Last Days of the Romanovs:
Tragedy at Ekaterinburg

Nicholas II was not the first Russian tsar to die at the hands of revolutionaries. Alexander II had been killed by a terrorist’s bomb in March of 1881, but the People’s Will’s “hunt for the tsar” in the years leading up to that assassination had at least the asymmetry of a small band of desperate revolutionaries attempting to take the life of the head of a powerful Empire. Nicholas II, his wife the tsaritsa Alexandra and their children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei and servants died in very different circumstances. They were executed in cold blood by the new Soviet state on July 17, 1918, in the cellar of a merchant’s house in Ekaterinburg following 16 months under house arrest. Entirely defenceless, the family was murdered in an orgy of gunfire and bayoneting which lasted a full twenty minutes. The killing was one of the defining acts of the new regime, revealing its ruthlessness and willingness to slaughter.

Helen Rappaport meticulously reconstructs the final days of the Romanovs in the Ipatiev house in Ekaterinburg and the unfolding political situation that sealed their fate. The decision to execute the family was one of political expediency — the advance of anti-Soviet forces towards Ekaterinburg during the summer of 1918 presented the real risk of the Romanov’s falling into the wrong hands. But there was also pressure from Germany: If the Tsar was liberated by anti-Bolshevik forces and became a rallying point for an anti-German resurgence in Russia, then the Brest-Litovsk treaty which had bought the Bolsheviks peace with Imperial Germany at the expense of ceding huge swathes of territory to the advancing German army would be dead in the water.

Yet Rappoport also points quite rightly to the murder of the Imperial family as a litmus test of the regime’s violent radicalism. As Trotsky later coolly observed: “The Tsar’s family was a victim of the principle that forms the very axis of monarchy: dynastic inheritance. For that reason alone, their deaths were necessary.” The “necessary liquidation” of various individuals, groups and ultimately entire classes was to become a hallmark of the Bolshevik regime and the mobilising power of its belief system was clearly laid bare on that July night in Ekaterinburg in 1918.

In the 78 days that the family spent inside the Ipatiev house, which came after 13 months of house arrest in the Alexandrovsky Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, Nicholas and Alexandra seemed increasingly resigned to a fate that was clearly no longer theirs to control. The couple’s piety, strongly inculcated from earliest childhood, bound them together and clearly shaped their responses to the unfolding chaos around them. Rappoport writes that “together as a family the Romanovs now sought to transcend the forces of irreligion that were destroying Russia…. Perhaps too, the Tsar, in his final 16 months of passive Christian acceptance of fate, had in some way redeemed the sins of his own deeply flawed monarchy.” Rappoport writes with verve, imagination and great empathy for her characters. The detail is formidable, perhaps a little too formidable at times, and the boundaries between evidence and conjecture in her account are sometimes difficult to discern.

It’s difficult, however, not to read the chapter detailing the actual execution and the botched attempts to dispose of the bodies without a mixture of horror and fascination. The badly trained, drunk and ill-disciplined killers ensured that what should have been a clinical execution descended into a veritable bloodbath with some of the victims fending off bayonets with their bare hands and the children witnessing the gory killing of their parents before themselves perishing in a hail of bullets. The jewels carefully concealed in the fabric of their clothing deflected some of the bullets and denied many of them a swift death. Even the Bolsheviks were aware that the murder of the children would prove deeply unpopular in the country at large and so perpetrated the myth that only Nicholas had been executed, the other members of his family having been moved to an undisclosed location for their own safety.

Rappaport claims that “across Russia as a whole, the murder of the Romanovs marked the beginning of an orgy of terror, murder and bloody reprisal that would characterise the savage Russian Civil War — a war which would claim 13 million lives.” But this view of the killing as somehow opening the floodgates of slaughter ignores the fact that after four years of brutal war, revolutionary upheaval, pogroms, and inter-ethnic violence, they were already well and truly open.

The dignity of the Romanov family in their final months of captivity has fed their steady sacralization in post-Communist Russia. A sanitized commercial image of the Imperial family has, following their exhumation and reburial in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, become a firmly established part of Russia’s nascent tourist industry. Under the auspices of the Orthodox Church, Ganina Yama, the location of the mine shafts into which the corpses were hurled, has now become a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians, a cathedral has been erected on the site of the Ipatiev house and Nicholas has been canonised as a saint.

And yet this sacralization of the Romanovs as martyrs of the Bolshevik regime in recent years has perhaps strangely coexisted with a triumphalist and nationalist interpretation of Russia’s Stalinist past, Stalin having recently been voted third in a poll of greatest Russians in history. Neither does there seem to be general disquiet about the fact that this act of cold-blooded murder was one of the foundational acts of the Cheka, the state security service which, having mutated into the KGB, nurtured the Russian Federation’s former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

Daniel Beer is a lecturer in Modern European History at Royal Holloway College, University of London.

St. Petersburg Times
7 July, 2009