In Yekaterinburg, Russia, Czar Nicholas II and his family are executed by the Bolsheviks, bringing an end to the three-century-old Romanov dynasty.
Crowned in 1896, Nicholas was neither trained nor inclined to rule, which did not help the autocracy he sought to preserve among a people desperate for change. The disastrous outcome of the Russo-Japanese War led to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which ended only after Nicholas approved a representative assembly–the Duma–and promised constitutional reforms. The czar soon retracted these concessions and repeatedly dissolved the Duma when it opposed him, contributing to the growing public support for the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups. In 1914, Nicholas led his country into another costly war—World War I—that Russia was ill-prepared to win. Discontent grew as food became scarce, soldiers became war weary and devastating defeats at the hands of Germany demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Russia under Nicholas.
In March 1917, revolution broke out on the streets of Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and Nicholas was forced to abdicate his throne later that month. That November, the radical socialist Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power in Russia from the provisional government, sued for peace with the Central Powers and set about establishing the world’s first communist state. Civil war broke out in Russia in June 1918, and in July the anti-Bolshevik “White” Russian forces advanced on Yekaterinburg, where Nicholas and his family were located, during a campaign against the Bolshevik forces. Local authorities were ordered to prevent a rescue of the Romanovs, and after a secret meeting of the Yekaterinburg Soviet, a death sentence was passed on the imperial family.
READ MORE: Why the Romanov Family’s Fate Was Kept Secret
Late on the night of July 16, Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children and four servants were ordered to dress quickly and go down to the cellar of the house in which they were being held. There, the family and servants were arranged in two rows for a photograph they were told was being taken to quell rumors that they had escaped. Suddenly, a dozen armed men burst into the room and gunned down the imperial family in a hail of gunfire. Those who were still breathing when the smoked cleared were stabbed to death.
The remains of Nicholas, Alexandra and three of their children were excavated in a forest near Yekaterinburg in 1991 and positively identified two years later using DNA fingerprinting. The Crown Prince Alexei and one Romanov daughter were not accounted for, fueling the persistent legend that Anastasia, the youngest Romanov daughter, had survived the execution of her family. Of the several “Anastasias” that surfaced in Europe in the decade after the Russian Revolution, Anna Anderson, who died in the United States in 1984, was the most convincing. In 1994, however, scientists used DNA to prove that Anna Anderson was not the czar’s daughter but a Polish woman named Franziska Schanzkowska.
READ MORE: The Romanov Family Tree: Real Descendants and Wannabes
At the end of the February Revolution, on 2nd March 1917, Nicholas II reluctantly signed his abdication, agreeing that by not doing so he would have caused Russian civil war, and led to possible invasion from progressing German forces.
For all his faults and shortcomings as Tsar, Nicholas is said to have held himself with remarkable calm and dignity in the initial days of his abdication: a time that must have been personally devastating and humiliating. The pity he expressed was for the end of a dynasty, and for the loss of the throne for his son Alexei. In front of guards, servants, soldiers, and other members of his household, he stood upright, addressed them with an assured if somewhat wavering voice, and excused himself before becoming too overcome with emotion. Behind closed doors with his wife Alexandra and mother Minny, he wept quietly.
Indeed, reading his letters around this time and reports on his conversations, there was certainly a sadness there, but you can’t help but notice a tinge of relief. No longer did he have to concern himself with squabbling ministers, a parliament clamoring for change, and his own family nagging him to set things right. No longer did he have to try and show interest and dedication in a world he felt divinely appointed but not personally up for.
The new government that had formed after his abdication did so with a strong conservative twang. This was not the communist regime quite yet, but a mixture of compromising royalists and socialists who all agreed Nicholas II had to go, and a more parliamentary system had to be introduced with a different ruler at the helm (one with less baggage, i.e. without Alexandra and other mystic holy men calling the shots). Nicholas abdicated not only for himself but also his sickly son Alexei, realising the boy ruler would likely not live long enough to rule. That meant Nicholas’ brother Michael II was named successor, and the bewildered man gawped as ministers bowed to him suddenly and declared him sovereign. Michael had never wanted the throne, and had done much throughout his life to try and ensure he would never succeed, recognising himself that his hemophiliac nephew Alexei was unlikely to live in to adulthood.
But 24 hours after bowing and declaring him sovereign, the confused and bickering government was presenting him with a pen and his own abdication to sign, demanding that he do so for his own safety, which Michael did. It was this act that officially ended the Romanov dynasty of 304 years.
Nicholas and his family considered the Crimea for retirement, where the former tsar hoped to live out his days as a normal man, but this was hopelessly naive. He was advised to flee Russia before it was too late, but much like during his rule, he initially dithered and didn’t take these warnings seriously. Those around him had warned him for years of a coming revolution, and now it was here, they continued to warn him that he could not stay in the country and live long — he had to go abroad.
It was arranged for the family to seek refuge in England, with King George V happy to offer his extended family Balmoral Castle as a residence, and the British government believing they couldn’t possibly refuse. And though George wavered and appalling tried to back out of the deal later, ultimately it did not matter: on 20th March 1917 Nicholas and his family were formerly arrested and forced to remain in their residence in Tsarskoe Selo. Their chance to escape was gone.
This was a tense point in Russia’s new government. It is worth remembering that while Russia was overthrowing a 300 year royal family and installing a new political system with conflicting ideals, they were still fighting and losing a war, and still struggling to cope with the food shortages.
It was arranged for the Romanovs to be sent to Tobolsk in Siberia for their safety, where they remained under guard while various sympathisers secretly plotted their rescue. In October 1917, the Bolshevik faction overthrew the makeshift provisional government (the October Revolution), and Lenin headed back to Russia to assume control. Up until that point, the Romanovs had enjoyed friendly banter with guards, relative freedoms around the estate, and did not feel at danger. This was not a million miles away from Nicholas’ dreams of retirement. While technically under house arrest, it still felt like this was for their own safety. But within a few months of the Bolsheviks seizing power, the friendly and sympathetic guards were replaced, and the family began to feel very much like the prisoners they were, being reminded as such at any given moment. Their budget was cut, they had to give up servants and luxuries, and as tension built, the girls began to sew diamonds in to their underwear to stop them being pilfered.
Alexandra in particular seemed resigned to her fate already, writing to a friend back in the capital that she was ready to join ‘Our Friend’ (the murdered Rasputin) once more, and that she was not afraid of death.
The Devastating True Story of the Romanov Family's Execution
The Russian Royal Family was executed and buried in July 1918. So why does Vladimir Putin keep bringing up the bodies?
At about 1 a.m. on July 17, 1918, in a fortified mansion in the town of Ekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, the Romanovs&mdashex-tsar Nicholas II, ex-tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and their four remaining servants, including the loyal family doctor, Eugene Botkin&mdashwere awoken by their Bolshevik captors and told they must dress and gather their belongings for a swift nocturnal departure.
The White armies, which supported the tsar, were approaching the prisoners could already hear the boom of the big guns. They gathered in the cellar of the mansion, standing together almost as if they were posing for a family portrait. Alexandra, who was sick, asked for a chair, and Nicholas asked for another one for his only son, 13-year-old Alexei. Two were brought down. They waited there until, suddenly, 11 or 12 heavily armed men filed ominously into the room.
What happened next&mdashthe slaughter of the family and servants&mdashwas one of the seminal events of the 20th century, a wanton massacre that shocked the world and still inspires a terrible fascination today. A 300-year-old imperial dynasty, one marked by periods of glorious achievement as well as staggering hubris and ineptitude, was swiftly brought to an end. But while the Romanovs' political reign was over, the story of the line's last ruler and his family was most certainly not.
For the better part of the 20th century the bodies of the victims lay in two unmarked graves, the locations of which were kept secret by Soviet leaders. In 1979 amateur historians discovered the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters (Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia). In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the graves were reopened and the identities of the interred confirmed by DNA testing. In a ceremony in 1998 attended by Russian president Boris Yeltsin and 50 or so Romanov relatives, the remains were reburied in the family crypt in St. Petersburg. When the partial remains of two skeletons believed to be the remaining Romanov children, Alexei and Maria, were found in 2007 and similarly tested, most people assumed they would be reburied there as well.
Most of the family was still alive, wounded, crying and terrified, their suffering made worse by the fact that they were in effect wearing bulletproof vests.
Instead, events took a strange turn. Even though both sets of remains were identified by teams of top international scientists, who compared recovered DNA to samples from living Romanov relatives, members of the Russian Orthodox Church questioned the validity of the findings. More research was needed, they claimed. Rather than rebury Alexei and Maria, the authorities stored them in a box in a state archive until 2015 and then turned them over to the church for further examination.
Last fall the official state investigation of the tsar's murder was reopened, and Nicholas and Alexandra were exhumed, as was Nicholas's father, Alexander III. Since then there have been conflicting reports from government and church officials on when, or if, the entire Romanov family will be reburied and reunited, even if only in death.
Had Nicholas II died after the first 10 years of his reign (he came to power in 1894), he would have been regarded as a moderately successful emperor. Ultimately, though, his well-intentioned but weak personality&mdashwhich also comprised duplicity, obstinacy, and delusion&mdashcontributed to the disasters that befell the dynasty and Russia.
He was handsome and blue-eyed but diminutive and hardly majestic, and his looks and immaculate manners concealed an astonishing arrogance, contempt for the educated political classes, vicious anti-Semitism, and an unshakable belief in his right to rule as a sacred autocrat. He was jealous of his ministers, and he possessed the unfortunate ability to make himself utterly distrusted by his own government.
His marriage to Princess Alexandra of Hesse only exacerbated these qualities. Theirs was a love match, which was unusual for the times, but both Nicholas's father and Alexandra's grandmother, Queen Victoria of England, regarded her as too unstable to succeed as empress. She brought to the relationship paranoia, mystical fanaticism, and a vindictive and steely will. Also, through no fault of her own, she brought the "royal disease" (hemophilia) into the family and passed it to her son, the imperial heir, Tsarevich Alexei, undermining the power of the family and distorting their interests.
The personal inadequacies of Nicholas and Alexandra led them both to seek support and advice from Grigori Rasputin, a holy man whose notorious sexual promiscuity, hard drinking, and corrupt and inept political machinations in their name further isolated the couple from the government and people of Russia.
Princess Alexandra brought to the relationship paranoia, mystical fanaticism, and a vindictive and steely will.
The crisis of World War I placed the fragile regime under intolerable stress. In February 1917, Nicholas II lost control of protests in St. Petersburg (which had been renamed Petrograd during the war to sound less German) and was soon forced to abdicate, replaced by a republic under a provisional government.
The 1998 reburial of the Romanovs was a solemn state event meant to showcase the Russian nation's reconciliation with its past. In a televised procession, soldiers in dress uniform carried coffins down a red carpet, past Romanov descendants and assembled dignitaries, and into the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. President Yeltsin, a former Communist Party leader, told those gathered that the lesson of the 20th century was that political change must never again be enforced by violence.
Priests from the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church offered blessings, but, notably, the patriarch of the church was not in attendance. At that time the Orthodox Church, which had been an intrinsic part of the Romanov system of rule, was reestablishing itself as a national power. Many members of its hierarchy resented the fact that the burial ceremony had been directed almost entirely by Yeltsin's secular political agenda to promote a liberal democratic Russia.
A decade later scientists announced that the two bodies found in the second grave were Alexei and Maria. This time the church publicly objected to the findings of the "foreign experts" (many members of the forensic teams were American) and even questioned the earlier identifications of Nicholas and the others. The church had canonized the family in 2000, which meant that any physical remains were now holy relics. It was essential, the church maintained, that it have a role in making sure the bodies were correctly identified.
Yeltsin had resigned the presidency of the Russian Federation in 1999 and handed over power to a little-known ex-KGB colonel named Vladimir Putin. The young leader regarded the fall of the USSR as "the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century," and as soon as he took office he started centralizing power, reining in foreign influences and promoting a combination of nationalism, Orthodox faith, and aggressive foreign policy. It was an effective approach that, ironically, could have been taken from any number of Romanov tsars' playbooks.
Putin was no closet royalist, but he was an admirer of the autocracy perfected by the Romanovs. Though born under Soviet communism, he had a pragmatist's understanding of history, in particular the fact that the most forceful leaders of Russia, from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great to Joseph Stalin, had managed to personify the essence of not just the state but the Russian soul, and Russia's uniqueness in world history. Like the first Romanov rulers, Putin came to power during a time of troubles, and like his forebears he set about restoring the power of the state and the persona of its ruler.
Rejecting the findings of the international scientists was, of course, a power grab by the newly emboldened church, and it was supported by the growing anti-Western sentiment promoted by the Kremlin and shared by much of Russian society. By agreeing to the church's conditions, Putin was appeasing an important ally. But the move also reflected conspiracy theories (which often had anti-Semitic undercurrents) spreading among ultranationalists about the remains. One was that Lenin and his henchmen, many of whom were Jewish, had demanded that the heads of the saintly Romanovs be brought to Moscow as a sort of diabolical Hebraic-Bolshevik tribute. Was this the reason for the shattered state of the bones? Were these bones really the Romanovs? Or had someone escaped?
Putin was no closet royalist, but he was an admirer of the autocracy perfected by the Romanovs.
These questions might seem easy to dismiss, but there is long-established tradition in Russia of murdered royals suddenly reappearing. During the Time of Troubles, in the 17th century, there were not one but three impostor, known as the False Dmitris, who claimed to be Prince Dmitri, last son of Ivan the Terrible. And after 1918 more than 100 imposters claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia.
At first, during the spring of 1917, the ex-imperial family was allowed to live in relative comfort at a favorite residence, the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, not far from Petrograd. Nicholas's cousin, King George V of England, offered him sanctuary, but then changed his mind and withdrew the offer. It was not the finest moment for the House of Windsor, but it is unlikely that it made any difference. The window of opportunity was short demands for the ex-tsar to stand trial were growing.
Alexander Kerensky, first justice minister and then prime minister of the provisional government, moved the royals to the governor's mansion in Tobolsk, in distant Siberia, to keep them safe. Their stay there was bearable but depressing. Boredom turned to danger when Kerensky was overthrown by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in October 1917. Lenin famously said that "revolutions are meaningless without firing squads," and he was soon considering, along with lieutenant Yakov Sverdlov, whether to place Nicholas on public trial&mdashto be followed by his execution&mdashor just kill the entire family.
The Bolsheviks faced a desperate civil war against the Whites, counterrevolutionary armies backed by Western powers. Lenin responded with unbridled terror. He decided to move the family from Tobolsk closer to Moscow, to which he had relocated the Russian capital. A trusted Bolshevik factotum was dispatched to bring the Romanovs westward, and in April 1918 they endured a terrifying trip by train and carriage.
The teenage Alexei suffered an attack of bleeding and had to be left behind he came to Ekaterinburg three weeks later with three of his sisters. The girls, meanwhile, were sexually molested on the train. But eventually the family was reunited in the gloomy, walled mansion of a merchant named Ipatiev in the center of the city, whose leaders were the most fanatical of Bolsheviks.
The mansion was ominously renamed the House of Special Purpose and converted into a prison fortress with painted-over windows, fortified walls and machine gun nests. The Romanovs received limited rations and were watched by hostile young guards. Yet the family adapted. Nicholas read books aloud in the evening and tried to exercise. The eldest daughter, Olga, became depressed, but the playful and spirited younger girls, especially the beautiful Maria and the mischievous Anastasia, began to interact with the guards. Maria began an illicit romance with one of them, and the guards discussed helping the girls escape. When this was uncovered by Bolshevik boss Filipp Goloshchekin, the guards were changed, regulations were tightened. All of this made Lenin even more anxious.
There is long-established tradition in Russia of murdered royals suddenly reappearing.
By the beginning of July 1918 it was clear that Ekaterinburg was going to fall to the Whites. Goloshchekin rushed to Moscow to get Lenin's approval, and it is certain that he got it, though Lenin was clever enough not to put the order on paper: The killing was planned under the new commandant of the House of Special Purpose, Yakov Yurovsky, who decided to recruit a squad to murder the royals all together in one session and then burn the bodies and bury them in the woods nearby. Just about every detail of the plan was ill conceived and would be grotesquely bungled in practice.
Early on that July morning, the bleary-eyed Romanovs and their loyal retainers stood in the cellar as the heavily armed murder squad filed into the room. Yurovsky suddenly read out a death sentence. Then the men used their weapons. Each was meant to fire at a different family member, but many of them secretly wished to avoid shooting the girls, so they all aimed at the loathed Nicholas and Alexandra, killing them almost instantly.
The firing was wild the killers managed to wound one another as the room filled with swirling dust and smoke and screams. When the first volley was done, most of the family was still alive, wounded, crying and terrified, their suffering made worse by the fact that they were in effect wearing bulletproof vests.
The Romanovs were famed for their collection of jewelry, and they had left Petrograd with a large cache of diamonds hidden their baggage. During the last months they had sewn the diamonds into specially made underwear in case they needed to fund an escape. On the night of the execution the children had pulled on this secretly bejeweled underwear, which was reinforced with the hardest material in existence. Tragically, ironically, the bullets bounced off these garments. Finally the murderers waded into the gruesome scene of wounded, bleeding children (one of the killers compared it to a slippery ice rink awash with blood and brains) and stabbed them manically with bayonets or shot them in the head.
The mayhem lasted 20 agonizing minutes. When the bodies were being carried out, two of the girls turned out to still be alive, spluttering and coughing before being stabbed into silence. This was surely the origin ofthe legend that Anastasia, the youngest daughter, had survived, a story that inspired so many impostors to impersonate the murdered grand duchess.
Now that the deed was done, drunken assassins and Bolshevik thugs argued about who was to move the bodies and where. They mocked the deceased royals, pillaged their treasures, and then failed to conceal or bury them. Eventually the bodies were piled into a truck, which soon broke down. Out in the woods, where the Romanovs were stripped naked and their clothing burned, it turned out that the mineshafts that had been selected to receive the bodies were too shallow. In a panic Yurovsky improvised a new plan, leaving the bodies and rushing into Ekaterinburg for supplies.
He spent three days and three nights, sleeplessly driving back and forth to the woods, collecting sulfuric acid and gasoline to destroy the bodies, which he finally decided to bury in separate places to confuse anyone who might find them. He was determined to obey his orders that "no one must ever know what had happened" to the Romanov family. He pummeled the bodies with rifle butts, doused them with sulfuric acid, and burned them with gasoline. Finally, he buried what was left in two graves.
Yurovsky and his killers later wrote detailed, boastful, and confused accounts for the Cheka, a precursor to the KGB. The reports were sequestered in the archives and never publicized, but during the 1970s renewed interest in the murder site led Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the KGB (and future leader of the USSR), to recommend that the House of Special Purpose be bulldozed.
Next year is the centennial of the Russian Revolution, and while the country will undoubtedly find many ways to mark the occasion, the unburied bones of its deposed ruling family present a dilemma. For a nation that aspires to regain its former influence and historic glory, coming to terms with complicated moments in its past is of paramount importance. But the protracted burial saga reflects issues that are universal and not easy to address.
Notions of birthright, bloodlines, and family power still have the ability to fascinate and resonate globally. Even though Britain, for example, is a constitutional monarchy in which the royal family has no power whatsoever, the E! channel is as obsessed with the elegant Duchess of Cambridge as with Taylor Swift and the Kardashians. And during the presidential election four years ago, a vocal "birther" movement tried to prove that Barack Obama did not have the right to be president of the U.S.
In 2015, the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, in conjunction with an investigation committee set up by Putin, ordered the retesting of all the bones. Nicholas II and his family were discreetly exhumed and their DNA compared with that of living relatives, including England's Prince Philip, one of whose grandmothers was the Romanov Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna. The tsar's DNA was also compared to that of his father, Alexander III, and grandfather Alexander II. (For the latter, scientists were able to use blood caked on a tunic the tsar was wearing when he was assassinated.)
There were also plans to test Alexandra's DNA against samples from the preserved body of her sister Ella, who was also killed by the Bolsheviks and whose body is now displayed in a glass case in a Russian church in Jerusalem. Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters were returned to their tomb, but Alexei and Maria remain unburied.
A year later there have been vague reports that the tests have been completed but no new announcements about a final burial. This might seem a strange process, but it reflects the opaque way power has always worked in Russia&mdashunder tsars, Bolsheviks, and now its contemporary leaders. The church certainly has its own agenda, but it has historically been an arm of the autocracy.
Most Kremlin observers agree that the final decision regarding the remains of the Romanovs will be Putin's. Somehow he has to reconcile the 1917 Revolution, the slaughter of 1918, and contemporary Russia. Will there be ceremonies to commemorate both? A reburial ritual with royal honors or a religious ceremony to revere saints? No one knows exactly how he will try to pull it off.
Members of the Russian public, particularly those who are either ultranationalists or Orthodox believers, are fascinated by the story of the Romanovs. And almost everybody is willing to embrace the tsars as part of Russia's magnificent past. Stalin promoted a few of them, such as Peter the Great, as rigorous reformers, but Putin's new textbooks present many as heroic leaders. So, even if there's little support for a restoration of the dynasty, there is huge enthusiasm for the restoration of the glory and prestige and power that the dynasty represented.
Putin's view of Russian history, fueled by his regular reading of historical biographies, is organized by success and achievement, not ideology.
One thing is certain: Putin's view of Russian history, fueled by his regular reading of historical biographies, is organized by success and achievement, not ideology. The country's great "tsars" were Stalin and Peter the Great, the disastrous ones Mikhail Gorbachev and Nicholas II. And, as he has told his entourage, unlike Gorbachev and the last Romanov tsar, "I'll never abdicate."
I recently completed a history of the Romanov dynasty, and I am often asked if I censored anything from the gruesome and sexually explicit materials I discovered in the archives of the family's three-century rule. The answer is yes, but only one once. As I was finishing the book, I left out the more horrid and brutal details of the family's murder in 1918. Whatever the fate of the bodies, whatever the future of Russia, however one regards the violent drama of Romanov rule, this remains the most heartbreaking and unbearable scene of them all.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian whose latest book is The Romanovs, 1613-1918.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Town & Country.
ROMANOV DYNASTY: A BRIEF HISTORY
The Romanov Dynasty also known as “The House of Romanov” was the second imperial dynasty (after the Rurik dynasty) to rule Russia. The Romanov family reigned from 1613 until the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on March 15, 1917, as a result of the Russian Revolution.
The direct male line of the Romanov family came to an end when Empress Elizabeth died in 1762. The House of Holstein-Gottorp, a branch of the House of Oldenburg, ascended the throne in 1762 with Peter III, a grandson of Peter the Great. Hence, all Russian monarchs from the mid-18th century to the Russian Revolution descended from that branch. In early 1917 the extended Romanov family had 65 members, 18 of whom were killed by the Bolsheviks. The remaining 47 members escaped abroad.
The last Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II, began his reign in the autumn of 1894, when as the second Russian emperor by that name and a direct descendant of Empress Catherine the Great, he ascended the throne. His accession occurred much sooner than anyone had expected. Nicholas’ father, Tsar Alexander III, died unexpectedly at the relatively young age of 49.
The Romanov family in mid-19th century: Tsar Alexander II, his Heir – the future Alexander III, and baby Nicholas, the future Tsar Nicholas II.
Events unfolded rapidly after the passing of Alexander III. The new Tsar, aged 26, quickly married his fiancé of several months Princess Alix of Hesse – the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. The couple knew each other from adolescence. They were even distantly related and had numerous relatives in common, being the niece and nephew of the Prince and Princess of Wales, from different sides of the family.
A contemporary artist’s depiction of the coronation of the new (and last) Romanov Dynasty Tsar – Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.
Upon joining the Romanov family by marriage, Princess Alix converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, as stipulated by canon law, and was renamed Alexandra Feodorovna. The new Russian Empress had grown up in a very different world: the quiet duchy of Hesse by Rhine, the youngest surviving daughter of its grand duke. When she was just a child of six, Alix lost her mother, an English princess and one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, who died of diphtheria at the age of 36. At the same time, Alix also lost her little sister and playmate from the same disease. The untimely deaths of the people closest to her greatly affected the little girl. Never again was she the sunny and carefree child she had been prior to the tragedy.
Alix was 12 years old when she first met the young Tsesarevich Nicholas Romanov, the heir to the Russian throne, when in 1884 she and her family traveled to Russia to attend the wedding of her older sister Elisabeth. Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, as she was now known, married one of Nicholas’s uncles, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich.
Young Nicholas II as Tsesarevich of Russia Princess Alix of Hesse as a child
In the nineteenth century, many members of the European royal families were closely related to each other. Queen Victoria was referred to as “the grandmother” of Europe” because her progeny were dispersed throughout the continent through the marriages of her numerous children. Along with her royal pedigree and improved diplomatic relations among the royal houses of Greece, Spain, Germany and Russia, Victoria’s descendants received something much less desirable: a tiny defect in a gene which regulates normal blood clotting and causes an incurable medical condition called hemophilia. In the late 19th and early 20th century, patients suffering from this disease could literally bleed to death. Even the most benign bruise or bump might prove fatal. The Queen of England’s own son Prince Leopold was a hemophiliac who died prematurely after a minor automobile accident.
The hemophilia gene was also passed on to Victoria’s male grandchildren and great-grandchildren through their mothers in royal houses of Spain and Germany. Alix’s own brother died of complications from hemophilia at the age of three when he suffered relatively minor injuries after accidentally falling out of a window.
But arguably the most tragic and significant effect of the hemophilia gene occurred in the ruling Romanov family of Russia. Empress Alexandra Fedorovna learned in 1904 that she was a carrier of hemophilia a few weeks after the birth of her precious son and heir to the Russian throne, Alexei.
Tsesarevich Alexei was the long awaited heir to the Romanov Dynasty
Because the Russian legal code contained a statute known as the semi-Salic law, only males could inherit the throne unless there were no dynastic males left. If Nicholas II did not have a son, the crown would pass to his younger brother Grand Duke Michale Alexandrovich (Mikhail). However, after 10 years of marriage and the births of four healthy grand duchesses, the long awaited son and heir was stricken by an incurable ailment. Not many subjects realized that their new Tsesarevich’s life often hung by a thread due to his deadly genetic inheritance. Alexei’s hemophilia remained a closely guarded secret of the Romanov family.
The Russian imperial family doted on the little boy he was understandably overprotected and inevitably spoiled. In 1912, when Alexei was 8 years old, he came as close to death as he ever would after a minor accident while the Romanov family was on one of their holidays in Poland. Alexei’s life was apparently saved by the intervention of a Siberian peasant named Grigori Rasputin. It was not the first time that Rasputin’s seemingly miraculous powers had been evoked. On this occasion, Rasputin had not even been present in Poland but had communicated via a telephone call from his own home in Siberia.
Little Tsesarevich Alexei, the Romanov Dynasty’s last heir to the throne
An obituary to announce the passing of the heir to the throne had already been prepared by the Romanov family , and the imperial doctors had all but given up on the seemingly dying boy. But amazingly, Alexei slowly recovered after Rasputin’s telephone call. Hence the man whom Alexei’s parents referred to as “Our Friend” and “Father Grigori” solidified his role as the savior of their beloved son, as well as the Romanov family’s own spiritual advisor whom they viewed as their liaison with God.
During the summer of 1913, the Romanov family celebrated their dynasty’s tercentennial. The dark “time of trouble” of 1905 seemed like a long forgotten and unpleasant dream. To celebrate, the entire Romanov family made a pilgrimage to ancient historical landmarks around the Moscow region, and the people cheered. Nicholas and Alexandra were once again convinced that their people loved them, and that their policies were on the right track.
It would have been difficult for anyone to imagine at this time that only four years after these days of glory, the Russian revolution would depose the Romanov family from its imperial throne and the three centuries of the Romanov Dynasty would come to an end. The Tsar who was cheered enthusiastically everywhere during the celebrations of 1913 would no longer rule Russia in 1917. Instead, the Romanov family would be under arrest and a little more than a year after that, they would be dead- murdered by their own people.
The four Romanov daughters: Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia
Numerous factors influenced the events that led to the sudden end of a three hundred year old Russian imperial dynasty, and it would be an oversimplification to try to pinpoint something specific that caused its downfall. Terrible losses during World War I, continuous rumors and a wide-spread belief that Rasputin was ruling Russia through his influence on the imperial couple, and some other factors, caused events to spiral out of control. The bloody, tragic climax came on the night of July 17, 1918, when a Bolshevik execution squad shot, bludgeoned and bayoneted the entire Romanov family to death.
It is difficult to say whether history would have been different for the last ruling Romanov family if the random nature of genetics emerged in favor of the baby boy who was destined to inherit Russia’s crown, and if he had been born as healthy as his sisters. Would historical outcome for Russia and the world have been any different? Clearly the nature of Tsesarevich Alexei’s medical condition contributed in many ways to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty. Their heir’s hemophilia was one of the main reasons why the Tsar and Tsarina isolated themselves in Tsarskoe Selo, trying their best to keep the heir’s condition secret not just from their subjects but even from the extended Romanov family members.
Alexei’s hemophilia was the principal cause of Tsarina Alexandra’s terrible anxieties and various physical ailments, real or imagined. These led her to avoid society, thus alienating the imperial Romanov family from their subjects. This uncharacteristic behavior was misinterpreted by Russia’s aristocratic upper class and antagonized all those who might have supported Nicholas and Alexandra during difficult times. The isolation of the ruling Romanov family fostered a climate of misunderstanding, frustration and ultimately flagrant resentment.
Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian peasant who some believe contributed the most to the fall of the Romanov Dynasty.
Perhaps if more people in Russia had known about Tsesarevich Alexei’s hemophilia, they would have been able to more fully comprehend the Romanov family’s strange attachment to Grigori Rasputin. A more sympathetic appreciation of the imperial family’s plight might have defused some of the suspicions and sinister innuendos arising from the close relationship of Alexandra, in particular, with the hated Siberian peasant. The degree of Rasputin’s influence, while certainly great, was in fact, exaggerated. But often perception is reality.
There is no denying that Tsesarevich Alexei’s hemophilia was the principal reason why Grigori Rasputin came into the lives of the Romanov family in the first place. This Siberian peasant inadvertently but significantly contributed to discrediting Nicholas II as a ruler among his subjects during a major war, which led to his abdication and to his and the eventual death of the imperial Romanov family.
The story of the last reigning Romanov family continues to fascinate scholars as well as Russian history buffs. In it there is something for everyone: a great royal romance between a handsome young tsar- the ruler of one eighth of the entire world- and a beautiful German princess who gave up her strong Lutheran faith and life as she knew it, for love. There were their beautiful children: four lovely daughters, and a long awaited baby boy born with a fatal disease from which he could die at any given moment. There was the controversial “muzhik” – a peasant who seemed to have wormed his way into the imperial palace, and who was seen to have a corrupt and immoral influence on the Romanov family: the Tsar, the Empress and even their children. There was even an unlikely simpleton, or in some people’s opinion a cunning “best friend” to the Empress. This was Anna Vyrubova, who allegedly manipulated the Empress and even the Emperor behind the scenes, in league with the immoral peasant who pretended to be a “holy” man.
Empress Alexandra with Anna Vyrubova, a close friend of the Romanov family.
There were political assassinations of the powerful, shootings of the innocent, partisan intrigues, worker strikes, mass uprisings and a world war a murder, a revolution and a bloody civil war. And finally there was regicide – the secret execution in the middle of the night of the last ruling Romanov family, their servants, even their pets in the cellar of the “House of Special Purpose” in the heart of Russia’s Urals.
For many years there were no bodies to prove that these deaths actually occurred. For more than a half a century of Soviet rule, the lack of detailed information surrounding the fate of the murdered Romanov family gave rise to numerous rumors of conspiracies and various survivors, not just in Russia but also in the West. There were those who periodically surfaced claiming to be various Romanov family members – one imperial daughter or another, the former heir, or even the Tsar himself. There were movies, cartoons and books based on the alleged survival of the most famous of all imperial daughters – the Grand Duchess Anastasia, which helped reignite interest in the last imperial Romanov family in the 21st century.
The Romanov family: Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra with Tsesarevich Alexei on her lap, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.
The eventual discovery and scientific identification of the Romanov family’s remains in Ekaterinburg should have put to rest all the conspiracy theories and fairy tales about the final fate of the lst Tsar and his family. But astonishingly the controversy continued, not least of all because the Russian Orthodox Church, along with one of the branches of the surviving extended Romanov family, refused to accept the definitive scientific results which proved that the remains found near Ekaterinburg indeed belonged to the murdered members of the last ruling Romanov family. Fortunately, reason prevailed and the remains were finally interred in the Romanov family crypt, where they belonged.
The Romanov family crypt which contains the remains of the last Russian Tsar and his family.
Throughout most of 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, Alexei, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia were held captive by the Bolsheviks.
After Nicholas II had been overthrown in the Russian Revolution, the Romanov family along with a small entourage of servants had been moved from place to place as their captors decided what to do with them.
Transported from where they had enjoyed relative comfort in Tobolsk, their final destination was to be the harsher conditions of Ipatiev House codenamed “The House of Special Purpose’ on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg.
Ipatiev House in 1918 [Image Credit: Wikipedia] Owned by local mining engineer Nikolai Ipatiev, the windows of the late 19 th Century villa were painted black so that family was held in darkness for much of the time.
The perimeter of the residence was fortified with large walls and Bolshevik soldiers guarded the house and grounds.
In total, the Romanov family would spend 76 days there, held against their will.
Four Sisters: The untold story of the doomed Romanov girls
In a guest article, award-winning historian, Helen Rappaport, discussses her new work, Four Sisters, a reappraisal of the lives of the four Romanov daughters executed along with their parents and brother by Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution of 1917 - 1918.
On 17 July 1918 Russia’s last Imperial Family – Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexey – were all brutally murdered in Ekaterinburg, Western Siberia. It is an event that has gone down in history as one of the most infamous acts of the Russian Revolution, an act that initiated a period of turmoil, terror and murder as Russia descended into a bitter civil war between the new Bolshevik government and the remnants of the old order.
In the ensuing years since 1918 much has been written in the West about this tragic family, but most of the published work on the Romanov family till now has focused on the two flawed monarchs, Nicholas and Alexandra, their love story and their horrifying demise – a fall from power that was a great deal of their own making. Interest too has generally focused on their only son and heir, Alexei, the longed-for boy whose life was blighted by the curse of haemophilia, passed unknowingly to him by his mother Alexandra.
In the midst of so much tragedy too often the four lovely and devoted sisters who were also caught up in this story have been relegated to a minor role. But it was they, in fact, who were the mainstay and support of their frequently sick mother and ailing brother, as well as an unquestioning loyal back-up to their father the tsar. There is no doubt how much they adored Nicholas and he them. But the four Romanov sisters also had a profound attachment to each other and to the close friends and retainers who served them. In many words, theirs is a story of quiet devotion behind the scenes that too often has been overlooked.
For too long history has consigned Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanova to a subsidiary role.
For too long history has consigned Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanova to a subsidiary role – as the pretty, uncontroversial and interchangeable backdrop to the much bigger story of their parents and brother. Four Sisters, is an attempt to change the public perception of the Romanov sisters who till now were portrayed as a boring and bland collective, whose lives offer little of interest.
Exploring the stories of the four sisters against the backdrop of the private, domestic life of the Romanov family has unearthed a wide range of fascinating and revealing new material that sheds light on the four very different personalities of the daughters of the tsar – their hopes, dreams, aspirations, not too mention their disappointments in love – which in turn illuminate the dynamic of this family’s till now untold private life.
July 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the murder of the Romanov sisters. The Russian Orthodox Church abroad canonised them along with their parents in 1981 after the fall of communism ten years later they began appearing with increasing regularity in a proliferation of new icons that can now be seen in churches across Russia.
These four beautiful young women in their white lace dresses and big picture hats have long also been immortalised in the hundreds of photographs of the Romanov family preserved in family albums in the State archives. But both incarnations present an idealised version of these women. At heart, they were very down to earth and much more rounded and engaging. Four Sisters presents an unvarnished account of their story and seeks to restore them to their central role in the life of Russia’s last Imperial Family.
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Abdicating the throne
By the 1910s, Czar Nicholas and his wife had already become incredibly unpopular in their own country. Nicholas's reportedly "weak" personality, arrogance, and his failure to lead the Russian army to success in various wars had led his government to dislike and distrust him. By the time World War I began and millions of Russian men (and trains, and food supplies) were shipped off to the frontlines, the country was under extreme distress.
Nicholas II abdicated the throne, ending the 300-year period of Romanov family rule.
Meanwhile, Nicholas's wife, Czarina Alexandra, had befriended a Russian mystic named Grigori Rasputin. Believing Rasputin possessed the ability to heal her only son and the heir to the Russian throne of his hemophilia (a condition that prevents blood from clotting properly), the czarina placed great trust in him and granted him unprecedented access to the family's affairs. This gave Rasputin, a noted promiscuous and corrupt drunk, exceptional influence over Alexandra and her husband &mdash something that neither the government nor the public was pleased with.
And so, tensions grew and protests erupted before the Romanov family ultimately lost control of the growing revolution in 1917. On March 15 of that year, Czar Nicholas abdicated the throne, ending the more than 300-year period of Romanov family rule. A provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky took power immediately.
ROMANOV FAMILY AND RASPUTIN
Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin is a magnetic specter in the drama that is Russian history, for the peasant mystic from Pokrovskoe played a defining role in the last days of the Romanov Dynasty. In 1905, the fateful meeting took place. Rasputin requested—and was granted— an audience with the Romanov family at Peterhof, where he presented them with a hand-painted wooden icon of Saint Simeon, a venerated Siberian saint dear to Rasputin’s own heart. He soon became a trusted advisor and confidante to Emperor Nicholas II and Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna Alexandra in particular was convinced that the “staretz” was a gift to her from God Almighty, sent to ease her passage through life as the “Little Mother of Russia,” and especially to preserve the precious life of her only son, the Heir, Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich.
Impressed as Nicholas II and Alexandra were with the “Russian peasant,” members of the extended Romanov family, sensing that something was not quite right, were less than pleased with the Tsaritsa’s ever-increasing reliance on his counsel. She credited his prayers with saving Alexei’s life on more than one occasion, and she taught her children to view Rasputin as their “Friend.” Nicholas II’s sister, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, strongly disapproved of this familiarity, especially after learning from governess Sofia Ivanovna Tyutcheva—who was fired by the Tsaritsa for her troubles—that Rasputin was granted access to the nursery when the four grand duchesses were in their nightgowns: “…the attitude of Alix and the children to that sinister Grigory (whom they consider to be almost a saint, when in fact he’s only a Khlyst!) He’s always there, going to the nursery… he sits there talking to them and caressing them. They are careful to hide him from Sofia Ivanovna, and the children don’t dare talk to her about him. It’s all quite unbelievable and beyond understanding” (Maylunas, Andrei, and Mironenko, Sergei, A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story 330). The girls’ youthful favorite aunt, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, met Rasputin in 1907—she was taken to the nursery by her brother the Emperor, where Rasputin was with the children, who were clad only in nightgowns. “All the children seemed to like him,” the seemingly skeptical Olga Alexandrovna recalled. “They were completely at ease with him” (Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra 199).
The Romanov family posing with Rasputin: Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the grand duchesses and the Tsesarevich usually met with Grigory Yefimovich at the house of a friend as opposed to the Alexander Palace.
If the Imperial children were at ease with Rasputin, few others were. In 1910, one of their nurses, one Maria Ivanovna Vishnyakova claimed that the “Holy Man” had raped her, but the Tsaritsa refused to believe the woman’s story. Supposedly, Vishnyakova’s allegations were investigated, but little came of it, as her credibility was damaged when she was caught in bed with a Cossack of the Imperial Guard, (Radzinsky, Edvard. 139) and three years later, she was dismissed from her post.
Grand Duchesses Militsa and Anastasia of Montenegro, who initially introduced Rasputin to the Romanov family
The following year, 1911, things got even worse when the Montenegrin sisters, Grand Duchesses Militsa and Anastasia, wives to Grand Dukes Peter and Nicholas Nikolaevich, learned that Rasputin was engaging in illicit liaisons with various St. Petersburg women, and they went to Tsarskoe Selo to warn the Tsaritsa. Alexandra, however, refused to believe that the “staretz” was anything but holy. Then, the Inspector of the Theological Academy, Bishop Theophan, who had until then been impressed by Rasputin’s apparent faith, began hearing confessions from the women who had been with Rasputin. He too went to the Tsaritsa and warned her that the peasant from Pokrovskoe was something less than sanctified. Alexandra heeded her former confessor’s advice and sent for Rasputin, demanding an explanation, but he feigned surprise and professed his innocence. Bishop Theophan was then sent away to the Crimea for daring to speak against Rasputin.
Next, the Metropolitan Anthony attempted to speak to Nicholas II himself, but the Emperor too was not open to listen he insisted that the Church was not to concern itself with the private interests of his family, but the Metropolitan informed him that “…this is not merely a Romanov family affair, but the affair of all Russia. The Tsarevich is not only your son, but our future sovereign and belongs to all Russia” (Massie 209). Perhaps Anthony could have been a voice of reason, a saving grace, but soon after this conversation, he fell ill and died.
The powder keg exploded when Rasputin boasted to a monk named Iliodor that he had kissed Tsaritsa Alexandra. Iliodor did not believe him, but then Rasputin showed him various letters written by Alexandra and her children (three years later, these letters went public and were viewed as “evidence that Rasputin and Alexandra were lovers). Iliodor was shocked, and he kindly encouraged Rasputin to mend his ways—until it came to light that Rasputin had attempted to rape a nun. When the charges became known, Nicholas and Alexandra (the latter still professing the innocence of the “Holy Man”) were forced to distance themselves, and Rasputin fell out of favor in aristocratic circles.
Grigory Rasputin was considered to be by many the “evil genius” who contributed to the Russian revolution and downfall of the Romanov dynasty
It would be a year before Rasputin would reenter the lives of the Romanov family. In October of 1912, the Imperial couple and their children were on retreat at Spala, the traditional hunting lodge of the Polish kings. It had been two weeks since hemophiliac eight year old Tsesarevich Alexei had gone rowing, falling in the boat and bruising the upper part of his left thigh, Dr. Botkin, the court physician, had ordered that the Heir stay in bed. A week later, the pain and swelling were much diminished, and the incident was over. Or so everyone thought.
Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich
During his recovery from the fall in the boat, Alexei began French lessons with Swiss tutor Pierre Gilliard. Gilliard was as yet unaware of the precise nature of the Tsesarevich’s ailment, but he certainly knew that the boy was not healthy. He recalled that he “looked… ill from the outset. Soon he had to take to his bed… I was struck by his lack of color and the fact that he was carried as if he could not walk” (Massie 182).
Alexandra, thinking that a little fresh air and sunlight might revive her son, then made the catastrophic decision to take the Tsesarevich for a carriage ride. Alexei began to complain of severe pain in his leg and abdomen. Alarmed, his mother ordered the driver to return to the hunting lodge however, they were several miles from the villa, and the sandy road was rutted and uneven. It wasn’t long before Alexei began to cry out at every jolt and lurch of the carriage Alexandra, in terror by now, first implored the driver to hurry, and then to proceed slowly and with caution. Her companion, Anna Vyrubova, who had accompanied the Tsaritsa and her son on their outing, described the return trip as “…an experience in horror. Every movement of the carriage, every rough place in the road, caused the child the most exquisite torture and by the time we reached home, the boy was almost unconscious with pain” (Massie 182).
Dr Evgeny Botkin, the Romanov family physician
Alexei’s father, Nicholas II, wrote that “The days between the 6 th and the 10 th were the worst. The poor darling suffered intensely, the pain came in spasms and recurred every quarter of an hour. His high temperature made him delirious night and day and he would sit up in bed and every movement brought on the pain again. He hardly slept at all, had not even the strength to cry, and kept repeating, ‘Oh, Lord, have mercy upon me” (Massie 182). There was, however, no mercy in sight—for days, Alexei’s cries and screams echoed through the hunting lodge halls. He begged his mother, “Mama, help me. Won’t you help me?” (Massie 183). His pleas were for naught: there was nothing for the Tsaritsa to do but pray. She too had no rest she could only look on helplessly as “Baby” continued to suffer.
Nicholas and Alexandra were certain their son was dying. Indeed, Alexei himself would have welcomed death: “When I am dead, it will not hurt anymore, will it, Mama?” he asked (Massie 183). His mother, although she never gave up hope for a miraculous healing, was forced to live with the knowledge that it was she who had passed the curse of hemophilia on to her beloved child.
Alexei’s disease was a state secret, and circumstances were precarious: the hold of the Romanov Dynasty on the throne of Russia was tenuous at best, and the Tsaritsa was an unpopular consort who would certainly have been blamed for her faulty bloodline it was determined that it could not be publically acknowledged that the heir—the only heir—was so afflicted as to be unlikely to see his twentieth year. There were rumors, of course, and speculation, but the true nature of his disease was rarely, if ever, disclosed.
Due to his disorder, Tsesarevich Alexei was often forced to get around in a wheelchair. Not many outside of the immediate Romanov family were aware of the exact nature of his illness.
In spite of the publicity machine’s efforts to keep this dark secret a secret, reports began to surface that something terrible had happened to the Tsesarevich. Gossip flew through St. Petersburg society, and it was only after the doctors warned the distraught parents that the continuing hemorrhage in Alexei’s abdomen could end his life at any moment that bulletins were released to update the public, but even then, the cause of the hemorrhage was not revealed. Still, all of Russia began to pray for the boy expected to be their Emperor. When it seemed clear that the end was imminent, Alexei received the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, and a news bulletin sent to the capital was phrased in such a manner that a following notice could make the dreaded announcement that the Heir had expired.
In desperation and at the end of her rope, Alexandra Feodorovna turned to her one remaining hope: Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. She bid Anna Vyrubova to send a telegraph to Grigory’s home in Pokrovskoe, entreating him to pray for the Tsesarevich. The prophetic reply was immediate: “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die.” One day later, the hemorrhaging ceased.
After Spala: Tsesarevich Alexei, with his careworn mother, Empress Alexandra by his side.
From that moment on, the position of Grigory Rasputin within the closed circle of the Romanov family was firmly cemented. Rumors of his debauchery continued to swirl, so much so that at times—much to his wife’s displeasure—Nicholas had no choice but to keep him at arm’s length. Alexandra continued to believe that the “staretz” was a living saint, even when the director of the national police informed her that an inebriated Rasputin had exposed himself in public and announced to the patrons of a crowded restaurant that Nicholas allowed him to have sex with his wife whenever he pleased. Alexandra wasn’t the only target, though—it was whispered that Rasputin had also seduced the grand duchesses. “Saints are always calumniated,” she insisted. “He is hated because we love him” (Denton, C.S. Absolute Power 577). Nicholas capitulated to Alexandra’s wishes because he felt he had no other option: after all, Rasputin had the ability to ease Alexei’s suffering and keep the boy alive. Gilliard wrote in his memoirs that, tragically, “Nicholas did not like to send Rasputin away, for if Alexei died, in the eyes of the mother, he would have been the murderer of his own son” (Gilliard, Pierre. Thirteen Years at the Russian Court).
Russian caricature of Emperor Nicholas II, Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna, and Grigory Rasputin
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 was the beginning of the end for Rasputin, as well as for the Romanovs. Rasputin begged the Emperor—who mistakenly believed that Germany would never simultaneously attack Russia, France, and England—to stay out of the conflict. “If Russia goes to war,” he told Nicholas, “It will be the end of the monarchy, of the Romanovs and of Russian institutions” (Alexandrov, Victor. The End of the Romanovs 155). This time, though, Nicholas II did not heed Rasputin’s advice, and his decision proved to be a fatal one.
The war was disastrous for Russia. Everyone expected it to be over quickly, but a year later, the battle raged on, and more than a million Russian soldiers were killed. The people blamed the already-hated Tsaritsa, believing her to be a spy for Germany, the country of her birth, especially after Nicholas took command of the armies. His decision to do so was certainly influenced by his wife and Rasputin, who firmly supported him, but the consequences of this action were calamitous. Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, wife of the Emperor’s deceased uncle, Grand Duke Vladmir Alexandrovich, was a vocal opponent of Alexandra, whom she and many others feared would be the supreme ruler of the country in place of her husband.
Gilliard wrote that “…her (Alexandra’s) desires were interpreted by Rasputin, they seemed in her eyes to have the sanction and authority of a revelation.” According to historian Greg King, Rasputin’s influence over the Tsaritsa was such that he manipulated her and the destiny of Russia, while Nicholas executed her will at Rasputin’s behest. Then, a politician by the name of Vladimir Purishkevich became a voice of dissent within in the government. He stood before the Duma and stated that “The Tsar’s ministers who have been transformed into marionettes, marionettes whose threads have been taken firmly in hand by Rasputin and the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna—the evil genius of Russia and the Tsarina… who has remained a German on the Russian throne… an illiterate moujik (peasant) shall govern Russia no longer. While Rasputin is alive, we cannot win” (Radzinsky 434). Much of Russia concurred.
Prince Felix Yusupov, married to Nicholas II’s niece, one of the conspirators to kill Rasputin Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II and a co-conspirator to kill Rasputin. Rasputin himself allegedly predicted that he will be killed by the members of the extended Romanov family.
Prince Felix Yusupov, husband to the Emperor’s only niece, Princess Irina Alexandrovna, was inspired by Purishkevich’s speech. Yusupov conspired with Purishkevich and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, Nicholas’s cousin the three agreed to put an end to Rasputin once and for all.
Yusupov, familiar with Rasputin’s history of womanizing, invited the “Holy Man” back to his family’s palace on the pretense that he would be introduced to the very beautiful Princess Irina. From here on out, though, the details are murky. Yusupov wrote in his memoirs that he plied Rasputin with tea and petits fours, which were laced with cyanide. Soon, Rasputin was quite drunk, and Yusupov, with Grand Duke Dmitri’s revolver, shot the “Mad Monk” point blank—the bullet entered his chest and exited his body on the right side (Nelipa, Margarita. The Murder of Grigory Rasputin: A Conspiracy That Brought Down the Russian Empire 309). Rasputin fell, but did not die. He attempted to escape, but Purishkevich shot him four more times, after which he fell in the snow outside the door. Although the wounds were mortal, Yusupov wanted to be sure, so he shot Rasputin once more, this time in the head. Finally, the conspirators wrapped the corpse, drove it to the Malaya Nevka River, and tossed it over a bridge railing into a hole in the ice.
Artist’s depiction of Rasputin’s final moments at the Yusupov mansion.
Rasputin was dead—there could be no doubt, for the murderers had botched the disposal of his body, and he was found washed up on the shore by the Petrograd police—but the spectre of their “Holy Man” would continue to haunt the Romanov family until they were themselves murdered in 1918. Felix and Dmitri claimed they had acted to preserve the dignity of the Romanov Dynasty, but their violent deed perhaps too little, too late. Russia plunged headlong into revolution, and with that, the Empire was swept away forever.