Romanovs Part 3: House Arrest and Tobolsk

Last time on the Romanovs

Nicholas II, former Tsar of all the Russias, has abdicated and finally arrives home to the Alexander Palace.

The Alexander Palace, main home of Nicholas II and his family
By Alexei Troshin.

Nicholas returned home to be placed under house arrest.
No longer the tsar, he was addressed as “Colonel Romanov” or
“Citizen Romanov.”

Nicholas II in 1917, during house arrest

There were guards stationed all over the palace, though the family was allowed to live fairly normally–the children’s tutors had stayed on, so they were kept busy–there were still servants around–but their movements were restricted. Alexandra could not sit on her balcony. After a while, her visits to church were curtailed.

On the advice of her friend Lil Dehn, who was in the palace with the family, Alexandra had been burning her diaries and some of her correspondence, especially her letters with her father and brother, since the Provisional Government was suspicious that Alexandra was pro-German and had been committing treason against Russia.

Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, really wanted to get the family out of Russia–the Provisional Government was not a stable entity, since there were others in Russia vying for power, like the Petrograd Soviet. Plus, Russia was still fighting in the World War.

Both Nicholas and Alexandra favored England if they had to go into exile–King George V was a first cousin to both Nicholas (George’s mother was Nicholas’s mother’s sister) and Alexandra (George’s father King Edward was Alexandra’s mother’s brother). At first, England was like, “Yeah, we can take them.” But as Kerensky wrote in his memoirs:

But in specific English circles, especially among the liberals and laborites, the intention of the British government to offer hospitality to the former Russian Tsar was met very coldly… 

Nicholas II and George V pre-WWI

At the time, in the midst of a bloody war, George V was anxious about his own throne. Incidentally, the United States was the first country to recognize the Provisional Government of Russia. The Americans also entered World War One on the Allied side in April of 1917, just after Nicholas’s abdication. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence.

The tsar and tsarina were formally placed under arrest, but calls for them to be moved to a prison or to stand trial got louder and louder as time went on.

During this house arrest, the girls’ hair started falling out in clumps as they recovered from measles, so the girls shaved their heads. In solidarity, Alexei has his head shaved as well. Reportedly, their mother almost fainted at the sight of her bald children.

As the weather warmed, the family was allowed to walk in their palace park, though not as free-range royals. Reportedly, people would gather at the locked and guarded gates of the palace complex to stare at their former royal family and jeer at them. They were allowed to start a vegetable garden on the grounds.

Of course, this new captive life was hard for the children to understand. For one thing, one of Alexei’s sailor nannies, Derevenko, went over to the other side during the Revolution, but not before sitting in Alexei’s bedroom and ordering the kid around and yelling at him until one of the tutors put a stop to it. And this from a man Alexei had known all of his life, who had carried him around and took care of him when he was ill and played with him. The confusion and betrayal must have been enormous.

And still, the Provisional Government was not stable–and especially so after April 1917, when Vladimir Lenin returned to St. Petersburg in a sealed train car. In July, there was an unsuccessful Bolshevik uprising and it grew clearer to Kerensky that he couldn’t keep the Imperial family safe in Tsarkoye Selo.

England didn’t want them. France didn’t want them. The family, barring exile in England, wanted to travel south to the Crimea, where they had a summer palace and where quite a lot of Romanovs had gathered.

But Kerensky told them to pack warm clothes and in August 1917, with a retinue of a few servants, the Romanovs left the Alexander Palace and boarded a train flying a Japanese Red Cross flag. Why the train didn’t keep rolling until it hit Vladivostock so they could get into China or Japan is one of those “what if?” moments in Romanov history.

Instead, the train stopped four days later in Tyumen, in Siberia.

They were going to a town called Tobolsk, which didn’t have direct access to the TransSiberian Railroad, so everyone transferred to a boat to make the journey from Tyumen to Tobolsk.

Tobolsk was, at least, remote–and not yet Bolshevik.

The Tobolsk governor’s mansion in 1920

 The family was given the Tobolsk governor’s mansion to live in. It wasn’t big enough for all the servants, so the servants lived in the house across the street. The side street next to the governor’s mansion was fenced off and the Imperial family was allowed to walk in that space.

Inside, they sewed, played games, read the newspaper–anything to stave off boredom. The girls liked to look out the window and see ordinary citizens of Tobolsk going about their business. Lessons continued. The girls put on plays.

In October 1917, Russia had another revolution–the October Revolution, where the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government, forcing Alexander Kerensky to flee the country.

Russia was still in chaos. They were still fighting in the world war. A bunch of communist radicals had just taken over the country.

And the former Imperial family was stashed away in Siberia, heavily guarded, under house arrest, with a very uncertain future.

4 thoughts on “Romanovs Part 3: House Arrest and Tobolsk

  1. It almost sounds like things could get better from here. Yet, knowing what happens cast an ominous glow over everything. I forgot I was reading a blog post for a moment. It felt like I was reading a tour pamphlet or something. 🙂


  2. That's the thing with the Romanovs in this particular part of their lives–things could've gone so many ways. They could've been sent out of the country. They could've been sent into hiding. If anyone got their shit together, maybe an escape could've been organized.


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