Today, July 16, marks 101 years since Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra Feoderovna along with their five children were executed at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Tsar Nicholas was the last leader of Imperial Russia which ultimately landed The Romanovs right at the top of Lenin’s list of People to Kill ASAP. Eight months before their demise, Lenin and his gang of pissed off Bolsheviks stormed Red Square in demand of reform in what is now known as the October Revolution. This came only seven months after the, you guessed it, February Revolution. During the February Revolution, starving and impoverished Russians in St. Petersburg (then known as Petrograd and the nation’s capital) rose up in strikes and riots like no other which forced the Romanovs to abdicate the throne and ultimately laid the ground for the downfall of Imperial Russia.
So, why were the workers striking? And why was Russia as a whole, hellbent on the Romanovs getting off the throne?
In summary, Nicholas was never ready to be a Tsar and frankly, never wanted to be. He was forced into power at the tender young age of 26 after his father, Alexander III, rapidly fell victim to kidney disease. Pinned to the throne that he wasn’t prepared to rule, he felt that he was not a born leader and lacked the confidence needed to lead what was, at the time, an Empire that spanned one-sixth of the Earth. As if that wasn’t enough, just days after his coronation, 1,400 Russian peasants died in a stampede to receive coronation gifts, some of which had walked all the way from Siberia. Nicholas II ignored these deaths and instead attended a French ball at the guidance of good ole Uncle Sergei Alexandrovich who advised him that should he visit the victims and families of the deceased; he’d risk offending the French. He was then nicknamed Nicholas the Bloody and Nicholas the Vile within only a week of his coronation. Yeah, it probably sucked. Then again, he was known for being oblivious to the ordinary Russian.
The next 23 years of his reign were a series of misguided and unpopular decisions. The biggest one was leading Russia into a war they had no business being in and were completely unprepared for, WW1, which crippled Russians into extreme poverty and crazy inflation. At first, the war brought about great patriotism throughout Russia with everyone coming together for the bigger picture. It landed Nicholas back in good graces for many, but it didn’t last long. In an economic and industrial sense, they severely lacked compared to Germany, and it resulted in casualties greater than those sustained by any nation in any previous war. He is also seen as responsible for the heartless massacre of some 200 peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg in what’s now known in Russia as Red Sunday. (His uncle ordered this, but Nicholas was responsible given that he was the Tsar)
Throughout his rule, he also struggled in providing an heir for the Tsardom. He and Alexandra had four (four!!) daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia before they were able to produce their son, Alexei. Even then, the chances of Alexei someday becoming Tsar were slim. He was born with hemophilia, which gave minor cuts and bruises the potential to be fatal. This is where our kooky, sex-crazed, heal-all-mystic comes in. Rasputin was seen as a divine healer, monk, and fortune-teller to the royal family. He was crazy and fascinating and mysterious and is still pondered about today, but to keep this about the Romanovs you just need to know that because he “healed” Alexei, Alexandra practically worshiped him. He quickly became her favorite and in no time was seen as an influencer in many of the Romanov’s decisions.
The cherry on top of the unfortunate sundae was that while the country continued to decline due to the war, Nicholas remained disconnected from the common Russian. The Romanovs were one of the most regal and lavish royal families that have ever existed, even today Nicholas II is the 4th most wealthy figure of the modern era with a net worth somewhere around 275 billion. At a time when Russia is practically falling apart, people are being sent off to a war with incompetent and inexperienced leaders who are no match for the Germans, Russians are starving to death because there are no men in the farms anymore (they’re all at war), transportation is starting to become nonexistent and villages are fading from famine all while the Romanovs are counting their Faberge eggs. Ultimately, this is what led to the anger of the middle-class and is one of the main reasons why the Revolution wound up being successful in forcing his abdication.
During the February Revolution, Tsar Nicholas was forced to kiss his thone goodbye and leave 500 years of Tsar Russia, 300 of which were Romanov ruled, in the dust. A part of me can’t help but wonder if while the eight days of total mayhem that led to his loss of the Tsardom if he was crossing his fingers for it to happen. I’m not saying Nicholas wanted to move to an island and reinvent himself away from the troubles of ruling an empire, but I think it was clear that he wasn’t really into it from the very beginning. And despite all of his shortcomings, I’d like to believe that he really did do the best that he could with what little knowledge and leadership skills he had.
Following his abdication, the Romanovs and their remaining household were shuffled around until they eventually wound up in Yekaterinburg. They were held in the Ipatiev House which the Bolsheviks referred to as “the house of special purpose” They used this time to be together as a family and remain optimistic for a new life after rescue. Nicholas spent all of his free time with his wife and children in their new reality and relished the quality time he had with them. While he lacked all personality as a Tsar, he was an incredible father and husband. Despite going from an immaculate palace that was commissioned by Catherine the Great herself to now being confined to a house in Siberia with no bed linens and painted over windows, Nicholas and Alexandra held out hope that they would be rescued. After all, Nicholas was first cousins with England’s own King George V, and the couple both had a massive network of royal connections. But that rescue never came, the world was in a sticky place due to The Great War (WW1), and King George decided that taking in “Bloody Nicholas” would have a fatal impact on the British Monarchy which was already dealing with their own drama. Meanwhile, Lenin, who’d been exiled a decade earlier, returned to Russia (with the help of the Germans, let’s not forget) with 29 other Russian exiles, a Swiss, a Pole and the determination to start a revolution that would change Russia forever.
The Romanov’s increase in unpopularity and decrease in the probability of asylum in a neutral country only made them sitting ducks for Lenin and his comrades, whose biggest dream was to see the dynasty destroyed. On the night of July 16-17, the family was woken up under the guise that they needed to move again and might even be rescued. Hopeful for escape, the girls put on their dresses which had precious jewels and other valuables sewn through the inseams which they’d managed to keep a secret to preserve at least some of their fortune that’d been stripped of them. They were led down to the cellar and told that for their own safety they should wait here for transport. They were even given chairs and made comfortable; it’s said that they looked like they were posing for a photograph. Only a few minutes later, they were still wiping the sleep from their eyes when infamous Soviet executioner, Yakov Yurovsky and a group of around 10-12 Bolshevik revolutionaries, namely a drunk Peter Ermakov, a cold-blooded Grigory Nikulin and a very paranoid Alexey Kabanov. They entered the room, and Yurovsky read out the following:
“The Presidium of the Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, has decreed that the former Tsar Nicholas Romanov, guilty of countless bloody crimes against the people, should be shot. “
Nicholas’ last words were, “WHA-“
Yurovsky repeated the order and raised his colt while Alexandra and Olga tried to bless themselves and their family through tears but were interrupted by bullets in Nicholas’ chest. Ermakov shot Alexandra immediately in the head while the children and house members scattered. The room filled with gunpowder and bullets shot out like fireworks, there was a pause for the smoke to clear, and all that could be heard were the whimpers of who remained. Kabanov realized that the shots were easily heard on the street and suggested the remaining to be killed by bayonet or the butt of the pistols. Many of these men had never killed before, which made for manic shooting and poor aim. Once the smoke cleared, nearly all of the house members were dead, and all five royal children were still alive.
In a drunken tantrum, Ermikov lost control and started attacking anything that dared to move with his bayonet. The use of blades proved difficult due to the layer diamonds and sapphires, which acted as a protective vest that only prolonged their suffering and made them harder to kill. This led to the forced use of gunshots again, this time aiming only for the head.
Alexei, the prized son that was endlessly prayed for and sought after for so long, was the first to go. According to one report in historian Simon Sebag’s research, in a fit of rage, Nikulin unloaded his entire pistol into him while he sat crying in the chair next to his lifeless father. Still unsatisfied, he began to stab him until Yurovsky shoved him aside to end it with a single shot to the boys head. Olga and Tatiana went soon after with shots to their heads. This left Anastasia and Maria, the last victims of the fusillade that ended a 300-year dynasty and paved the way for the rise of Soviet Russia. The sisters crouched in a corner crying with their heads covered when they were shot for the last time. When the two girls were carried out of the room, they turned out to still be gasping for air and were silenced with a final stab.
The eleven bodies were tossed in the back of a truck and driven out to Koptyaki forest where they were further mutilated after changing the gravesite due to a mine. They were stripped naked, burned and buried in a shallow group grave except for Alexei and Maria who were buried in a different, equally cruel manner not far from the mass grave. This is partially what fueled so much speculation that there could be a Romanov and heir to the throne out there somewhere. It also was the inspiration for wildly inaccurate but very entertaining 1997 animated musical, Anastasia.
From start to finish, the brutal murder of Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and servants, lasted around 20 minutes. In another of Sebag’s reports, one of the killers recalled the floor being “as slippery as an ice rink.” Yurovsky removed around 17 pounds of precious jewels that had been sewn in the children’s clothes and handed them over to the Kremlin. (this was in haste, too, as more jewels were found later when the remains were discovered. ) In the 84 days that followed the Ipatiev House murders, 27 more friends and relatives were killed by the Bolsheviks effectively ending any chance at reconstitution of the Russian Monarchy.
Officially, the newly born Soviet Union claimed responsibility for Nicholas’ death but said that the remaining family was hidden safely away. This led to worldwide rumors of Romanov conspiracies, imposters claiming to be survivors of the royal family, most famously, Anastasia, and a big wish from the Russian Whites (party in favor of a Tsar ruled Russia) that maybe, just maybe, their rightful heir was out there somewhere. The true fate of the Romanovs was kept secret until the collapse in 1991, and even then, Russia remained tight-lipped. As of 2018, the Investigative Committee of The Russian Federation confirms that according to DNA analysis, all of the Romanovs are in fact, dead.
Today, July 16, marks the 101 anniversary of the last nail in Russia’s imperial coffin, the death of an ill-starred dynasty and the birth of a new communist era in Russia that as fate would have it, would also be doomed.