Another hot July day, another revolutionary event. This one was far more in keeping with France’s hideous “Reign of Terror” than with America’s open Declaration of the reasons for rebellion. It was on this date, 16 July 1918, that the immediate members of the Imperial Family of Russia – The Romanovs – were exterminated.
In the central Russian town of Ekatrinaburg (City of Catherine The Great) agents of the Communist, Bolshevik power in Russia – fearing that they were losing the Civil War that arose in the aftermath of the fall of the Czar – carried out the merciless murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family. World War I was still raging unabated, and the West barely knew of what was taking place in Russia.
Nicholas and his family had been under house arrest since he had abdicated his throne on the Ides of March 1917 in the wake of a relatively bloodless, Republican/Socialist coup. The Russian Socialist Republican Government led by Aleksandr Kerensky were determined to keep the Czar and his family alive for two reasons: they wished to have negotiating power with other European nations after the War was concluded, and they considered the Czar innocent of corruption, though manifestly guilty of incompetence.
In November of 1917, the extreme radical faction of the Russian Socialists led by Vladimir Lenin (“Vladimir” means “world conqueror”) overthrew the Kerensky Government and instituted the “Soviet Union”, a union of socialist states formed “voluntarily” from the former limbs of the Russian Empire. This first Communist state in the world was tenuous at best, and the government was fearful of the power that still resided in the Imperial Czarist family. They therefore moved the family from Saint Petersburg to Ekatrinaburg in central Russia. They were lodged in the house of a local merchant, the Ipatiev house. Comfortable, to be sure, but no mansion, far less a palace.
A violent Civil War broke out in June of 1918 between the Bolsheviks (The Reds) and the royalists/moderates (The Whites.) In July, the White Russians were closing in on Ekatrinaburg and would likely be able to liberate and perhaps reinstate the Czar. Of course that was unthinkable to the Communists. So they hatched a simple, obvious plan: kill all the Romanovs.
On the night of 16 July 1918, the Imperial Family were gathered together under the pretext of having a photograph taken. The photograph, it was explained, was to assure the world that the Romanovs were alive and well. The Family, roused in the middle of the night, were relived to learn the reason.
They gathered in the cellar of that unimposing house in that unimposing central Russian city, and they posed. And they waited. They were arranged in two lines “for the picture” by two of their guards. Then the guards withdrew.
Suddenly, six or eight men burst into the cellar with machine guns. They enfiladed the posed family without hesitation. Nicholas, so often portrayed as weak or cowardly, threw himself over his son Alexei. But the family was butchered all the same. No one could have survived that hail of automatic weapons fire, and – just to be certain – the killers fell upon the bullet-riddled bodies with bayonets, stabbing anyone who moved or twitched.
The Last Czar and his family were no more; Imperial Russia was dead. But the enlightened, progressive, and humane Soviet state could never be seen as a party to such murder. That sort of brutality was outside of the philosophical belief of the Soviet Government. Thus for almost 75 years the murder was a secret: known to outsiders, but unproven. In July of 1977, the Communist Party of The Soviet Union decided to completely erase the traces of Ekatrinaburg and ordered the complete destruction of the Ipatiev House.
This order to attempt to erase history was resisted by the local Communist Party apparatchiks. They did not wish to take part. However the Siberian-born First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Region finally yielded to the pressure from Moscow. Thus Boris Yeltsin, later famed for his resistance to the attempted Coup of 1991, and later President of Russia, managed the bulldozing and removal of the Ipatiev house and its details. Many years later Yeltsin acknowledged, “… sooner or later we will be ashamed of this piece of barbarism.”
No one was allowed to confirm the death of the Czar and his family, and no one was permitted to spread the word to the West. This unproven status led to the propagation of the Anastasia myth. But in 1992, Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters were conclusively identified using DNA matching techniques. Two of the Romanov offspring were not identified, however: Anastasia and Alexei.
Some believed that Alexei and Anastatia escaped, fled to the West. Some in Russia dream of the restoration of the Romanovs in some constitutional form. Several men and women have claimed to be the missing Romanovs or their children.
Myths still abound.
But in 2007, a group of amateur detectives found another cache of bones not far from where the original remains had been located. In April of 2008, it was announced that DNA testing performed by two separate laboratories in the United States had confirmed the remains as Maria and Alexei; this result was confirmed almost a year later by a Russian analysis. An Austrian study further confirmed the identification. It is now known that Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra, their four daughters and their son all definitely died in the bloody hecatomb in the cellar of the Iaptiev house. After 90 years, the Russian prosecutors officially closed this case.
Flower Mound, Texas
One man with a gun can control 100 without one.
— Vladimir Lenin
The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Robert K. Massie; Random House, 1995: ISBN: 394580486
Massie, who also wrote the powerful and informative Nicholas And Alexandra (Atheneum, 1967), which was a book of enormous impact when it was first published, delved into the final discovery and identification of the Romanov remains after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He discusses DNA evidence (HRH The Duke Of Edinburgh supplied a blood sample to assist with the identification) and other forensic data in a most informative and engaging way. A must.
The Escape Of Alexei: What Happened The Night The Romanov Family Was Executed, Vadim Petrov, Igor Lysenko, and Georgy Egorov; Harry N. Abrams, 1998: ISBN: 0810932776
A controversial account (it was lambasted by the Russian critics when it was published there in 1997) of the supposed survival of Alexei after the hecatomb of Ekatrinaburg. A Few current photographs of some folks who do indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to the 1918 Romanovs, plus some rather unconvincing special pleading for us to accept the authors identification of “the last Romanov Heirs” fail to convince. But there is good discussion of the events on 16 July 1918.
Russia Under Western Eyes: From The Bronze Horseman To The Lenin Mausoleum, Martin Malia; The Belknap Press, Harvard Press, 1999: ISBN: 0674781201
A nice survey of Western views of Russian from Peter the Great to the Fall of Communism.
Also worth looking into are Bruce Lincoln’s In War’s Dark Shadow (The Dial Press, 1983: ISBN: 0385274092) and Edward Crankshaw’s The shadow Of The Winter Palace (Viking, 1976: ISBN: 0670637823.) Of special interest is The Last Tsar, by Edvard Radzinsky; Doubleday, 1992: ISBN: 0385423713, a gripping account of Nicholas II’s last months.