond jewelry sewn into their clothing had acted like armor during the initial assault). One of the murderers—a drunkard named Ermakov—lost all control and began to slash at the Romanovs with a bayonet. Finally, after a horror-filled 20 minutes, the entire family and their servants were all dead: shot, stabbed, and beaten.
The 11 bodies were hauled out of the house and loaded onto a truck. The disposal of the remains was chaotic. Scholars believe the bodies were first dumped in a shallow mine called Ganina Yama, which the Bolsheviks tried to collapse with grenades. The shaft stayed intact, so the bodies were hastily removed. On the way to the new burial site, the truck got mired in mud, and two bodies—now believed to be Alexei and Maria—were removed and disposed of in the forest. The nine other bodies were burned, doused with acid, and buried in a separate grave not too far away.
Pavel Medvedev was a member of the squad of soldiers guarding the royal family. He describes what happened:
"In the evening of 16 July, between seven and eight p.m., when the time or my duty 'had just begun; Commandant Yurovsky, [the head of the execution squad]ordered me to take all the Nagan revolvers from the guards and to bring them to him. I took twelve revolvers from the sentries as well as from some other of the guards and brought them to the commandant's office.
Yurovsky said to me, 'We must shoot them all tonight; so notify the guards not to be alarmed if they hear shots.' I understood, therefore, that Yurovsky had it in his mind to shoot the whole of the Tsar's family, as well as the doctor and the servants who lived with them, but I did not ask him where or by whom the decision had been made... At about ten o'clock in the evening in accordance with Yurovsky's order I informed the guards not to be alarmed if they should hear firing.
About midnight Yurovsky woke up the Tsar's family. I do not know if he told them the reason they had been awakened and where they were to be taken, but I positively affirm that it was Yurovsky who entered the room occupied by the Tsar's family. In about an hour the whole of the family, the doctor, the maid and the waiters got up, washed and dressed themselves.
Just before Yurovsky went to awaken the family, two members of the Extraordinary Commission [of the Ekaterinburg Soviet] arrived at Ipatiev's house. Shortly after one o'clock a.m., the Tsar, the Tsaritsa, their four daughters, the maid, the doctor, the cook and the waiters left their rooms. The Tsar carried the heir in his arms. The Emperor and the heir were dressed in gimnasterkas [soldiers' shirts] and wore caps. The Empress, her daughters and the others followed him. Yurovsky, his assistant and the two above-mentioned members of the Extraordinary Commission accompanied them. I was also present.
During my presence none of the Tsar's family asked any questions. They did not weep or cry. Having descended the stairs to the first floor, we went out into the court, and from there to the second door (counting from the gate) we entered the ground floor of the house. When the room (which adjoins the store room with a sealed door) was reached, Yurovsky ordered chairs to be brought, and his assistant brought three chairs. One chair was given to the Emperor, one to the Empress, and the third to the heir.
The Empress sat by the wall by the window, near the black pillar of the arch. Behind her stood three of her daughters (I knew their faces very well, because I had seen them every day when they walked in the garden, but I didn't know their names). The heir and the Emperor sat side by side almost in the middle of the room. Doctor Botkin stood behind the heir. The maid, a very tall woman, stood at the left of the door leading to the store room; by her side stood one of the Tsar's daughters (the fourth). Two servants stood against the wall on the left from the entrance of the room.
The maid carried a pillow. The Tsar's daughters also brought small pillows with them. One pillow was put on the Empress's chair; another on the heir's chair. It seemed as if all of them guessed their fate, but not one of them uttered a single sound. At this moment eleven men entered the room: Yurovsky, his assistant, two members of the Extraordinary Commission, and seven Letts (operatives of the infamous Cheka or Secret Police)..
Yurovsky ordered me to leave, saying, 'Go on to the street, see if there is anybody there, and wait to see whether the shots have been heard.' I went out to the court, which was enclosed by a fence, but before I got to the street I heard the firing. I returned to the house immediately (only two or three minutes having elapsed) and upon entering the room where the execution had taken place, I saw that all the members of the Tsar's family were lying on the floor with many wounds in their bodies. The blood was running in streams. The doctor, the maid and two waiters had also been shot. When I entered the heir was still alive and moaned a little. Yurovsky went up and fired two or three more times at him. Then the heir was still."
After the Romanov family’s murder, Soviet officials were cagey when addressing the topic. Even shortly after the Bolsheviks announced Nicholas’s death, they were claiming that Alexandra and Alexei were alive in a safe place. The deaths would not be officially confirmed until 1926, and even then the Soviets refused to accept responsibility for the execution.
Josef Stalin officially suppressed discussion of the family’s fate in 1938, and the Ipatiev House was demolished in 1977 as Soviets decreed it had “no historical value.” The forced silence surrounding the Romanovs’ fate may have quelled open discussion, but it fueled unending curiosity. Royal imposters would spring up in the coming decades, most claiming to be one of the tsar’s children. Each time a new claimant appeared, the story would be resurrected, making it impossible for the mystery to die as the Soviets hoped it would. In 1979 a pair of amateur sleuths found the larger burial site near Yekaterinburg, but the find was kept secret until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As a new revolution spread through Russia, scientists returned to Yekaterinburg in 1991 to reclaim history. They exhumed the remains of nine people, who were later scientifically identified as Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and their four servants. Finding their bones began a healing process in which both the horrors of their deaths and their places in history could be acknowledged.
In 1998 these remains were laid to rest in St. Petersburg’s Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, traditional burial place of the tsars. In 2000 the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children as “passion-bearers.” At Ganina Yama—the first place where Bolsheviks tried to dispose of the bodies—the Russian Orthodox Church erected a monastery. Where the Ipatiev House once stood, the magnificent Church on the Blood was consecrated in 2003 and has since become a pilgrimage site. In 2007 Alexei’s and Maria’s remains were found, and later identified using DNA analysis.
It has been said that families who are closely attached may cut themselves off from the outside world. So it was with the Romanovs. Their self-absorption made them slow to appreciate their danger, but their love strengthened each other and made their confinement bearable. It was the greatest mercy of their last months that, right up to the terrible end, they were, at the very least, all together.