In the middle of the night in July 1917, Nicholas II of Russia, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters and one son, members of their household staff, and various pets were led down to the basement of Ipatiev house. They complied happily with this action, believing they were either about to have their photo taken, or were to be shifted elsewhere for their own safety. Instead, the former Tsar of the Russian Empire was shot, along with his entourage, by members of the Bolsheviks. Their bodies were later doused with acid and thrown in a mine shaft.
Before I get too far, a bit of a disclaimer. I’m no history expert, or even a formal scholar of history. I love to learn, and I love to read, and the various blog posts I draft on history are a representation of the various historical viewpoints or theories that I am aware of. I will miss some aspects. Some aspects of history simply don’t interest me. However, I typically write these posts because I like to share my knowledge with others. They provide a superficial introduction to a historical topic that I feel is important and interesting. They are the perfect starting point for anyone wanting to learn about a specific time in history, or event.
The dates used in this post refer to the Julian calendar. The Russians didn’t switch to the Gregorian calendar used by most of the western world until after the revolution.
I first learnt about the Romanovs in Sixth Form History. I was off school sick with glandular fever, and had to complete a project on them. The New Zealand history curriculum was, at the time, surprisingly diverse, and the sixth form year was my favourite. I also learnt about South Africa and Apartheid, World War Two, the Irish Civil War and Israel/Palestine. I’m sure it was this year that cemented my love of history. Anyway, I completed my research assignment on the Romanovs, but never lost interest in them. I got around to reading the famous book, Nicholas and Alexandra, the year after high school, and have subsequently read about 20 books on the family.
Nicholas II is an interesting character. Contemporary historians label him as lazy, indecisive, and unintelligent. He was, by all accounts, ill-suited as a leader. He lacked the temperament and character to lead the Russian Empire, and was easily led astray by his flighty wife, Empress Alexandra. If it wasn’t for the millions that suffered under Tsarist Russia’s restrictions on land ownership and serfdom policy, you could be forgiven for thinking Nicholas II would have made a lovely father and farmer – something he alluded to being his preferred profession.
The thing is, Russia under the Bolsheviks wasn’t much of an improvement. So how on earth did the autocratic former Tsar of all the Russias – with quite possibly the most impressive title ever – end up murdered on that night in July?
A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME
Nicholas II was one of the most eligible bachelors of the late 18th Century. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to shack up with a man that controlled 1/10th of the Earth’s surface? However, history would contend that he wasn’t the most effective ruler-in-waiting for the Russian Empire. Raised by an overbearing mother and an ambivalent father, he bore witness to the death of his formidable grandfather, Alexander II, in 1881.
Alexander II was a relatively moderate and liberal Tsar, and is known for selling Alaska to the US. In 1861, he abolished serfdom (effectively, debt bondage) on the private estates of Russia, but an assassination attempt in 1866 caused him to shy away from greater reform. In fact, Alexander’s life saw a great number of failed assassination attempts, including one that blew up the dining room of the Winter Palace in 1880, killing 11 people.
However, in 1881, his luck ran out. On the way back from a weekly demonstration at the Mikhailovsky Manège, a first assassination attempt on him by extremists failed, killing one of his Cossack guards. However, Alexander foolishly decided to hop out of his bulletproof carriage to inspect the damage. Unsurprisingly, he was mortally wounded by a second bomb. Missing his legs and with his stomach torn open, Alexander died, surrounded by family, in his study in the Winter Palace.
Ironically, at the time of his death, Alexander was considering parliamentary reforms, and reforms to counter the rise of the revolutionary and anarchistic movements in Russia. Most of these were never realised.
Why is this important in the context of Nicholas II? The lasting impression on Nicholas, from his death of his grandfather, was that political reform did not end well. This was a notion that stuck with Nicholas II for life, resulting in a lack of desire to support any progressive change within the Russian Empire. A strong supporter of autocracy, he only allowed constitutional change under pressure, and when it was far too late to save his skin.
Nicholas II became the Tsarevich – the heir apparent – upon the death of his grandfather. He had a quiet childhood, with little preparation for his future life as a Tsar. His father famously stated that he intended to keep his son in the dark until the age of 30, after which he would prepare him for life as a Tsar. Nicholas met his future wife when he was just 16 – though he spent the intervening years before his marriage as a bit of an aristocratic playboy. Amongst his conquests was Mathilde Kschessinska, a ballerina who lived in the mansion he purchased for her, Kschessinska Mansion (later taken over by Lenin, and today the Museum of Political History – well worth a visit).
Nicholas was the cousin of King George V of England and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Nicolas and George held a particularly uncanny resemblance, befuddling Queen Victoria at the wedding of the Duke of York to Mark Teck in 1893.
NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA
Alix of Hesse was a pretty somber character following the death of her mother in 1878. Although she initially rebuffed the Tsarevich’s offer of marriage, she relented in 1894 and converted from Lutherism to the Russian Orthodox Church. The vigor with which she threw herself into her new religion would play a significant role later in her life, when she fell into mysticism.
Empress Maria and Tsar Alexander III weren’t particularly keen on the match, and only offered their support when Alexander’s health began to fail. Alexandra – still known as Alix, as she hadn’t been accepted into the Russian Orthodox Church – was quiet and reserved. She didn’t fit into the glittering social life of Petersburg society. However, there wasn’t time to muck around.
Alexander III died on 1 November 1894 at the age of 49. The next day, Alexandra was accepted into the Russian Orthodox Church. Two weeks later, Alexandra and Nicholas married.
Getting married during the traditional mourning period was ominous in itself, and Nichola’s coronation in 1896 was also tinged with disaster – with over 1,300 people dying at a stampede for free food and beer at a festival honouring the event at Khodynka Field. Worse still, however, was Nicholas total lack of preparation for the massive job ahead.
A TURBULENT TIME TO BE TSAR
Nicholas continued with the conservative policies favoured by his father. The early 1900s were a rough time for the Tsar. During the 1904 Russo-Japanese war, the entire Russian Naval Fleet in the Far East was destroyed by Japan, though peace was eventually brokered. In 1905, workers singing ‘God Save the Tsar’ and carrying Russian flags, icons, and pictures of Nicholas approached the Winter Palace, hoping to petition for workers rights. The Tsar wasn’t even at the palace, and the initially peaceful protest ended in the death of 92 workers. The image of workers screaming ‘the Tsar will not help us!’ as they were gunned down by his royal guard earned the day the monikor of Bloody Sunday. The priest and labour leader who drove the protest, Georgy Gapon, survived the event and proclaimed:
Nicholas Romanov, formerly Tsar and at present soul-murderer of the Russian empire. The innocent blood of workers, their wives and children lies forever between you and the Russian people … may all the blood which must be spilled fall upon you, you hangman. I call upon all the socialist parties of Russia to come to an immediate agreement among themselves and bring an armed uprising against Tsarism.
This was just one of the events that formed part of the 1905 Russian Revolution. As a result, Government Ministers began to call for reform, particularly when strikes paralysed the city of St Petersburg. The Tsar begrudgingly signed the October Manifesto in October of 1905. This served as the precursor to the Russian Empire’s first Russian Constitution of 1906.
Basically, it set up a watered down version of a Parliament – the State Duma – and granted citizens of Russia a certain level of civil liberties. The Duma, which was started and stopped several times, was doomed from the start. The Tsar maintaining the power to veto any legislation that he wished. He was also able to dissolve the Duma should it not be able to reach an agreement – a power he exercised a number of times, the first in 1906. By 1907, the strikes and protests had returned in full force, deeming the Manifesto a failure.
It was around this time that Nicholas and Alexandra were first introduced to Grigori Rasputin.
TROUBLES AT HOME
When you’re a Russian Tsarina, you have one purpose – to produce a male heir. Unfortunately, Alexandra failed at this task for many years. It was only after the birth of four daughters (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia) that a son, Alexei, was born in 1904. This was a little too late for the Russian people.
Similar to the situation experienced by Marie Antoinette, by the time Alexandra had produced an heir, she had lost face with the public. The Tsarina, prophetically, admired Marie Antoinette greatly as being misunderstood by her people. It became evident soon after Alexei’s birth that all was not well with the little boy. He was eventually diagnosed with Hemophilia – the bleeding disease that was the scourge of Queen Victoria’s descendants.
With physicians unable to control her sons bleeding and pain, the Tsarina turned to mystics in the hope of gaining some relief for Alexei. This desire for religious comfort led her to Grigori Rasputin, a motley Staretz (holy man) from Siberia. Born into a peasant family, he wandered Russia aimlessly claiming to be a monk. He eventually entered the court of Tsar Nicholas II thanks to his supposed healing abilities. Nicholas and Alexandra were well aware that they did not have much favour with the peasants of their vast Empire, and holy men had traditionally been used to help ‘connect’ royalty with the great unwashed. Unfortunately, Rasputin was not the right man to do this.
1908 saw arguably the crucial event of Rasputin’s life: he was called to the royal palace while the Tsar’s son was experiencing haemophiliac bleeding. When Rasputin appeared to have aided the boy, he informed the royals that he believed the future of both the boy and the ruling Romanov dynasty were deeply connected to him. The royals, desperate on behalf of their son, felt desperately indebted to Rasputin, and allowed him permanent contact. (ThoughtCo)
At court, and around the Royal Family, Rasputin maintained the composure of a holy peasant. However, once away from the eyes of the Tsar and Tsarina, he behaved raucously. He drank heavily and seduced women in the upper classes of Russian society, who apparently fell easily to his whims.
It didn’t take long for the court to demonstrate their concerns about Rasputin, but Nicholas couldn’t be budged. After the birth of his son, and the subsequent melancholy experienced by the Tsarina in light of Alexei’s plight, he was increasingly under her guidance. This involved keeping the scruffy Monk on call.
Despite the best efforts of the Third Prime Minister of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin, and some mild successes of the third Duma, progress was limited. While Stolypin was a monarchist, he did try to implement some reforms to appease the radical groups forming throughout Russia, but was beat down by the conservatives. Stolypin also upset the Tsarina in 1911 by ordering an investigation into the actions of Rasputin, which was promptly ignored by Nicholas.
After 10 previous failures, Stolypin was assassinated on 1 September 2011 in Kiev by leftist revolutionaries, in full view of the Tsar and two of his daughters.
The fate of Tsarist Russia ended up being tied very closely with World War One. When war broke out in 1914, Russia was grossly unprepared. Russia’s economy was still developing and was reliant on foreign investment; its industrial sector was incapable of competing. The war totally exhausted the Russian economy and left its people starving and desperate for change.
Nicholas had hoped to avoid war, owing to the relationship he had with his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm. This did little to help, and the Russian Army was soon overwhelmed. The army was under-equipped, and unprepared. Even with heavy pre-war conscription and a ramping up of armaments, the Russian Army in 1914 had around 6.5 million men, and 4.5 million rifles. There was roughly one surgeon for every 10,000 men.
By the autumn of 1915, an estimated 800,000 Russian soldiers had died, without any significant gain of territory. Public morale drooped. By late 1916 inflation had reached almost 400 per cent. The Duma called for political reforms, and political unrest continued throughout the war.
While Nicholas commanded his armies, the Tsarina – and Rasputin – stayed in St. Petersburg. After a brief, initial wave of patriotism at the beginning of the war, the hatred of the Russian people towards the Tsar and Tsarina only grew during this time. Cut off from public opinion, Nicholas could not see the impending collapse. In 1916, two million Russian soldiers were killed or seriously wounded, and 300,000 more were taken prisoner. The gruesome murder of Rapustin in late 1916 by one of Nichola’s own family members, Prince Yusapov, was a crystallisation of the people’s hatred towards the regime. As an aside, there is a great SYSK podcast about the grizzly death, if you’re interested in learning more.
Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, saw the opportunity to try to use World War One to foster a Civil war situation, allowing his men the opportunity to take control. He arranged for the distribution of propaganda materials to soldiers, urging them to turn their rifles against their commanding officers in the name of the socialist revolution.
By 1917, Russia was on the brink of total collapse. Food prices spiralled out of control as men were taken to fight in the war, creating massive shortages. Political unrest was in the air. By February, people stormed the streets shouting “Down with the Tsar! Down with the German woman!”. After protestors were shot on by Police, Nicholas’ Cabinet urged him to abdicate as Tsar, but this message was not relayed to him accurately by his Minister of the Interior, Alexander Protopopov. By the time Nicholas returned from the front, 200 more people were dead, and it was too late. Mutinies followed, and Nicholas abdicated on 2 March 1917.
After being informed that the family was to be sent into exile, Nicholas abdicated on behalf of his son, and passed the throne to his brother Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich – who declined it. The Romanov dynasty was over.
A Provisional Russian Government was formed, and it attempted to continue the war effort. However, with poor morale and a lack of equipment, desertions began to increase. By the autumn of 1917, around 2 million men had absconded and returned home. I won’t get into too much of the detail surrounding the Russian Civil War, but by 25th October, Lenin was the leader of the Russian Government.
HOUSE ARREST AND EXILE
The Romanov’s preferred place of exile was the United Kingdom, and Nicholas wholeheartedly believed his cousin George would come to the rescue. This was not to be. After an uproar from the British Government, an earlier lukewarm offer of exile was rescinded. The family was placed under house arrest at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. In several biographies of the royal family, this time was described as fairly happy, given the circumstances. Nicholas seemed to be content with a life of chopping wood, tending to his garden, and spending time with his family. Despite being a ‘tyrannical despot of a ruler’, it seemed that Nicholas would have made a quite happy country gentleman in another lifetime.
This relative peace didn’t last long. In August, the family was moved to Tobolsk. As the Bolsheviks gained power, their lives came under stricter control. They ate soldiers rations and had most luxuries removed from them, including any semblance of privacy. Over time, any interactions with outsiders who were not guards was reduced. The Tsar’s daughters – who were now young adults – suffered at the hands of some of the soldiers. The purported rescue attempts from Royalists never materialised.
The House of Special Purpose
In March 1918, the Romanov’s were moved to their final home – the Ipatiev House (ominously known throughout the town of Yekaterinburg as the ‘House of Special Purpose‘). Here they lived in even smaller confines then their previous imprisonment, until the mass murder of the family on 16/17 July 1918.
While historians contest some of the facts surrounding the murder, it’s generally agreed that the Bolsheviks used the excuse that an advancing Czech unit might try to rescue the Tsar. Therefore, they decided, the family needed to be disposed of. Regardless of the exact reason, a firing squad was put on the family after the following statement was made:
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.
As well as being famous for its sheer brutality, the murder gained notoriety over the years as various young women claimed to be Duchess Anastasia, having escaped the bloodbath. The Duchesses all had diamonds sewn into their clothes, which caused considerable confusion during their deaths, with one of the daughters initially surviving (and fainting), waking up to find her family dead. It apparently took over ten minutes to kill everyone. However, following her death, a DNA investigation of the most famous of the imposters – Anna Anderson – revealed her to be a simple Polish peasant.
After the murder, the families were loaded onto a Fiat truck and taken to the forest, where a drunken mob of 25 men was assembled and ready to destroy the bodies. They were disappointed that the Romanovs were already dead, as they were hoping to join in the fun. By the time the bodies were moved to the burial site, Yurovsky – in charge of the operation – ordered most of the men home, with a small force of five completing the task. Unfortunately, the mine shaft he had picked was too shallow, and the corpses all had to be dug up the next day and moved.
In an effort to confuse anyone who stumbled across the graves, the bodies were sprinkled with acid, crushed, and two of them – Alexei, and probably Maria – were moved to another grave site around 15 metres away. They were burnt on a bonfire and their bones crushed to tiny pieces before being dumped in the grave. Yurovsky wrote a gruesome account of the murders in the 1930s.
DISCOVERY AND RECOVERY
In 1979, the bodies of Nicholas, Alexandra, three of their daughters, and those of four non-family members killed with them, were discovered near Yekaterinburg. Several men had known the location, but had not generally discussed it during the tense Soviet period. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1998, the remains excavated from Yekaterinburg were officially identified as those of Nicholas II and his family, excluding one daughter (either Maria or Anastasia) and Alexei.
In 1998, the remains of Nicholas and his immediate family were interred at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, on 17 July 1998. This was the eightieth anniversary of their executions. Because there were, likely, some fragments of their retainers buried with them, they were buried in a strange little annex to the Cathedral – the Chapel of St. Catherine the Martyr – and not in the main body of the cathedral.
In 2007, the extra grave containing the bodies of Alexei and Maria (or Anastasia) was found. After DNA testing, the Russian Government confirmed that it had located all, or portions of the bodies, of the last Royal family.
Since 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church has argued over whether to accept the Romanovs as Saints. They are now, however, formally recognised as Passion Bearers by one branch the Orthodox Church, and Martyred Saints by another.
Traces of the Romanovs today
Visiting modern Russia, I wasn’t sure how many traces I would find of the Romanovs. I’ve never quite understood just how Russians today feel about the former royal family.
When reading the assessments of Tsar Nicholas and his ability to rule, I’ve always been drawn to the description given by Robert K. Massie (who wrote Nicholas and Alexandra):
… there still are those who for political or other reasons continue to insist that Nicholas was “Bloody Nicholas”. Most commonly, he is described as shallow, weak, stupid—a one-dimensional figure presiding feebly over the last days of a corrupt and crumbling system. This, certainly, is the prevailing public image of the last Tsar. Historians admit that Nicholas was a “good man”—the historical evidence of personal charm, gentleness, love of family, deep religious faith and strong Russian patriotism is too overwhelming to be denied—but they argue that personal factors are irrelevant; what matters is that Nicholas was a bad tsar …. Essentially, the tragedy of Nicholas II was that he appeared in the wrong place in history.
Regardless, this doesn’t take into account his terrible anti-semitism, inability to consider the council of others, and his innate hatred of democracy. If nothing else, Tsar Nicholas II was certainly the wrong person to take Russia into the 20th Century.
If you are interested in Romanov history, and visiting Russia, there are a few sites you might like to visit.
PETER AND PAUL CATHEDRAL, ST. PETERSBURG
The final resting place of the Tsar and his family. To find them, head straight to the back of the Cathedral, to the far left. You’ll see a small alcove you can peek into, which is the Chapel of St. Catherine the Martyr. Here are tombstones with the names of the last Romanovs on them, along with their household staff.
I can’t read Russian, so I’m not sure if they are interred under the floor, or in that tomb like object on the left. I do remember reading that the remains were delivered to the Peter and Paul Fortress in oddly small coffins, so I suspect they are under the floor.
ALEXANDER PALACE, TSARSKOE SELO
I visited the nearby Catherine Palace in 2010, when the Alexander Palace was lying in a state of ruin. It is currently under renovation – thankfully – but you can still visit the nearby Alexander Park.
FABERGE MUSEUM, ST. PETERSBURG
The Romanovs were great supporters of Carl Faberge, who developed special decorative Easter eggs for the family to gift to each other. The Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg has the single largest public display of these eggs, with the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow also holding a fair few.
MUSEUM OF POLITICAL HISTORY, ST. PETERSBURG
This museum is relatively out of the way in St. Petersburg, but offers an absolutely incredible look at the political history of Russia over the years – from the Tsars right through the years of the USSR. It’s a must visit, and one of my favourite Russian museums. If you’re wondering, those are bayonet marks on the portrait of the Tsar.
Make sure you duck out the back and visit the beautiful St. Petersburg Mosque while you are at it.
CHURCH ON THE SPILLED BLOOD, ST. PETERSBURG
The site of the bombing of Alexander II, the Church on the Spilled Blood is one of the iconic sites of St. Petersburg.
THE CATHEDRAL OF CHRIST THE SAVIOUR, MOSCOW
One of my favourite buildings in Moscow, this church was torn down by the Soviets in 1931 to make way for the gigantic Palace of the Soviets. This never eventuated, and the site became Russia’s largest outdoor swimming pool. After the fall of the USSR, the Cathedral was rebuilt, and this was the site where the Romanov’s were canonised in 2000.
Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land, Yekaterinburg
Subtle name, right? If you are wondering what happened to Ipatiev House, as an act for the 60th anniversary of the Russian Revolutions, it was demolished in 1977 by orders of the USSR Politburo. This was almost 59 years after the Romanovs were killed. In 2000, construction began on a church on the site to honour the Romanovs. It opened 85 years after the day of the murder.
- The Alexander Palace Time Machine website is one of the best online resources for information on the Russian Royal Family.
- Nicholas and Alexandra – Robert K. Massie
- The Fate of the Romanovs – Greg King & Penny Wilson
- Faberge’s Eggs – Tony Faber
- The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra – Helen Rappaport
- The Romanovs – Simon Sebag Montefiore
- The Romanovs – The Final Chapter – Robert K. Massie
- Tsar – The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra – Peter Kurth
- The Romanovs – The Final Chapter – Robert K. Massie