Monday, July 16, 2018
“We have absolutely no news from outside.”—The final entry in the diary of Tsar Nicholas II, on July 13, 1918. On the night of July 16-17, 1918, he, his wife and his five children were executed. The execution occurred exactly 100 years ago tonight, at about 2:30 a.m. on July 18
“We have not forgotten them.” —One of hundreds of Russian Orthodox pilgrims today in Ekaterinburg to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of the Romanovs. I spoke with the pilgrim in the courtyard of the Church on the Blood, built above the spot where the execution occurred
Forgetting and Remembering
Today, the day of the much-discussed Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, is the 16th of July, the 100th anniversary of the last day of the Romanovs.
And so, amid the tectonic changes of global politics, the tragic fate of the Romanov family — and not only of the Romanovs, but of all those caught up in the brutal machinery of revolution and political strife — casts its long shadow down to this day.
During the last days and hours of their lives, in July 1918, the Romanovs were entirely cut off from the world.
It must have seemed to them that they had been forgotten.
The leaders of a 300-year-old dynasty in a great empire had been imprisoned and kept incommunicado by their captors for many weeks.
Then, they were awakened after midnight, brought to a basement room, and executed.
Ten decades have passed.
Russia became the Soviet Union, countess churches were dynamited or turned into latrines, the concept of the human soul changed.
The world changed. Modes of communication, ways of governing, customs of nations…
Then the Soviet Union became Russia again, in the time of John Paul II, and Gorbachev.
And yet, through these years, there has remained a sense that the brutal murder of the Romanovs represents an act of barbarity that, as all such acts, must be remembered in order not to be repeated.
And it is being remembered, in great solemnity, in Ekaterinburg, in these days.
Yesterday I drove to Alapayevsk, a little village two hours from Ekaterinburg, where the sister of Czarina Alexandra, Elizabeth Federovna, now St. Elizabeth in the Russian Orthodox Church, was executed on July 18, 1918, by being thrown down a mine-shaft.
I stood, for the first time, by that mine shaft, under tall evergreens.
Then I was privileged to be invited within the church nearby for a liturgy celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. Many of the descendants of the Romanovs were present, standing near to me.
The beautiful liturgy, which was written by St. John Chrysostom and is used not only by the Orthodox, but also by Eastern-rite Catholics, lasted nearly three hours. The intense heat in the small crowded church drew perspiration from all of us. My clothing was soaked with sweat. At about two hours, feeling faint and swaying a bit, I thought, “I cannot make it,” but still I managed to continue to the end.
After the liturgy, I was invited to a lunch, where I had the chance to speak briefly with Kirill, who knew I was a Catholic because we spent a week together at a conference in Vienna in 2006.
“When we pray together, we show our unity,” Kirill said. He knew I had just attended the liturgy.
Today, I attended Vespers in the Church on the Blood, and tonight at midnight I plan to be present at the liturgy commemorating the exact hour of the executions, on the exact spot where they occurred.
I was struck today by a poem that is also a prayer that I read it in the church (see image above). Four doves and small swan were flying in the sky — the Romanovs, the four daughters and the son. They died in part as a result of the sins of Russia, it said. But, it continued, the five, and all those devoted to their memory, pray to God that their killers may be forgiven.
The forgiveness of sins is the great question.
We know that the effects of sins unfold in a seemingly endless chain of consequences, “unto the third and fourth generation,” as scripture says, and we know that once a sin has been committed, it cannot be uncommitted, so the chain of evil consequences seems inevitable, ineluctable, unchangeable, predestined.
We know that the Romanov dynasty was not without sin, and that the Romanovs were unable to bring complete justice despite their notional absolute power.
Nor did their executioners, the Soviet Communists, manage to bring justice. After executing the Romanovs, they executed many more, in a spiral of passionate purges that led to rivers of blood.
So what value can there be in forgiving sins, in forgiving the executioners of the Romanovs, if the consequences of those sins unfold in any case?
It can only be that the soul itself has a value, hidden from our sight, and that that value is absolute.
It can only be that, despite the extension in time of the consequences of sin, of further sorrow and misery beyond the imaginations of those who commit sins, there is a value in returning to that first moment, that first betrayal, that first bite of the apple, and, though the consequences cannot be undone, nevertheless, heal that first departure from the path of justice and goodness.
The healing is of a spiritual nature. It occurs in eternity, not in time. But perhaps even in time there can be in such a healing of sinful souls an effect that unleashes its own chain of ineluctable consequences, not for evil and cruelly, but for good, and kindness.
Tonight, after the liturgy, retracing the events of that night 100 years ago, there will be a five-hour walk, from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., from the church to the countryside outside of Ekaterinburg, where the corpses of the Romanovs were brought that night, and partially buried, in haste.
We plan to make that walk…
Below is an article from March 1928, 10 years after 1918, published in The Atlantic magazine by Edmund Walsh. Though historical research has changed some of the details of the history recounted, it remains a useful and fascinating account of what happened to the Romanovs. Though it is long, it seems worth sharing.
The Last Days of the Romanovs
By Edmund Walsh
The Atlantic, March 1928 issue
The reasons for the summary and unexpected transference of the ex-Tsar and his family to Siberia, entailing, as it did, fatal consequences that are now part of history, were explained by Mr. Kerensky to the ex-Emperor with careful precision, and have been similarly repeated to this day by apologists of the régime responsible for it.
It was due, the Premier insisted, to the concern felt by the Provisional Government for the physical safety of the prisoners.
The Cabinet had decided to suppress with a firm hand the increasing disorder in the country and come to grips with the growing challenge of Bolshevism.
Such a step would very probably lead to popular rioting, which, in turn, would have to be met with armed force; should serious strife ensue, the royal family would be among the first victims demanded by the mob. He had experienced one such manifestation already. At Moscow, as early as March 20, extremists had interrupted Kerensky during his first speech in that city and demanded the execution of the Tsar. Kerensky had shouted in reply: ‘I will not be the Marat of the Russian Revolution!’
One abortive attempt, moreover, had actually been made to kidnap the Tsar and imprison him in the Russian Bastille, the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. A certain Maslovsky, a Social Revolutionary of the Left, had presented himself one day, in the uniform of a colonel, to Khobylinsky, the responsible officer in charge of the Summer Palace, and presented an order requiring the Commandant to deliver up Nicholas Romanov.
The document purported to be issued by the Executive Committee of Workmen and Soldiers, bore an authentic seal, and was signed by Tcheidze, a member in good standing of the Duma. Maslovsky declared that he was empowered to conduct the Emperor immediately to St. Peter and St. Paul. Khobylinsky refused to acknowledge such authority; Maslovsky lost his head, stormed about, poured abuse on Khobylinsky, and threatened vaguely that blood would flow. But Khobylinsky held his ground and Maslovsky made off in a rage.
Those who have ever seen two Russians of the revolutionary period, each armed with class-consciousness and a ‘mandate’ arguing their respective rights and jurisdiction, will readily visualize this scene at the gate of the Summer Palace.
With a view to averting similar dangers in the uncertain future, Mr. Kerensky had dispatched two confidential agents, Verchinin and Makaroy, to Siberia for the purpose of selecting a spot sufficiently remote from Moscow where the prisoners would not be exposed to the threat of mob violence. They chose Tobolsk, a town of twelve thousand inhabitants, on the right bank of the River Irtysh, near the mouth of the Tobol, some two thousand miles from Petrograd. It was a tranquil spot, undisturbed by the revolution; then, too, it boasted a comfortable Governor’s Palace which had been prepared for the ex-Tsar and his family.
But why, asks Nicholas Sokolov, the judge who conducted the judicial inquiry into the circumstances of the murder, did not Mr Kerensky send the family to South Russia—to the Crimea, for example, where so many royalists had found safe refuge? If Mr. Kerensky was sincere in his protestations of concern for the safety of his charges, why did he not send them to the one region from which escape to a foreign land was still possible? All the relatives of the imperial family who reached the Crimea were eventually saved.
Mr. Kerensky replies that a voyage through the heart of Russia, then in the hands of revolting peasants and Bolshevist workmen, was impossible. But was not a journey by rail and water from Petrograd to Tobolsk equally perilous, counters Judge Sokolov.
No, answers Mr. Kerensky: the regions to the east were not aflame with revolution and peasant uprisings as was South Russia. Judge Sokolov is not satisfied, and his final report indicates that there was but ‘one reason for the choice of Siberia—the dethroned Autocrat of All the Russias must be made to taste the bitterness and dreariness of exile in Siberia, must be made to experience the icy blasts of that House of Dead Souls to which he and his ancestors had banished so many Russians!
On August 14, at 6.10 in the. morning, the journey was begun, but not until the ex-Tsar had spent a dismal night—sitting in a large salon on the ground floor, waiting patiently for the train which had been promised for the previous evening. The Tsarevitch celebrated his thirteenth birthday on the eve of the departure. Forty-six court attendants voluntarily accompanied the family, making, in all, a party of fifty-three persons, exclusive of the military escort. It took two trains to accommodate the travelers, their baggage, the government representatives, the jailers and soldiers. By rail to Tiumen, thence by river steamer to Tobolsk, the trip consumed five days and ended at four o’clock in the afternoon of August 19. Pierre Gilliard, who accompanied the exiles, relates an incident that must have awakened memories that stabbed. On the eighteenth the boat passed Pokrovskoie, the birthplace of Rasputin. The house of the staretz was plainly visible among the izbas. Did the Tsarina, standing an exile on the deck, recall the prophecy of Rasputin: “My death will be your death’?
Life at Tobolsk during the first few months was another idyll of domestic calm and undisturbed tranquillity. The ex-Tsar breakfasted, studied, walked, lunched, exercised, dined, taught history to Alexis, and held family reunions in the evening to an extent never possible before. Special religious services were held for the royal family in. the town church and they were permitted to leave the house for that purpose. The children prepared and enacted dramatic pieces in French and English. The townspeople showed themselves courteous and sympathetic, frequently sending gifts, particularly fresh food, and saluting the members of the family respectfully or blessing them with the sign of the cross when they appeared at the windows of the Palace. It was only, the unending monotony, the drab Siberian monotony, that oppressed, together with the almost complete absence of news.
The first rift appeared in September 1917. Two new Commissars, Pankratov and Nikoisky, arrived, with authority from the Provisional Government to supersede the humane Khobylinsky, who remained, however, in a subordinate capacity. Had his régime been too mild?
In any case, the new Commandants, who were Social Revolutionaries, one of1a genial but fanatical and the other of a vulgar mentality, instituted a propaganda which rapidly demoralized the guards and initiated a progressive persecution of the prisoners. Insulting inscriptions began to appear on the walls and the fences. The soldiers now refused to return the salute which Nicholas scrupulously accorded each in passing. Permission to attend divine service in the outside church was withdrawn. Nicholas was ordered to remove his epaulettes. The harmless ‘snow mountain,’ which the whole family had built as a joint recreation and which gave them much distraction, was demolished.
It is not within the scope of the present article to trace, step by step, the declining fortunes of the Kerensky Government and, the corresponding rise of the Bolshevist power. Suffice it to say, at this point, that the reasons for the increasing severity in the treatment of the royal hostages became apparent in distant Tobolsk about the middle of November. The Petrograd experimentation in democracy was at an end; Russia’s one short summer of freedom had passed and a change of masters was at hand. While the Duma theorized and perorated interminably, Lenin mounted to the balcony of the Kseshinskaya Palace—owned by a ballet dancer once the favorite of Nicholas II—and shouted his political platform in four promises: ‘Peace, land, bread, power.’
Magic words, easily understood by all! Under the irresistible appeal of universal formulas, never intended to be fulfilled, popular imagination, already surfeited with war and hungry for booty, was whipped to easy mutiny. Petrograd seethed again. Russia was put on the auction block; Lenin simply outbid Kerensky. Constitutional Democracy was swept into the discard and Militant Communism emerged an undisputed victor. It was a second Russian Revolution, which left Nicholas Romanov and his family in the hands of his most relentless personal enemies.(1)
When a Bolshevik draws his sword in class warfare, he throws away the scabbard. Vae victis!
The long-postponed, liquidation of a three-hundred-years-o1d account was about to begin. The punishment started in the kitchen. First coffee, cream, milk, butter, and sugar were removed from the table of the prisoners at Toboisk. News of the signing of the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk reached Siberia toward the middle of the following March. Nicholas was saddened and embittered. ‘It is such a disgrace for Russia,’ he said, ‘and amounts to suicide. I should never have thought the Emperor William could stoop to shake hands with these miserable traitors. But I’m sure they will get no good from it; it won’t save them from ruin.’
The ex-Tsar indignantly repudiated the suggestion made in the newspapers that Germany had demanded that the Soviets hand over to them the person of, the Tsar unharmed. ‘That is either a maneuver to discredit me or an insult.’ Pierre Giliard adds that the Tsarina said in a low voice, ‘After what they have done to the Tsar, I would rather die in Russia than be saved by the Germans.’
Then follows a most significant entry in Gilliard’s journal of the captivity:-
Friday, March 22: At a quarter past nine, after the evening service, everyone went to Confession—children, servants, suite, and finally Their Majesties.
But it was not until April 22 that the real prologue to the tragedy began. On the evening of that day still another figure appears on the scene in the person of Vassili Vassilievich Jakolev, in command of a troop of one hundred and fifty horsemen, including an experienced telegraph operator. It was late and dark when he arrived; nothing could be done then, so the latest arrival from Moscow passed the night. in the Kornilov house opposite the Tsar’s prison.
The next morning he introduced himself to Khobylinsky as an ‘Extraordinary Commissar,’ producing three documents from the Tzik, the Central Executive Committee of the new Soviet Government. The first two papers, addressed to Khobylinsky and the guard, respectively, required entire and immediate submission to any order of Jakolev, who was authorized to shoot them on the spot should they disobey. The third document declared that Jakolev was charged with a mission of ‘particular importance.’ These orders were signed by Sverdlov, Chairman of the Central Executive Committee, and by another Soviet official, Ovanessov.
The nature of the particularly important mission was revealed at two o’clock on the afternoon of April 25, when Jakolev appeared before the ex-Tsar; having asked the Empress to leave the room (which she refused to do), Jakolev began:-‘I have to tell you that I am the special representative of the Moscow Central Executive Committee, and my mission is to take all your family out of Tobolsk, but as your son is ill I have received a second order which says that you alone must leave.’
Nicholas replied: ‘I will not go anywhere.’
Jakolev protested: ‘I beg of you not to refuse. I am compelled to execute the order. In case of your refusal I must take you by force or resign. In the latter case they would probably decide to send a less scrupulous sort of man to take my position. Be calm; I am responsible with my life for your security. If you do not want to go alone you could take with you the people you desire. Be ready; we are leaving to-morrow at four o’clock.’
No indication was vouchsafed as to the ultimate destination; but Khobylinsky was able to deduce from certain hints let fall by Jakolev as to time and distance that it was Moscow. He communicated his belief to the royal pair. ‘Then,’ said Nicholas, ‘they are trying to make me sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. I will let them cut off my hand rather than do it.’ ‘I will go with him!’ cried the Empress, in a violent agitation. ‘If I am not with him they will force him to sign something as they did before.’ She mentioned Rodzianko, evidently referring to the abdication at Pskov.
Alexandra suspected a German intrigue and, declared to Gilliard that afternoon, in a tempest of emotion: ‘They will take him away, alone, in, the night.’…I cannot abandon him at such a moment….I know, they are preparing some ignominy…. They will make him sign a peace at Moscow….The Germans are behind it, knowing that only a treaty signed by the Tsar has any value. My duty is never to permit that nor abandon him. But how can I leave Alexis? What would become of him without me?’
Tom between love of son and fear for the safety of husband,—or was it apprehension that he might again show, a weakness detrimental to the dynastic rights of Alexis?—She paced distractedly back and forth, like a caged tigress, wringing her hands and talking to herself. Gilliard makes the following record:-I remember with precision the next phrase she spoke. ‘Oh, God! What a ghastly torture!…This is the first time in my life that I am not sure what I should do.’
But she finally found herself and became the old Alexandra Feodorovna of the Rasputin days.
‘Now I am determined.’…At that moment Nicholas entered, returning from his walk.
‘I will not let thee go alone!’ she cried. ‘I will go with thee!’
‘As you will,’ he replied.
It was agreed that the Empress and the Grand Duchess Marie should accompany the ex-Tsar, while Alexis and the three remaining Grand Duchesses were to be entrusted to the protection of Gilliard. They left the Tsarevitch suffering from a cruel attack of his hereditary disease and bathed in tears.
But before their departure another messenger had slipped out of Tobolsk. It was a spy, of Jewish extraction, Zaslavsky by name, who, after insinuating himself into the favor of the local guards, had spread poisonous rumors as to the intentions of Jakolev and had, moreover, sent reports by wire to Sverdlov in Moscow. Now that the transfer was about to take place, he took a six hours’ start and reached Ekaterinburg in time to play his part in the weaving of the complicated net of death.
The travelers began their journey on April 26. It was a horror. No conveyances were available except the peasant tarantass, consisting of a large wicker basket resting on poles in place of springs. Passengers lie or sit on the straw-covered floor, at the mercy of every jolt. The roads were what all country roads in Russia are in early spring—quagmires of clinging mud. The horses floundered about, up to their knees in ooze and to their chests in water when crossing rivers. Wheels were broken, horses exhausted, and passengers bruised and sore. But at last the two hundred and eighty versts to Tiumen, the nearest railroad station, were covered in safety, and an assuring message came back to Tobolsk on April 28: ‘Traveling in comfort. How is the Boy? God be with you.’
But dead silence thereafter until May 7. Then a letter, from Ekaterinburg with the laconic announcement that they were well. Nothing more. Why Ekaterinburg? An agony of fear descended on the children at Tobolsk. Ekaterinburg was the headquarters of the Ural Soviets. What and who had diverted their parents to the stronghold of the Reds? The mystery remained unsolved—as, in fact, it remains to this day—until, on May 8, the officers and men of the guard who started out with, Jakolev returned to Tobolsk and told a story which, while it does not explain, at least describes the occurrence.
Once on the open road, Jakolev manifested a feverish desire to hasten forward without losing an instant. He seemed possessed by some secret, driving fear. Despite the appalling condition of the roads, he would permit neither, halts nor relaxation of speed. En route, the cavalcade passed the house of.Rasputin in Pokrovskoie; the wife and children of the murdered staretz were standing in the doorway and made the sign of the cross over the royal couple as they swept by. Arriving at Tiumen on the evening of the twenty-seventh, Jakolev conducted his prisoners to a waiting train arid started westward toward European Russia by the line passing through Ekaterinburg. But on approaching that city, with no intention of stopping, he learned, no one knows how, that the local authorities would not permit him to pass, but intended to arrest him. He doubled on his tracks and sped at full steam back to Tiumen and took the alternative, but longer, Cheliabinsk-Ufa route to Moscow. At the station of Koulomzino, the last stop before. Omsk, his train was again halted, this time by a massed contingent of Red Guards who declared that the Soviet of Ekaterinburg had pronounced him an outlaw for having attempted to rescue Nicholas Romanov and transport him to a foreign land.
The spy, Zaslavsky, had arrived in time!
Jakolev then uncoupled his engine and rode into Omsk, where he spoke by direct wire with someone in Moscow. He was ordered to proceed via Ekaterinburg. This he did, with train and passengers. The convoy had barely steamed into the station of that city when this amazing game of hare and hounds came to an abrupt end. Jakolev was surrounded by Red soldiers, his guard disarmed and thrown into a cellar. Jakolev himself went to the office of the local Soviet for a conference; he soon came out, crestfallen, his authority gone. The three royal prisoners were conducted to a house that had been hurriedly requisitioned from a wealthy Siberian merchant named Ipatiev and there imprisoned. It was to be their death chamber. After a few days the soldiers imprisoned in the cellar, Jakolev’s Tobolsk detachment, were released; Jakolev himself left for Moscow and from there sent a message to his private telegraph operator at Tobolsk: -Gather together the company and come back. I have resigned. I take no responsibility for the consequences.
With the exit and disappearance of the mysterious Commissar charged with his mission of ‘particular importance’ vanished the key of that bewildering performance. He is never to be heard from again; report had it later that he had been killed in battle, fighting on the side of the Whites. At the end of this artic1e I shall hazard a guess as to who Comrade Jakolev really was.
On May 23 the Tsarevitch Alexis and his three sisters arrived at Ekaterinburg from Tobolsk; the entire family was thus reunited, never again to be separated. But the two foreign tutors, Gilliard and Gibbs, were not permitted to continue in attendance on their pupils. They remained in Ekaterinburg, however, until the arrival of the White troops.
The imprisonment which now began was far different in character and severity from the preceding periods. Brutality replaced respect: the thirst for vengeance became increasingly apparent in the attitude of the jailers. Two hoardings of rough logs aid planks were erected around the Ipatiev house, the outer one a short distance from the first stockade, leaving a walking space between. These barricades reached to the level of the second-story windowtops, thus completely isolating the prisoners from sight and the outside world from them. To ensure a complete screen, the windows themselves were painted. The Grand Duchess Anastasia, driven desperate by the isolation, once opened her window, and looked out. She was driven back by a shot from a sentry, the bullet lodging in the woodwork of the window frame.” A machine gun was mounted on the roof of the house directly opposite and trained on the Ipatiev house; guards were posted at every corner of the stockade as well as at the doors of the rooms where the prisoners ate, slept, and congregated. The first floor was occupied by the Bolshevist guards; the royal family was quartered on the second.
For the first time the prisoners were subjected to personal search. Avdeiev, the Commandant of the ‘House of Special Designation,’ rudely snatched a reticule from the hands of. the Empress. Nicholas protested: ‘Until now I have had honest and respectful men around me.’
Didkovsky, one of the searchers, retorted: ‘Please remember that you are under,arrest and in the hands of justice.’
Tchemodourov, the Tsar’s faithful valet. who accompanied the, family throughout their imprisonment, has left, under oath, a deposition the bare recital of which makes comment superfluous:
Night and day three Red guards were posted on the first floor, one at the door, one in the vestibule, and one at the door of the [only] toilet. The conduct of these men was gross; cigarettes hanging on their lips, vulgar and half-clothed, their looks, actions, and habitual manners inspired fear and disgust…. When the young Grand Duchesses passed on their way to the toilet room the guards followed, under pretense of watching them; they addressed indecent remarks to the girls, asking them whither they were going. and for what purpose. While the girls were inside, the guards lounged against the door…. The food was bad, coming all prepared from a Soviet dining room. [Later they were allowed to have their own cook.] Their Majesties always ate in company with the domestics….They would put a soup tureen on the table, but there would’ not be enough spoons or knives or forks. The Red guards sat by our side and ate from the same dishes. One day a soldier plunged his spoon into the soup tureen, saying, ‘Enough for you—I will be served.’ Another day Avdeiev [the Commandant] kept his hat on and smoked a cigarette. As we ate our cutlets, he took his plate and, interposing his arms between the Emperor and the Empress, helped himself. As he took the meat, he managed to bend his elbow and strike the Emperor on the chin.
The very walls of the Ipatiev house, particularly in the lavatory, were made to contribute something to the mental suffering of the helpless victims. The guards, under the tutelage of a certain Bielomoine, covered them with ribald verses and gross sketches caricaturing the Empress and Rasputin. On another occasion Faya Safonov, one of the most offensive of the guards, climbed a fence to the level of the Tsarina’s window and sang filthy songs at her.
The girls had a swing in the garden; soldiers carved indecent words on the seat.
Under the moral torture and physical confinement — toward the end the prisoners were allowed but five minutes in the garden each day — the ex-Tsar maintained that astonishing external calm and passivity which characterized his whole life. His health did not seem to weaken, nor did his hair whiten. During the few minutes allowed for exercise in the open air, he carried the Tsarevitch in his arms, as the boy was unable to walk, and marched stolidly up and down until his precious five minutes were over. But the Empress never left the porch; she aged visibly, her health failed, and gray hairs appeared.
The first days of July brought important and ominous changes in the personnel guarding the prisoners. Avdeiev and his colleagues, Moshkin and all the peasant-soldiers who had been recruited locally from the Zlokazov and Sissert factories, were dismissed or removed to a position outside the house. All ‘key’ stations were taken by ‘reliable’ guards, a sure indication that murder was contemplated.
Three entirely new figures now glide into the picture —Jankel Mikhaiovich Jurovsky, who assumed the duties of Commandant vacated by Avdeiev, Chaia Isaacovich Golostchekin, an active and influential member of the Bolshevist Party, and Alexander Georgevich Bieloborodov, the twenty-five-year-old peasant who served as President of the Soviet of the Ural region. Jurovsky and Golostchekin were of Jewish birth, while Bieloborodov was of purely Slavic origin. All three were leading spirits in the local organ of terrorism, the Chrezvychaika, commonly called the ‘Cheka’ or secret police, and had contributed their share to its final roll call of 1,800,000 victims. All, particularly Golostchekin, were in close relation with another Jewish. Commissar, Jankel Sverdlov, who was at that time undisputed master of Moscow as Chairman of the Central Executive committee of the All-Russian Congress. It was to Sverdlov that reports would be directed from Ekaterinburg.
The new arrivals were accompanied by ten Lettish soldiers—that is, by a detachment of those hardened shock troops whose ruthless brutality won for them the reputation of being the bashi bazouks of the Russian Revolution. In the present instance certain circumstances would indicate that this group were really Magyars. In any case, the Cheka simply followed its common practice in thus removing all strictly Russian guards from immediate participation in the most comprehensive act of regicide in the history of a people whose annals reek with deeds of violence and bloodshed.
Golostchekin had been in Moscow for the two weeks preceding the night of the murder, remaining absent until the fourteenth of July. During that time he was closeted in frequent conference with Sverdlov, with whom he lodged. Bieloborodov kept him informed by wire of events at the Ipatiev house. In the meantime, Jurovsky had been seen by townsfolk on several occasions surveying the woods in the suburbs of Ekaterinburg; a week before the murder he was discovered in the same occupation near the locality which subsequent investigation determined as the spot where the funeral pyre had been erected.
On July 14, the day of Golostchekin’s return from Moscow, an Orthodox priest of Ekaterinburg, Storobjev by name, was permitted.to celebrate Mass for the prisoners. He testified later that Jurovsky had remarked :-
You have said Mass here before?
Well and good. You will do it once again.
Storojev further deposed:-
According to the liturgy governing a low Mass, at a determined moment, the following prayer must be read: May the souls of the departed rest in peace with Thy saints. I do not know why he did it, but my deacon, instead of merely reading the prayer, began to chant it. [This prayer is never sung except at funerals.] I followed suit, though somewhat irritated at his violation of the canons. We had barely begun when we heard, behind us, the noise of the whole imperial family throwing themselves on their knees…. At the end of the service they all approached to kiss the Cross and the deacon gave the Blessed Bread to both Emperor and Empress…. The deacon and I left in silence…. Suddenly, in front of the School of Fine Arts, the deacon said to me, Do you know, something has happened to them. As his words corresponded exactly to what I was, thinking, I stopped and asked him why he thought so. I am sure, he said; they seem so changed, and not one of them sang today. He was right, because for the first time, on July 14, not one of the Romanovs accompanied us by singing.
On Monday, the fifteenth, four women were admitted into the death house and ordered to scrub the parquet floors. Their testimony, taken before the Commission of Inquiry, establishes the fact that the entire imperial family was alive on that day and in good health.
On the same day, two lay sisters from a local institution, Antonina Trinkina and Maria Krokhaleva, presented themselves as usual with milk for the prisoners. Jurovsky himself received the charitable offering and informed them that on the morrow they should bring not only milk but fifty eggs, carefully packed in a basket. This the good Samaritans gladly did on the sixteenth, all unconscious of the cynical preparation Jurovsky was making to ensure a luncheon for his executioners in the woods after the deed of blood was done and the traces removed. During the minute examination of the ground in the forest at the spot where the bodies were cremated, the indefatigable Nicholas Sokolov discovered a mass of broken eggshells.
Final preparations seem to have been completed by Tuesday, July 16. On that day the boy Leonid Sednev, a playmate of the Tsarevitch, was removed from the house and transferred to an adjoining building. He was never seen again, except for a brief moment next day as he sat in tears at an open window. Five motor lorries were requisitioned from the official Bolshevist garage, and the chauffeurs were instructed to have, them in readiness outside the Ipatiev house at midnight. On one of these trucks were placed two barrels of benzine and a few smaller jugs containing a supply of sulphuric acid. The Commission of Inquiry which gathered and laboriously analyzed every scrap of evidence bearing on the gruesome happenings of those twenty-four hours was able to establish from the confiscated receipts delivered by Jurovsky for these supplies, that the barrels held more than three hundred litres of benzine and the jugs one hundred and ninety kilogrammes of the deadly acid. These destructive precautions had been obtained on mandates signed by Voikov, who paid for his zeal with his life; he was assassinated by a Russian exile at Warsaw, in June 1927.
The instruments of death were provided; the grave was ready; the executioners were resolved, and the victims were asleep in their beds. It was Tuesday night, July 16, 1918.
The knell sounded shortly after midnight, when Jurovsky knocked at the door of the ex-Emperor and bade Nicholas arise and dress. The same summons was delivered to the Tsarina, the children, and their suite. Jurovsky explained to Nicholas that the Siberian Army, under Admiral Kolchak, and the Czechoslovak troops, those former prisoners of war who had succeeded in arming themselves and were now a serious menace to the Soviet regime in Siberia, were approaching Ekaterinburg; an engagement was imminent, and bullets would be flying in the streets. In his solicitude for the safety of the royal family he must insist that they come below stairs, where they would be secure from accident or injury. The ex-Tsar, seemingly, was satisfied, credulous as always, and did not appear to suspect a trap The women dressed and washed, not omitting, however, to put on the specially prepared clothes into the lining and hems of which they had previously sewn jewels and bank-notes against the hoped-for day of escape. Several cushions had likewise been filled with precious stones and money; in all, one million rubles, some hing over $500,000 had been secreted.
To reach the safe place designated by Jurovsky, they descended a flight of steps, passed into the open courtyard, and thence approached a semi-basement, eighteen by sixteen feet in dimensions. The single door was open, awaiting their coming; there was no other exit, as the inside door entering into a farther room was barred and obstructed on the other side. The only window, opening on to the Vosnesensky Lane that traversed the back of the house, was protected by a heavy iron grille. Outside this window stood sentries, their faces pressed against the grimy glass, able to see all that passed within, especially as the room had been lighted, for the better aim of the executioners. The testimony of these onlookers forms one of the strongest elements in the convincing depositions gathered during the inquiry. There was, moreover, another window, opening not directly into the room, but into a lobby before it; this window commanded a view of the interior, and here too stood a sentry who witnessed the butchery. The deposition of Medvedev, one of the actual participants in the murder, later captured by the Whites; the description given to Yakimov by Klescheev and Deriabin, the sentries who gazed spellbound through these windows; and the account of Proskouriakov, the Red guard who removed the bloodstains from the floor with water, mop, and sawdust, make it possible to reconstruct the tragedy in all its hideous detail.
The midnight procession, in passing through the dim courtyard, must have seen the motor trucks silhouetted against the summer sky. In that northern latitude it is light until after 10 P.M.; it is never wholly dark, especially on clear nights, and dawn appears as early as two in the morning. They doubtless imagined the vehicles were for their escape in case of danger, or possibly for the baggage. Not one of the victims seems to have suspected what lay beyond that open door through which light was streaming into the courtyard. Above, nothing to be seen but sharp points of light, like a myriad watching eyes in a clear blue sky; below, shadowy figures lurking at corners and along the inner stockade; no sound, except the shuffling of many feet on the dirt walk. Jurovsky marshaled them, leading the way and beckoning toward the open door; behind followed Medvedev and the scowling Letts, eleven men, fingering their pistols as they closed in on their unsuspecting victims.
As it is the last time we shall look upon their faces before the fiery acid eats away all traces of a human countenance, let us note them carefully as they pass into the shambles:
1. Nicholas Romanov, fifty years of age, late Tsar of All the Russias, carrying in his arms
2. The Tsarevitch, Alexis, a boy, of fourteen years, heir to the throne [Note: he was actually 13];
3. , Alexandra Feodorovna, forty-six years old, late Empress, born Princess Alice of Hesse, favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England;
4. The Grand Duchess Olga, eldest daughter, twenty-three years of age;
5. The Grand Duchess Tatiana, daughter, twenty-one years of age;
6. The Grand Duchess Maria, daughter, nineteen years of age;
7. The Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter, seventeen years of age;
8. Dr. Eugene Sergeievich Botkin, physician to the royal family, a stout, gray-haired man, between fifty-five and sixty years of age;
9. Anna Demidova, a chambermaid, tall, thin, dark, about forty-years of age;
10. Ivan Haritonov, cook to the imperial family, a short man, slightly bald, with black hair and moustache, aged forty years;
11. Alexis Troupp, a footman, tall, thin, dark, thirty-five years of age.
Once having entered, exit for them is barred by the executioners, who mass themselves before the door, awaiting the prearranged signal. Nicholas, still believing that the family is about to be conveyed to a place of safety, requests that chairs be brought for the Empress and the children. It is done. They rest, waiting in simple expectation, hats on and clad in traveling clothes.
At this point the available testimony, which covers volumes, diverges slightly, but only in unimportant chronological details. According to some witnesses, Jurovsky, standing at the head of his file, suddenly produced a paper and read what purported to be a death warrant which authorized him to execute Nicholas the Bloody and all his family; others, not mentioning the death warrant, depose that Jurovsky suddenly addressed Nicholas thus:-
Your relatives have sought to rescue you, but it could not be managed by them and so we ourselves are obliged to kill you.
The ex-Tsar did not seem to understand and asked: What do you mean?
This is what I mean! cried Jurovsky, firing point-blank at the Emperor with his automatic revolver, killing him instantly.
The scene that followed must await its own proper Dante. Twelve revolvers bellowed thunder and spat tongues of fire; the hollow chamber, reverberating with the explosions, filled up with smoke and acrid fumes; not once nor twice, but again and again each Lett, frenzied with primeval blood-lust, fired, choosing his, own particular victim. With twelve men letting loose the pent-up hatreds of three hundred years, it is not unreasonable to expect that each empties the clip of his automatic, which would make nearly a hundred shots. Medvedev, a participant, confessed that the sight, with the blended smell of blood and powder fumes, nauseated him. The petrified onlookers at the windows were harrowed by the shrieks of women and the groans of men; Alexis, the Tsarevitch, was not killed outright, but moaned and writhed over the bodies of his dead parents. It was Jurovsky who finally dispatched him with his revolver. Those who still breathed were bayoneted to death. The floor was chipped and torn with bayonet thrusts driven through the soft bodies. A little dog, a King Charles spaniel, pet of the Grand Duchess Anastasia and brought down by her in her arms, ran hysterically about, darting between the legs of friend and foe, barking furiously. Floor and walls were spattered with blood and bits of clinging flesh.
Twenty-three living persons had entered that narrow cellar—eleven prisoners and the twelve guards conducting them to a place of greater safety. As dawn began to streak the sky, twelve persons came out, leaving eleven corpses safely within, lying in pools of blood that spread in widening circles out into the corridor. Such evidence must be removed; Jurovsky called for Proskouriakov to mop up the floor, scatter sawdust about, and cleanse the walls. Sheets were then brought from upstairs; into them the bleeding bodies were rolled and then piled pell-mell into the waiting motor truck, precedence no longer observed.
Twelve miles northwest of Ekaterinburg, on the shores, of Lake Isset, stands the secluded little village of Kopchiki, in the centre of a heavily wooded forest. Once the site of extensive mining operations, it was now deserted, save for the scattered peasant families, who remained unaffected by the coming and going of miners and engineers. Off the beaten track, forgotten and insignificant, the Siberian hamlet slumbered in obscurity—until July 17, 1918.
Early that morning, Anastasia Zykova, a peasant, accompanied by her son Nicholas and her daughter-in-law Maria, started before sunup for Ekaterinburg, with horse and cart, to sell their catch of fish. They had barely passed one of the abandoned mines, the one known as Four Brothers because of the four pine trees that once stood there—when they perceived a procession of some sort approaching them. It took the form of several vehicles guarded by Red horsemen. Barely recovered from their surprise at the early morning apparition, they were further dismayed when two of the horsemen galloped swiftly forward to intercept them. The soldiers reined up before the Zykovi, ordered them curtly and with menace in their voices to turn back to their village, and, above all, not to dare to look behind. The simple peasants obeyed, turned their horses head toward home, and retreated. But one of the women looked back, whereupon the two Red guards galloped in pursuit and with drawn revolvers accompanied the party nearly a mile, threatening them with instant death if they attempted to see what was going on behind them.
In a short time the village of Kopchiki was buzzing with excitement. Men crept out on all fours across the fields in the direction taken by the motor truck and carts of the cortége; the tracks led across open ground toward one of the shafts of the old Isetsky mine. But the village scouts found that sentries had been stationed in a wide circle, completely isolating the locality; frightened and wondering, they crawled back and awaited developments. Toward evening they saw in the heavens glowing reflections from a great bonfire kindled on the spot where the Bolsheviki had finally halted. The hidden rite, whatever it was, continued throughout the next day; only on Friday, July 19, were the woods deserted and silent.
Then, and only then, did a group of peasants venture to approach the scene. They found the space around the shaft littered with débris of various kinds—disturbed foliage, remnants of a fire, charred wood, and piles of ashes. But on poking under the ashes with sticks they encountered a collection of burnt objects that gave rise to horrible suspicions: first, a Maltese cross set with emeralds, six corset steels from womens corsets, a miscellaneous collection of charred buttons, buckles, parts of slippers, hooks and eyes, beads, parts of womens, clothing, and a number of small, dirty pebbles which, on being cleaned and treated chemically, turned out to be pure diamonds. Francis McCullagh, that brilliant and supremely daring journalist who visited these scenes a few weeks after the murder and interrogated the peasants and even Jurovsky himself, spent many weeks—trying weeks— with the present writer in Moscow. He recounted his findings at Ekaterinburg in considerable detail. It was the discovery of that Maltese cross that led to the ghastly truth. Such a decoration was worn only by personages high in Imperial Service.
Pometkovsky, one of the searchers, who was in reality an escaped royalist officer in hiding, knew that there was but one such person in Ekaterinburg. As other metallic and stone objects that had resisted the fire, but plainly revealed their late owners, were placed before him, he cried aloud: God Almighty! Can they have burned the whole family alive?
He was right, but not entirely so; they had burned them, but not while alive.
The spot for the cremation of the bodies had been chosen in advance by Jurovsky and extraordinary precautions taken to destroy the corpus delicti. Subsequent events, however, have proved that, though the bodies of the victims can never be produced as primary evidence of the crime, the boast of Voikov, The world will never know what we have done with them, has not been justified. The elaborate technique of concealment overshot its mark and ignored a number of obvious possibilities. Jurovsky had added to his staff two new assistants whose particular function seems to have been to dismember the bodies. Arrived at the, pit, which was thirty feet deep, the regicides set to work to finish their gruesome task. The corpses were drenched with benzine, the countenances having probably first been destroyed by the sulphuric acid, and the human bonfire was then ignited. Acid was likewise used to dissolve the larger and tougher bones which were likely to resist the flames. When fire had consumed all the flesh and reduced skulls and skeletons to ashes, the debris was swept up and cast into the yawning mouth of the iron pit. An attempt was made to rearrange the scarred face of nature by scattering the embers and foliage carelessly about, so as to simulate the appearance of an ordinary camping ground or picnic place. But the wound was too deep; the executioners were tired and probably hurried. They sat down at last beneath the pine trees to eat their lunch, letting fall the telltale eggshells.
The Commission of Inquiry found hundreds of clues and articles definitely identified as belonging to the imperial family: the six sets of corset steels, exactly the number for six women; belt buckles of both Tsar and Tsarevitch; the buckles from the womens shoes; hooks and eyes and other metallic parts of feminine wear; the broken lenses of the Empresss eyeglasses; a set of artificial teeth identified as those of Dr. Botkin; fragments of chopped and sawed human bones; and one human finger, long, slender, well-shaped, probably cut from the Empresss hand to get at a ring. This pathetic collection of relics, the meagre remnants of a fallen dynasty, this admixture of human bones and ashes, corset steels and diamond dust, was transported in a single trunk to Harbin and from thence to, a sure place. That is all the record shows; where or how far they wandered after crossing into Mongolia I know not.
So passed Nicholas II, and the Romanovs, to be followed by a third Nicholas, called Lenin, and the House of the Soviets.
Eight days after these events, on July 25, 1918, Ekaterinburg was evacuated by the Bolsheviki, and the combined Kolchak and Czechoslovak troops entered the city. Five days later, on July 30, an orderly investigation, conducted in a scientific and judicial spirit, was instituted, first under the direction of Judge Nametkin, of that territorial jurisdiction, but later—and fortunately—committed to the very capable hands of Judge Nicholas Sokolov of the Omsk Tribunal. On the evacuation of the town by the Bolsheviki, someone had the presence of mind to rush to the telegraph office and secure possession of the official telegrams that passed between Moscow and the Ural capital during those eventful days; from these records, fortified by the sworn statements of the scores of witnesses and the mute testimony of the hundreds of recognizable clues that had been trampled into the clay in the forest or found at the bottom of the shaft, Sokolov was enabled to publish to an expectant world in 1925 his precious report of 295 pages, totaling 120,000 words. With infinite difficulty, patience, and hazard, he managed to smuggle his material out of Russia to Western Europe, where in peace and safety he edited and published his findings. His work done, he died of hardship and exhaustion.
These documents, of inestimable importance for students of the Russian Revolution, are a monument to the painstaking judicial mind of their author. They set at rest, definitely, all doubt as to the fate of the Romanovs, not only with respect to the immediate family of the Tsar, but also his near relatives, the Grand Dukes and Princes who were murdered about the same time, either at Petrograd or in the environs of Perm.(2) The murders at Alapaevsk, near Perm, bear a striking resemblance to the Ekaterinburg tragedy. Twenty-four hours after the death of Nicholas, six other Romanovs were officially murdered in that city by the Bolsheviki, their bodies thrown down the shaft of an unused mine, and hand grenades dropped down to ensure complete destruction of life. But the bodies of the Perm victims were eventually recovered and identified.
The moral responsibility for the wholesale butchery of the imperial family would now seem to rest fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Soviet Government, and can no longer be charged off to an alleged uncontrollable fanaticism on the part of local Ekaterinburg authorities. It was decided upon, approved, and arranged by Jankel Sverdlov at Moscow; Bieloborodov, Golostchekin, and Jurovsky were merely the executors—most willing executors—of a matured governmental policy. To be sure, contrary protestations have been made and pretexts advanced as fictitious as the inhuman charge of incest brought against Marie Antoinette by Hébert during her trial. But, in the copious light shed upon events by the official telegrams confiscated at Ekaterinburg, such evasion is no longer tenable.
There was but one telegram sent by the Ekaterinburg authorities on the day following the murder; it was for Moscow and signed by Bieloborodov, President of the Ural Soviet. Written in code, the combinations of numbers defied the best cypher experts of Europe for two years. But when human ingenuity had unraveled what other human ingenuity had contrived, the cryptic groupings of numbers fell into the following indictment of Moscow as having had a clear understanding with Ekaterinburg before the murder:-
To MOSCOW, KREMLIN for GORBUNOV, Secretary of Council of Peoples Commissars
Please confirm receipt
Tell Sverdlov that the entire family has met the same fate as its head. Officially, they will perish during the evacuation.
In an earlier paragraph of this article I promised to hazard a guess as to the identity of Commissar Jakolev and the nature of his mission of particular importance. It will be only a deduced conclusion, in the realm of conjecture, quite distinct from the facts before narrated, which have been juridically established and historically authenticated. The only persons capable of fully substantiating my thesis are dead; the remaining principal actors in that unsuccessful episode are still dumb, though, they have contributed valuable hints.
It will be necessary to recall the military history of the Great War and to visualize the situation on the Western Front at that time. Germany had suffered a fatal check by the entrance of the United States into the arena on the side of her adversaries. With fresh and seemingly unending American forces pouring into the trenches and massing before Saint-Mihiel, the German High Staff prepared for that supreme drive on Paris that caused the world to hold its breath in agonized expectation. The scales of war hung even.
The disappearance of Russia from the Allied line was followed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which reduced Bolshevist Russia to the status of a sullen vassal of the Teutonic Powers. The interpreter of Germanys will and the virtual dictator of Russias policy was Count Mirbach, the German Ambassador in Moscow. Fully aware of the fundamentally revolutionary character of Bolshevism, with its threat to German monarchism as well as to Russian autocracy, and perfectly willing to crush this Frankenstein monster which military necessity had obliged her to introduce behind the Russian lines, Germany decided on a bold move.
She would restore monarchy in Russia and place Alexis on the throne—provided the Tsar would consent to sign the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and align Russia with the Teutonic powers! The Tsars spontaneous and indignant reaction to Jakolevs very first proposals and his outspoken resentment against Germany support this view: I will let them cut off my hand before I do it. The coachman who drove the team to Tiumen reported that Jakolev had sought in vain to win the Tsar over to some weighty project. Although unable to hear the exact words, the driver made out that Nicholas always refused; he did not scold the Bolsheviki, but somebody else.
General Ludendorff, in his Memoirs, gives solid ground for a similar surmise. Guardedly, vaguely, as if unwilling yet to admit the full truth, he says:-
We could have deposed the Soviet Government, which was thoroughly hostile to us, and given help to other authorities in Russia, which were not working against us, but indeed anxious to cooperate with us. This would have been a success of great importance to the general conduct of the war. If some other government were established in Russia, it would almost certainly have been possible to come to some compromise with it over the Peace of Brest.
These are significant words. If Mirbach was authorized to sound out Nicholas on this important possibility, he must get the Tsar back to Moscow, or, better still, out of Russia. Sverdlov, already under the domination of Mirbach, may have been obliged to acquiesce—or feign acquiescence—in the plan to move the Tsar. It was noted at Tobolsk that Jakolev was not the usual type of Bolshevist Commissar; he was suave, well spoken, versed in foreign languages, showed breeding,—had clean hands and thin fingers,—in the words of Khobylinsky, and treated the former monarch with courtesy and deference. He did not omit to salute Nicholas as the Emperor entered the cart for the trip to Tiumen.
His nervous haste and ill-concealed anxiety to get his prisoner out of the danger zone indicate knowledge of some coup d’état ahead.
But something went wrong. Either the Tsar refused point-blank to accede to the Teutonic advances, as we may reasonably assume from his own condemnatory utterances, and was flung back into the hands of the Soviets by the infuriated Mirbach, or Mirbach himself was doublecrossed by Sverdlov, who permitted the escape as far as Omsk and then ordered the farce to be ended at Ekaterinburg. In any case, the decision was abrupt and unexpected; no preparation had been made for the imprisonment at Ekaterinburg and Ipatievs house was requisitioned at a moments notice; no properly constituted guard was on hand, but had to be recruited from a local factory; the encircling stockade was hurriedly erected after the arrival of the prisoners. Neither Sverdlov nor Mirbach is available to affirm or deny; they were assassinated too soon.
If my main hypothesis be true, which only time and the opening up of more European archives can determine, then Comrade Jakolev was an agent of the German High Staff; and Nicholas II, redeeming an inglorious past by one heroic choice, was murdered because of his unshakable loyalty to the cause of he Allies.
1. On February 9, 1918, the Bolshevist soldiers expelled the two representatives of the Provisional Government, Pankratov and Nikolsky, but permitted Khobylinsky, who seems to have been universally liked, to remain in charge pending the arrival of a new Commandant from Moscow.—Author.
2. Following historical precedent, claims are now being made in monarchist circles that not all the family perished. At Castle Seeon, in Bavaria, a certain young woman called Frau von Tchaikovsky has been proclaimed as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who, it is pretended, managed to escape from Ekaterinburg to find refuge eventually in Germany. Similarly, a young man calling himself Eugene Mikhailovich Ivanov, resembling Alexis—he is even afflicted with hemophilia—has been discovered in Bydgoszcz, Pomerania, Poland, and hailed as the true Tsarevitch. According to the legend, he too escaped the slaughter, his place having been taken by the son of a cook. This is not the place to subject these claims to minute investigation. Royalist circles are divided. The evidence is far from being convincing and shows glaring inconsistencies.—Author
TSAR NICHOLAS POSES WITH HIS CHILDREN BEFORE THE REVOLUTION. GETTY IMAGES
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