Last month, I talked about the trial of Mary Bradbury. If you missed it, you may find the newsletter here. Editing for At the Mercy of the Sea is moving along, and I hope to get the manuscript to my editor soon. As the monsoons arrive, I am heading north to visit my son and to enjoy (hopefully) milder weather.
This month I wanted to examine one of the tragedies that has fascinated me for decades. Why are so many of us drawn to tragedy? I don’t know, but maybe that would be an interesting topic to explore some other time. Today though, I want to delve into the execution of the last of the Romanov dynasty.
First, I want to share a little background. In college, I majored in history, focusing mostly on United States History, though I also took courses in Asian and European history too. At that time, I became fascinated by Russian history and literature and decided to minor in Russian Studies. The culture was a fascinating mix of traditions stemming from the Kievan Rus and Muscovite peoples, Viking settlements along the Volga and Neva Rivers, Byzantine trade routes, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Tatar (Turkish and Mongolian) invasions, and intermarriage with Germanic and English royal families. While the lifestyle of the tsars (or czars) and their families seemed like a fairytale that continued long after the power of the Western monarchies had started to wane, the lives of the peasants were fraught with hardship and struggle. Into this mix the Enlightenment brought some limited change and education which would add fuel to the class struggles and ultimately lead to revolution and civil war.
It is easy to see why most Russian literature is fatalistic and steeped in tragedy like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina or else delves into the dark side of human nature like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or The Brother’s Karamosov. Even stories classified as Russian comedies like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Ilya Ilif and Evgeny Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs are more irony than what we would consider actual comedy. I can’t think of a Russian story with a fairytale ending (unless it was one of the many fictional accounts of Anastacia’s escape or rescue written by Western authors), which leads me to back the main topic of this newsletter.
In my March Newsletter I talked about the Abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and its implications on current events. In that article I indicated that I would delve into the execution of the Romanov family and the mystery of the missing two bodies. If you missed that newsletter, you may find it here. Now let’s delve into that tragic mystery.
The Romanov family, headed by Tsar Nicolas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children and their last remaining servants, were executed in the first hours of July 17, 1918, in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in the Siberian town of Ekaterinburg, where they had been held for 78 days. The White Army, which had hoped to rescue them, was approaching from the east, and was within twenty miles of the city.
On July 4, 1918, the Fifth Congress of Soviets opened in Moscow. On their agenda was the trial against the former emperor Nicholas Romanov, but on July 6th riots broke out in the capital and other concerns supplanted the trial of Nicholas II. Filipp Goloshchekin, secretary of the Urals Executive Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, a member of the Ural Provincial Soviet’s Presidium, and military commissar of the Ural District, gave the Ural Soviet the commission to conduct the trial, on behalf of the Central Executive Committee. However, by this time, the White Army was only days away from reaching Ekaterinburg.
The Ural Soviet Executive Committee’s Presidium met on July 14th and passed a resolution to execute “the former tsar Nicholas Romanov and his family, as well as the servants now with him.” Yakov Yurovsky was assigned the responsibility. Only days prior, the previous commander over the house guards, Alexander Avdeev, had been changed out in favor of Yurovsky because it was believed that he was too lax and lenient with the royal family.
Within three days of the executions, the White Army entered Ekaterinburg and began their investigation into the fate of the Romanovs. On August 7th, a new White Russian investigation was ordered by the presiding judge of the Supreme Court of Ekaterinburg. Most of what was known in the West for many decades during the regime of the Soviet Union came from Nicholas Sokolov’s investigation, which began in January of 1919, since he fled back to Europe with his collected evidence prior to the Red Army resurgence in July 1919. Of course, now since the fall of the Soviet Union, much more is now known, including interviews with the executioners, and evidence from the now excavated gravesites.
A lot has been written about what happened that night adding to the intrigue and mystery surrounding these events. For example, when Yakov Yurovsky described the execution, he reported that “eighteen pounds of diamonds were collected from the three corsets worn by the Grand Duchesses.” There were four daughters. What happened to the fourth corset? And the investigator Nicholas Sokolov reported finding three small icons carried by the Grand Duchesses. Again, what happened to the fourth one? As a result, claims have been made and numerous stories have been told over the years about the escape and survival of one or another of the Romanov children.
The larger gravesite was discovered in 1989, though it was not exhumed until 1991. It contained the nine bodies of the Tsar, Tsarina, three of their daughters, their attending physician, Nicholas’s valet, Alexandra’s maid, and their cook. There is evidence that sulfuric acid had been poured over the faces, presumably to disguise their identities’.
Two bodies, however, were missing, those of the young heir, Alexi, and one of the younger daughters, either Maria or Anastacia. Of course, this led to more speculation about where the missing children were and whether one or the other might have survived. Finally, in 2007, the remains of the two missing children were found in a different gravesite. It appears that they had been hacked apart and burned.
Despite finding remains of the final two children, interest in the Romanovs continues. For example, The Lost Daughter, by Gill Paul is a fascinating book written in 2018, based on the premise that Maria survived the tragedy. The author does a fabulous job of keeping close to the known facts (excepting of course the actual death of the protagonist), presenting a suspenseful double timeline story with an intriguing mystery, while weaving in historical and cultural aspects of Sydney, Australia during the early 1970s and Stalin’s Soviet Union. There are numerous other stories featuring Anastacia’s or Alexi’s escape too, though many stray significantly from the historical record or are poorly written.
The mystery that remains is, why were two of the bodies handled differently than the rest? And why where they moved after the initial disposal? After the execution, the bodies were loaded into a truck and driven out to a swampy bog area deep in the forest, called the Four Brothers, due to the four towering pine trees growing there at the time. The area also contained several abandoned mine shafts, into one of which the bodies were thrown after being stripped of clothing and personal items. The next day, the bodies were retrieved and moved. Several witnesses spotted them taking gasoline and sulfuric acid into the forest. The executioners seemed to have drawn more attention in moving the bodies, than if they had simply left them where they were. So, why move them at all?
The Ural Soviets clearly did not want the bodies found, especially since they only ever admitted to executing Nicholas II. Headlines in the days following read:
Ex-Tsar Shot at Ekaterinburg! and Death of Nicholas Romanov! (July 20, 1918)
“In view of the fact that Czechoslok bands are threatening the Red capital of the Urals, Ekaterinburg; that the crowned executioner may escape from the tribunal of the people ( a White Guard plot to carry off the whole Imperial family has just been discovered), the Presidium of the Divisional Committee in pursuance of the will of the people had decided that the ex-tsar Nicholas Romanov, guilty before the people of innumerable bloody crimes, shall be shot.” (July 22, 1918)
“The decision … was carried into execution on the night of July 16-17. Romanov’s family has been transferred from Ekaterinburg to a place of greater safety.” (July 22, 1918)
Clearly, the Ural Soviets did not want it known that the family had also been executed, perhaps for fear of incuring sympathy for the innocent family members and their servants. But it was a secret that could not be kept. At least seven men carried out the execution, with others driving trucks loaded with the bodies or supplies used in the cover up, out into the woods. The Ural Soviets Executive Committee Presidium also know, having authorized the mass execution two days prior.
As for the final disposal of the bodies, why were two of them dismembered and burned, while the rest were buried and doused with sulfuric acid? And if they had planned to burn the bodies why bring the sulfuric acid? Was it part of a backup plan? It is quite possible that the executioners had planned to burn all the bodies but discovered that it is much more difficult to burn bodies completely than they’d thought. It takes a very hot fire to consume bodies, especially in the open air, and a long time. They larger the fire and the longer it took, the more chance there would be that the townsfolk might find out what was happening.
It is also clear that they had planned to take the bodies further away, but their truck became stuck in the mud. So, in the end, they buried the remaining bodies under the dirt road and laid railroad ties over it to conceal the disturbance. Whatever the original plan had been, the result only added to the intrigue and mystery surrounding these events.
Next month I will explore a historical tragedy and mystery that has intrigued great numbers of people worldwide for over a century. If you have any comments on the end of the Romanov Dynasty or have other interesting stories you would like to share, please reply to this email. If you have any historical mysteries, events, or people that you would like to know more about, please let me know that too. I would love to delve into them for you!
Take care, and I will reach out again in next month!