Written by: Sophia Halverson
It’s been 101 years since the collapse of the last Russian dynasty, and yet the word ‘Romanov’ still conjures up fantasies of incredible wealth-from the Winter Palace, with its more than a thousand rooms, summer palaces in the Crimea, cathedrals filled with icons, and mysterious Amber Room that went missing after World War II. The opulence of their palaces are a reflection of the people who ran it: the illustrious Romanov family, who ruled Russia for three hundred years before their dynasty was brought to a sudden and bloody end. It is the last royal family that the world seems to remember best: Tsar Nicholas II; his wife, Alexandra; their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia; and their son Alexei. While their murders-albeit extremely bloody-were seen as the closing of the Russian Revolution, the implications of it run much deeper and are still being felt today, as Russia struggles to come to terms with its past.
It’s fascinating to read about the daily lives of the royal family and realize just how relatively normal they were, in the center of all the luxury that defined them. They had lessons and did homework just like every other student-but they also knew how to speak four different languages. They were devoutly religious, often going to church four or five times a week. They loved visiting with friends and members of their extended family. They went sledding in the winter and played tennis and swam in the summer. They were prolific writers, with some of their diaries and personal correspondence still available to the public. They were interested in the lives of ordinary people, often making Christmas presents for their servants and treating them as an extended part of the family.
Through their deaths, history has made the Romanov sisters more important now than they were when they were alive. Back then they were simply grand duchesses, orbiting around their little brother Alexei, who was the sun upon which their entire existence revolved-whereas now, they’ve been the subjects of numerous books, movies, and even a Broadway musical. The shadow of ever present death dogged Alexei’s steps ever since he was a baby and first showed signs of having hemophilia; as he grew up he was frustrated by the limits of his physical condition, which often caused him immense pain and nearly killed him several times. This in turn rattled Tsarina Alexandra, whose entire life became devoted to looking after her son, and Tsar Nicholas, who realized that his heir was not as strong as he had hoped he would be. While their reign was riddled with conflict and poor decisions, at the heart of it they were a family willing to do anything to protect their only son.
However, they were also in charge of one of the world’s greatest empires. Their ignorance and isolation from their subjects left them ill equipped to deal with the challenges of World War I and left them blind to just how much a constitutional monarchy was needed. When Nicholas abdicated on behalf of himself and his sick son, he never imagined that his brother Mikhail (or Misha, as his family knew him) would refuse to take the throne. No one did; everyone knew that Russia wasn’t ready to not have a Tsar in any sense of the word. Within only a few years, as a result of poor decisions and a frustrated citizenry, the autocracy had collapsed and the entire family was dead. This leap from incredible power to being shot to death in a nondescript basement has fascinated people for a century, perhaps explaining why there are so many theories that at least one of the children could have survived.
Romanov imposters have been around since the 1920s, the most famous of which, Anna Anderson, claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia for nearly sixty years. They have claimed to be all of the children, though Anastasia is by far the most popular. There are books upon books imagining a world in which one or more of the Romanovs survived. There’s even a popular Disney movie and corresponding musical. For all of the analyzation that’s gone into the historical aspects of the revolution, the tale of the Romanovs usually stops there-though conspiracy theories and alternative histories continue to fascinate the public. Is there truly any way they could have survived? Is there really a Romanov fortune in the Bank of England waiting for a legitimate heir to claim it? And, perhaps more importantly, what happened to the bodies? Far from ending in 1918, the family’s story spans nearly a hundred years more, from a decades long coverup to a Russian forest in 2007.
By the spring of 1918, the Romanov family had been a thorn in the Bolsheviks’ side for nearly seven months. The family had spent the last six months in the provincial town of Tobolsk in Siberia, where the President of the Provisional Government Alexander Kerensky had sent them for their own safety. However, now the Bolsheviks were in and the provisional government was out, and the Bolsheviks harbored virulent anti-Tsarist views. Many influential members of the party were clamoring for the Tsar’s public trial and execution in Moscow, but Lenin and other high ranking party members hesitated for fear of disdain from the international community. The royal family was widely ignored while the Bolsheviks negotiated the treaty of Brest-Litovsk to allow Russia to withdraw from World War I, but in the wake of rising monarchist resentment and rumors of an uprising, they once again had center stage in party politics.
Eventually Lenin’s hands were tied. Pressure from fellow contemporaries to kill the Tsar had grown and he could no longer guarantee the Romanovs’ safety. To that end, he was forced to surrender the family to the Ural Regional Soviet in Ekaterinburg, who wanted the Tsar dead. While he did not give his explicit permission to orchestrate an assassination, he did say that he would sign off on an execution should the need arise. To that end, the Soviet’s appointed revolutionary Yakov Yurovsky to oversee the killing of the family at the newly outfitted Ipatiev house. The objective was to keep the Tsar and his family out of the hands of the liberating White Army, who could use them to mount a resistance and try to put a Romanov back on the throne. As the White Army drew closer and closer to Ekaterinburg, time was of the essence.
It’s unclear exactly what the family knew or suspected about their upcoming executions. They were remarkably calm during their imprisonment and seemed to be happy to be together – even if they were prisoners. They had expressed wishes to stay in their homeland and die together, and Nicholas and Alexandra had refused many offers from friends in other countries to get them out, believing that they had no reason to leave their home. In the last few days before the execution the family seemed resigned, leading many to believe that they suspected something – but it is doubtful they expected what actually happened, or that the Tsar and Tsaritsa believed that the Bolsheviks would harm their children. If they had known that, they would likely have tried harder to at least get their children to a different part of Europe. What is clear however is that if they had known they were all going to die, they would have expected to die together and would have taken comfort in that fact.
Almost from the beginning, everything that could go wrong with the execution plan did go wrong. Yurovsky picked out a team of people to assassinate the Tsar and his family, their maid Anna Demidova, the family doctor Evgeny Botkin, their cook Kharitonov and their valet Trupp – one assassin for every victim. However, a couple of the would-be assassins backed out once they realized that they would be expected to kill the grand duchesses, leaving the squad understaffed. The execution itself was botched as well; although everyone had their own target, as soon as Yurovsky opened fire on the Tsar, everyone else started shooting at their former ruler. In the ensuing chaos and musket fire it was impossible to see, much less figure out who was alive and who was dead. Several of the girls had to be bayoneted to death, as the jewels they’d sewn into their corsets in the attempt of an escape repelled most of the bullets. One of the family dogs, Anastasia’s Jemmy, managed to slip past Bolshevik guards and loyally followed the family down into the cellar; in all the commotion, his head was smashed in with a rifle butt. Within twenty minutes all nine of them were dead – and their bodies wouldn’t be discovered for another fifty years.
Originally, Yurovsky had hoped to throw the bodies down a mineshaft in a nearby forest he’d scouted out a few days before. However, the last few days had been heavy with rain, and the wheels of the trucks he’d brought for the bodies slipped and slid in the mud. Soon, it broke down. The bodies were taken from the truck and stripped naked, their clothing burnt and jewelry looted. However, they soon realized that the mineshaft was too shallow to accommodate everyone. Yurovsky had to go back to the drawing board and make a new plan.
The bodies were finally doused with acid, burnt and buried in two separate places to protect the fiction that one or more of them may have survived the killing and managed to escape, giving rise to a wave of impersonators. The Bolsheviks were adamant that no one ever find out what had happened to the Romanovs, for fear that it would reflect poorly on the Bolsheviks’ already tenuous grip on power. And indeed, the royal family weren’t the only Romanovs being slaughtered. All over the country other relatives were being forced into exile, sometimes even killed. Grand Duke Mikhail was shot and killed by the Cheka in Perm; his widow and son barely managed to flee the country. The Tsarina’s sister, Ella, along with two of her nephews, were placed in a mineshaft and then hit with a grenade. Grand Duke Constatine, the Tsar’s uncle, was also killed along with several of his sons. The Tsar’s mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodrovna; and her two daughters, Olga and Xenia; managed to escape from the Crimea on behalf of an intercession by Maria’s sister Alex, mother of King George VI of England. They established a thriving emigree community abroad, together with the members of their family who managed to survive and other members of the Russian autocracy who had been forced out of their home country. Within a month the world seemed to accept that the Tsar and his family were dead; candlelight vigils were held around the world, even though Lenin’s government continued to insist that nothing had happened. They would continue to repress this bloody episode of their history until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
The first group of bodies (the Tsar, his wife, three daughters and four servants) were first discovered in the 1970s by a group of amateur archaeologists, who were forbidden by the government to disclose their findings once they realized that the place and age of the bones, along with personal effects found nearby, could be related to the lost Romanovs. It wasn’t until 1991 that the bodies were fully exhumed, examined and finally subjected to early DNA testing. There were two primary investigations: one based in England, and one based in the United States. They had very little to work with; any bits of clothing that might have been left had long since been disintegrated and none of the skeletons were complete. Certain identifying markers had been buried, intentionally or not – Evegeny Botkin’s glass eye, the Tsar’s belt buckle. After looking at samples of mitochondrial DNA and matching them with relatives both living and dead-Prince Philip’s DNA matched the Tsarina’s, who was originally a granddaughter of Queen Victoria; DNA from the Tsar’s brother and father matched the DNA found in his remains. The daughters were identified primarily through the growth of their bones, most of which hadn’t yet fully developed. There was no doubt that these were the bones of the last Tsar and his family and servants. However, the scientists couldn’t agree on which one of the daughters remained unaccounted for. It was widely accepted by the scientific community that Maria’s body was missing, along with her brother Alexei. However, some scientists continued to believe the missing skeleton was Anastasia’s, since the two girls were so close in age and their skeletons were so similar. This lent credence to the conspiracy theories that one of the girls, especially Anastasia, could have made it out alive. DNA testing could finally put some of the most persistent Anastasia conspiracy theories to bed. The DNA of long time impersonator Anna Anderson didn’t match that of the grand duchess; instead she was revealed to be a Polish factory working named Franziska Schwankowska who was injured in an accident at a munitions factory.
In 1998, the bodies of the royal family that had been found were finally reburied in the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg-the traditional last resting place of the Romanov dynasty.
When the last two bodies were found nearly a decade later, the Romanov fervor was still as strong as ever – aided by a popular Disney movie and subsequent Broadway musical. The last Tsar and his family were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church and their bones became holy relics. The Church on the Blood had become a famous pilgrimage site, both for the faithful and those who wished to pay their respects to a fallen family.
Maria and Alexei’s bodies were found not far from where the original bodies had been exhumed, and they were confirmed by DNA testing with 99% certainty. However, the Church refused to allow the bodies to be reinterred with the rest of their family, giving the flimsy excuse that they had to know with absolute certainty that the bodies were legitimate since they would become holy artifacts. The bodies were kept in an office building in Moscow until 2015, where they were re-examined. It is not clear if or when they will ever be reburied with their parents and sisters. The family which was once so close remains scattered in death, even more than a century later. It is unclear exactly what political factors are at play behind this decision, for it seems a needless one. Perhaps as Russia continues to reconcile its historical culture with its Soviet past there will be a place for a full reeinternment of the entire family.
But in the chaos and political fighting and maneuvering that would happen later, it was the five children who paid the ultimate price.
The Russian Revolution was a time filled with unimaginable blood and violence, but somehow it is the execution of the Romanov children that has left a lasting impression, reminding us that the blood spilled during war is often that of the innocent.
Olga, who was the most thoughtful and introspective.
Tatiana, the withdrawn “Governess” who looked after her mother and siblings.
Maria, the sweetheart with irresistible blue eyes who dreamed someday of marrying a soldier.
Anastasia, the prankster who could make her family laugh even in the doldrums of exile.
Alexei, who wanted more than anything to be able to play like a normal boy.
I believe their story needs to be told and retold, all the way through, so that people realize that it isn’t fully at an end. The bodies have all been found, but they have not all been recognized. Until they can all be interred together, their story can’t really come to a close and the legacy of the Ipatiev house remains. If Russia truly wants to move forward from their Soviet past, they need to acknowledge its turbulent beginnings. In their 300 years of rule, the Romanovs were kind and cruel and enlightened and despotic, but they helped build Russia and make it into the cultural powerhouse that it is today.
This feeds into the culture of repression that characterized both the Soviet regime and the modern Russian government today. For years Russians weren’t allowed to talk about or even learn about their own history, especially the autocracy. Although the country has become more open in the decades since the fall of Communism, plenty of cultural constraints remain-from the virulently anti-LGBT camps in Chechnya to continuing conflict with the Ukraine. This can even be extrapolated to the decision not to reenter the family altogether, as in some ways it is just another way to keep the past at a distance. This inability to listen to history and try to reconcile the past with the future could explain Russia’s seeming inability to move forward.
For more information on the lives and deaths of the Romanov family, the author of the article recommends The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, The Romanov Sisters, and The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport; Alix and Nicky, by Virginia Rounding; Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert K Massie; The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming; The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution, Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters 1913-1918 and 1913 Diary of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna compiled by Helen Azar and Amanda Madru; and The Fall of the Romanovs by Mark D Steinberg and Vladimir M Krustalev for copies of primary sources.