Romanovs Part 4: The Winter of 1917 to 1918

The Romanovs are in Tobolsk, in a remote part of Siberia. They aren’t allowed to walk about the town on their own and are usually confined to a fenced-off portion next to the house. They are allowed to venture under guard to church, though.

Nicholas II with his five children on the roof of the Tobolsk house
Because Tobolsk was so remote, it took a few weeks for the news of the Bolshevik coup to reach them–especially since it was winter and the river nearby was frozen. According to Sydney Gibbes, the childrens’ English tutor, Nicholas was “depressed” after hearing the news of the Communist uprising. If he had any sense that he and his family’s safety was in danger, we don’t really know. Nicholas’s diary from 1917 has been published but it’s not particularly interesting or illuminating.

But just because the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Provisional Government didn’t mean they had total charge of Russia–there were factions that supported the tsar or at least the Provisional Government and they were gathering and fighting the communist forces.

Grand Duchess Olga chopping wood

Christmas came and went. 1918 began and with the deep Siberian cold, the Romanov children caught German measles, but it passed quickly. By March 1918, Lenin had negotiated a separate peace treaty–apart from the Allies–with the Germans in the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk, which Nicholas and Alexandra both thought was a terrible deal. 

The Treaty ceded a third of the Russian Empire’s European territories. But with their involvement in the war finished, Lenin could now turn his attention to fighting in the civil war that was going on.
And he turned his attention to the bored and cold Romanovs as well. 
The soldiers who’d been guarding the Romanovs in Tobolsk were replaced with new, more Bolshevik soldiers. The family and their servants were placed on soldiers’ rations–no more butter, coffee, or sugar at meals.
The tsar had been supporting his family and servants on his own money–money brought with them when they left Tsarkoye Selo–and the money was running out. The Bolshevik government in Moscow (the Bolsheviks changed capital cities from the Imperial capital of St. Petersburg to Moscow in March 1918) told them to cut the number of servants in half–everyone, except their doctors, would now have to live in the Tobolsk mansion with the family. 
            Nicholas and Alexei sawing wood in Tobolsk

They couldn’t go to church anymore. The tsar was forced to remove the epaulettes from the military uniforms he wore. 
After the Treaty was signed, the kaiser of Germany made inquiries about the Romanovs. He was, after all, Alexandra’s first cousin. There were more than a few plots going on among the royalists to rescue the Romanovs or help them escape, but they fizzled either because of a lack of organization, sabotage, corruption, or lack of funds.

Around this same time, a new commissioner from Moscow showed up in Tobolsk–his name was Vasily Yakovlev, he was a committed Bolshevik, and nobody knew anything about him. Dude was mysterious. Apparently, he was rather polite to the family, even calling them “Your Majesty,” “Your Highness”–then he got to the real point of his new appointment.

Vasily Yakovlev c. 1911

He was going to take Nicholas away, he said. Alexandra seemed to believe Nicholas would be put on trial in Moscow or that the new government needed Nicholas’ okay for the Treaty (which, like, no Alexandra. The Treaty is done. They overthrew you. They don’t need your approval anymore) and she refused to let her husband be taken alone. (I mean, he was alone during the abdication so I guess it makes sense? She was definitely like, “I don’t trust him to make good decisions on his own.”)

Some historians think Yakovlev was going to take Nicholas to stand trial and/or face a death squad in Moscow and/or move the entire family or just keep Nicholas and get the family out of Russia–the details are super sketchy.

But there was a problem with moving the entire family from Tobolsk. Alexei was ill. Supposedly–according to one of his doctors’ daughters, who was living across the street and was not ever allowed to visit the Romanovs, one day, Alexei took his sled–which he’d been using appropriately, outside, on a snow mountain the children had built in their little fenced-off bit of the outdoors before the new soldiers came and took down the snow mountain. Alexei took his sled, climbed the staircase, and rode the sled down the stairs, crashing into a door or a wall, triggering a massive internal hemorrhage.

Dr. Botkin’s daughter Tatiana Botkina is the only source for this story. Alexei’s parents’ diaries don’t mention a sledding accident. They only mention that Alexei had been coughing hard for a few days and the coughing might’ve triggered a hemorrhage in his groin, which swelled and was very painful. Alexei was in bed, moaning about death. It was his worst hemophilia attack in several years.

Yakovlev said he’d let the children and some of the servants stay in Tobolsk until Alexei could travel. But he must take Nicholas.

Alexandra chose to go with her husband, leaving Alexei in the care of his older sisters, tutors, and one of his doctors. In addition, Alexandra decided to take Grand Duchess Maria. Along with the royal party came Nicholas’s aide-de-camp, the cook, two valets, and Alexandra’s maid, along with Dr. Botkin. They left Tobolsk on April 26, 1918, destined for points unknown.

If Yakovlev had intended swiftness or stealth, he wasn’t getting it.

The tsar, tsarina, and their party leave Tobolsk. This photo was taken by the children’s tutor Sydney Gibbes.

4 thoughts on “Romanovs Part 4: The Winter of 1917 to 1918

  1. It was a hundred years ago last year. And although it feels like a long time ago sometimes, it's really not that long ago. They had cameras, even some movie cameras (there's footage of the Romanovs), and some sound recordings. Plus, the family was into taking pictures. I wonder if the pictures and the diaries that survive and everything are why the Romanovs still remain in our consciouness after a century?


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