Execution of the Romanov family

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149px Aloise (Alexei) Yegorovich Trupp.jpg
Clockwise from top: The Romanov family, Ivan Kharitonov, Alexei Trupp, Anna Demidova, Eugene Botkin

The Russian Imperial Romanov family (Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei) and all those who chose to accompany them into imprisonment – notably Eugene Botkin, Anna Demidova, Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitonov – were shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death[1] in Yekaterinburg on 17 July 1918.[2] The Tsar and his family were killed by Bolshevik troops led by Yakov Yurovsky under the orders of the Ural Regional Soviet. Their bodies were then mutilated,[1] burned and buried in a field called Porosenkov Log in the Koptyaki forest.[3]

Despite being informed that "the entire family suffered the same fate as its head",[4] the Bolsheviks only announced Nicholas's death,[5][6] with the official press release that "Nicholas Romanov's wife and son have been sent to a secure place."[4] For over eight years,[7] the Soviet leadership maintained a systematic web of disinformation as to the fate of the family,[8] claiming from September 1919 that they were murdered by left-wing revolutionaries during "the evacuation",[9] to denying outright from April 1922 that they were dead.[8] The emergence of Romanov impostors drew media attention away from Soviet Russia,[8] and discussion regarding the fate of the family was suppressed by Joseph Stalin from 1938.[10]

The burial site was discovered in 1979 by an amateur sleuth,[11] but the remains were not made public until 1989, during the glasnost period.[12] The identity of the remains was confirmed by forensic and DNA investigation. They were reburied in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg in 1998,[13] 80 years after they were killed, in a funeral that was not attended by key members of the Russian Orthodox Church, who disputed the authenticity of the remains.[14] A second, smaller grave containing the remains of two Romanov children missing from the larger grave was discovered by amateur archeologists in 2007.[11] However, their remains are kept in a state repository pending further DNA tests.[15] In 2008, after considerable and protracted legal wrangling, the Russian Prosecutor General's office rehabilitated the Romanov family as "victims of political repressions".[16] A criminal case was opened by the post-Soviet government in 1993, but nobody was prosecuted on the basis that the perpetrators were dead.[15]

Some historians attribute the order to the government in Moscow, specifically Yakov Sverdlov and Vladimir Lenin, who wished to prevent the rescue of the Imperial Family by the approaching Czechoslovak Legion (fighting with the White Army against the Bolsheviks) during the ongoing Russian Civil War.[17][18] This is supported by a passage in Leon Trotsky's diary.[19] An investigation led by Vladimir Solovyov concluded in 2011 that, despite the opening of state archives in the post-Soviet years, there is yet no written document found that indicates that either Lenin or Sverdlov instigated the orders; however, they did endorse the executions after they occurred.[20][21][22][23] Lenin had close control over the Romanovs although he ensured his name was not associated with their fate in any official documents.[24] President Boris Yeltsin described the killings as one of the most shameful pages in Russian history.[25][26]


Location of the main events in the last days of the Romanov family, who were held at Tobolsk before being transported to Ekaterinburg, where they were killed.

On 22 March 1917, Nicholas, no longer a monarch and addressed with contempt by the sentries as "Nicholas Romanov", was reunited with his family at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. He was placed under house arrest with his family by the Provisional Government, surrounded by guards and confined to their quarters.[27]

In August 1917, Alexander Kerensky's provisional government evacuated the Romanovs to Tobolsk, allegedly to protect them from the rising tide of revolution. There they lived in the former governor's mansion in considerable comfort. After the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, the conditions of their imprisonment grew stricter, and talk of putting Nicholas on trial grew more frequent. Nicholas was forbidden to wear epaulettes, and the sentries scrawled lewd drawings on the fence to offend his daughters. On 1 March 1918, the family was placed on soldier's rations, which meant parting with 10 devoted servants and giving up butter and coffee.[28] As the Bolsheviks gathered strength, the government in April moved Nicholas, Alexandra, and their daughter Maria to Yekaterinburg under the direction of Vasily Yakovlev. Alexei, who had severe haemophilia, was too ill to accompany his parents and remained with his sisters Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia, not leaving Tobolsk until May 1918. The family was imprisoned with a few remaining retainers in Yekaterinburg's Ipatiev House, which was designated The House of Special Purpose (Russian: Дом Особого Назначения).

All those under arrest will be held as hostages, and the slightest attempt at counter-revolutionary action in the town will result in the summary execution of the hostages.

— Announcement in the local newspaper by Boshevik War Commissar Filipp Goloshchyokin, in overall charge of the family's incarceration in Ekaterinburg.[29]

The House of Special Purpose

File:1918 Jekateringburg - Ipatieff merchant's house where he was in captivity throughout the Romanov family - Ma Este - Hungarian Magasin 30 july 1925.jpg
Ipatiev House, with the palisade erected just before Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria arrived on 30 April 1918. On the top left of the house is a attic dormer window where a Maxim gun was positioned. Directly below it was the tsar and tsarina's bedroom.[30]
File:Grand Duchess Tatiana carrying a litter of dirt during internment at Tsarskoe-Selo 1917.jpg
Nicholas II, Tatiana and Anastasia Hendrikova working on a kitchen garden at the Alexander Palace in May 1917. The family was allowed no such indulgences at the Ipatiev House.[31]
File:Вознесенская церковь Екатеринбург Клары Цеткин 11 6.jpg
The Church of All Saints in 2016 (top left), where the Ipatiev House used to be. Voznesensky Cathedral is in the foreground, where a machine gun was mounted in the belfry aimed at the tsar and tsarina's bedroom on the southeastern corner of the house.[32]

The imperial family was kept in strict isolation at the Ipatiev House.[33] They were strictly forbidden to speak any language other than Russian.[34] They were not permitted access to their luggage which was stored in an outhouse in the interior courtyard.[33] Their brownie cameras and photographic equipment were confiscated.[31] The servants were ordered to address the Romanovs only by their names and patronymics.[35] The family was subjected to regular searches of their belongings, confiscation of their money for "safekeeping by the Ural Regional Soviet's treasurer",[36] and attempts to remove Alexandra's and her daughters' gold bracelets from their wrists.[37] The house was surrounded by a 4 metre (14 ft) high double palisade that obscured the streets from the house.[38] The initial fence enclosed the garden along Voznesensky Lane. On 5 June a second palisade was erected, higher and longer than the first, which completely enclosed the property.[39] One of the reasons for the construction of the latter was the discovery that onlookers outside could see Nicholas' legs over the palisade when he used the double swing in the garden.[40]

The windows in all the family's rooms were sealed shut and covered with newspapers (later painted with whitewash on 15 May).[41] The family's only source of ventilation was a fortochka in the grand duchesses' bedroom, but peeking out of it was strictly forbidden; in May a sentry fired a shot at Anastasia when she peeked out.[42] After repeated requests, one of the two windows in the tsar and tsarina's corner bedroom was unsealed on 23 June 1918.[43] However, the guards were ordered to increase their surveillance accordingly and the prisoners were warned not to look out the window or attempt to signal anyone outside, on pain of being shot.[44] From this window, they could only see the spire of the Voznesensky Cathedral located across the road from the house.[44] An iron grille was installed on 11 July after Alexandra ignored repeated warnings from Yurovsky not to stand too close to the open window.[45]

The guard commandant and his senior aides had complete access at any time to all rooms occupied by the family.[46] The prisoners were required to ring a bell every time they wished to leave their rooms to use the bathroom and lavatory on the landing.[47] However, strict rationing of the water supply was enforced on the prisoners after the guards complained that it regularly ran out.[48] Recreation was only allowed twice daily in the garden for half an hour morning and afternoon. However, the prisoners were under strict instructions not to engage in conversation with any of the guards.[49] Rations were mostly tea and black bread for breakfast and cutlets or soup with meat for lunch; the prisoners were informed that "they were no longer permitted to live like tsars".[50] In mid-June, nuns from the Novo-Tikhvinsky Monastery also brought the family food on a daily basis, most of which was siphoned off on arrival by the captors.[50] The family was not allowed visitors or to receive and send letters.[31] Princess Helen of Serbia visited the house in June but was refused entry at gunpoint by the guards,[51] while Dr Vladimir Derevenko's regular visits to treat Alexei were curtailed when Yurovsky became commandant. No excursions to mass at the nearby church were permitted.[34] In early June, the family no longer received their daily newspapers.[31]

To maintain a sense of normality, the Bolsheviks assured the Romanovs on 13 July 1918 that two of their loyal servants, Klementy Nagorny (Alexei's sailor nanny)[52] and Ivan Sednev (OTMA's footman; Leonid Sednev's uncle),[53] "had been sent out of this government" (i.e. out of the jurisdiction of Ekaterinburg and Perm province). However, both men were already dead, after the Bolsheviks removed them from the Ipatiev House in May, they were shot by the Cheka with a group of other hostages on 6 July in reprisal for the death of a local Bolshevik hero who was killed by the Whites.[54] On 14 July, a priest and deacon conducted a liturgy for the Romanovs.[55] The following morning, four housemaids were hired to wash the floors of the Popov House and Ipatiev House; they were the last civilians to see the family alive. On both occasions they were under strict instructions not to engage in conversation of any kind to the family.[56] Yurovsky always kept watch during the liturgy and while the housemaids were cleaning the bedrooms with the family.[57]

The 16 men of the internal guard slept in the basement, hallway and commandant's office during shifts. The external guard led by Pavel Medvedev numbered 56 and were accommodated in the Popov House opposite.[46] The guards were allowed to bring in women for sex and drinking sessions in the Popov House and basement rooms of the Ipatiev House.[57] There were four machine gun emplacements: one in the bell tower of the Voznesensky Cathedral aimed toward the house; a second in the basement window of the Ipatiev House facing the street; a third monitored the balcony overlooking the garden at the back of the house;[44] and a fourth in the attic overlooking the intersection, directly above the tsar and tsarina's bedroom.[30] There were ten guard posts in and around the Ipatiev House, and the exterior was patrolled twice hourly day and night.[42] In early May the guards deprived the prisoners of the piano in the dining room and moved it to the commandant's office located next door to the Romanovs' bedrooms. Here they took pleasure in humiliating them in the evenings by singing Russian revolutionary songs while drinking and smoking.[33] They also listened to the Romanovs' gramophone records on the confiscated phonograph.[33] The lavatory on the landing was also used by the guards who scribbled political slogans and crude graffiti on the walls.[33] The number of Ipatiev House guards totaled 300 when the imperial family was killed.[58]

The Romanovs were being held by the Red Army in Yekaterinburg, since Bolsheviks initially wanted to put them on trial. As the civil war continued and the White Army (a loose alliance of anti-Communist forces) was threatening to capture the city, the fear was that the Romanovs would fall into White hands. This was unacceptable to the Bolsheviks for two reasons: first, the tsar or any of his family members could provide a beacon to rally support to the White cause; second, the tsar, or any of his family members if the tsar were dead, would be considered the legitimate ruler of Russia by the other European nations. This would have meant the ability to negotiate for greater foreign intervention on behalf of the Whites. Soon after the family was executed, the city fell to the White Army. In mid-July 1918, forces of the Czechoslovak Legion were closing on Yekaterinburg, to protect the Trans-Siberian Railway, of which they had control. According to historian David Bullock, the Bolsheviks falsely believed that the Czechoslovaks were on a mission to rescue the family, panicked and executed their wards. The Legions arrived less than a week later and on 25 July captured the city.[59]

During the imperial family's imprisonment in late June, Pyotr Voykov and Alexandre Beloborodov, president of the Ural Regional Soviet,[60] directed the smuggling of letters written in French to the Ipatiev House claiming to be a monarchist officer seeking to rescue them, composed at the behest of the Cheka.[61] These fabricated letters, along with the Romanov responses to them (written either on blank spaces or on the envelope),[62] provided the Central Executive Committee (CEC) in Moscow with further justification to 'liquidate' the imperial family.[63] Yurovsky later observed that by responding to the faked letters, Nicholas "had fallen into a hasty plan by us to trap him".[61] On 13 July, across the road from the Ipatiev House, a demonstration of Red Army soldiers, Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists was staged on Voznesensky Square, demanding the dismissal of the Ekaterinburg Soviet and the transfer of control of the city to them. This rebellion was violently suppressed by a detachment of Red Guards led by Peter Ermakov, which opened fire on the protesters, all within earshot of the tsar and tsarina's bedroom window. The authorities exploited the incident as a monarchist-led rebellion that threatened the security of the captives at the Ipatiev House.[64]

Planning for the execution

The Ural Regional Soviet agreed in a meeting on 29 June that the Romanov family should be liquidated. Filipp Goloshchyokin arrived in Moscow on 3 July with a message insisting on the Tsar's execution.[65] Only seven of the 23 members of the Central Executive Committee were in attendance, three of whom were Lenin, Sverdlov and Felix Dzerzhinsky.[60] It was agreed that the presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet should organize the practical details for the family's execution and decide the precise day on which it would take place when the military situation dictated it, contacting Moscow for final approval.[66]

The killing of the Tsar's wife and children was also discussed but had to be kept a state secret to avoid any political repercussions; German ambassador Wilhelm von Mirbach made repeated enquiries to the Bolsheviks concerning the family's well-being.[67] Another diplomat, British consul Thomas Preston, who lived near the Ipatiev House, was often pressured by Pierre Gilliard, Sydney Gibbes and Prince Vasily Dolgorukov to help the Romanovs,[51] the latter smuggling notes from his prison cell before he too was murdered by Grigory Nikulin, Yurovsky's assistant.[68] However, Preston's requests to be granted access to the family were consistently rejected.[69] As Trotsky would later explain, "The Tsar's family was a victim of the principle that form the very axis of monarchy: dynastic inheritance", for which their deaths were a necessity.[70] The commandant of the Ipatiev House was replaced by Yakov Yurovsky on 4 July.[71] Goloshchyokin reported back to Ekaterinburg on 12 July with a summary of his discussion about the Romanovs with Moscow,[60] along with instructions that nothing relating to their deaths should be directly communicated to Lenin.[72]

On 14 July, Yurovsky was finalizing the disposal site and how to destroy as much evidence as possible at the same time.[73] He was frequently in consultation with Peter Ermakov, who was in charge of the disposal squad and claimed to know the outlying countryside, to which Yurovsky placed his trust in him.[74] Yurovsky wanted to gather the family and servants in a closely confined space from which they could not escape. The basement room chosen for this purpose had a barred window which was nailed shut to muffle the sound of shooting and in case of any screaming.[75] Shooting and stabbing them at night while they slept or killing them in the forest and then dumping them into the Iset pond with lumps of metal weighted to their bodies were ruled out.[76] Yurovsky's plan was to perform an efficient execution of all 11 prisoners simultaneously, though he also took into account that he would have to prevent those involved from raping the women or searching the bodies for jewels.[76] Having previously seized some jewellery, he suspected more were hidden in their clothes;[36] the bodies were stripped naked in order to obtain the rest (this, along with the mutilations were aimed at preventing investigators from identifying them).[77]

On 16 July, Yurovsky was informed by the Ural Soviets that Red Army contingents were retreating in all directions and the executions could not be delayed any longer. A coded telegram seeking final approval was sent by Goloshchyokin and Georgy Safarov at around 6:00pm to Lenin in Moscow.[78] There is no documentary record of an answer from Moscow, although Yurovsky insisted that an order from the CEC to go ahead had been passed on to him by Goloshchyokin at around 7:00pm.[79] This was consistent with a former Kremlin guard, Aleksey Akimov, who in the late 1960s claimed that Sverdlov personally instructed him to take a telegram to the telegraph office confirming the CEC's approval of the 'trial' (code for execution), but with strict instructions that both the written form and ticker tape should be brought back by him immediately after it had been sent.[79] At 8:00pm, Yurovsky sent his chauffeur to acquire a truck for transporting the bodies, bringing with it rolls of canvas to wrap them in. The intention was to park it as close to the basement entrance as possible, with its engine running to mask the noise of gunshots.[80] Yurovsky and Pavel Medvedev collected 14 handguns to use that night, comprising two Browning pistols, two American Colts, two 7.65 Mausers, one Smith & Wesson and seven Belgian-made Nagants. The Nagant operated on old black gunpowder which produced a good deal of smoke and fumes; smokeless powder was only just being phased in.[81]

In the commandant's office, Yurovsky assigned victims to each killer before distributing the handguns. He took a Mauser and Colt while Ermakov armed himself with three Nagants, one Mauser and a bayonet; he was the only one assigned to kill two prisoners, Alexandra and Botkin. Yurovsky ordered his men to "shoot straight at the heart to avoid an excessive quantity of blood and get it over quickly."[82] Neither Yurovsky nor any of the killers went into the logistics of how to efficiently destroy eleven bodies.[72] He was under pressure of ensuring that no remains would later be found by monarchists who would exploit them to rally anti-communist support.[83] Yurovsky began rehearsing on a statement that was to be read to the prisoners before the killing commenced.[84]


From left to right: Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia in captivity at Tsarskoe Selo in the spring of 1917. One of the last known photographs of Tsar Nicholas II's daughters.
File:Ipatyev house basement.jpg
The basement where the Romanov family was murdered. The wall had been torn apart in search of bullets and other evidence by investigators in 1919. The double doors leading to a storeroom was locked during the execution.[76]

While the Romanovs were having dinner on 16 July, Yurovsky entered the sitting room and informed them that the kitchen boy Leonid Sednev was leaving to meet his uncle Ivan Sednev, who had returned to the city asking to see him; Ivan had already been shot by the Cheka.[85] The family was very upset as Leonid was Alexei's only playmate and he was the fifth member of the imperial entourage to be taken from them, but they were assured by Yurovsky that he would be back soon. Alexandra did not trust him, writing in her final diary entry just hours before her death, "whether its [sic] true & we shall see the boy back again!" Leonid was in fact kept in the Popov House that night.[80] Yurovsky saw no reason to kill him and wanted him removed before the execution took place.[78]

Around midnight 17 July 1918, Yakov Yurovsky, the commandant of The House of Special Purpose, ordered the Romanovs' physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, to awaken the sleeping family and ask them to put on their clothes, under the pretext that the family would be moved to a safe location due to impending chaos in Yekaterinburg.[86] The Romanovs were then ordered into a 6 m × 5 m (20 ft × 16 ft) semi-basement room. Nicholas asked if Yurovsky could bring two chairs, on which Tsarevich Alexei and Alexandra sat.[87] Yurovsky's assistant Grigory Nikulin remarked to him that the "heir wanted to die in a chair.[88] Very well then, let him have one."[75] The prisoners were told to wait in the cellar room while the truck that would transport them was being brought to the House. A few minutes later, an execution squad of secret police was brought in and Yurovsky read aloud the order given him by the Ural Executive Committee:

Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.[89]

Nicholas, facing his family, turned and said "What? What?"[90] Yurovsky quickly repeated the order and the weapons were raised. The Empress and Grand Duchess Olga, according to a guard's reminiscence, had tried to bless themselves, but failed amid the shooting. Yurovsky reportedly raised his Colt gun at Nicholas's torso and fired; Nicholas was the target of all of the assembled shooters, and he quickly fell dead, pierced by many bullets. The intoxicated Peter Ermakov, the military commissar for Verkh-Isetsk, shot and killed Alexandra with a bullet wound to the head. He then shot at Maria, who ran for the double doors, hitting her in the thigh.[91] The remaining executioners shot chaotically and over each other's shoulders until the room was so filled with smoke and dust that no one could see anything at all in the darkness nor hear any commands amid the noise.

Alexey Kabanov, who ran out onto the street to check the noise levels, heard dogs barking from the Romanovs' quarters and the sound of gunshots loud and clear despite the noise from the Fiat's engine. Kabanov then hurried downstairs and told the men to stop firing and kill the family and their dogs with their gun butts and bayonets.[92] Within minutes, Yurovsky was forced to stop the shooting because of the caustic smoke of burned gunpowder, dust from the plaster ceiling caused by the reverberation of bullets, and the deafening gunshots. When they stopped, the doors were then opened to scatter the smoke.[90] While waiting for the smoke to abate, the killers could hear moans and whimpers inside the room.[93] As it cleared, it became evident that although several of the family's retainers had been killed, all of the Imperial children were not only alive but none of them had even been injured in the botched proceedings.[90][94]

The noise of the guns had been heard by households all around, and had awakened many people. The executioners were ordered to proceed with their bayonets, a technique which proved ineffective and meant that the children had to be dispatched by still more gunshots, this time aimed more precisely at their heads. The Tsarevich was the first of the children to be executed. Yurovsky watched in disbelief as Nikulin spent an entire clip of bullets from his Browning gun on Alexei, who was still seated transfixed in his chair; he also had jewels sewn into his undergarment and forage cap.[95] Ermakov shot and stabbed him, and when he failed, Yurovsky shoved him aside and killed the boy with a gunshot to the head.[91] The last to die were Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria, who were carrying a few pounds (over 1.3 kilograms) of diamonds sewn into their clothing, which had given them a degree of protection from the firing.[96] However, they were speared with bayonets as well. Olga sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Maria and Anastasia were said to have crouched up against a wall covering their heads in terror until they were shot down. Yurovsky himself killed Tatiana and Alexei. Tatiana died from a single bullet through the back of her head.[97] Alexei received two bullets to the head, right behind the ear.[98] Anna Demidova, Alexandra's maid, survived the initial onslaught but was quickly stabbed to death against the back wall while trying to defend herself with a small pillow which she had carried that was filled with precious gems and jewels.[99] While the bodies were being placed on stretchers, one of the girls cried out and covered her face with her arm.[100] Ermakov grabbed Alexander Strekotin's rifle and bayoneted her in the chest,[100] but when it failed to penetrate he pulled out his revolver and shot her in the head.[101][102]

While Yurovsky was checking the victims for pulses, Ermakov went back and forth in the room, flailing the bodies with his bayonet. The execution lasted about 20 minutes, Yurovsky later admitting to Nikulin's "poor mastery of his weapon and inevitable nerves".[103] Future investigations calculated that a possible 70 bullets were fired, roughly seven bullets per shooter, of which 57 were found in the basement and at all three subsequent gravesites.[92] Some of Pavel Medvedev's stretcher bearers began frisking the bodies for valuables. Yurovsky saw this and demanded that they surrendered any looted items or be shot. The attempted looting, coupled with Ermakov's incompetence and drunken state, convinced Yurovsky to oversee the disposal of the bodies himself.[102] Only Alexei's spaniel Joy survived to be rescued by a British officer of the Allied Intervention Force,[104] living out his final days in Windsor, Berkshire.[105]

Alexandre Beloborodov sent a coded telegram to Lenin's secretary, Nikolai Gorbunov. It was found by White investigator Nikolai Sokolov and reads:[106]

Inform Sverdlov the whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die at the evacuation.[107]

Aleksandr Lisitsyn of the Cheka, an essential witness on behalf of Moscow, was designated to promptly dispatch to Sverdlov soon after the executions of Nicholas and Alexandra's politically valuable diaries and letters, which would be published in Russia as soon as possible.[108] Beloborodov and Nikulin oversaw the ransacking of the Romanov quarters, seizing all the family's personal items, the most valuable piled up in Yurovsky's office whilst things considered inconsequential and of no value were stuffed into the stoves and burned. Everything was packed into the Romanovs' own trunks for dispatch to Moscow under escort by commissars.[109] On 19 July, the Bolsheviks nationalized all confiscated Romanov properties,[110] the same day Sverdlov announced the tsar's execution to the Council of People's Commissars.[111]


File:Bridge on Koptyaki Road photographed by Sokolov.jpg
Railroad ties on the Koptyaki Road in 1919. Investigator Nikolai Sokolov took this photograph as evidence of where the Fiat truck had got stuck at 4:30am on 19 July, unaware that it was in fact the second burial site.[112]
File:Photo 119 - Topazes found at the mine.jpg
In the hasty disposal of the bodies, several belongings like these topazes were overlooked by Yurovsky's men and eventually recovered by Sokolov in 1919.[9]

The bodies of the Romanovs and their servants were loaded onto a Fiat truck equipped with a 60 HP engine,[102] with a cargo area 6 × 10 feet in size.[100] Heavily laden, the vehicle struggled for nine miles on boggy road to reach the Koptyaki forest. Yurovsky was furious when he discovered that the drunkard Ermakov had brought only one shovel for the burial.[113] About half a mile further on, near crossing no. 185 on the line serving the Verkh-Isetsk works, 25 men working for Ermakov were waiting with horses and light carts. These men were all intoxicated and they were outraged that the prisoners were not brought to them alive. They expected to be part of the lynch mob,[114] and were hoping to abuse with the women before killing them.[115] Yurovsky maintained control of the situation with great difficulty, eventually getting Ermakov's men to shift some of the bodies from the truck onto the carts.[114] A few of Ermakov's men pawed the female bodies for diamonds hidden in their undergarments, two of whom fingered Alexandra's genitals.[115][114] Yurovsky ordered them at gunpoint to back off, dismissing the two who had groped the tsarina's corpse and any others he had caught looting.[115]

The truck was bogged down in an area of marshy ground near the Gorno-Uralsk railway line, during which all the bodies were unloaded onto carts and taken to the disposal site.[114] The sun was up by the time the carts came within sight of the disused mine, which was a large clearing at a place called the Four Brothers.[116] Yurovsky's men first gobbled on hardboiled eggs supplied by the local nuns (food that was meant for the imperial family), while the remainder of Ermakov's men were ordered back to the city as Yurovsky did not trust them and was displeased with their drunkenness.[77]

The bodies were laid out on the grass and stripped of their clothing and valuables by Yurovsky's men, the former piled up and burned while Yurovsky took inventory of their jewellery. Only Maria's underwear contained no jewels, which to Yurovsky was proof that the family had ceased to trust her ever since she became too friendly with one of the guards back in May.[77][117] The bodies were dumped into a mineshaft and sprinkled with sulphuric acid. Only then did Yurovsky discover that the pit was less than 3 metres (9 feet) deep and the muddy water below did not fully submerge the corpses as he had expected. He unsuccessfully tried to collapse the mine with hand grenades, after which his men covered it with loose earth and branches.[118] Yurovsky left his men to guard the site while he returned to Ekaterinburg with a bag filled with 18lb of looted diamonds, to report back to Beloborodov and Goloshchyokin. It was decided that the pit was too shallow.[119]

Sergey Chutskaev of the local Soviet told Yurovsky of some deeper copper mines west of Ekaterinburg, the area remote and swampy and a grave there less likely to be discovered.[72] He inspected the site on the evening of 17 July and reported back to the Cheka at the Amerikanskaya Hotel. He ordered additional trucks to be sent out to Koptyaki whilst assigning Pyotr Voykov to obtain barrels of petrol, kerosene and sulphuric acid, and plenty of dry firewood. Yurovsky also seized several horse-drawn carts to be used in the removal of the bodies to the new site. [120] Yurovsky and Goloshchyokin, along with several Cheka agents, returned to the mineshaft at about 4:00am on the morning of 18 July. The sodden corpses were hauled out one by one using ropes tied to their limbs and laid under a tarpaulin.[119] Yurovsky, worried that he may not have enough time to take the bodies to the deeper mine, instructed his men to dig another burial pit then and there, but the ground was too hard. He returned to the Amerikanskaya Hotel to confer with the Cheka. He seized a truck which he had loaded with blocks of concrete for attaching to the bodies before submerging them in the new mineshaft. A second truck carried a detachment of Cheka agents to help move the bodies. Yurovsky returned to the forest at 10:00pm on 18 July. The bodies were again loaded onto the Fiat truck, which by then had been extricated from the mud.[121]

During transportation to the deeper copper mines on the early morning of 19 July, the Fiat truck carrying the bodies got stuck again in mud near Porosenkov Log (Pig's Meadow). With the men exhausted and most refusing to obey orders, Yurovsky decided to bury them under the road where the truck had stalled.[122] They dug a grave that was 6 × 8 ft in size and barely 60 centimetres (2 ft) deep.[123] Alexei Trupp's body was tossed in first, followed by the Tsar's and then the rest. They were again doused in sulphuric acid, their faces smashed with rifle butts and covered with quicklime to prevent identification of the remains. Railroad ties were placed over the grave to disguise it, with the Fiat truck being driven back and forth over the ties to press them into the earth. The burial was completed at 6:00am on 19 July.[123]

Yurovsky separated the Tsarevich Alexei and one of his sisters to be buried about 15 metres (50 ft) away, in an attempt to confuse anyone who might discover the mass grave with only nine bodies. Since the female body was badly disfigured, he mistook her for Anna Demidova in his report; Yurovsky actually wanted to destroy Alexandra's corpse.[124] Alexei and his sister were burned, their remaining charred bones thoroughly smashed with spades and then tossed into a smaller pit.[123] Only 44 partial bone fragments from both corpses remained, which were not found until August 2007.[125]

Sokolov's investigation

File:Photo 070 - The open mine during the inspection in spring of 1919.jpg
The Sokolov investigation inspecting the mineshaft in Spring 1919
File:Items associated with the last days of the Imperial family.jpg
Recovered Romanov belongings on display at the Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, Texas. On the right is a blouse that belonged to one of the grand duchesses[126]

After Ekaterinburg fell to the anti-communist White Army on 25 July, Admiral Alexander Kolchak established the Sokolov Commission at the end of that month to investigate the murders. Nikolai Sokolov, a legal investigator of the Omsk Regional Court, interviewed several members of the Romanov entourage in February 1919, notably Pierre Gilliard, Alexandra Tegleva and Sydney Gibbes.[127]

Sokolov discovered a large number of the Romanovs' belongings and valuables that were overlooked by Yurovsky and his men, in and around the mineshaft where the bodies were initially disposed of. Among them were dismembered and burned bone fragments, congealed fat,[128] Dr Botkin's upper dentures and glasses, corset stays, insignias and belt buckles, shoes, keys, pearls and diamonds,[8] a few spent bullets and part of a severed female finger.[96] Only the corpse of Anastasia's King Charles Spaniel, Jimmy, was found in the pit.[129] The shallow pit revealed no traces of clothing, which was consistent with Yurovsky's account that all the victims' clothes were burned before the bodies were thrown down the mineshaft.[130] Sokolov ultimately failed to find the concealed burial site on the Koptyaki Road, photographing the spot as evidence of where the Fiat truck had got stuck on the morning of 19 July.[112] The impending return of Bolshevik forces in July 1919 forced him to evacuate, bringing with him the box containing the relics he recovered.[131] Sokolov accumulated numerous photographic and eyewitness accounts filling eight volumes.[132] He died in France in 1924 of a heart attack before he could complete his investigation.[133] The box remains kept in the Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Job in Uccle, Brussels.[134]

His preliminary report was published in a book that same year in French and then Russian, and was the only accepted historical explanation about the murders for 65 years until 1989.[135] He wrongly concluded that the prisoners died instantly from the shooting with the exception of Alexei and Anastasia, who were shot and bayoneted to death,[136] and that the bodies were destroyed in a massive bonfire.[137] Publication and worldwide acceptance of the investigation prompted the Soviets to issue a government-approved textbook that largely plagiarized Sokolov's work in 1926, admitting that the empress and her children had been murdered with the Tsar.[135] In 1938, Josef Stalin issued a clampdown on all discussion of the Romanov murders.[10] Sokolov's report was also banned.[112] The Ipatiev House was deemed to be not of "sufficient historical significance" by Leonid Brezhnev's Politburo, and was demolished in September 1977, less than a year before the sixtieth anniversary of the murders. Yeltsin wrote in his memoirs that "sooner or later we will be ashamed of this piece of barbarism". The destruction of the house did not stop pilgrims or monarchists from visiting the site.[10]

Local amateur sleuth Alexander Avdonin and filmmaker Geli Ryabov located the shallow grave on 30-31 May 1979 after years of covert evidence-gathering and a study of the primary evidence.[10][112] Three skulls were removed from the grave, but after failing to find any scientist and laboratory to help examine them, and worried about the consequences of finding the grave, Avdonin and Ryabov reburied them in the summer of 1980.[138] The presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev brought with it the era of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform), which prompted Ryabov to reveal the Romanov's gravesite to The Moscow News on 10 April 1989,[139] much to Avdonin's horror.[140] The remains were disinterred in 1991 by Soviet officials in a hasty 'official exhumation' that wrecked the site, destroying precious evidence. Since there were no clothes on the bodies and the damage inflicted was extensive, controversy persisted as to whether the skeletal remains identified and interred in St Petersburg as Anastasia's were really hers or in fact Maria's.[12] There was considerable dissent within the Russian Orthodox Church about whether or not the bones actually discovered in the forest were those of the Romanovs at all. The Holy Synod opposed the government's decision in February 1998 to bury the remains in the Peter and Paul Fortress, preferring a "symbolic" grave until their authenticity had been resolved.[141] As a result, when they were interred in July 1998, they were referred to by the priest conducting the service as "Christian victims of the Revolution" rather than the imperial family.[142]

On 29 July 2007, another amateur group of local enthusiasts found the small pit containing the remains of Alexei and his sister, located in two small bonfire sites not far from the main grave on the Koptyaki Road.[143][12] Although criminal investigators and geneticists identified them as Alexei and Maria, they remain stored in the state archives pending a decision from the church,[144] which demanded a more "thorough and detailed" examination.[125]


File:Peter Ermakov at the bridge on Koptyaki Road.jpg
Peter Ermakov survived the civil war unscathed. However, unlike the other killers, he received no awards or advancements, for which he grew bitter. For the rest of his life,[145] he fought relentlessly for primacy by inflating his role in the murders as well as the revolution.[146] Soviet sympathizers annually pay tribute to his gravestone on the anniversary of the murders, though on a few occasions it was also vandalized.[147]

Ivan Plotnikov, history professor at the Maksim Gorky Ural State University, has established that the executioners were: Yakov Yurovsky, Grigory P. Nikulin, Mikhail A. Medvedev (Kudrin), Peter Ermakov, Stepan Vaganov, Alexey G. Kabanov (former soldier in the tsar's Life Guards and Chekist assigned to the attic machine gun),[148] Pavel Medvedev, V. N. Netrebin, and Y. M. Tselms. Filipp Goloshchyokin, a close associate of Yakov Sverdlov, being a military commissar of the Uralispolkom in Yekaterinburg, however did not actually participate, and two or three guards refused to take part.[149] Pyotr Voykov was given the specific task of arranging for the disposal of their remains, obtaining 570 litres (150 gal) of gasoline and 180 kilograms (400 lbs) of sulphuric acid, the latter from the Yekaterinburg pharmacy. He was a witness but later claimed to have taken part in the murders, looting belongings from a dead grand duchess.[100] After the killings, he was to declare that "The world will never know what we did with them." Voykov served as Soviet ambassador to Poland in 1924, where he was assassinated by a Russian monarchist in July 1927.[104]

The men who were directly complicit in the murder of the imperial family largely survived in the immediate months after the murders.[104] Stepan Vaganov, Ermakov's close associate,[150] was attacked and killed by peasants in late 1918 for his participation in local acts of brutal repression by the Cheka. Pavel Medvedev, head of the Ipatiev House guard and one of the key figures in the murders,[57] was captured by the White Army in Perm in February 1919. He denied taking part in the murders during his interrogation, dying in prison of typhus.[104] Alexandre Beloborodov and his deputy Boris Didkovsky were both killed in 1938 during the Great Purge. Filipp Goloshchyokin was shot in October 1941 in an NKVD prison and consigned to an unmarked grave.[146]

Three days after the murders, Yurovsky personally reported to Lenin on the events of that night and was rewarded with an appointment to the Moscow City Cheka. He held a succession of key economic and party posts, dying in the comfort of the Kremlin Hospital in 1938 aged 60. Prior to his death, he donated the guns he used in the murders to the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow,[62] and left behind three valuable, though contradictory, accounts of the event. Yurovsky never expressed regret or remorse over the killings, but instead reminisced on his revolutionary career and how "the storm of October" had "turned its brightest side" towards him, making him "the happiest of mortals".[151] He and his assistant Nikulin, who died in 1964, were buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.[152]

Lenin saw the House of Romanov as "monarchist filth, a 300-year disgrace",[70] and referred to Nicholas II in conversation and in his writings as "the most evil enemy of the Russian people, a bloody executioner, an Asiatic gendarme" and "a crowned robber."[153] The written record taking the chain of command and the ultimate responsibility for the fate of the Romanovs back to Lenin was, from the beginning, either never made or carefully concealed.[70] Lenin operated with extreme caution, his favoured method being to issue instructions in coded telegrams, insisting that the original and even the telegraph ribbon on which it was sent be destroyed. Uncovered documents in Archive No. 2 (Lenin), Archive No. 86 (Sverdlov) as well as the archives of the Council of People's Commissars and the Central Executive Committee reveal that a host of party 'errand boys' were regularly designated to relay his instructions, either by confidential notes or anonymous directives made in the collective name of the Council of People's Commissars.[24] In all such decisions Lenin regularly insisted that no written evidence be preserved. The 55 volumes of Lenin's Collected Works as well as the memoirs of those who directly took part in the murders were scrupulously censored, emphasising the roles of Sverdlov and Goloshchyokin.

Lenin was, however, aware of Vasily Yakovlev's decision to take Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria further on to Omsk instead of Ekaterinburg in April 1918, having become worried about the extremely threatening behaviour of the Ural Soviets in Tobolsk and along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Biographical Chronicle of Lenin's political life confirms that first Lenin (between 1800 and 1900) and then Lenin and Sverdlov together (between 2130 and 2350) had direct telegraph contact with the Ural Soviets about Yakovlev's change of route. Despite Yakovlev's request to take the family further away to the more remote Simsky Gorny District in Ufa province (where they could hide in the mountains), warning that "the baggage" would be destroyed if given to the Ural Soviets, Lenin and Sverdlov were adamant that they be brought to Ekaterinburg.[154] Soviet historiography portrayed Nicholas as a weak and incompetent leader whose decisions led to military defeats and the deaths of millions of his subjects,[26] while Lenin's reputation was protected at all costs, thus ensuring that no discredit was brought on him; responsibility for the 'liquidation' of the Romanov family was directed at the Ural Soviets and Ekaterinburg Cheka.[24]


The Church on the Blood, built on the spot of Ipatyev House

Early next morning, when rumours spread in Yekaterinburg about the disposal site, Yurovsky removed the bodies and hid them elsewhere (Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.). When the vehicle carrying the bodies broke down on the way to the next chosen site, Yurovsky made new arrangements, and buried most of the acid-covered bodies in a pit sealed and concealed with rubble, covered over with railroad ties and then earth (Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.) on Koptyaki Road, a cart track (subsequently abandoned) 19 kilometres (12 mi) north of Yekaterinburg.

On the afternoon of 19 July, Filipp Goloshchyokin announced at the Opera House on Glavny Prospekt that "Nicholas the bloody" had been shot and his family taken to another place.[155] Sverdlov granted permission for the local paper in Ekaterinburg to publish the "Execution of Nicholas, the Bloody Crowned Murderer – Shot without Bourgeois Formalities but in Accordance with our new democratic principles",[156] along with the coda that "the wife and son of Nicholas Romanov have been sent to a safe place".[157] An official announcement appeared in the national press, two days later. It reported that the monarch had been executed on the order of Uralispolkom under pressure posed by the approach of the Czechoslovaks.[158]

Over the course of 84 days after the Ekaterinburg murders, 27 more friends and relatives (14 Romanovs and 13 members of the imperial entourage and household)[159] were murdered by the Bolsheviks: at Alapayevsk on 18 July,[160] Perm on 4 September,[161] and the Peter and Paul Fortress on 24 January 1919.[159] However, unlike the imperial family, the bodies at Alapayevsk and Perm were recovered by the White Army in October 1918 and May 1919 respectively.[162][161] Of these, only the final resting places of Elizabeth Feodorovna (Alexandra's sister) and Nun Barbara are known, buried alongside each other in the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem.

Although official Soviet accounts place the responsibility for the decision with the Uralispolkom, an entry in Leon Trotsky's diary reportedly suggested that the order had been given by Lenin himself. Trotsky wrote:

My next visit to Moscow took place after the fall of Yekaterinburg. Talking to Sverdlov I asked in passing, "Oh yes and where is the Tsar?" "It's all over," he answered. "He has been shot." "And where is his family?" "And the family with him." "All of them?" I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. "All of them," replied Yakov Sverdlov. "What about it?" He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply. "And who made the decision?" I asked. "We decided it here. Ilyich [Lenin] believed that we shouldn't leave the Whites a live banner to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances."[19]

However, as of 2011 there has been no conclusive evidence that either Lenin or Sverdlov gave the order.[20] V.N. Solovyov, the leader of the Investigative Committee of Russia's 1993 investigation on the shooting of the Romanov family,[21] has concluded that there is no reliable document that indicates that either Lenin or Sverdlov were responsible.[22][23] He declared:

According to the presumption of innocence, no one can be held criminally liable without guilt being proven. In the criminal case, an unprecedented search for archival sources taking all available materials into account was conducted by authoritative experts, such as Sergey Mironenko, the director of the largest archive in the country, the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The study involved the main experts on the subject – historians and archivists. And I can confidently say that today there is no reliable document that would prove the initiative of Lenin and Sverdlov.

— V.N. Solovyov[22]

In 1993, the report of Yakov Yurovsky from 1922 was published. According to the report, units of the Czechoslovak Legion were approaching Yekaterinburg. On 17 July 1918, Yakov and other Bolshevik jailers, fearing that the Legion would free Nicholas after conquering the town, murdered him and his family. The next day, Yakov departed for Moscow with a report to Sverdlov. As soon as the Czechoslovaks seized Ekaterinburg, his apartment was pillaged.[163]

Skull of Skeleton №4 (Nikolai Romanov)

Over the years, a number of people claimed to be survivors of the ill-fated family. In May 1979, the remains of most of the family and their retainers were found by amateur enthusiasts, who kept the discovery secret until the collapse of Communism.[164] In July 1991, the bodies of five family members (the Tsar, Tsarina, and three of their daughters) were exhumed.[165] After forensic examination[166] and DNA identification,[167] the bodies were laid to rest with state honors in the St. Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, where most other Russian monarchs since Peter the Great lie.[14] Boris Yeltsin and his wife attended the funeral along with Romanov relations, including Prince Michael of Kent. The remaining two bodies of Tsesarevich Alexei and one of his sisters were discovered in 2007.[125][168]

On 15 August 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church announced the canonization of the family for their "humbleness, patience and meekness".[169] However, reflecting the intense debate preceding the issue, the bishops did not proclaim the Romanovs as martyrs, but passion bearers instead (see Romanov sainthood).[169] On 1 October 2008, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that Nicholas II and his family were victims of political repression and rehabilitated them.[170][171]

On Thursday, 26 August 2010, a Russian court ordered prosecutors to reopen an investigation into the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, although the Bolsheviks believed to have shot them in 1918 had died long before. The Russian Prosecutor General's main investigative unit said it had formally closed a criminal investigation into the killing of Nicholas because too much time had elapsed since the crime and because those responsible had died. However, Moscow’s Basmanny Court ordered the re-opening of the case, saying that a Supreme Court ruling blaming the state for the killings made the deaths of the actual gunmen irrelevant, according to a lawyer for the Tsar’s relatives and local news agencies.[172]

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Further reading

External links