Warning: bad stuff happens in this installment.
Nicholas II, Alexandra, Maria, and their servants are on their way to Tyumen to get on the railway. The fastest way to get to Moscow from Tyumen was to ride the train west, but that would take them through Yekaterinburg, a large city in the Urals, full of communists. The Ural Soviets were based in Yekaterinburg and they were baying for the Romanovs.
Yakovlev opted to take the railroad east to Omsk, there to transfer to a westbound train and bypass Yekaterinburg. But since Yakovlev’s intentions remain sketchy to this day, nobody actually knows if he intended to bring the family to Moscow or to escape to Japan or to do what actually happened:
The Omsk Soviet handed the Romanovs over to the Ural Soviet. Four days later, on April 30th, the Romanovs arrived in Yekaterinburg. After a thorough inspection–Maria wrote to her siblings back in Tobolsk that the soldiers rifled through everything even “the candy” and “the medicines.” (Romanov code for the family jewels, which they had brought with them to Tobolsk. It was their only portable form of currency. Back in Tobolsk, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia were busily sewing the rest of the jewels into corsets, underwear, hats, pillows, etc.)
The Romanovs were housed in Yekaterinburg’s finest house–the Ipatiev House, the home of an engineer. (Mr. Ipatiev having been kicked out two days before). A very tall fence was built around the house. The Ural Soviet, Bolsheviks, and Moscow referred to the house as “The House of Special Purpose.” Because that’s not ominous.
|Ipatiev House, Yekaterinburg|
The family was given four rooms upstairs. They had a small bit of yard to walk around in for a limited amount of time everyday. They weren’t allowed out of the house otherwise. The windows were nailed shut and whitewashed. Doors were taken down inside. A sentry was posted outside the bathroom. The guards wrote and drew crude and crass things on the bathroom wall, including things about Rasputin and the Empress. The family were only allowed to speak to each other in Russian. Their cameras were taken away. Guns were placed on the house’s roof.
Meanwhile, back in Tobolsk, a new commandant arrived. The children’s tutors wondered if it was a good idea to let the children join their parents in Yekaterinburg; some of the remaining servants were told that if they chose to follow the Romanovs when they left Tobolsk, they would be imprisoned or shot.
|Anastasia, Olga, Tatiana, and Alexei having tea in Tobolsk|
The family was separated for five weeks. In that time, they exchanged letters about other family members–the Dowager Empress and Nicholas’s sisters were in the Crimea with many other relatives. Nicholas’s brother Michael–the one who refused to be tsar–was imprisoned in Perm. Still other cousins were imprisoned in St. Petersburg and Alapayevsk in Siberia.
But the children wanted to reunite with the rest of the family, so in late May, they left Tobolsk by boat. They reached Tyumen for the train and arrived in Yekaterinburg on a rainy May 23rd.
|The last photo of Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Olga, on board
the steamer Rus, May 1918
The servants who accompanied them–including their tutors Gilliard and Gibbes–were not allowed to join the children as they were taken into the Ipatiev House. One of the tutors recalled watching the Grand Duchesses dragging their luggage while sinking down into the mud. Nagorny, Alexei’s sailor-nanny (who joined the family in the house), carried Alexei because the boy still couldn’t walk after his latest ordeal and tried to help the girls but was roughly pushed back by soldiers.
Their luggage and their persons were inspected thoroughly upon entry at the house–after that, Alexandra forbade her daughters from ever removing their corsets–but the family was apparently happy to be reunited. Still, their treatment kept worsening: their food grew more basic; when nuns and cleaning women came to the house, they were not allowed to converse; eventually, by late June, newspapers stopped being delivered.
In early July, the family received a new commandant, Yakov Yurovsky.
In his diary, Nicholas wrote: “This specimen we like the least of all.”
One of Alexei’s doctors had followed the family to Yekaterinburg, but lived in a different house. He’d been allowed in and out to treat Alexei. Yurovsky curtailed those visits.
Nagorny disappeared. Yurovsky told the family Nagorny had been “transferred out of the jurisdiction,” likely because the sailor spoke up against the treatment the guards inflicted on the family. Nagorny cleaned the crude writings and cartoons off the bathroom walls because he didn’t want the kids exposed to that kind of stuff. He complained that Alexei’s gold cross had been snatched by one of the guards, too. Nagorny was shot on July 6, 1918.
Unknown to the family, on June 13, 1918, Grand Duke Michael–Nicholas’s brother–was shot and killed in the woods outside Perm along with his secretary Nicholas Johnson. Their bodies have never been found.
Yurovsky was in contact with Sverdlov, the Bolshevik in Moscow in charge of Romanov problems. With a definite okay from Sverdlov–and maybe from Lenin himself–and with the White Russian Army (White Russians being the anti-communist though not necessarily pro-royal forces) nearing Yekaterinburg, Yurovsky decided to execute the Romanovs and the four servants who lived in the Ipatiev House with them.
|Dr. Yevgeny Botkin|
During their time in Yekaterinburg, letters had been planted, written in French, supposedly from an ally to the family, wanting to know details of the house because they were going to come and rescue them. Alexandra evidently believed in the letters’ veracity; Nicholas a little less so. It looks like Olga wrote the responses in French. Historians think these letters were planted by their guards to trap the family in a fake rescue plot.
In the meantime, the German ambassador was asking after them. The British consul requested to be allowed to visit the family; he was denied. The Spanish king was also making inquiries. The Swedish king was asking questions.
Around midnight on July 17, 1918, Yurovsky found Dr. Botkin up late writing a letter and ordered him to wake everyone up. The White Army was approaching. It wasn’t safe. They were going to be moved. Everyone get up, get dressed. Come downstairs to the basement. Yurovsky was going to bring a truck around.
They obeyed. The eleven prisoners of the House of Special Purpose got downstairs to the dim basement room. It was the middle of the night. Alexandra asked for chairs to be brought. Two were. Alexandra sat in one. Nicholas, who’d carried Alexei down, sat his son in the other. Yurovsky wanted them to stay in a formation because he was going to snap a photograph before they left.
Yurovsky had organized his men. Those who balked at killing women were dismissed. He assigned each man a particular victim and told them to shoot the victim in the heart. He wanted this execution to be efficient and not too bloody.
|Ivan Kharitonov, the cook|
Yurovsky left the room. He returned with eleven or twelve other men, some of them drunk, and read: “Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”
Nicholas had been facing his family, but turned around and exclaimed, “What? What?”
Yurovsky read the statement again, raised his gun, and shot Nicholas in the chest. Everyone else started shooting then, too, most of them at the former tsar. Nicholas died first.
Alexandra was shot through the head and also died quickly. Later testimony from the killers revealed that Alexandra and Olga tried to make signs of the crosses before the shooting began. Maria ran for the locked double doors in the back of the room, which led to a storeroom, and she was wounded in the thigh.
The shooters kept shooting in every direction, over each other’s shoulders. Bullets ricocheted everywhere. Smoke filled the room. One of the men went outside and came back in, telling them that the screams and gunshots could be heard on the street outside and this was supposed to be a secret execution. They let the smoke clear, but the victims moaned and all of the children were still alive.
|Alexei Trupp, footman|
The men proceeded with bayonets, but the bayonets didn’t penetrate through the girls’ clothes. They were wearing jewel-filled corsets. Bullets bounced off of them. Alexei, a few weeks away from his 14th birthday, was still in his chair, unable to walk, in shock, or on the floor clutching his father’s coat–accounts vary–but he was shot in the head and killed by Yurovsky.
Maria, 19, and Anastasia, 17, were crouched against the wall, arms over their heads. They were stabbed, then shot. Olga, 22, was shot through the head. Tatiana, 21, was also shot through the back of the head by Yurovsky.
Anna Demidova, Alexandra’s maid, put up a fight. She’d survived the first volley of shots and held a pillow filled with diamonds which she used to fight off bayonets. But she weakened and she was stabbed to death.
The bodies were wrapped in sheets and taken out to the idling truck. One of the girls moved or screamed while they did that–nobody is for sure which daughter it was–and she was hit with rifle butts until she stilled.
A message was sent to Moscow that “the family has suffered the same fate as its head.”
Their lives may have ended, but the Romanov story was not at an end.