The Last of the Romanovs

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Podcast Transcript

For over 300 years, the Romanov family ruled over the Russian Empire. 

After the Communist Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne, and he and his family were placed under house arrest, where they ultimately met a grizzly fate.

For decades after their deaths, the world wondered what happened to them until their bodies were discovered and identified 80 years later. 

Learn more about the fate of the last Russian Tsar and his family on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Nicholas II was not what you would call a great ruler. 

As the heir apparent to the Russian throne, he spent a great deal of time on pursuits like hunting and partying. He traveled around Europe on a Grand Tour and found himself very unprepared when he assumed the throne at the age of 24 in 1896. 

Nicholas was not prepared to be Tsar, and his mismanagement of Russia over the next 20 years led to an overall decline in the country. 

As the rest of Europe industrialized, Russia remained a stagnant agricultural economy. 

Nicholas believed in the divine right of kings and suppressed almost every attempt at elections and popular representation.

Russia lost a disastrous war with Japan in 1905 and then had a failed campaign in World War I. 

Nicholas had become deeply unpopular, resulting in major revolutions in 1905 and 1917. 

The revolution of 1917 eventually ended his reign, forcing him to abdicate the throne on March 26, right in the middle of the first world war.  He was going to abdicate in favor of his 12-year-old son Alexi, but he had hemophilia, and his parents believed he wouldn’t survive long if they were sent into exile without him. 

Instead, he selected his brother, Grand Duke Michael. However, Michael refused the crown unless there was an election where the people could choose the system they wanted. So, the monarchy was abolished. 

1917 was a year of extreme turmoil and instability in Russia. There were different governments and many different factions vying for power.

The original plan was for the Romanov Family to go into exile in Britain. He was the first cousin to King George V. However, he and his family were denied entry. Likewise, they were denied entry into France and Finland. 

Here I should note just who the Romanov Family was. The group consisted of the Tsar, his wife Alexandria, and his five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexi. 

So the provisional government in Russia put the Tsar and his family under house arrest in the Alexander Palace, just outside of Saint Petersburg. Here they were able to maintain their standard of living with their servants, albeit under very regulated conditions. 

However, with fighting nearby, the decision was made in July to move the family to the remote Siberian town of Tobolsk. It took them four days of travel by train and boat to reach the town, and they eventually settled in the former governor’s mansion.

Here the family lived well, albeit confined. They read, played games, and chopped firewood. 

Everything changed in October with what became known as the October Revolution, which brought the Communists under the control of Vladimir Lenin into power. 

The Communists had no love for the Tsar and his family. 

They began to cut back on expenses for the family and remove many of their privileges. The family didn’t worry too much because they believed they would be rescued by pro-monarchy forces or their allies in the west.

Unfortunately for them, once the Communists took power, they signed the treaty of Breast-Litovsk, which ended Russia’s involvement in World War I. Once Russia was out of the war, the west ceased caring about the Romanovs.

There was no rescue mission. 

The Romanovs became a political football with various communist factions wanting to control them and/or kill them. 

The plan was to take them to the city of Yekaterinburg, where they would wait until they could be taken to Moscow for a show trial. 

In April 1918, the Tsar and his family wound up at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. It was the home of a former merchant in the city. 

The group was now down to Nicolas, his wife, their five children, their personal doctor, and three servants. They all lived upstairs in the house while guards were stationed on the ground floor. 

Their rations had been cut back to that of a common soldier. Their freedom to move about had been severely limited. The windows in their rooms had been painted over. By this time, it wasn’t so much house arrest as it was just being held prisoner. 

The situation on the ground was beginning to deteriorate. A civil war had broken out between the various faction to fill the vacuum left by the Tsar.  There were many executions during this period, including that of the Tsar’s brother, Grande Duke Michael, who was executed on June 19. 

One anti-Bolshevik group, known as the Czechoslovak Legion, was quickly moving toward Yekaterinburg. There was a fear that the Bolsheviks would lose possession of the family if they managed to take Yekaterinburg. 

Bolshevik leaders such as Leon Trotsky began openly discussing the execution of the Tsar.

On July 16, the Bolshevik leadership in Yekaterinburg decided to execute the family so they couldn’t serve as a living banner to rally around. The local leader, Yakov Sverdlov, said he would carry out the executions as soon as he received word from Moscow. 

At 2:00 am, the family and their staff were awakened and told to move to the basement as there would be shooting from nearby military units, and it was for their safety. 

Unbeknownst to them, a firing squad had been assembled in a nearby room.

The leader of the executioners was Yakov Yurovsky. He and his seven executioners burst into the room and notified the Tsar and his family that they were to be executed. He said, 

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. 

What happened next has been disputed, but what we do know is the executions pulled out pistols and began firing. 

The tsar was the first to die, having been shot three times in the torso. His wife Alexandria was shot in the head. 

The men began firing indiscriminately, filling the room with smoke, with gunshots in the confined area so loud no one could hear orders. 

After about a minute of firing, they stopped only to find that all the children and one of the servants were still alive. 

They began systematically stabbing the survivors with their bayonets and shooting them in the head. Many of the daughters had diamonds sewn into their garments to carry with them some form of wealth should they escape. They ended up protecting them from bullets and bayonets. 

One of the girls, it isn’t known who was still alive when she was taken out of the room on a stretcher. When they realized she was alive, they tried to stab her again, and when that didn’t work, she was shot in the head. 

The entire episode took 20 minutes, and they fired 70 bullets. 

The bodies were taken to a nearby mine where they undressed and drenched in sulphuric acid to disfigure them so they couldn’t be identified. They were then dumped into a mine shaft which, it turned out, wasn’t very deep. Only about 3 meters or 10 feet. They tried to collapse the mine shaft with hand grenades, but it didn’t work. 

The next day they came back for the bodies to deliver them to another, deeper mine. However, when they drove to the mine on the next day, July 19, the truck carrying the bodies became stuck, so the decision was made to bury everyone right where the truck was.

They dug a very shallow grave for everyone, which was only about 2 feet deep. They put everyone in save for two of the children, poured more acid on them, and then covered them with dirt and railroad ties.  The two other children were buried some distance away to confuse anyone who might later find the bodies.

What happened to the Tsar and his family became a mystery for decades. The Soviets at first denied that the Tsar and his family were dead. 

Years later, when they finally admitted that they were dead, they blamed it on extremist groups in the area, and they never accepted responsibility for the act. 

The assumption has always been that the order was given by Lenin, however, no documentation supporting this directly has ever been found. 

Leon Trotsky did record something in his diary which implicated Lenin. He wrote of an encounter he had with Yakov Sverdlov shortly after the executions. He wrote:

My next visit to Moscow took place after the fall of Yekaterinburg. Talking to Sverdlov I asked in passing, “Oh yes and where is the Tsar?” “It’s all over,” he answered. “He has been shot.” “And where is his family?” “And the family with him.” “All of them?” I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. “All of them,” replied Yakov Sverdlov. “What about it?” He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply. “And who made the decision?” I asked. “We decided it here. Ilyich [Lenin] believed that we shouldn’t leave the Whites a live banner to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances.”

Given the organization of the Bolsheviks, it is highly unlikely anyone would have taken such an action without the approval of Lenin.  In fact, no documents regarding the execution have ever been found. All we have are oral accounts from the men who took part in the execution.

For decades after the family was killed, there were rumors swirling that some of the children, in particular Anastasia, had survived. Several women claimed to be Anastasia, most famously a German woman by the name of Anna Anderson, who died in 1984.

DNA testing later proved she was not related to the Romanovs. 

The truth about the Romanov murders didn’t begin to surface until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

It had been an open secret in certain Soviet circles as to the general location where the bodies were buried. The exact spot was established by a geologist and amateur archeologist by the name of Alexander Avdonin in 1979.

He worked with a filmmaker who had interviewed some of the executioners and found the remains, but otherwise left them alone and never mentioned it to anyone. 

His findings never became public until 1989.

In 1991, the new President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, ordered the bodies to be exhumed to be identified. 

In the grave were found 9 of the 11 victims, which conformed to the testimony of those involved that two of the bodies were buried separately, some distance away, just to confuse anyone who might come upon them. 

What the executioners who carried out the act couldn’t have known about was DNA testing. 

Samples were taken from the nearest living relatives of the Romanov family, including Britain’s Prince Philip. 

In 1998, the remains of the Tsar, his wife, and three of the children, along with their servants were identified. 

On July 17, 1998, on the 80th anniversary of their murder, the Tsar and his family were reinterred at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, the traditional burial site of Russian Tsars. 

In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia recgonized the family as saints, and this was confirmed by the Synod of the Russian Church in 2000. They were not recognized as martyrs, but rather as “passion bearers”. 

The search continued for the bodies of the two remaining children. In 2007, the remains of 12-year-old Alexi and his sister Maria were discovered 70 meters from the main burial site. In 2008, they were also positively identified via DNA analysis. 

Interest in the fate of the Tsar and his family has grown in Russia. In 2010, the government opened up a murder investigation on the case, even though all those involved were dead at that time. 

In 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church exhumed the remains to perform additional DNA testing with more advanced techniques, which again confirmed the identities. 

The Ipatiev House, where the murders took place, became a Soviet tourist attraction for years. Communist party officials would often visit to have their photos taken in the room where the family was killed. 

However, over time, it became a pilgrimage site for those who wanted to honor the tsar and his family. By the 70s, these visits had outnumbered the visits by party members. 

The Community Party made the decision to demolish the house, which it did in September 1977. 

However, people still kept making pilgrimages to the site, as the basement was still there.  

After the Soviet Union fell, groundbreaking began in 1992 for a major church located on the site of the murders. In 2003, the Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land, was opened. 

While most of the Romanovs were killed by the Communists, including many members of the extended family that I didn’t mention, not all of them were.

There were some distant relatives who survived. 

That raises the question, who would be the tsar today if the Russian monarchy were to be restored?….not that that is going to happen. 

It is actually a difficult question to answer. You have to go back to Tsar Nicholas I, the grandfather of the murdered tsar, and the problem has to do with the best claimants not having children and claims going through female lines.

The person who claims to be the head of House Romanov is Prince Karl Emich of Leiningen, who has a very German name. His claim comes from being the grandson of Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, who was a cousin of Nicholas II and a grandson of Alexander II. 

He has been recognized by the Monarchist Party in Russia as the heir since he converted to the Russian Orthodox church in 2014. He also goes by the title Emperor Nicholas III, using his Russian name.

The Russian Orthodox Church recognizes another claimant, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna 

While Tsar Nicholas II was an inept ruler, the fate which befell him, his family, and his servants was something totally unjustified. 

There was no trial or hearing. Certainly, even if his actions justified his removal from power, and perhaps even his punishment, the murder of his children, wife, and servants was totally unjustified. 

The murder of Tsar Nicholas and the Russian Royal Family is one of the greatest acts of regicide in history, and certainly the most significant of the 20th century.