Tuesday, 17 July 2012

17th July 1918: The Execution of the Imperial Family

"Remember that the evil which is now in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love." - Grand Duchess Olga of Russia, four months before her death in 1918.
In the early hours of 17th July 1918, eleven people were brutally murdered in the cellar of a house that stood near the centre of Yekaterinburg, a medium-sized city in the middle of Russia's Ural mountains that drew most of its employment from the local mining industry. The deaths of eleven people in the summer of 1918 is hardly remarkable. Millions of young men were still dying on the battlefields of the First World War; the Spanish influenza pandemic was about to claim the lives of nearly seventy million people worldwide and for the last fifteen months, Russia had lurched from one political crisis to another. It was now in a state of civil war, political terror and social unrest. The downfall of the Russian monarchy in February 1917 and the collapse of the democratic republic set-up to replace it after only ten months had resulted in the world's first Communist regime coming to power in Russia. Led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik party, Communism would continue to rule over Russia until 1991, but in 1918 it was faced by a formidable cabal of enemies.  It was by no means certain that it would survive. Hatred of Communism had led to monarchists, democratic republicans, moderate socialists and liberals allying with one another in the shared common goal of destroying Communism's hold over Russia. Communism had responded with an official policy known as "the Red Terror," which saw mass arrests, intimidation, widespread torture, spying, the suspension of civil liberties, numerous executions, assassinations and punishment beatings. By July 1918, thousands were perishing as a result of the Red Terror and many more were dying because of the civil war between the new Communist government (known as the "Reds") and its opponents (known as the "Whites".)

Amidst all this carnage, why were the deaths of those eleven people in Yekaterinburg considered so important? Well, it was because seven of the eleven were members of Russia's deposed imperial family - 50 year-old Tsar Nicholas II, his British-German wife Alexandra, their four daughters - Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19) and Anastasia (17) - and their 13 year-old brother, Alexei. As with most things associated with royalty, the symbolic significance attached to them went far beyond the issue of personality or an individual life. For three hundred years, the House of Romanov had been regarded by millions of Russians as the living embodiment of the Russian nation. The Tsar had been appointed by God to rule over one of the largest empires in history and as head of the government, army, church and court, the Romanov emperors were believed to stand far closer to God than to the rest of humanity. The savage execution of the last of the Romanov tsars was intended to cripple the Russian monarchist movement and to rob them of their most valuable figurehead - the same rationale justified the execution of Nicholas's teenage son, Alexei. It was also designed to shatter the mystique of three hundred years of monarchy. However, it was not the execution of the ex-emperor and his son which caused the most comment - then or now. It was the decision to murder his four daughters - without a trial, in secret and when none of them had any political power. Lenin's right-hand man, Leon Trotsky, later admitted that the girls were murdered because it would send a psychological message to the Russian people: it would show that there was no turning back and that anything that stood in the way of Communist victory in Russia would be ruthlessly eliminated. In a nutshell, it was terror for terror's sake.

Ever since the collapse of the monarchy, the Tsar and his family had been living under house arrest. As time had gone on, the conditions of their detention had deteriorated. Immediately after the first revolution, they had lived in their former home at the Alexander Palace near Saint Petersburg, where they still had access to many of their servants and where there had initially been plans to send them abroad to live in Britain, France, Switzerland or Spain. For their own safety, they were then moved to the town of Tobolsk in Siberia, where they lived in a former governor's mansion. In April 1918, they were moved to Yekaterinburg, where they were imprisoned in the Ipatiev House, a merchant's home which was heavily fortified and where the family were guarded by a local division of the Cheka - the feared Communist secret police. For the last few weeks, the Cheka had been making preparations to kill the entire family and their four remaining servants. The White armies were closing in on the area and Lenin had signed off on the idea, telegraphing the local branch of the Communist party from Moscow giving his firm and unequivocal approval that all the Romanovs now in captivity should die. The task of organising the logistics of the execution fell to a man called Yakov Yurovsky, a forty-year old member of the Cheka who was in charge of security at the Ipatiev House. The meetings had taken place in the town's local "American Hotel." It was decided to murder the family in the Ipatiev House's cellar, disfigure their bodies with sulphuric acid and then hide the remains in the nearby forest.

At half-past one in the morning of 17th July, Yurovsky went upstairs and woke Dr. Eugene Botkin, the imperial family's private doctor and a staunch monarchist who had chosen to share imprisonment with his employers. The doctor was asked to wake the family; Yurovsky fed him the lie that because of fighting in the area, the Soviet government had decided to move the family to another location. In the meantime, artillery fire had been heard in the forest and Yurovsky thought it best if the family took shelter in the cellar downstairs. Botkin knocked on the Imperial Family's doors, informing the Tsar first - as protocol demanded. Nicholas II dressed quickly and efficiently, before turning his attention to waking his son. The Tsarina Alexandra and her four daughters took a lot longer to get ready - Yurovsky later estimated it taken them over half an hour - perhaps because Alexandra's bad back required her to be dressed slowly and with great care. Eventually, they emerged from their rooms and Yurovsky noticed that Nicholas was carrying his thirteen year-old son in his arms. Alexei (above) suffered from haemophilia, a rare genetic blood disease that meant his blood had an inability to clot properly. He had recently suffered another spate of ill-health and without constant exercise, he was finding it difficult to walk. 

As they walked down the stairwell and through the house, the Imperial Family stuck rigidly to the etiquette which demanded they walk in order of precedence. Nicholas and Alexei went first, followed by Alexandra, who was in a great amount of pain and leaning on the arm of her eldest daughter, Olga. One of the other guards, Victor Netrebin, remembered later that he was struck with how thin and tired the Tsarina and her eldest daughter looked. Twenty-two year-old Olga's dramatic weight loss and intermittent bouts of depression had been remarked upon by other eyewitnesses, who had also noted that the stress of captivity had aged the young Grand Duchess prematurely. Coming up behind her were her three younger sisters, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, whom Netrebin would later contrast with Olga by saying how pretty they all looked - moments from death. The youngest of the princesses, Anastasia (17), was carrying her sister Tatiana's pet Pekinese dog, Jemmy. After that came the family's four servants - Doctor Botkin, the Tsar's valet Alexei Trupp, the family's private chef Ivan Kharitanov, and the Tsarina's maid, a tall blonde called Anya Demidova. Demidova was carrying pillows to alleviate the Tsarina's chronic backache.

Contrary to later Hollywood dramatisations of the execution, the family did not go straight into the cellar. The basement of the house was actually separated from the main body by a small courtyard and so the group momentarily stepped outside for one last time, into the warm July night air. Then they re-entered the house by a second door and descended a flight of twenty-three stairs. The room that they were told to wait in was a cross between a storage facility and a traditional cellar. There were double doors at the back, leading to more storage space, which Yurovsky had cleverly locked beforehand. There was also a barred window and a single harsh light-bulb, casting a cold, brutal light over the room. Alexandra (above), who suffered from terrible migraines, heart palpitations, intermittent dizziness and excruciating sciatica, immediately expressed her incredulity that there were no chairs for her to sit on. Later the Communist guards were to mock her for her imperious demand, but given the level of physical agony the Empress was in, it was surely an understandable request. Her health had not been good since the birth of her youngest daughter in 1901 and the stress of the revolution, coupled with what she saw as the humiliation of imprisonment, had nearly killed her. For the last year, she had been administered a substantial number of opiates and even cocaine-laced medication by Dr. Botkin. They were standard early twentieth century treatments for her many ailments, but with medical supplies dwindling, the Tsarina was likely suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms now, as well. The guards, who hated her more than any other member of the family, reluctantly brought in two chairs. The Tsar lowered his son onto a chair and then stood protectively in front of him, whilst the four girls and their maid helped Alexandra sit on the other one. The three eldest daughters then stood behind their mother's chair, whilst the youngest, Anastasia, stood in the back corner, chatting to the servants. Yurovsky then left them all alone for about half an hour, whilst he went upstairs to go over the final preparations. In the meantime, the execution squad were getting nervous and many of them tried to calm their nerves with numerous shots of cheap vodka. A Fiat truck was brought round to the courtyard. Hearing the noise from the basement, the family must have assumed it had come to take them out of Yekaterinburg. In reality, it was to transport their bodies for dismemberment and burial.

After half an hour, the double doors into the cellar swung open, to reveal Yurovsky standing with ten other men. The official justification for the execution was to be the support that some of the Romanovs' foreign royal relatives were giving to the White armies (Britain was supporting them and Nicholas II was King George's cousin.) Yurovsky cleared his throat and read out a brief statement: -

In view of the fact that your relatives in Europe are continuing their assault on Soviet Russia, the presidium of the Ural Soviet had sentenced you to be shot. In view of the fact that the Czechoslovaks are threatening the red capital of the Urals - Yekaterinburg - and in view of the fact that the crowned executioner might escape the people's court, 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.

There were some words of incoherent, stunned protest from the Tsar and Dr. Botkin. The Tsarina and Olga, the two most intensely religious members of the family, immediately crossed themselves and began to pray. Yurovsky then calmly pulled out his Colt pistol and shot Nicholas II directly in the heart. Eager to claim that they too had played a part in killing the last Tsar, three other men then turned their guns on Nicholas and fired into his corpse. 

A hail of bullets was then unleashed upon the screaming people in the cellar. The Tsarina died almost instantly, mid-prayer, when she was struck on the left side of the skull. The valet and the cook - Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitanov - received multiple gunshot wounds in the first few minutes and died either from a direct hit or from heavy bleeding shortly after. There is some confusion over what happened to the Grand Duchess Olga (left), whose corpse was later shown to have a bullet wound in the jaw. The trajectory of the impact would indicate that the bullet hit her when her head was thrown back and upwards, perhaps indicating that she, too, died very quickly and was quite possibly knocked backwards by the collapsing bodies of either her father or mother. As she stumbled backwards, one of the stray bullets shot upwards through her jaw and killed her instantly.

The room had by now filled with smoke and visibility was poor. It almost certainly stank, too, as the bodies expelled their fluids as they went into their death-throes. Yurovsky ordered a temporary halt and took the men back outside to re-load their weapons and fetch some rifles with bayonets, which could be used to stab any victims who survived the next attack by gunfire. Re-entering the cellar, Yurovsky saw that Dr. Botkin, who sustained several bullet wounds to the abdomen, was crawling along the ground to lie next to the body of his emperor. Yurovsky shot him twice in the head, before turning his attention to the rest of the room. The two youngest girls - Maria and Anastasia - were huddled in the corner of the room, shrieking hysterically and Maria was trying desperately to claw at the doors in the hope of escape. Tatiana, their twenty-one year-old sister, was generally considered the most beautiful and elegant of the Romanov sisters. Innately conscious of her royal rank, she had been the most right-wing member of the imperial family, after their mother. Now, she was shielding her two younger sisters with her own body and today, Tatiana's remains are the most badly damaged of all the Romanovs'. Seeing Yurovsky approach her, the Grand Duchess dragged herself to her feet to face him and was shot point-blank through the head. She died standing. A very brave young lady. 

Maria and Anastasia (above) were then dispatched by being beaten, shot and stabbed to death by the remaining guards. One of them, a local Communist called Peter Ermakov, admitted to lunging at them like a wild beast and some of the guards allegedly vomited or fled the room at the sound of the girls' screams. Their little brother, Alexei, was repeatedly beaten as he clawed pathetically at his father's coat. Yurovsky intervened to stop the beating; he shot the boy twice through the ear, ending his life. The family's screaming maid, Anya Demidova, was the last to die - apparently from repeated stab wounds from the company's rifle bayonets. It had taken nearly half an hour to massacre the entire family; as Yurovsky would later remark in a stunning under-statement - "It is not easy to kill people."

The bodies of the Imperial Family and their servants were then pumped with the remaining bullets, to ensure that they really were all dead. They were then stripped and taken out to the truck. Yurovsky had them driven into the forest, where they were all doused in sulphuric acid to disfigure them, dismembered and set on fire. Then, they were hurled down a mine-shaft.

It had been a horrible, violent, lawless death - carried out in secret, without a trial or without justice. It was a fate that was to befall millions of ordinary Russians in the years under Communist rule - a system of government which has still, inexplicably, managed to escape the historical condemnation it so richly deserves. The Soviet Union was a depraved and genocidal regime, which even on its best days bore all the qualities of a sociopath. It was devoid of morality or respect for human life. It was infinitely worse than any regime in Russian history. And although it had technically come to power in October 1917, it was the events in Yekaterinburg on 17th July 1918 that should arguably be seen as the Soviet Union's true birth-date. Everything that defined it and everything that it was prepared to resort to was contained in how it executed the Romanovs. As Trotsky so rightly pointed out, with his chilling disinterest in human suffering - it proved that there was no going back. It defined what was to come.


  1. As usual, a thorough and thought provoking post, Gareth. I read The Last Tsar, whose author, Edvard Radzinsky, had access to the Tsar's personal diaries, and the papers of the execution squad.

    I wonder if the execution of the Grand Duchesses could have been to prevent any possible claim to the Imperial throne for them, either directly, or for any surviving nobleman who would have married them. No doubt, Lenin might have feared the rise of another Catherine the Great. From the description of their personalities, Tatiana might have been the one. The Cheka, with constant contact with the Imperial family over the course of their imprisonment, would have reported any possible threats.

    I am always half amused when I see the word "brutal" attached to a crime, such as a "brutal murder" or "brutal assault." It makes me wonder if there is such a thing as a "gentle murder." Considering what happened to the Imperial family, many ordinary Russians, and what my father witnessed in his native Czechoslovakia, "brutal" might be damning the communist regime with faint praise.

  2. Thank you very much.

    It's a very interesting point about the Grand Duchesses being murdered in case they either became claimants to the throne or mothers of future tsarist claimants. In other European monarchies - for instance, Austria or Great Britain - that would certainly have been the case. However, under the internal rules of the House of Romanov and the statutes of the Empire, it was impossible for the Grand Duchesses either to reign in their own right or transmit any blood claim to their children. After the reign of Catherine the Great, who you cited as an excellent example of imperial female power, her son, Emperor Paul, had introduced new laws which prevented any female Romanovs from ever holding political power again or from the blood-line claim to the imperial throne descending through the maternal line. That's actually why the Russian monarchist movement is in such disarray today. The descendant with the best direct blood relationship to the last Tsar is a woman, but one of her cousins is able to challenge her for the position because he is a male and descended through male Romanovs. The reason the laws were introduced in the first place was because Paul resented his mother's reign and eighteenth century Russia had seen the rise of several powerful empresses - Catherine I, Anna, Elisabeth and Catherine the Great. By the time the Romanovs were murdered in 1918 (and I agree about the adjective 'brutal,' by the way), it was no longer politically or legally possible for any female member of the Romanov clan to pose any kind of political threat.

    Thank you so much for your comment and I'm glad you "enjoyed" the post. If that's the right word for it.

  3. I think as grossly immoral as the Tsar was, any regime that practises capital punishment loses its claim to moral superiority over the regime that went before. By killing one lot, the next lot proved they were just as exploitative and ruthless as the leaders they despised.

    And children, for goodness sake :((((

  4. How does one praise a post when the events described in the post were so horrific? What the Romanov family experienced in those last moments chills me every time I think about it.

    I didn't realize that the Grand Duchesses were eliminated from being Tsarinas and tehcnically there would have been no reason to execute them. It makes the execution even more heinous.

    Thank you for posting today. I always look forward to your posts. Take care.

  5. "Grossly immoral?" What on earth could justify such a gross calumny? Tsar Nicholas II was a Christian gentleman, a devoted husband and father, a patriot who loved Russia and served it to the best of ability. The fact that he was in many ways ill-suited to the particular challenges that befell him, challenges which might have defeated any ruler, does not make him or his regime "grossly immoral." The Tsar along with his family was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as a "Passion Bearer" (someone who while not technically a "Martyr" met his death with piety and courage) and while not Orthodox myself I certainly regard him as a saint. While the murder of the children was particularly horrific, I strongly protest the insinuation that the murder of a divinely anointed sovereign and his consort was any less reprehensible. There is no justification for Regicide, or for abolishing monarchies, and every Russian government since March 1917 has been illegitimate whether it used capital punishment or not.

  6. As someone whose own father had to escape Communism (Czechoslovakia, 1969), your article ought to bring home the evils of Communism which even 20 years after its collapse are still with us today in more subtle and insidious forms. That there are still people who are apologetic for it makes me angry, as is the fact that modern Russia seemingly has not come to terms with it, in terms of repudiating its legacy and continuing to adhere to an officially dishonest version of history which causes great resentment among its neighbours.

    Hatred is too mild a word for me when referring to Communism and to the contemporary Left.

  7. Let's be honest though, the Tsar could have done more (far more) to stop Russia descending into revolution in the first place. They done nothing to stop the corruption and misery which had crippled Russia and her people.

  8. Extraordinary post. Yes, the Bolsheviks were right--Communism is an universal movement with the same immutable characteristics everywhere: where it takes root, the people perish.

    As a refugee from Cuba, I can attest that the greatest crime of Communism is what it does to the character of the people. The execrable Che Guevara promised a "New Man". And in Cuba, he has risen. These are the people who ask one other, "where do you steal?", rather than "where do you work?" In Cuba, all activity, whether by the government or by the people themselves is a permutation of theft. And you are so right, the new order was set on that July night.

  9. After reading "The Last Tsar", I believe that Tsar Nicholas II was not ever properly prepared to be a ruler. He was a gentle family loving man who was born into the wrong position. Both his parents were strong willed and cause him to become subservient in nature. He was a people pleaser and when his wife would give counter advise to other people that were advising him, he appeared to try to appease both sides. I also believe he went to the front not just to lead the forces, but to escape all of his "advisors". And the Tsarina was naive and surrounded herself with people who used her and politically endanged her family.

  10. A very nice and moving post! Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean with Tatiana being one of the most right-wing members of the Imperial family?


Related Posts with Thumbnails