Friday, 11 November 2016

The deaths of the Romanovs

The details of how the Russian royal family met its end in 1918 are reasonably well known. However, the mystery of what happened after the event has only been resolved relatively recently.

The end of the Romanovs

The beginning of the end of the Romanov dynasty came on 1st March 1917, when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. Shortly afterwards he was placed under house arrest, together with his entire family, by the Provisional Government led firstly by Prince Lvov and later by Alexander Kerensky.

Plans were considered to send the Romanovs into exile, the most obvious destination country being Great Britain because of the close relationship between the two royal families. An offer of asylum was made by the British government, but King George V feared for his own popularity if this came about, and he persuaded the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to withdraw the offer. Had the King known what was about to happen in Russia, he may not have made the same decision.

The Romanovs were first held at the Alexander Palace at Tsarkoye Selo, and from August 1917 at Tobolsk to the east of the Urals, where they were still able to live in comfort despite the approach of a Siberian winter. Here, some 1,400 miles from the events in St Petersburg, they were in relative safety and could have no influence on the developments that brought Lenin to power in the October revolution (which actually took place in November, according to the western calendar).

However, the civil war that broke out in the succeeding months affected Russia well beyond St Petersburg (now renamed Petrograd), and, as an army of the counter-revolutionary White Army approached Tobolsk, the Bolsheviks decided to move the royal family to Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. They were held at a building that is always referred to as the Ipatiev house. Ipatiev was an engineer who used the building as both his home and his office, but he was ordered to vacate it to make room for the prisoners.

The Romanovs arrived on 30th April, the family comprising the Tsar (aged 50 at the time of his death, his wife the Tsarina Alexandra (46), their son the Tsarevich Alexei (13) and their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19) and Anastasia (17). They also had a few servants and their personal doctor with them.

On the night of 16th/17th July the family and their entourage were woken and told to prepare themselves for another move. They were prepared for this, and always hopeful that one day they would be exiled to another country. For this reason, the women and Alexei had sewn a considerable number of jewels into their clothes, to give them a measure of financial security in exile, or possibly for use as bribes to gain them their freedom.

They were escorted to the cellar, ostensibly to wait for transport, or they may have been told that a group photograph would be taken. At any rate, they were soon greeted by an execution squad who performed their task with little delay, shooting some and bayoneting the others.

Disposing of the bodies

Attempts were made to dispose of the bodies by burning them and dissolving them in acid, but these methods were only partly successful. The Bolsheviks were determined that nothing should remain that could be the focus of a shrine to the Tsar and his family, so the remains were dumped down the deepest well they could find.

It was not until 1991 that some of the remains were dug up. Their whereabouts had actually been known about since 1978 but it was not politic at the time to make this knowledge public. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 interest in Russia’s Tsarist past was rekindled.

In the years since 1918 there had been much speculation about whether some of the family might have survived the massacre in the basement – in particular it was thought that Anastasia might have escaped and fled to the West – so the opportunity to test the bones for DNA was taken to set all doubts at rest.

However, despite extensive work to identify all the bones, not least so that they could be given proper burials, two members of the family were missing. It was not until 2007 that the bones of Alexei and Maria were recovered. They had been buried separately a short distance from the others.

It seems as though the people charged with disposing of the bodies did so in a considerable hurry – presumably they wanted to leave the site as soon as possible given the knowledge that counter-revolutionary troops were not far away – and the job was botched.
One can imagine that the small unit of soldiers who were sent to perform the operation were not too worried about the task of killing the “enemies of the people” but were less happy with that of removing all trace of a room full of dead bodies. One can almost sympathise.

John Welford