The story of the Romanovs, the last imperial family of Russia, is a fascinating and tragic one. In 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children were brutally murdered, bringing an end to the Romanov family and their dynasty and marking the beginning of a new era in Russian history. Despite the passage of over a century, the circumstances surrounding their deaths remain shrouded in mystery, with many unanswered questions and conflicting accounts.
In this article, we will explore the unexplained death of the Romanovs and delve into the various theories and evidence surrounding this enigmatic event.
1. Plot of The Story of “The Unexplained Death of The Romanovs”
In July 1918, the Russian Imperial Romanov family, consisting of Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna, and their five children named Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei, were killed by Bolshevik revolutionaries under Yakov Yurovsky on orders from the Ural Regional Soviet. Also killed were members of their entourage. The bodies were taken to the Koptyaki forest, stripped, buried, and mutilated to prevent identification.
After the February and October Revolutions, the Romanovs were imprisoned in various locations before being moved to a house in Yekaterinburg. The Soviet leadership maintained misinformation about their fate for several years before finally acknowledging the murders in 1926 but claiming that the bodies were destroyed and that Lenin’s Cabinet was not responsible. Rumours of survivors persisted, fueled by various impostors claiming to be Romanov family members.
In 1979, Alexander Avdonin discovered the burial site of the Romanovs. The Soviet Union only acknowledged the existence of the remains publicly in 1989 during the glasnost period, and the identity of the remains was later confirmed through forensic and DNA analysis with the assistance of British experts. An elaborate state funeral was held at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg in 1998 to reinter the remains of the Romanovs. However, key members of the Russian Orthodox Church disputed the authenticity of the remains and did not attend the funeral.
In 2007, a second grave containing the remains of two missing Romanov children was discovered and confirmed by DNA analysis. In 2008, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office rehabilitated the Romanov family as “victims of political repressions” after considerable legal wrangling. A criminal case was opened by the Russian government in 1993, but nobody was prosecuted as the perpetrators were already dead.
The Soviet Union claimed the Ural Regional Soviet ordered the execution of the Romanovs, but most historians believe it came from the central Soviet government. Lenin and Sverdlov are suspected of wanting to prevent the family’s rescue by the Czechoslovak Legion during the Russian Civil War. While there’s no written evidence that they ordered the executions, a 2011 investigation concluded they endorsed them after the fact. Some sources say the central Soviet government planned to conduct a trial, but the Ural Soviet executed the family on their own due to pressure from Left Socialist-Revolutionaries and anarchists.
2. Background of the Romanov Family
Following his deposition as monarch, Tsar Nicholas II was reunited with his family and placed under house arrest by the Provisional Government in March 1917. In August of the same year, the Romanovs were evacuated to Tobolsk, Siberia, for their safety.
While living in the former governor’s mansion, their living conditions were initially comfortable, but they grew increasingly strict after the Bolsheviks came to power in October. Nicholas was forbidden from wearing epaulettes, and the family was put on soldiers’ rations on 1 March 1918, with their servants dismissed and certain luxuries are taken away.
With the Bolsheviks gaining power, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their daughter Maria were transferred to Yekaterinburg in April 1918 by Vasily Yakovlev. Unfortunately, Alexei, who suffered from severe haemophilia, was too ill to travel with his parents and stayed behind with his sisters. They did not leave Tobolsk until May. The family and a few remaining servants were then made prisoners in Yekaterinburg’s Ipatiev House, which was called “The House of Special Purpose”.
2.1 The House of Special Purpose
- The Romanov family was kept in strict isolation at the Ipatiev House, where they were prohibited from speaking any language other than Russian and accessing their luggage. Their cameras and photographic equipment were confiscated, and their servants were instructed to address them only by their names and patronymics.
- The family was subjected to regular searches, and their money and gold bracelets were taken away for “safekeeping”. The house was surrounded by a double palisade, which was erected to prevent passersby from seeing Nicholas’s legs while he used the swing in the garden.
- The windows in their rooms were sealed shut, and their only source of ventilation was a small opening that was strictly forbidden to look out of. One of the windows in the tsar and tsarina’s corner bedroom was unsealed on June 23, 1918, but the prisoners were warned not to look out or signal to anyone outside, in pain of being shot. An iron grille was installed on July 11 after Alexandra ignored warnings from the commandant not to stand too close to the open window.
- The Romanov family, who were imprisoned by the Bolsheviks, were kept in strict isolation at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. They were forbidden to speak any language other than Russian and were not permitted access to their luggage or photographic equipment. The house was surrounded by a double palisade, and the windows in all the family’s rooms were sealed shut and covered with newspapers.
- Guards had complete access to all rooms occupied by the family and enforced strict rationing of the water supply. The family was not allowed visitors, excursions, or to receive and send letters. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks lied to the Romanovs about the whereabouts of two of their loyal servants, who had already been shot by the Cheka.
- On 14 July, a liturgy was conducted for the Romanovs, and the following morning, four housemaids were hired to clean the bedrooms with the family.
- During the Romanovs’ imprisonment, fake letters were smuggled into the Ipatiev House, claiming to be from a monarchist officer wants to rescue the family. These were composed by the Cheka and served as further justification for the execution of the imperial family.
- A rebellion on Voznesensky Square in Yekaterinburg in mid-July was violently suppressed by a force of Red Guards led by Peter Ermakov. The incident was portrayed as a monarchist-led rebellion that threatened the safety of the captives at the Ipatiev House.
2.2 Planing of Their Execution
- The Ural Regional Soviet decided in a meeting on 29 June to execute the Romanov family, which was later approved by a small group including Lenin and Dzerzhinsky. The killing of the family was kept a secret, and diplomats’ requests for access to the family were denied.
- Yurovsky, who was in charge of the execution, planned to gather the family and servants in a confined space to execute them efficiently and prevent their escape. The bodies were later stripped naked to obtain hidden jewellery, and mutilations were done to prevent identification.
- On 16 July, Yurovsky was informed that the executions of the Romanov family could not be delayed any longer due to the retreat of Red Army contingents. A coded telegram seeking final approval was sent to Lenin in Moscow, but there is no record of a response.
- Yurovsky and Medvedev collected handguns for the execution, and Yurovsky assigned victims to each killer in the commandant’s office. Some of the Letts refused to shoot the women and were sent away. Yurovsky was under pressure to ensure that the bodies were properly disposed of to prevent monarchist exploitation.
- In 1918, the Russian imperial family, the Romanovs, were taken to a semi-basement room for lying to them and executed by a secret police squad on the order of the Ural Executive Committee, who clarify their action with the reason that the family was a threat to Soviet Russia. One of the servants of the family Leonid Sednev was spared and removed before the execution.
- During the execution, some of the executioners attempted to loot the bodies, but Yurovsky stopped them and decided to oversee the disposal of the bodies himself. Only Alexei’s dog survived and was rescued by a British officer.
- A coded telegram was sent to Lenin’s secretary informing him that the entire Romanov family had been executed. The Cheka dispatched politically valuable diaries and letters of Nicholas and Alexandra to Moscow to be published, while all of the family’s items were seized and packed into their trunks for dispatch to Moscow.
- On July 19, the Bolsheviks nationalized all confiscated Romanov properties, and Sverdlov announced the tsar’s execution to the Council of People’s Commissars.
2.4 Disposal of Imperial Family And Investigation
- After the anti-communist White Army took control of Yekaterinburg in July 1918, Admiral Alexander Kolchak established the Sokolov Commission to investigate the murders of the Romanovs.
- Nikolai Sokolov was appointed to undertake this investigation and discovered many of the Romanovs’ belongings and valuables in and around the mineshaft where the bodies were initially disposed which were overlooked by Yurovsky and his men. However, Sokolov ultimately failed to find the concealed burial site on Koptyaki Road.
- He brought the relics he recovered with him, collected eight volumes of photographic and eyewitness accounts, and he died in France in 1924 before he could complete his investigation. Relics that he recovered are now kept in Uccle, Brussels, Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Job.
- A book containing Nikolai Sokolov’s preliminary report on the Romanov murders was published in French and Russian in the same year, and in English in 1925. It was the only accepted historical account of the murders until 1989.
- Sokolov wrongly believed that the prisoners died instantly from the shooting, except for Alexei and Anastasia, who were shot and bayoneted, and that their bodies were destroyed in a fire. The book’s publication and acceptance led the Soviets to release a government-approved textbook in 1926 that copied much of Sokolov’s work, acknowledging that the Tsar and his family had been murdered.
- The Soviet government tried to maintain control over the narrative of the Romanov murders by banning Sokolov’s report and deeming the Ipatiev House as lacking historical significance.
- The house was ultimately demolished by KGB chairman Yuri Andropov in 1977, just before the sixtieth anniversary of the murders, which later led to criticism from Boris Yeltsin who described it as a “piece of barbarism”. However, the demolition did not deter pilgrims or monarchists from visiting the site.
- In 1979, Alexander Avdonin and Geli Ryabov found the Romanovs’ shallow grave after years of investigation, but they reburied the remains after failing to find scientists to help examine them. In 1989, Ryabov revealed the gravesite to the media, and the remains were officially exhumed in 1991, though the site was badly damaged.
The identity of the remains interred in St. Petersburg as Anastasia’s remains controversial. In 2007, another group found the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters, but the church demanded a more detailed examination before deciding on their identification.
3. Perpetrators of Crime
- According to Ivan Plotnikov, a history professor at Maksim Gorky Ural State University, It was Yakov Yurovsky, Grigory P. Nikulin, Mikhail A. Medvedev (Kuprin), Peter Ermakov, Stepan Vaganov, Alexey G. Kabanov, Pavel Medvedev, V N Netrebin, and Y M Tselms who executed the Romanovs.
- Filipp Goloshchyokin, who was a close associate of Yakov Sverdlov, did not participate. Two or three guards also refused to take part in the killings. Pyotr Voykov was responsible for disposing of the bodies and claimed to have participated in the murders.
- Nikolai Sokolov, a White Army investigator, wrongly attributed the executions to a group of Latvians led by a Jew. However, Plotnikov’s research indicates that the group that carried out the execution was mainly comprised of ethnic Russians, with the participation of one Jew and possibly one Latvian.
- The executioners of the Romanov family were mainly ethnic Russians, with the participation of one Jew and possibly one Latvian. Many of the men involved in the murders survived this event, with some being killed in the years following the event.
- Yurovsky, one of the leaders of the execution, was rewarded with a promotion in the Cheka and held important positions in the Soviet government until his death. He left behind conflicting accounts of the event and showed no guilt for his actions in his last letter. His son later handed over his memoirs to investigators.
- Lenin had a strong hatred towards the House of Romanov and saw Nicholas II as a cruel enemy of the Russian people. He took extreme precautions to avoid being tied to the murder of the Romanovs, issuing coded telegrams and insisting that all evidence be destroyed.
- Documents discovered in various archives show that he relied on trusted subordinates to carry out his instructions, often in anonymous directives or confidential notes. There is no clear evidence linking Lenin to the decision to execute the Romanovs, as he took great care to avoid leaving a paper trail. The accounts of those involved in the murders were heavily censored to emphasize the roles of Sverdlov and Goloshchyokin.
- In April 1918, Lenin was aware of Vasily Yakovlev’s decision to take Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria to Omsk instead of Yekaterinburg, due to the threatening behaviour of the Ural Soviets in Tobolsk and along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Lenin and Sverdlov had direct telegraph contact with the Ural Soviets about Yakovlev’s change of route and insisted that the family be brought to Yekaterinburg despite Yakovlev’s warning.
On 16 July, Lenin denied rumours of Nicholas II’s murder, but by then, the coded telegram ordering the execution had already been sent. Lenin welcomed the news of Grand Duchess Elizabeth’s death and portrayed Nicholas as a weak and incompetent leader responsible for military defeats and deaths. The Soviet historiography protected Lenin’s reputation and shifted the responsibility for the murder of the Romanov family to the Ural Soviets and Yekaterinburg Cheka.
- In 1918, the Bolshevik jailers, led by Yakov Yurovsky, murdered Tsar Nicholas II, his family, and their retainers in fear that the approaching Czechoslovak Legion would free them.
- Decades later, in 1979, amateur enthusiasts discovered the remains of most of the family and their retainers, which were later identified through DNA testing and buried with state honours in the St. Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg in 1998.
- The decision to bury them there was controversial and opposed by the Holy Synod. The Russian president at the time, Boris Yeltsin, described the murder as one of the most shameful chapters in Russian history.
- In 2007, the bodies of Alexei and one of his sisters, believed to be Maria by Russian anthropologists and Anastasia by American ones, were found. The Russian Orthodox Church canonized the family in 2000 as passion bearers, not martyrs.
- From 2000 to 2003, the Church of All Saints was built on the site of Ipatiev House. In 2008, the Russian Supreme Court rehabilitated Nicholas II and his family, but this decision was denounced by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
- In 2010, a Russian court ordered the reopening of the investigation into the murder of the Romanovs. In 2015, at the request of the Russian Orthodox Church, additional DNA testing was conducted on the remains of Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, which confirmed their identities.
- In 1979, most of the family remains were found. In 1991, five bodies were exhumed and identified. The Russian Orthodox Church canonized the family in 2000, and in 2008 the Russian Supreme Court ruled that they were victims of political repression.
A survey conducted in 2018 showed that 57% of Russians believe the execution was a heinous crime. On the centenary of the murders, 102,000 people took part in a procession in Yekaterinburg. In 2015, the bodies of Nicholas II and Alexandra were exhumed for additional DNA testing.
5. Later Developments
- There have been several developments related to the Romanovs family since their remains were first discovered and identified. Here are some of the significant developments:
- One of the major developments came in 2015 when the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) requested additional DNA testing on the remains. The Church wanted the samples to be taken by Russian scientists, and the hope was that this would bring an end to decades of debate and controversy surrounding the family’s identity and fate. However, no announcement has been made regarding the Church’s findings.
Overall, these developments have helped to confirm the identity of the Romanov family and shed new light on their tragic story. They also highlight the continued fascination with the family and their legacy, which continues to capture the public’s imagination more than a century after their deaths.
While the debate over the Romanovs’ death and identity may never be fully resolved, it is clear that their story continues to capture the public’s imagination and inspire new research and analysis. The tragic end of the Romanovs has become a symbol of the dangers of unchecked power and the importance of preserving human rights and dignity. As such, their legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of history and the ongoing struggle for justice and freedom.
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