(Excerpt from the 2000 Russian film entitled "The Romanovs: An Imperial Family" (Романовы. Венценосная семья, Romanovy: Ventsenosnaya Sem’ya))
There was no escape, and they were trapped within the confines of the four walls around them. Even the only entrance to the room had been blocked off by a squad of professional shooters who had been specially called in for the task. Without even a chance to defend themselves properly, a rain of bullets was showered down upon them, knocking out every last sign of life out of their bodies. Such was the bloody destiny that ultimately awaited the last of the Romanovs in the wee hours of the morning of July 17, 1918, thus putting an absolute end to Russia’s centuries-old imperial lineage.
In the previous part of this article, you would have read about the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that led to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication from the throne and the consequent abolishment of the Russian monarchy. The events of the Russian Revolution culminated in the establishment of a communist regime under Lenin and the Bolsheviks later that year. Although the Tsar’s family continued to live in exile after the revolutionary events, circumstances were not on their side, as the ensuing Russian Civil War soon became the final curtain for the Romanovs.
Shortly after the Tsar’s abdication on March 15, 1917, he retreated to the Alexander Palace (Александровский дворец, Aleksandrovskiĭ Dvorets) in Tsarskoye Selo (Ца́рское Село́), where he was reunited with his whole family. The entire royal family was then placed under house arrest in the palace under the orders of the newly-formed Provisional Government. Despite that, the Tsar remained calm throughout the ordeal and insisted that life should go on as usual for all his family members, including resuming lessons for his children. The family was to remain there for a few months until August 1917.
Painting of the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo
In August 1917, the Provisional Government under Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky decided to move the royal family to Tobolsk (Тобо́льск), where they lived in the mansion of the former governor of the town. This was done on the supposed basis of protecting them from the revolutions that were taking place in and near the capital. Whilst in Tobolsk, the family was allowed to live in total luxury, but things soon changed after the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ rise to power under Lenin. The royal family was stripped of servants and luxurious food, and life became considerably tougher under strict rationing. The Bolshevik (communist) government was by then seriously considering the possibility of putting the Tsar on trial as soon as possible.
Bird's eye view of the town of Tobolsk today
The October Revolution and the establishment of communist rule under the Bolsheviks sparked off the Russian Civil War between the Red Army (Bolshevik communists) and the White Army (anti-communists). Members of the White Army were generally more in favour of reestablishing Tsarist rule under a constitutional monarchy, in contrast to the communists’ stand of an absolute republic. Amidst the civil war, the Bolshevik government moved the Tsar, Tsarina and their daughter, the Grand Duchess Maria (Мария) (1899 – 1918) to Yekaterinburg (Екатеринбу́рг, Ekaterinburg) in April 1918. In the following month, the Tsar’s three other daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (Ольга, Ol’ga) (1895 – 1918), Tatiana (Татьяна, Tat’yana) (1897 – 1918) and Anastasia (Анастасия) (1901 – 1918), together with Tsarevich Alexei, were moved to be with their family as well. There were also four others who willingly chose to remain with the royal family and thus moved in with them, namely their court physician, Dr Eugene Botkin (Евге́ний Бо́ткин, Yevgéniĭ Bótkin) (1865 – 1918), the Tsarina’s maid, Anna Demidova (Анна Демидова) (1878 – 1918), the royal chef, Ivan Kharitonov (Ива́н Харито́нов) (1872 – 1918) and the royal valet, Alexei Trupp (Алексе́й Трупп) (1858 – 1918). Together, the entire royal household was moved into the Ipatiev House (Дом Ипатьева, Dom Ipat’eva) in Yekaterinburg, which was to be their final abode.
The Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg
In spite of all the difficulties that the imperial household was forced to face under the difficult circumstances, they remained resilient and calm wherever they went. Imprisonment was tough, and all the more so because they were deprived of almost all luxuries that they have been so used to in former days. They were hardly allowed to go beyond the compounds of their residences, and they were being watched by unfriendly sentries almost wherever they were. The only joy they had was the fact that they were permitted to live out their last days on earth as a united family, having each other for support and company. They could only hope against hope that their circumstances would take a favourable turn for them so as to put an end to their misery in exile.
And indeed, they got their hope of ending their misery in the end, but not exactly how they had expected it to be……
Prior to that dreadful night, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were more in favour of bringing the Tsar to a fair trial for all the purported crimes that he had committed against the people during his reign. However, circumstances during the Russian Civil War did not really favour such a decision, as the White Army (anti-communist forces) were quickly approaching Yekaterinburg and were threatening to capture the city. It was feared that if the White Army succeeded, the Romanovs would be freed and would then provide support for their struggle against the Red Army (communists). It was also feared that as long as the Tsar or his family members survived, they might be rallied as the legitimate rulers of Russia by the White Army and the other European nations. Either way, the position of the Bolshevik communists would be in jeopardy and their dreams of establishing a monarch-free Russia would be shattered. Therefore, they were left with only one choice.
Soldiers marching off to war during the Russian Civil War
The order from Lenin and the Bolshevik government arrived on the night of July 16, 1918 to put an end to the Romanov Dynasty once and for all. The order was received by Yakov Yurovsky (Я́ков Юро́вский) (1878 – 1938), and preparations were made immediately for its execution. Sentries in and around the Ipatiev House were alerted so as not to be alarmed by the sound of gunshots in the wee hours of the following morning. The revolvers necessary for the execution were neatly prepared and those who were to handle them were brought in stealthily.
Yakov Yurovsky (Я́ков Юро́вский) (1878 – 1938)
Around midnight, the imperial family and their loyal companions (Dr Botkin, Demidova, Kharitanov and Trupp) were awakened and asked to dress up immediately under the pretext that they were about to be moved to a safer location because of trouble in the city. They did not have much time to get prepared, and only managed to slip into simple clothing and dresses. Maria and Anastasia, however, managed to put on dresses which were heavily sewn with smuggled imperial jewels, keeping them safely in the hope of being able to proudly put them on again someday in the future.
At about 1.00 a.m. in the morning, the Romanov household was brought into the basement of the Ipatiev House. Yurovsky ushered them into the cellar room, where they were told to wait for the truck that would transport them out. The soldiers accompanying Yurovsky brought in three chairs and arranged them in the middle of the room: one for Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and Tsarevich Alexei respectively. The Grand Duchesses, namely Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, together with Dr Botkin, Demidova, Kharitanov and Trupp, were then asked to arrange themselves standing around the royal couple. They were told that they were being posed for an official photograph before leaving the place.
Painting of Russia's last imperial family
Indeed, none of them sensed that anything was amiss throughout the whole time. All the members of the royal household were calm and composed, without any thought of imminent danger lurking just right before their eyes. They were all confident that safety was at hand, and they trusted every word that Yurovsky and his soldiers said. No one suspected or even thought that the sound of bullets would soon fill the air of the entire room, and that the floor on which they were standing would soon be stained crimson red.
Their calmness did not last long. Yurovsky left the room and returned shortly with 10 other men, one executioner for each of the 11 who were about to be shot. At that point, the Romanovs started to sense that something was amiss, but it was too late. They were trapped in the cellar room with no other exit except the one which was now blocked by the executioners. Escape was out of the question.
Yurovsky took out a piece of paper and read out aloud the order of execution that had been sent to him:
“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 order struck the Romanovs with disbelief. The Tsar exclaimed, “What? What?” while the other members of the household stared at each other and Yurovsky in utter shock. Without a chance to respond or defend themselves, the executioners raised their weapons and released their shots immediately. Tsar Nicholas II was killed instantly as Yurovsky drove a bullet into his head at close range. Tsarina Alexandra also died instantly after receiving a shower of bullets, and so did her eldest daughter, Olga. Dr Botkin the royal physician, Kharitanov the chef and Trupp the valet dropped dead next to her. Bullets flew through the whole room, knocking Tatiana dead and heavily wounding Alexei as well. Maria and Anastasia were, however, somewhat protected from the onslaught of the bullets because of the jewels that were sewn under their dresses. So was Demidova the maid, who held a small pillow filled with gems.
Yurovsky’s orders were to make sure that every last member of the Romanov household was denied the right to live. Maria and Anastasia crouched against the wall and tried to defend themselves with their arms, but to no avail. The executioners approached them and drove a few more bullets into their heads and necks, instantly ripping life out of them. Demidova was stabbed to death with a bayonet. Alexei, who was still moaning and moving feebly, received a few more bullets from Yurovsky on his head, right behind the ear. With that, the last of the Romanovs was killed mercilessly, and the Romanov line was terminated once and for all, never again to be revived.
Illustration depicting the shooting of the last Romanov family
The cellar in which the shooting of the last Romanov family took place
At sunrise the following morning, Yurovsky ordered the bodies to be removed from the blood-stained cellar. They were to be buried in a concealed location so as to ensure that no one, not even the White Army, would be able to discover them. The bodies were transported north of Yekaterinburg and were buried in a concealed pit in a forest beside a cart track. In order to confuse the enemies in the event that the burial site was discovered, the bodies of Alexei and one of his sisters were removed from the rest and were cremated at an undisclosed location. Yurovsky thought that if the White Army succeeded in discovering the burial site, they would not be able to confirm that the bodies belonged to the imperial household, since the bodies of two out of the 11 executed were no longer there and thus, the body count would not be correct.
Purported site of burial of Russia's last imperial family after the execution
Throughout history, there have been many rumours regarding the survival of some members of the Romanov family. Such rumours, mostly revolving around Alexei and his sister Anastasia, have been repeatedly portrayed by the media and popularized by many movies and books produced until now. In fact, there have also been not few of those who came into the public limelight, claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, having survived the execution and lived in secrecy out of fear of the Communist government.
Poster of the fantasy-themed 1997 animated movie entitled Anastasia that revolves around the belief that the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the execution
Such claims, however, have been debunked since 1991, when the bodies of 9 out of the 11 who were executed were discovered in their original burial site. In actual fact, the burial site was discovered about a decade earlier, but this knowledge was deliberately hidden because Russia at that time was still under Communist rule. With the collapse of the Soviet Union (Советский Сою, Sovetsky Soyuz) and thus Communist rule in Russia in 1991, news about this discovery subsequently surfaced and gained widespread attention. Subsequent DNA tests conducted on the bodies revealed that they belonged to the executed Romanov family and their faithful companions.
In 1998, 80 years after lying in complete desecration and desolation, the bodies were given a proper Christian state funeral by the Russian government. They were finally buried in their rightful places in the Peter and Paul Cathedral (Петропа́вловский собо́р, Petropávlovskiĭ Sobór) in Saint Petersburg, where the remains of most of the other Russian monarchs were buried as well. In 2000, all the members of the last Romanov family were canonized as passion bearers by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, the final resting place of the last Romanov family
Tombstones marking the final resting place of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in Saint Catherine's Chapel
Nonetheless, the mystery of the two undiscovered bodies remained until it was finally solved in 2007. Two charred partial skeletons were found at a bonfire site near Yekaterinburg that appeared to match the site described in Yurovsky’s records. They belonged to a boy and a young woman, and subsequent DNA tests confirmed that they were the bodies of Alexei and one of his sisters. Whether the body of that young woman belonged to Anastasia or Maria remains disputed up to this day.
Indeed, the tragic fate that met the last of the Romanovs did not receive much sympathy back then as it does today. At a time when Russia was embroiled in a civil war under Communism, the deaths of the Romanovs were somewhat more than welcomed by many who were tired of being under monarchical rule. Even those who were assigned by Yurovsky to bury the remains of the Romanov household back then showed little respect by rummaging the clothes of the victims for precious gems and jewels. No doubt, Russia got what it wanted – to never again bow down to the headship of a monarch.
The last imperial family of Russia (From left to right) Grand Duchess Olga, Grand Duchess Maria, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Grand Duchess Anastasia, Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Tatiana
Dr Eugene Botkin (Евге́ний Бо́ткин, Yevgéniĭ Bótkin) (1865 – 1918), the last court physician to Tsar Nicholas II's family
Anna Demidova (Анна Демидова) (1878 – 1918), Tsarina Alexandra's maid
Ivan Kharitanov (Ива́н Харито́нов) (1872 – 1918), the last royal chef
Alexei Trupp (Алексе́й Трупп) (1858 - 1918), the royal valet