Assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanovs

Family photos of the Romanovs. The only one I could find where they look "happy" rather than their usual severe expressions.

Family photos of the Romanovs. The only one I could find where they look “happy” rather than their usual severe expressions.

Born on May 18th 1868, at the Tsarskoye Selo near St Petersburg, the former home of Empress Catherine I, wife of Peter the great at the beginning of the 18th Century, Nicholai Alexandrovich Romanov was the oldest child of the heir to the Russian monarchy, Alexander III and his wife Marie Feodorovna (Princess Dagmar of Denmark).

At the age of twelve in 1881, whilst staying at the Winter Palace, Nicholas’ grandfather Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb. Having already survived several assassination attempts, that day Alexander had been out in his carriage followed by two sleighs full of Cossacks and when a member of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) Nikolai Rysakov, threw a package wrapped in a white cloth under the carriage. It exploded killing one of the Cossack guard, injuring another and several passers-by but did not cause much damage to the armoured carriage in which the Tsar travelled.

Despite warnings from his guard to leave the area, Alexander dismounted and went to survey the aftermath. Whilst there, another member of the same group, Ignacy Hrynieweicki, hearing his comrade’s shout from the fence where he had landed following the explosion moved forward and threw a second bomb at the Tsar’s feet. It blew up killing several people. Police Chief Dvorzhitsky who had been in one of the sleighs found the Tsar laying mortally wounded, his stomach ripped open, and his legs all but blown off, and loaded him into one of the sleighs. He was rushed to the Winter Palace, where his physician was called. The Tsar died a few minutes later, surrounded by his family including the young Nicholas.

Tsar Alexander II had been the driving force behind sweeping reforms across Russia during his reign, including the Emancipation of Serfs, new legislation for penal reforms, and Judiciary processes, and a restructuring of military conscription following the poor turnout for the Crimean War, which removed the 25 year enforcement for peasants and included a period of service for all, including the elite who had previously been exempted. He had also given the orders for the liquidation of the Circassian populations during the Caucasian wars, which is now recognised as ethnic cleansing and falls within the modern boundaries of genocide. His next plan was to have been the announcement of a people’s representative Duma in government which was due to take place two days after his death.

The Tsar was succeeded by his son Alexander III, who was somewhat estranged from his father, and who immediately put a stop to any further reforms, and reversed others already in place. Alexander III was by all accounts an odd man, considering his position, preferred to be at home dressed like a peasant, his children sleeping on rough cots despite being the Royal family. This was the atmosphere Nicholas spent his adolescent years in. Despite its extraordinary air of eccentricity, Nicholas later would state that he and his brothers and sisters enjoyed their childhood, and although their father was somewhat strict, his presence was intermittent and their mother was loving and nurturing, again unusual for the position.

Nicholas was given a moderate education, certainly not the usual upbringing for one expected to take his turn as leader of the nation. His father it was presumed, expected to live a long happy life, so when it came to an end suddenly at aged 49, in 1894, it was a rather bewildered and unprepared Tsar Nicholas II who succeeded him.

The tomb of The Tsar and Tsarina and the three oldest girls.

The tomb of The Tsar and Tsarina and the three oldest girls.

In 1884, while attending the wedding of his uncle, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich to Princess Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, the 16 year old Nicholas had noticed her 12 year old younger sister, Alix. They wrote and a close relationship formed, which turned to love when she visited in 1889. Despite their closeness and obvious attraction, Alix was aware that marriage would mean her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, which as a devout Lutheran was unacceptable to her. In 1893 she wrote and told him she could take their relationship no further.
In 1891, Nicholas had embarked with his brother Grand Duke George and cousin Prince George of Greece on a tour of Asia, which was cut short after a few months following Prince George’s sudden departure home following illness and an assassination attempt. In 1893 he travelled to England to be a guest at the wedding of his cousin George, later George V of England to Mary of Teck. Around this time, Nicholas was indulging in a liaison with a ballerina from St Petersburg, Mathilde Kschessinska.

In April 1894, Nicholas travelled with his Uncle Sergei and Elizabeth to the wedding of her brother Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, to Princess Victoria Melita, daughter of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In attendance were Queen Victoria, Alfred and his wife, Marie Alexandrovich (sister of Alexander III), George, Prince of Wales (later George V), Kaiser Wilhelm II and his mother the Empress Frederick, (eldest daughter of Queen Victoria) and of course Alix. During the celebrations, Nicholas took the opportunity to propose to Alix. She declined citing her Lutheran beliefs.

The Kaiser later had a talk with Alix and reminded her that two years previously her sister had converted, and it was her duty to do so also. Nicholas proposed a second time and this time she accepted. Alexander III and his wife initially objected to the union, as they felt that Alix had presented herself unfavourably on previous visits, but when the Tsar’s health took a sudden turn for the worse, they relented. Queen Victoria also disapproved the match, allegedly not because of anything personal towards the couple, merely because she disliked Russia.
In the Summer of 1894, Nicholas visited Alix and Queen Victoria in England, where the couple attended the christening of the birth of the Duke and Duchess of York’s first child, at which they were presented as God-Parents, and following a stay of several weeks, Nicholas returned to Russia. His father’s health was declining rapidly and in October Nicholas sent for his bride to be. Alexander insisted on meeting her in full uniform and then passed away just ten days later. That evening, Nicholas was consecrated as Tsar Nicholas II and the following day, Alix was converted to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Problems started almost immediately. Due to his lack of training for the role, Nicholas missed out several key parts of the State Funeral organisation for his father. He is known to have confessed to a close friend that he wasn’t cut out to be Tsar and didn’t really want to rule anybody. The proposed wedding date of spring 1895 was brought forward, and took place in November 1894. Nicholas’ second duty was to produce an heir as soon as possible. In 1895 their first daughter, Olga was born followed by Tatiana in 1897, Maria in 1899 and Anastasia in 1901.

The room in which the Romanovs were executed.

The room in which the Romanovs were executed.

At the Tsar’s coronation, in 1896 an excited crowd rushed a park, Khodynka Field in Moscow, where public celebrations were being held, and the resulting stampede caused over fourteen hundred people to be trampled to death in the crush and another 1300 injured. A rumour that there wouldn’t be enough food and drink for everybody had caused the rush; 100,000 people had been in attendance. The park, commonly used for a Military training ground, was uneven as a result of trench building practice, which caused the pile up when people tripped in the melee. Sources vary as to whether Nicholas was informed of the tragedy, and at what point during the day he was made aware if at all. Nonetheless whether he knew or not, he continued with his own official celebrations, earning him serious disapproval from both population and officials, although it was claimed that he was only informed that evening prior to a Gala Ball due to be attended by the French Ambassador, which Nicholas refused to attend, wanting instead to return to his rooms to pray for the dead and injured. His advisors reminded him the French would take it as a personal affront having only recently signed the Franco-Russian alliance in 1894. Nicholas was forced to attend the ball.

Tsar Nicholas II was very much determined to follow in his father’s conservative footsteps, rather than radical reform like that of his grand-father. Following his strengthening of the Franco-Russian alliance, and his policy for peace in Europe, including a call to end the arms race, Nicholas and Russian Diplomat Friedrich Martens were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 for their work on The Hague Peace Conference.

Despite his peaceful intentions towards the West in Europe, the Tsar implemented a rather more vigorous policy towards the Far East, as a result of his desire to gain a route through China to Port Arthur which culminated in an attack by Japan on the Russian fleet in the Port, in retaliation for the scuppering of their own plans for the area. The Russian-Japan war of 1904 was the result. Following the embarrassing defeat by the Japanese, and a series of widespread anti-Semitic actions, talk of rebellion increased, the beginnings of revolution took place in 1905. Strikes took place and a peaceful workers’ march was organised to take a petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace, with their list of grievances, headed by Labour leader and Priest George Gapon, who notified the government a few days in advance of the date of the procession.

The Tsar was advised to leave the Palace and advisors decided that it wasn’t in his interests to have a deputy receive the petition. Instead a plan was formed to increase guards and to remove Gapon from the march as soon as he was identified. On Sunday January 22nd 1905, a large peaceful crowd, linked arms and marched, singing hymns and the national anthem towards the palace. The planned increase in guards, infantry, Hussars and Cossacks, served to block all access routes, then they opened fire on the marchers. 92 were killed and hundreds injured. The procession scattered, the leaders going into hiding. The Tsar was branded a murderer. The blood of the innocent on his hands. Grand-Duke Sergei was shortly afterwards assassinated by a bomb, leaving the Kremlin, quite possibly in retaliation. Mutiny by the Black Sea fleet, and a general strike grown from the back of a railway strike followed.

To appease his people, the Tsar reintroduced the Duma scheme from his grandfather’s days, but it was a paper trophy for the people, as their representation was half of the promised allotment, and the Tsar retained right to veto. I’m going to jump forward now to cut out the run-up to the Great War, and Russia’s involvement, except to say that on the home front, the Russian population were getting steadily more disillusioned with their Tsar, and felt he was out of touch with his people.

In 1904, the Tsar and his wife were overjoyed at the birth of their long awaited heir, Alexei was born. Their happiness however was short-lived when it became apparent that he had inherited the ‘Royal Disease’ Haemophilia B, which caused by an absence of a clotting agent within the blood leads to prolonged haemorrhages from the slightest injuries. When conventional treatments failed, the Tsarina turned in desperation to the exiled ‘mad monk’ Rasputin to help her out. He assured her that her prayers were answered and Alexei’s latest injury would stop bleeding forthwith. The next day it did. Rasputin was immediately hired to be his personal physician.

From that day, the Tsarina was Rasputin’s most powerful defender. Rumours remain that her payments were not restricted to those of the monetary nature. Despite his reputation as somewhat of a loose cannon, with a short vicious temper, Rasputin was surprisingly gentle with his young charge, pushing him to live as normal a life as possible, yet being on hand to carry the young boy when he was injured or tired. As the nature of Alexei’s illness was rigidly concealed from all but the closest staff and family members, Rasputin’s position within the family was often contested, perhaps this was the start of the rumours of the illicit nature of his relationship with the Tsarina.

As a result of Russia’s involvement with the Great War, the consistent failure of progressive Dumas to achieve realistic forward movement of people’s rights, coupled with an increase in poverty, high unemployment, poor economy and dire living conditions for all but a few, to which the Russian masses saw a Tsar removed from reality, out of touch with his people, living in opulence, the voice of revolution grew ever louder.

In 1917, encouraged by his advisors, Russia sued Germany for peace, and the Tsar was forced to abdicate. Placed under house arrest, the Romanov family were relieved of most of their retainers and restricted to a moderate lifestyle by their captors. Germany, with an ulterior motive of invading a torn nation paid for Russian exiles revolutionary Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov, later well known as Vladimir Lenin, to leave his exile and return to Russia, in an effort to fan the flames of rebellion. The splintered government run first by the moderate Menscheviks and then the more extreme Bolsheviks, needed a firm leadership to focus their strike for change. Lenin was to provide that momentum.

A revolutionary Communist, and staunch anti-Tsarist, Lenin had been expelled from the state following the execution in 1887 of his brother Aleksandr. Using the years of his exile to study politics and Law, Lenin was a radical Marxist. His more extreme brand of politics was to become widely known as Leninism. His idea to replace Capitalism with socialism, run by the Proletariat in the form of soviets, his dream to have a European revolution. Following the abdication and imprisonment of the Tsar and his family, by the communist army, a provisional government had been installed, but the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin soon overthrew them.

Following several months installed at the Governor’s mansion at Tobolsk, the family were in April 1918 placed on soldier’s rations, relieving them of all but ten of their servants, and reducing their food rations to basics, including a ban on butter and coffee, and the Tsar, Tsarina and their daughter Maria were moved to Ipatiev House, (The House of Special Purpose) Yekaterinburg. Alexei was forced to remain behind to be nursed by his other sisters, as he was deemed too sick to move. In May 1918, the family were reunited. Attempts were made through family members to negotiate exile with the English Royal family, which was originally agreed, but then the King underwent a change of heart when advised by his advisor Lord Stamfordham that their presence could trigger a similar revolution in Britain. Their invitation was subsequently revoked.

On July 16th, the White army, a loosely formed anti-communist militia closed in on the town where the Bolsheviks were keeping the Romanovs captive. Fearing that they were about to be captured with the Tsar and his family, the hasty decision was made to execute them, ostensibly on Lenin’s orders although debate about his knowledge remains. If the White Army had rescued the Tsar, he or any of his family would be in a position to be placed back on the Russian throne, by Europe as legitimate rulers. This would strengthen the anti-communist cause. In reality the White army, a Czechoslovakian legion, were unaware of the presence of the Romanovs, within their reach. Their target was the Trans-Siberian railway, in their control, which they wished to protect.

In the middle of the night, the family and their servants were awoken, and informed they were to be moved. Allowed to get dressed, they were led to a basement room to await their truck to the house. The Tsar requested chairs for his wife and son, three were provided. The Tsar took one, the Tsarina another, with Alexei laid between them on the third. The door opened and in walked a group of armed men. Still under the impression they were to be transported, the Tsar was taken by surprise when a mandate was read out by their guard Yakov Yurovsky, commandant of the House of Special Purpose, details the decision to have the family executed. He turned from his wife and son in surprise and exclaimed “WHAT? What?” at which point Yurovsky personally shot the Tsar, in the abdomen, followed by the young Alexei.

The rest of the guards drew their weapons and began firing on the group. The Tsarina and Olga were shot first, followed by random firing around the room. After several minutes, when every member of the group were laid on the floor, several more shots were fired and the door was opened to let out the smoke. The bodies were checked and some were found to be still alive. As further gunfire would be heard, the decision was taken to stab them to death with a bayonet.

According to official accounts, Yurovsky shot Alexei twice behind the ear as the first bullet failed to kill him. Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were shot as they crouched in terror by a wall, at the back of the room, Tatiana was the last to die, as Yurovsky shot her through the back of the head. The bodies were taken outside and buried in a makeshift grave, but the next day rumours began to circulate so they were disinterred and placed in a truck and moved to the second chosen site. The truck broke down halfway to the destination, so Yurovsky hastily had the bodies buried in a pit, after being covered in acid. The pit was sealed and covered in rubble to disguise it, upon which railway sleepers were laid.

The site was on an old abandoned cart track, Koptyaki road, about twelve miles North of the town. Their grave remained hidden until they were rediscovered in secret in 1976, but left in place until the collapse of Communism. Finally in July 1991 they were recovered by the Russian Government. Following lengthy tests, including DNA samples from members of the British Royal Family, including Prince Philip, (due to his maternal relationship through Greece) and Prince Michael of Kent, who like George V bears an uncanny resemblance to the Tsar, the identities of the Romanovs and their servants were confirmed save for two of the children, Alexei and Maria, whose bodies were still missing.

On July 17th 1998, 80 years after their murders, the Romanovs and their servants were laid to rest in an elaborate state funeral in the Cathedral at St Petersburg. Despite the conclusive tests, many still refuse to believe the bodies really are those of the Romanovs, and wording at the Funeral was deliberately generic to avoid mention of names. Around ten years later, the remaining bodies of Alexei and Maria were found a little distant from the original grave, in a smaller grave. They were quickly identified as those of the two missing Romanov children.

In a final twist of cruelty, there are increasing calls for the exhumation of the remains of Tsar Nicholas, the Tsarina, and their three daughters, Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia, from their family crypt in the St Catherine Chapel of St Peter and Paul Cathedral, as doubt still lingers as to the authenticity of the DNA identification. Further humiliation for the family rests on the refusal of the Russian Government to allow the burial of Crown Prince Alexei and his sister Maria, whose scant remains reside in cardboard boxes in a storeroom of the Russian State Archives.

Phoebe