THE LAST ROMANOVS:
A STORY STILL BEING TOLD
One of the enduring mysteries of the 20th
Century has finally been solved and its closing chapters have scholars of
Russian history reaching for their pens once more, commenting on the new information
that has come to light since the collapse of the
Throughout the long years of Communist rule,
the Romanovs were a taboo subject, but the whispered fascination never
completely died away. One of those who
never forgot was Ekaterinburg native Alexander Avdonin, a Russian geologist who
grew up in the shadow of the infamous Ipatiev House and, through word of mouth,
began to learn what had occurred there and what maybe had happened
afterwards. Carefully, patiently, over
the years, he began to gather clues and search for the hidden sites around the
city then known as
Until the fall of the Soviet government in
1989, however, it was too dangerous to reveal what they had found. However, once Ryabov broke the news in an
interview to the liberal newspaper
It was not until 1991 when Boris Yeltsin
(himself a native of
This essay deals with what happened next and material that has been written on the subject since 1992.
Edvard. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. Translated from the Russian by Marian
The fall of Communism in
This, combined with his studies at the
Historical Institute, began to lead Radzinsky into cautious research as to the
fate of the Romanovs, but it was not until he had completed his apprenticeship
that he found himself granted access to the Romanov files at the Central State
Archive of the October Revolution in
As Radzinsky began his intensive research, the
The result of this research is Radzinsky's ground-breaking book, The Last Tsar, published in English in 1992. In it, he describes the true fate of the Russian Imperial family, based on the documents he uncovered in the files of the secret police and the official archives of the Soviet government, the interviews he conducted, and most especially the mysterious, long‑rumored Yurovsky Note, written by the chief executioner of the firing squad at the Ipatiev House, Yakov Yurovsky, and his report on how and where he disposed of the bodies.
Radzinsky devotes the first half of his book to a biographical look at the life of Nicholas II, basing much of his material on the actual diaries kept by the Russian emperor from early adolescence until three days before his death at age 50. As if foreshadowing the life of tragedy that was to be his lot, 13-year-old Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich began his diary on March 1, 1881 (old style), the day his grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, was assassinated and the boy's father became Tsar Alexander III.
Radzinsky follows Nicholas' life as he courts
and finally wins the hand of his beloved Princess Alix of
It is only the beginning of years of misfortune, bad decisions, and growing unrest in the vast country they rule a disastrous war with Japan, Bloody Sunday and the 1905 Revolution, the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (Nicholas' uncle and Alexandra's brother‑in-law), as well as growing terrorist attacks against members of the Russian government and the Romanov family. As if to punctuate the tragedy that fate seems to have in store for them, the long-awaited heir to the throne is born afflicted with hemophilia, a fact that ultimately drives the emotionally fragile Alexandra to the brink of insanity (and probably over that brink) and brings the infamous Rasputin into their circle. The coup de grace of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution is the final massive blow that brings an end to the 300-year-old dynasty.
In the second half of his book, Radzinsky narrows his focus to follow the Tsar's abdication, the imprisonment of the Imperial family and exile to Tobolsk and then Ekaterinburg, and finally to an inexorable ticking down of the months, weeks, days and finally hours that lead to the horrible executions. Here again, Radzinsky uses access to secret files, including first hand reports from the men involved in the murders Yakov Yurovsky, Grigori Nikulin, Peter Ermatov, and Pavel Medvedev. Again, he uses Nicholas and Alexandra's diaries as primary sources and, while Nicholas stopped writing three days before his life was brought to an abrupt end, seeming to give in to utter despair, Alexandra kept up her routine, noting in the last entry of her diary on July 16, 1918, that she played cards with her husband after supper and then retired to bed at 10:30. She would never write another word.
As Radzinsky penned his book in 1989, he did not know that events were unfolding that would add an unexpected postscript to his story. It was widely believed, based on a 1924 report by White Russian investigator Nicholas Sokolov, that the bodies of the murder victims had been destroyed entirely by fire and acid. However, by a stroke of luck, Radzinsky found hidden in the archives the long-lost Yurovsky Note a first-hand account written by Yurovsky in 1928 describing exactly what happened in the cellar and what had ensued in the botched attempts to dispose of all of the bodies before Ekaterinburg was overrun by White Russian troops, which were closing in on the town from all sides. For the first time, here was proof that the bodies had not been burned to ash, but had been buried along the road to Koptyaki village, deep in the forest northwest of Ekaterinburg. Yurovsky had even noted the exact location, something completely unknown up to that time.
As he finished his book, Radzinsky received a call from one of his informants telling him that nine bodies, presumed to be the Tsar, his family members, and their servants and doctor, had been exhumed at exactly the place Yurovsky had described. He added this information as an afterword, along with a sketch of the gravesite made by the grave's excavators, but there he ended his story. It was 1989 and the new chapter in the tale of the Romanovs was just beginning.
Robert K. The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.
In 1967, Robert K. Massie published his definitive biography of the Russian Imperial family, Nicholas and Alexandra, which was adapted into a major motion picture in 1971. At the time of publication, Massie accepted the 1924 report by White investigator Nicholas Sokolov that all the bodies had been completely destroyed by fire and acid and the ashes scattered. However, the 1989 exhumation of the bodies prompted Massie to re-open his research, resulting in a new book, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, published in 1995. He states:
For this new book, I carefully reread Nicholas Sokolov's Enquκte Judiciaire sur l'Assassinat de la Famille Impιriale Russe and Pavel M. Bykov's The Last Days of Tsardom. The Yarovsky note was unavailable when my first book appeared, and I, like many others, put too much faith in Sokolov's conclusion that the bodies had been destroyed. Yarovsky's account of the murders, first revealed by Edvard Radzinsky in 1989 and later included in his book The Last Tsar, described what actually happened and helped Alexander Avdonin and Geli Ryabov discover where the bodies were.
As source material for this new book, Massie conducted over 100 interviews in Russia, Europe and the United States, speaking with many principals who were directly involved in the discovery of the bodies, in DNA identification, and with surviving members of the Romanov family. At the time of publication of this book, investigations were still on-going and the bodies of Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Marie had not yet been found.
Massie begins with a detailed retelling of the murder of the Romanov family, their physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, Alexandra's maid Anna Demidova, Nicholas' valet, Trupp, and their cook, Kharitonov, carried out by Yakov Yurovsky, leader of the Ural Soviet in Ekaterinburg, and eleven other Bolsheviks. There follows the description of the botched disposal of the bodies along the Koptyaki road leading into an area of abandoned mine shafts and swamps in the forest. Time was pressing on Yurovsky because the White army and a large contingent of Czech soldiers were closing in on Ekaterinburg and, in fact, eight days later, entered and took the city.
Massie then fast forwards to the 1980's and relates the path taken by Alexander Avdonin and Geli Ryabov in locating the burial site and, finally, the actual exhumation on July 11, 1991, by Russian officials. He describes in detail the appearance of the grave, which was a jumble of skeletal remains and the remnants of ceramic pots that had held sulfuric acid. The bones showed evidence of bullet and bayonet wounds, of having the faces smashed in with rifle butts, and of being crushed "as though a truck drove over them" (as indeed, it did, to hide all evidence of the gravesite). There was no trace of clothing, which confirmed Yurovsky's claim that all the corpses had been stripped before burial and the clothing searched and burned. Fourteen bullets were recovered from the grave, some of which had been embedded in the bodies and others the result of firing at the pots of acid.
Nine partial skeletons were recovered, instead of the eleven that should have been there. Again, this held with Yurovsky's statement that two Alexei and one of the women had been burned and buried separately. However, searching the area found no trace of the two missing bodies. The remains were transported to the morgue at Ekaterinburg and turned over to chief medical examiner, Dr. Vladislav Plaksin, for identification. It was a massive undertaking. There were 700 bones and bits of bone and, after another careful sifting of the gravesite, to this was added yet another 250 bones and fragments. At the time, even though it was suspected that the remains were those of the Romanovs and their companions, there was no proof of this and Dr. Plaksin faced the daunting task of figuring out a way to prove or disprove this claim.
Most of the skeletons were easily named by use of dental records or forensic examination Alexandra had two platinum crowns, Dr. Botkin had false teeth, the short, middle aged man with bad teeth was Nicholas, etc. Sorting out the three daughters was harder because they were fairly close in age, but by process of elimination Olga had this feature, Tatiana had that one they too were tentatively identified. However, definitive proof was still lacking.
It was decided
that samples of the bones should be sent to
If all had been simply that easy, it would have been surprising, and Massie spends most of the last half of his book relating the circus that ensued over the next five years or so. Opposing scientific opinions erupted over the DNA results; the Russian Orthodox Church went head to head with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad over the latter's canonization of the Imperial family as martyrs in 1981; where and how to bury the bodies was debated hotly between church, scientists, devotees of the Romanovs and the State; claimants to the throne and outright imposters appeared from as far away as Idaho, announcing that they were the Tsarevich or the Grand Duchesses who had been in hiding all these years.
The most famous of
the "missing" children was Anna Anderson, long thought by many to actually
be Anastasia. Over the years, some who
met her believed that she was indeed who she claimed; others denounced her as a
fraud. Ultimately, she ended her life as
Anna Manahan in
With the revelation that one of the daughters was missing from the grave in Ekaterinburg possibly Anastasia renewed interest in Anna Anderson re-emerged. Massie then relates the incredibly complicated and almost farcical series of lawsuits and countersuits through the U.S. and German court systems that took two years to unravel before Dr. Gill was finally able to obtain a small section of Anderson's tissue in order to DNA test it to determine if she was, indeed, the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
The answer was
no. Anna Anderson proved to be a Polish
woman named Franziska Schanzkowska, as one of her early denouncers had claimed. This was cross-checked with the DNA of her
grandnephew who was located in
Now, in 1995, the question before the Russian authorities was what to do with the bodies of the Imperial family and, as Massie ends his book, they remained in the morgue at Ekaterinburg, identified but unburied.
Helen. The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg.
In 2008, British author Helen Rappaport, a specialist in Russian and 19th Century women's history, published this intensive chronicle of the Imperial family's last 14 days alive.
Her book begins on April 30, 1918, as Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra and Grand Duchess Marie arrived at the Ipatiev House, accompanied by Dr. Botkin, Alexandra's maid, Anna Demidova, Nicholas' valet, Terenty Chemodorov, and footman Ivan Sednev. The Tsarevich Alexei was recovering from yet another hemophiliac episode and could not travel, so he and his sisters, Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia, remained in Tobolsk until three weeks later. They arrived with many of their entourage, but only four servants were allowed into the house Alexei's devoted sailor companion Klemente Nagorny, the cook Ivan Kharitonov, kitchen boy Leonid Sednev (nephew of Ivan Sednev), and manservant Alexei Trupp. They also brought along the family dogs, Joy and Jimmy. Of them all, only Leonid Sednev and Alexei's spaniel Joy would survive the coming massacre.
All during June,
the family attempted to cope as best they could in the oppressive heat and
humiliating circumstances, but hope steadily faded. On July 4, 1918, there was a change in their
jailers and for the first time, they met the "dark gentleman" who
held their fate in his hands Yakov Yurovsky.
The Imperial family had no way of knowing that Yurovsky's arrival
signaled that the decision to execute them all had already been made by Lenin or
that the Tsar's youngest brother, Grand Duke Michael, had already been shot by
the Cheka a month earlier. In March 1917, Nicholas had abdicated in
favor of Michael, thus making Michael the actual
last tsar of
Yurovsky was now
commandant in charge of the Ipatiev House with orders to make all the
preparations for the executions and to carry them out as soon as the final
go-ahead came from
On Sunday, July 14, 1918, Yurovsky unexpectedly allowed two priests from the Ekaterinburg Cathedral to come into the Ipatiev House and celebrate mass for the family and their servants. The Imperial hostages were uncommonly solemn and quiet during the service, particularly during the Prayer for the Dead when they all spontaneously sank to their knees. They seemed to have deduced that the end was near and they were receiving last rites. Afterwards, walking back to the cathedral, the two priests commented to one another about the behavior of the Imperial family. One said grimly, "You know, Father, something has happened to them in there."
Tuesday, July 16, 1918, was like any other to the Romanovs, recorded faithfully by Alexandra in her diary. Three days earlier, Nicholas had stopped writing in his diary for the first time since he was 13 years old. On this final day, the only event of any note occurred after supper when 14-year-old Leonid Sednev, the kitchen boy, was taken away by Yurovsky's men with the explanation that he was going to see his uncle. In actuality, his uncle had been murdered days earlier but the decision had been made that Leonid was to be spared execution. He was taken across the road to another house and kept there. The Romanovs and their companions went to bed as usual, with Alexandra noting in the last entry in her diary that she had played cards with Nicholas who had then retired. Alexandra's last entry noted: "10-1/2 [10:30 p.m.] to bed. 15 degrees [58 degrees F.]."
In other parts of
the house, preparations were in their final stages and Yurovsky was anxiously
awaiting a telegram from
Once they were all there and arranged for what Yurovsky told them was a photograph, the eleven man execution squad stepped into the room. Yurovsky then read the official order for their deaths, pulled out a pistol from his pocket and shot Nicholas point blank in the face. It was the signal the others had been waiting for and the rest of the squad opened up. What was supposed to be a quick and neat execution turned into a 20-minute blood bath, with wild firing, bullets inexplicably bouncing off the girls' bodies and ricocheting around the room, hysterical screaming from the victims, and a mad but futile scramble to escape. Gun smoke so obscured the room that the shooters could barely see and finally Yurovsky ordered cease fire. Alexei, Marie, Anastasia and Anna Demidova were still alive and they were finished off with bayonets, rifle butts, and pistol shots to the head. Also dead in the carnage was Anastasia's little dog Jimmy, which she had carried downstairs with her. Joy had escaped the house, running in terror from the gunfire.
Rappaport's description of the massacre is the most detailed and graphic in the books reviewed, as is her telling of the disposal of the bodies. This was as botched as the execution the truck stuck in the mud, the mine pit that was to hide the bodies proving too shallow, the burial gang drunk and boasting back in town about the location, Yurovsky having to return the next night to retrieve the bodies and transport them to another site, again the trucks unable to traverse the muddy road, and finally the desperate act of digging a grave in the road, tossing in the bodies with sulfuric acid canisters, laying down timbers over the grave, and then driving a heavy truck over it to hide all traces.
In the final
chapter of her book, Rappaport brings us back to the present and relates the
finding of the main grave and the DNA testing.
On July 17, 1998, the 80th anniversary of the murders, the
bodies were solemnly interred at the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral in the
In 2003, on the site of the demolished Ipatiev House, a new cathedral had been erected the Church on the Blood and the Romanovs had been officially canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2007, a team from Ekaterinburg's Military Historical Club, following clues made by Yurovsky about the location of those bodies, finally located a few fragments of bone and bullets buried beneath two small bonfire sites not far from the main grave. DNA testing positively identified the missing children and they were finally laid to rest with their parents and sisters in 2009.
In addition to the three books profiled above, I also read Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire by Dominic Lieven, and Alexandra: The Last Tsarina by Carolly Erickson. I chose not to include these two books in my paper because Lieven concentrated primarily on the politics of Nicholas' reign and Erickson's book was too lightweight for a serious study. The focus of this paper is meant to be the murder of the Russian Imperial family and the recent discovery and identification of their remains. With the exception of the Lieven book, all the books I read detail the events leading up to the executions as well as new occurrences revolving around the discovery of the remains. Massie's book is by far the most comprehensive in covering the identification processes and subsequent controversies. However, because it was written in 1995, it does not cover the burials or subsequent discovery of Alexei and Marie.
I also downloaded and read a number of
articles accessed through the Texas A&M Commerce library site. John Varoli's article "Burying the
Romanovs" from Russian Life,
written in August 1998, does a good job in covering the interment of the
Romanovs and their companions. The
funeral service in
An article from Forbes magazine, Winter 2000, gives a first hand account of the
funeral by Prince Nicholas Romanov,
a cousin of Nicholas II. His
great-grandfather Nicholas Nikolaevich was a younger son of Emperor Nicholas I
A 2004 article in Science by Richard Stone, "Buried, Recovered, Lost Again? The
Romanovs May Never Rest",
discusses controversy in the scientific community over the accuracy of the DNA
identifications. Critics argue that the
remains were contaminated by improper handling during the exhumation of the
grave and during the time the bones lay in the Ekaterinburg morgue. However, the article points out that in 1998,
the Tsar's DNA was cross-checked with that of his brother, Grand Duke George,
who had died of tuberculosis in 1899 and who was buried in
Other minor articles that were accessed
repeated much the same information as noted in this essay. In general, all the books and articles read
on the subject are in agreement on the events surrounding the execution of the
Russian Imperial family, the disposal of the bodies, and the positive
identification of all members of the family, as well as those of Dr. Botkin,
Trupp, Kharitonov, and Demidova. All
have been laid to rest at the
Carolly. Alexandra: The Last Tsarina.
Dominic. Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire.
Massie, Robert K. The
Romanovs: The Final Chapter.
Edvard. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. Translated from the Russian by Marian
Helen. The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg.
Romanov, Prince Nicholas. "A Family Funeral." Forbes 166.13 (2000):120. https://proxy.tamu-commerce.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=3719799&site=ehost-live. Accessed 5/3/2010.
Stone, Richard. "Buried, Recovered, Lost Again? The Romanovs May Never Rest." Science 303.5659 (2004):753. https://proxy.tamu-commerce.edu:2048/login?url=http:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=syh&AN=12306137&site=ehost-live. Accessed 5/3/2010.
Varoli, John. "Burying the Romanovs." Russian Life 41.7 (1998):22. http://proxy.tamu-commerce.edu:2048/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=34026127&Fmt=4&clientid=3613&RQT=309&VName=PQD. Accessed 5/3/2010.
Robert K. The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.
 Ibid., 37.
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 376.
 By quirk of fate, Nicholas' own son, Alexei, would be 13 when he was killed in 1918.
 Radzinsky, ibid., 44.
 There is no evidence, by the way, that Pavel Medvedev is related to current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
 Radzinsky, ibid., 347.
 Ibid., 376.
 Ibid., 433-438.
Massie, ibid., 293.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 226.
 Ibid., 239.
 Rappaport occasionally mentions a third pet dog, Ortino, a French bulldog owned by Tatiana. However, he disappears from the record and it is not known what happened to him.
 Rappaport, ibid., 68.
 Ivan Sednev, Chemodorov and Nagorny had already been removed during the previous days and, unknown to the family, shot to death.
 Rappaport, ibid., 163
 Ibid., 180.
 Ibid., 182.
 It was later discovered by the executioners that Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia were wearing double-layered corsets with diamonds sewn thickly between them. Alexei was also wearing a jewel-filled undergarment and Alexandra had a belt of pearls wrapped around her waist. Ibid., 198-199.
would return the next day and be taken home by one of the guards. Ultimately, the dog was seized by the Whites,
given to the children's tutor Peter Gibbs, and lived out the remainder of his
 Rappaport, ibid., 205.
 Ibid., 220.
 Ibid, 220.
 Varoli, John. "Burying the Romanovs." Russian Life 41.7 (1998):22.
 Romanov, Prince Nicholas. "A Family Funeral." Forbes 166.13 (2000):120.
 Stone, Richard. "Buried, Recovered, Lost Again? The Romanovs May Never Rest." Science 303.5659 (2004):753.