In my previous post, I reported that DNA samples have confirmed the authenticity of the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife. In this post, I will detail, first, the circumstances and manner of their execution, and, second, their legacy in the post-Soviet era.
After his abdication, the provisional government in August of 1917 ordered Tsar Nicholas II, his family, and his staff to move to a former governor’s mansion in Tobolsk, about 1,400 miles east of the capital Saint Petersburg. From April to May of 1918, after the Bolsheviks took control late the previous year, they were again moved a small merchant’s house in Yekaterinburg, about 300 miles away.
In the meantime, a civil war was raging in Russia. The two main camps were the pro-communist Soviet Russian government against the so-called White Movement, a a movement against communism, Bolshevikism, and for the monarchy. The fighting between the Red Army and White Army in the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) would eventually take the lives of over 3 million people.
During the early months of the Civil War, the White Army made heavy advances. In mid-July, 1918, they had gained control of the region near the Tsar’s house of imprisonment. The Bolsheviks holding the Romanovs, hearing this, feared that the pro-monarchy Whites would capture the city and use the Tsar as a rallying point to unify the movement against the illegitimate communist government.
At midnight, July 17, 1918, Nicholas, his family, and staff were awoken and ordered into an empty cellar room, under the pretense that they were to wait for a transport to transfer them away from the nearby warfare.
Minutes later, a squad of secret police entered. Yakov Yurovsky, their leader, announced:
Nikolai 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.
Nicholas only had time to stand in disbelief and say “What? What?” before Yakov repeated the order, and the twelve squad members, Yakov included, opened fire. The shooting was so intense and close-quartered that some of the executioners suffered permanent hearing loss and gunpowder burns.
Tsarina Alexandra and her eldest daughter, Olga, tried and failed to make the sign of the cross. They were both killed immediately. The son, Alexei, and the remaining three daughters, Tatiana,Maria, and Anastasia, and the maid, Anna Demidova, did not die.
Here I’ll quote, in part, the opening chapter of Robert K. Massie’s book The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (Random House, 1995). I cannot write the narrative any better:
Bullets fired at the daughters’ chests [covered by jewels] seemed to bounce off, ricocheting around the room like hail … Barely visible through the smoke, [Maria] and Anastasia pressed against the wall, squatting, covering their heads with their arms until the bullets cut them down. Alexis, lying on the floor, moved his arm to shield himself, then tried to clutch his father’s shirt. One of the executioners kicked the tsarevich in the head with his heavy boot…Yurovsky stepped up and fired two shots from his Mauser directly into the boy’s ear.
Demidova [the maid] survived the first fusillade. Rather than reload, the executioners took rifles from the next room and pursued her with bayonets. Screaming, running back and forth along the wall … she grabbed a bayonet with both hands, trying to hold it away from her chest. It was dull and at first would not penetrate. When she collapsed, the enraged murderers pierced her body more than thirty times …
Blood was everywhere, in rivers and pools.
Everyone was dead.
Eleven people were killed, ranging from age 13 to 60:
- Tsar Nicholas II, age 50
- Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, his wife, age 46
- Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, their daughter, age 22
- Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna, daughter, age 21
- Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, daughter, age 19
- Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, daughter, age 17
- Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, son and heir, age 13
- Eugene Sergeyevich Botkin, royal court physician, age 53
- Anna Stepanovna Demidova, maid to Tsarina Alexandra, age 40
- Aloise Yegorovich Trupp, footman of the household, age 60
- Ivan Mikhailovich Kharitonov, cook of the household, age 46
Twenty minutes later, their bodies were loaded into a truck and taken away to be buried. In less than a half an hour, the Romanov dynasty, which ruled Russia for over 300 years, was gone.
Their bodies were eventually dumped into a mass grave twelve miles north of Yekaterinburg, underneath a rail cart track. Their bodies were discovered by amateur diggers in 1979, but were not revealed until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. President Boris Yeltsin gave the family a state-funeral, burying them in Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Further remains, belonging to Alexei and Maria, were discovered at a separate location in 2007.
In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized the family as saints; however, they were not declared martyrs – those who die specifically for the faith – but passion bearers – those who die in a Christ-like manner. In this case, their piety and faith, combined with their suffering in their brutal death, led them to sainthood.
Below is a link to the ending of Rapsutin: Dark Servant of Destiny, a 1996 TV movie starring Sir Ian McKellen as Tsar Nicholas. Needless to say, this portrayal is toned down in violence; the actual execution, according to eyewitnesses, was much more brutal: