Letter #34, 2018: The Family

Saturday, July 1st, 2018

“On July 14th, the Romanovs had unexpectedly been allowed the special privilege of a service, conducted for them at the Ipatiev House by a local priest, Father Ivan Storozhev.

“He had been deeply moved by their devotion and the enormous comfort they had clearly taken in being allowed to worship together; but he had also been chilled by an eerie sense of doom that had prevailed throughout the singing of the liturgy.

“It was almost as though the family had been sharing, knowingly, in their own last rites…”

—Description of the last days of the Romanovs in 1918, exactly 100 years ago, taken from a new book, The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family, by Helen Rappaport, excerpted in a July 2 article by Caroline Hallemann in Town and Country Magazine (link: https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a21939615/romanov-family-execution-100th-anniversary-book-excerpt/ )© 2018 by Helen Rappaport and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press)

“Unexpectedly, several of the guards refused point-blank to kill the girls.” —from the same account, describing the moment of the execution of the Romanovs on July 17, 1918

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On the border of Europe and Asia

I have come to Ekaterinburg, Russia, to be present at a commemorative liturgy on the 100th anniversary of the death of the Romanov family on the very site of their execution on July 17, 1918.

With me are 14 other pilgrims, all Americans, who have journeyed here with me because they feel it is important to stand in silent witness to the human tragedy of this event, at this time in human history, a mystifying and cruel time when every step forward in our scientific progress seems to bring with it the risk of losing sight of the most important thing about being human — that we have souls of eternal dignity.

The city is the third largest in Russia, with about 1.2 million inhabitants.

It sits in the foothills of the Ural mountains, on the border between Europe and Asia, making it, in a certain sense, a symbolic meeting place between East and West.

Flying in yesterday from Rome, massive cumulus clouds, set ablaze by the last rays of the sun, veiled the city…

Today, approaching the Church on the Blood, so named because it was built above the very spot where the execution of the Romanovs occurred — in the crypt of the church is a chapel on the spot where the basement room of the executions once stood — it seemed an ordinary, peaceful church on a pleasant July day…

And next to the church, and in other places in the city, there was a large photograph which showed the youngest of the Romanovs, Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia, with his mother, Alexandra, as a baby, and as a young lad. Alexei was shot with the rest of his family on the morning of July 17.

On the airplane from Rome, a Russian woman sat down next to me. Her name was Elena.

As we spoke, she told me that she was born in Moscow and raised Orthodox, but that she had married an Italian and had converted to Catholicism at the time of her marriage. And she said that her husband had just passed away 30 days ago, and she had been consoled at his death by her faith. I spoke a few words of condolence, and mentioned my own recent struggle, wrestling with the old age and mortality of my parents, in a world so focused on the seemingly endless vitality of the young, and forgetful of the aged and infirm.

“Yes,” Elena said, nodding. “Clearly our society is taking a wrong path. I have discussed this with my own sons. We are forgetting that our bodies are temporary dwelling places for our souls, which after our deaths will live on in another, mysterious way. This truth should give us a certain necessary humility in the face of our worldly successes, and a certain spiritual consolation when we face the loss of loved ones.”

The Elena added: “But the only way this Christian faith can reach the whole world in the centuries to come is if the Catholic and Orthodox Churches reunite.”

I was struck by her words. I told her that this was my own hope as well, because the Church had been united for more than 1,000 years, and only divided in 1054 A.D., and that part of what I wished to do in my writing was to help lay the possible basis for a deeper understanding and friendship between our separated Churches, and that this was the reason for my flight into Russia.

“Then,” she said, quite solemnly, “it was not at all by chance that our seats were next to each other on this plane, and I am here to tell you quite solemnly that you must keep on with what you are doing…”

The city does not seem fixated on this upcoming anniversary. People are going about their ordinary business. At breakfast I asked a young Russian waitress what she felt about the anniversary. She seemed for a moment unwilling to say anything, as if the matter was not relevant to her. And then she said, “Of course, it is something very sad, what happened to that family, those children…”

In an age when there seems to be a loss of historical memory, where we seem to be rushing into a brave new future without connection to our past, without regard to what our forefathers lived for and handed down to us as worthy of preservation, there lives in Ekaterinburg a sense in these days of the importance of memory, in order to heal the crimes and sufferings of the past.

The story of this family, of their love for one another and of their trust and faith in God, even as the doors closed on their freedom and their lives, lives on.

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A Glimpse of their Last Days

I just received an email from my friend Daniel Schmidt, former Vice-President of the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, now retired. He is in Ekaterinburg with me on this pilgrimage.

His email contains a link to a moving article that I thought so eloquent that it needed to be included in this letter. See the text below.

I hope to send other occasional dispatches from Ekaterinburg in coming days.

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Inside the Romanov Family’s Final Days

It’s been 100 years since the Tsar and his wife and children were brutally executed, but the story still has the power to shock.

by CAROLINE HALLEMANN

JULY 2, 2018

A century after the brutal murders of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, his wife Alexandra, and their five children (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei), the execution of the Russian imperial family continues to capture the popular imagination.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of their deaths, the following excerpt from Helen Rappaport’s new book,The Race to Save the Romanovs, details just what happened in the Romanovs’ final hours of captivity.

For the Romanov family at the Ipatiev House, Tuesday July 16 in Ekaterinburg was much like any other day, punctuated by the same frugal meals, brief periods of recreation in the garden, reading and games of cards.

Over the last three months, their lives had become deadened by the extreme constraints placed upon them and by a total lack of contact with the outside world.

It was only the fact that they were still together, and in Russia, that kept them going; that and their profound religious faith and absolute trust in God.

Since being brought here they had come to cherish the smallest and simplest of pleasures: the sun had shone; Alexey was recovering from his recent bout of illness, and the nuns had been allowed to bring him eggs; they had been granted the luxury of an occasional bath. Such are the few passing, mundane details from the Tsaritsa’s diary that have come down to us of the family in their final days and hours.

Yet, despite their brevity, they give us a clear and unshakeable image of the family’s state of calm — almost pious acceptance — at this time.

GRAND DUCHESSES MARIA, TATIANA, ANASTASIA AND OLGA, DAUGHTERS OF TSAR NICHOLAS II ROMANOV OF RUSSIA, CIRCA 1915. GETTY IMAGES

We have no way of seeing into the true workings of their hearts and minds, of course, but we do know from everything their guards later said that Alexandra in particular had by now resolutely given herself up to God.

She was in almost constant pain — her heart, her back, her legs, everything ached — and her faith was her only refuge.

She seemed content to retreat into a state of religious meditation, spending most of her time being read to from her favorite spiritual works, usually by Tatiana.

One of the girls always sat with her, giving up her precious recreation time when the others were allowed out into the garden.

But, as always, none of the four sisters ever complained.

They accepted their situation with incredible forbearance.

Nicholas, too, struggled on as best he could, buoyed up by his faith and the loving support of his daughters, although Olga — perhaps, of all the family, consumed by a private sense of despair — had become very thin and morose and was more withdrawn than ever.

Her brother and sisters, however, all longed for something to relieve their crippling boredom.

In the absence of access to the outside world, their only diversions were snatches of conversation with the more sympathetic of their guards, but even these had been severely curtailed by the new commandant, Yakov Yurovsky, at the beginning of July.

By the evening of the 16th we do not even have Nicholas’s few restrained daily comments to go on, for on Sunday the 13th, he had finally given up keeping his diary.

Its closing sentence, coming as it does at the end of a lifetime’s reticence, is an extraordinary and very real cry of despair: “We have absolutely no news from outside.”

News of the Russia they loved? News of relatives and friends left behind? Or news of would-be rescue by their “loyal officers?”

If by then Russia’s last tsar felt abandoned and forgotten, then the family must have sensed it too and shared in his despair.

But they did not show it.

And so we continue to ask ourselves: did they, in those final moments, when the guards came and woke them at 2.15 a.m. on the morning of the 17th and led them down the dingy stairs to the courtyard and across to the basement, have any inkling that this really was the end?

In Moscow, Lenin’s government had in fact been discussing what to do with Nicholas — and indeed the whole family — on and off since early April.

It had become increasingly apparent that the civil war now spreading to Siberia would make it impossible to bring the former Tsar back to Moscow for the long mooted trial, but Lenin had prevaricated on making a decision until counter-revolutionary forces were on the verge of taking Ekaterinburg.

In early July, knowing that sooner or later the city, an important strategic point on the Trans-Siberian Railway, would fall to the Whites and Czechs approaching from the east, a decision was taken that when the time came, the Ural Regional Soviet should “liquidate” the Imperial Family rather than have them fall into monarchist hands.

And they must all perish, in order to ensure, as Lenin insisted, that no “living banner” (that is, the children) survive as a possible rallying point for the monarchists.

But the murder of the children, which the Bolsheviks knew would provoke international outrage, must be kept secret for as long as possible.


TSAR NICHOLAS POSES WITH HIS CHILDREN BEFORE THE REVOLUTION. GETTY IMAGES

On July 14th, the Romanovs had unexpectedly been allowed the special privilege of a service, conducted for them at the Ipatiev House by a local priest, Father Ivan Storozhev.

He had been deeply moved by their devotion and the enormous comfort they had clearly taken in being allowed to worship together; but he had also been chilled by an eerie sense of doom that had prevailed throughout the singing of the liturgy.

It was almost as though the family had been sharing, knowingly, in their own last rites.

Yurovsky had, meanwhile, been planning the family’s murder, though with a surprising lack of efficiency for such a ruthless, dedicated Bolshevik.

He chose the site in the forest outside Ekaterinburg where the bodies were to be disposed of, but failed to check how viable it really was as a place of concealment.

He selected his team of killers from the guards at the house, but did so without ascertaining whether or not they knew how to handle a gun efficiently; and he investigated the best method of destroying eleven bodies using sulphuric acid or possibly incineration, again without any research into the logistics.

It was decided that the family would be killed there, in the house, in the basement room where any noise of shooting might be muffled.

Early on the evening of July 16, Yurovsky distributed the assortment of handguns to be used.

There was one gun for each guard; one murderer for each of the eleven intended victims: the Romanovs and their four loyal retainers, Dr Evgeniy Botkin, the chambermaid Anna Demidova, the valet Alexey Trupp, and the cook Ivan Kharitonov.

But then, unexpectedly, several of the guards refused point-blank to kill the girls.

Having talked with them on many occasions, they had grown to like them; what harm had they done anyone?

The intended murder squad was thus reduced to eight or nine who, when Yurovsky gave the order to open fire, launched into a frenzy of wildly inaccurate shooting, several of them disobeying instructions and shooting Nicholas first.

The other victims panicked in terror, necessitating the savage bayoneting of any survivors of the first onslaught.

One thing is clear: the Romanov family and their servants met their deaths in the most brutal, bloody and merciless way.

The corpses were then unceremoniously thrown into a Fiat truck and taken out to the Koptyaki Forest.

But the supposed mine shaft that Yurovsky had selected for them to be dumped in turned out to be too shallow; local peasants would easily find the bodies and seek to preserve them as holy relics.

And so, within hours, the mutilated corpses of the Romanov family, stripped of their clothes and the Tsaritsa’s jewels, which had been secreted in them, were hastily dug up.

Yurovsky and his men then made a botched attempt to incinerate the bodies of Maria and Alexey.

Sixty yards away, the rest of the family were hastily reburied in a shallow grave along with their servants.

People still insist, even today, on referring to what happened to the Romanov family as a execution.

It was not.

Nor was it an assassination, for even that word suggests a degree of planning and skill.

There was no trial for any of the family, no due process of law, no possibility of a defense or appeal.

What happened in the basement of the House of Special Purpose on Voznesensky Prospekt, Ekaterinburg, in the early hours of July 17, 1918, was nothing less than ugly, crazed and botched murder.

Despite the grotesque inefficiency with which Yurovsky and his men carried out these killings, and the even greater ineptitude with which they tried to dispose of the bodies, it would be sixty years before these lost graves would be found, in secret, by two local Russians.

But it was not till 2007 that the missing remains of Maria and Alexey would finally be discovered.

Excerpted from THE RACE TO SAVE THE ROMANOVS: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport. © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press

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P.S. If you have any interest in joining one of our upcoming pilgrimages, we have information packets on pilgrimages later this year, and in 2019 and 2020. The pilgrimages visit:

(1) Rome and Vatican City — including inside Vatican City

(2) The Italy of St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Catherine of Siena, and other saints

(3) England in the Footsteps of St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher and Blessed John Henry Newman

(4) Germany in the Footsteps of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI

(5) Russia: In Search of the Spiritual Renewal of Post-Soviet Russia

(6) Ireland: In Search of the Emerald Isle’s Past, and Future

(Write to us by return email, or via this email. Please note any particular interest; please include your phone number if you would like us to call you to discuss various pilgrimage packages.)

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By | 2018-07-18T18:39:22+00:00 Jul 16th, 2018|Categories: The Moynihan Letters|
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