How Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered

The execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in Yekaterinburg

The execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in Yekaterinburg

Mary Evans Picture Library/Global Look Press
Tsar Nicholas II and his family were massacred on July 17, 1918, in Yekaterinburg. There was no formal trial and the Bolsheviks tried to cover up their gruesome crime. We picked the 10 most important things one should know about the murder of the Russian royal family.

DISCLAIMER: This article contains depictions of graphic violence. Readers discretion is advised.

1. After abdication, Nicholas II and his family were arrested

The royal family working in the garden during their internment in Tsarskoe Selo in spring 1917.

After Nicholas II abdicated the Russian throne, the Provisional Government arrested the tsar and his family in Tsarskoe Selo on March 7, 1917.

The family stayed in their palace and were humiliated in various ways. Soldiers refused even to shake hands with the tsar. One of the officers on duty named Yarynich refused to give the tsar a hand, saying: "I am from the people. When the Russian people extended their hand to you, you did not accept it. Now I won't shake your hand." The soldiers also took away Alexey's toy rifle.

In August 1917, the tsar and his family arrived in Tobolsk, located in Siberia. In total, the family and their remaining entourage counted 45 people. They were guarded by 330 soldiers and 7 officers and put to house arrest. And it was in Tobolsk where the Romanovs learned about the October Revolution.

“It is sickening to read the descriptions in the newspapers of what happened two weeks ago in Petrograd and in Moscow! Much worse and more shameful than the events of the Time of Troubles,” Nicholas II wrote in his diary.

In April 1918, the Bolsheviks, who were now in charge, moved the tsar to Yekaterinburg.

2. The Romanovs were gathered in Yekaterinburg

The former tsar Nicholas II, his children, and a local toddler boy sit in front of a fence during their captivity in Tobolsk.

Nicholas was afraid to go there, as he knew the Ural mine workers were furious with the tsar – they were living and working in disgraceful conditions, thanks to the absence of effective labor laws in the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, Nicholas, Alexandra Feodorovna and their daughter Maria were transported to Yekaterinburg, while the rest of the family stayed in Tobolsk, due to the heir Alexey’s illness.

As the train with Nicholas, his wife, daughter and a few servants arrived at Yekaterinburg station, it was met by an angry mob of citizens, probably specially gathered by the Bolsheviks. But the anger was real. "Give us the tsar! We'll spit in his face!" – the crowd raged. The Bolsheviks had to start loading machine guns to protect the former royals.

The Romanovs were taken to the Ipatiev House, where they would be eventually murdered. When the tsar entered the house, he was told: “Citizen Romanov, you may enter.” The house was surrounded by a wooden fence, with two guard booths and numerous guards in the garden and outside.

“The house is nice, clean,” Nicholas II wrote in his diary. “We were assigned four rooms: a corner bedroom, a lavatory, a dining room next to it with windows to the garden and a view of the low-lying part of the city and, finally, a spacious hall with an arch without doors.”

In May 1918, the family was reunited in Ipatiev house.

3. The royal family was treated worse than prisoners

The Ipatiev House in 1928

As Terentiy Chemodurov, the royal family’s valet, who escaped execution, later said during an interrogation, the royals were treated disgracefully. Immediately after the arrival of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna at Ipatiev's house they were searched and “one of those who carried out the search snatched the reticule from the hands of the empress and caused the sovereign to remark: ‘So far, I have dealt with honest and decent people.’”

When the royals were eating, they didn’t have enough forks and spoons and had to share them. The Red Army soldiers were watching them, occasionally taking bites from their plates. The princesses slept on the floor, as they had no beds. When the princesses went to the bathroom, the Red Army soldiers, ostensibly for the guard, followed them. Soldiers were singing frivolous songs about the empress and Rasputin, making sure that Alexandra Feodorovna and the princesses could hear them. Soldiers were also stealing from the royal family’s provision supplies. These statements of Chemodurov and other witnesses were later cross-examined by Nikolay Sokolov, the first investigator of the murder case, and proved reliable.

4. At first, the Bolsheviks planned to put Nicholas on trial

'Citizen Nikolay Romanov' in Siberia

The conditions in Yekaterinburg at the time were uneasy for the Bolsheviks – the onslaught of the “White” monarchist military was expected – they would surely try to free the royals. Meanwhile, the Ural factory workers demanded to execute the royal family.

The decision to execute the tsar and his family was taken by the Ural Oblast Soviet, a local executive organ of the Bolsheviks. However, in 2015, the investigation on the case was reopened in Russia. Evgeniy Pchelov, one of the historians who provided the historic expertise for the case, in his 2020 book ‘The Murder of the Tsars in 1918’ thoroughly reassessed the existing data and made the following conclusions.

In the first half of 1918, the Bolshevik leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Yakov Sverdlov, mulled over an idea of a public tribunal over Nicholas and his family. However, in the beginning of July 1918, the situation at the fronts of the Civil War worsened and the Whites could have recaptured the royal family. This forced the Bolsheviks to make ruthless decisions.

5. The decision to execute the Romanovs was silently approved by Moscow

Vladimir Lenin and Yakov Sverdlov in 1918

As Evgeniy Pchelov continues in his book, on July 15, 1918, the Ural Soviet decided to execute Nicholas, because of the dire situation on the fronts. If the emperor would have been recaptured by the Whites, it would have raised the morale of the monarchists immensely and could even lead to the foreign monarchs helping Nicholas. All of that was unattainable for the Reds.

The Ural Soviet’s decision was transferred to Yakov Yurovsky, the commandant of the Ipatiev House. “On July 16, 6 pm, Filipp Goloshchyokin [Yurovsky’s boss, member of the Yekaterinburg Bolshevik committee] ordered me to execute the task,” Yurovsky told Mikhail Pokrovsky, the first official Soviet historian, in 1920.

At 8 pm, July 16, a telegraph was sent to Moscow, containing the words: “We can’t wait. If your opinions are opposite, let us know right now, out of any queue. Goloshchyokin.” Filipp Goloshchyokin, the man in charge of the executive decisions, waited a few hours for a reply, but it didn’t arrive, so he, then, ordered the execution of the royal family.

In 1935, Leon Trotsky wrote in his memoirs that after Yekaterinburg surrendered to the Whites, he asked Yakov Sverdlov in Moscow who took the decision to execute the tsar. “We decided [it] here. Ilyich [Lenin] believed that we should not leave them [the Whites] a living symbol, especially in the current difficult conditions,” Sverdlov replied plainly.

6. The preparations were hasty

Yakov Yurovsky

In the morning of July 16, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna wrote in her diary: “Suddenly, they told Lyon’ka Sednev to go and see his uncle and he hurriedly ran away. We are wondering if all this is true and if we will see the boy again.” This was the last entry in her diary.

Leonid Sednev was a 14-year old boy, a junior cook in the heir’s entourage. After he was sent away, the family supposed something grim was about to happen.

The Bolsheviks were still planning the execution. Historians checked that among the plans were stabbing to death, shooting and even killing the royals with grenades. They decided on shooting.

Pavel Medvedev, the head of the guards at the Ipatiev House, was later interrogated by the Whites who took Yekaterinburg. He said that, in the evening of July 16, Yurovsky asked him to collect the revolvers from all the guards and bring them to him. After Medvedev did so, Yurovsky told him: “Today, Medvedev, we will shoot the whole family.”

7. The ‘execution’ turned into a bloody massacre

The basement room in the Ipatiev house where the Romanovs were murdered in July 1918. The walls and the floor were torn apart by the locals looking for money and jewels.

At approximately 1:30 am, the guards woke up Evgeny Botkin, tsar’s court physician, who had decided to stay with the family until the end. He was told there was an urgent need for everyone to go downstairs, due to the alarming situation in the city and the danger of staying on the top floor. The family packed for about 40 minutes. They still supposed they were to be taken someplace else.

Seven members of the royal family: Nikolai Alexandrovich (50), Alexandra Feodorovna (46), Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19), Anastasia (17) and Alexey (13). Their four servants: Evgeny Botkin, doctor (53), Ivan Kharitonov, cook (48), Alexey Troup, footman (61) and Anna Demidova, maid (40). Three dogs, a French Bulldog and two spaniels, were also with them.

They were told to go to the basement room, because, the Bolsheviks said, they were to be secretly taken away through the basement. Young Alexey, who could not walk at the moment, was carried by Nicholas II in his arms. There were no chairs in the basement, then, at the request of Alexandra Feodorovna, two chairs were brought. Alexandra Feodorovna and Alexey sat on them. The rest were placed along the wall.

Yurovsky let in the firing squad and read out the verdict. Mikhail Medvedev (Kudrin), a ‘CheKa’ officer, remembered how Yurovsky addressed the tsar: “‘Nikolai Alexandrovich! The attempts of your aides to save you were unsuccessful! And so, at a difficult time for the Soviet Republic,’ Yakov Mikhailovich raises his voice and cuts the air with his hand, ‘we have a mission to get it over with the House of Romanov!’” Yurovsky himself couldn’t remember this moment well: “…I immediately, as far as I remember, told Nikolai something along the lines of that his royal relatives both in the country and abroad were trying to free him and that the Council of Workers’ Deputies had decided to shoot them.”

Nicholas barely let out a gush of “What?” or “How? Repeat…” Somebody, probably Botkin, asked helplessly: “Won’t we be taken anywhere?” Yurovsky ordered his men to fire. The family was massacred – a number of men, including Yurovsky, were firing.

Some members of the family weren’t killed immediately – the princesses and the empress had jewelry hidden in their underwear, which partly blocked the bullets, leaving the princesses gruesomely wounded, but still alive. The murderers had to finish off the dying royals with bayonets.

Two of the dogs were also killed, the third one that didn’t howl survived. In the yard, a car’s engine had been left running idle, to muffle the shots, but they were heard outside anyway. In half an hour, the murder was complete.

8. The Bolsheviks hid and partly destroyed the bodies

One of the Ganina Yama mines during the investigation, 1919. Photo by Nikolay Sokolov

The subject of the hiding and destroying of the Romanovs’ remains is highly sensitive for all Russian people, as well as the European royals and nobility. We will only state the proven facts.

Immediately after the execution, as historian Richard Pipes states, Yurovsky stopped the soldiers’ attempts to loot the jewelry and memorabilia from the bodies by threatening to shoot the soldiers.

At 3 am, two guards were brought into the room to wash the blood from the floor and the walls, by that time the bodies were already taken away. During July 17-19, the region of Ganina Yama lake, with the Ganina Yama mine, was cordoned off by Red Army soldiers. The Bolsheviks did manipulations with the bodies there. On July 20, the cordon was lifted and several peasants went to the site to see what had been going on there.

The peasants found bonfires and the remains of burnt clothes. Icons and crosses were found among them. Some peasants descended into the mine’s opening, but didn’t find any remains. Still, they understood the royal family and/or their clothes were burned on the site.

Later, after the Whites took the city, more citizens came to the site, while Nikolay Sokolov and other investigators searched it. The mines were drowned, but none of the bodies were found.

9. The way the Bolsheviks disposed of the bodies is still debated

Porosyonkov Log (Piglet ravine) in Yekaterinburg oblast where some of the Romanovs' remains were buried

None of the investigations carried out in years after the murder or later during the 20th and the 21st centuries yielded the certain scenario of what exactly the Bolsheviks did with the bodies. The veil of mystery surrounding these facts is obvious – facts were hidden and manipulated, the sources and evidence partly destroyed or lost. The available data is currently considered insufficient for a credible reconstruction of the events.

What is certain: the bodies were first transported to the Ganina Yama mines, something was done with them there and, later, the bodies were buried in various places. Even if sulfuric acid was applied and even if the Bolsheviks tried to burn the bodies (both facts are debatable), there still were a lot of remains that were buried and discovered later in the 20th century. But the question of the discovery is a completely different story.

10. The Bolsheviks lied about the execution

Tombstones marking the burial of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in St. Catherine's Chapel in the Peter and Paul Cathedral of the Petropavlovskaya fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia.

On July 19, immediately after the bodies were hidden, Soviet central newspapers ‘Izvestia’ and ‘Pravda’ made news of the tsar’s execution public.

It was claimed that the decision to shoot Nicholas II (Nikolai Romanov) was made in connection with the extremely difficult military situation in the Yekaterinburg area and the disclosure of a “counter-revolutionary conspiracy” aimed at freeing the former tsar. The Bolsheviks stated that the decision to shoot was taken by the presidium of the Ural Soviet independently; that only Nicholas II was killed and his wife and son were transported to a “safe place”. The fate of other children and persons close to the royal family was not mentioned at all.

For a number of years, authorities stubbornly defended the official version that the family of Nicholas II is alive, which only contributed to rumors that some family members managed to escape.

On July 22, 1918, information about the execution of Nicholas II was published by the London Times, on July 21 (due to the time zone difference) by the New York Times. The Bolsheviks supported the global misinformation – they didn’t want their international image to be smeared by the fact of them slaughtering the royal children.

Up until September 1918, the Bolsheviks conducted negotiations with the German government about the exchange of the royal family. The Soviet envoy in Germany, Adolf Joffe, wasn’t even informed about the execution of Alexandra Feodorovna and the children. Lenin instructed the foreign office “…not to tell Joffe anything, so that it would be easier for him to lie.”

In 1921-1922, the information about the murder of the whole family leaked to the Soviet press (most probably, this was an intentional leak). By 1926, when Nikolay Sokolov’s book ‘The Murder of the Tsar’s Family’ was published abroad, Soviet authorities stopped denying the fact that heir Alexey, the princesses and the empress were murdered along with the tsar.

The immediate reaction of the Russian public to the fact of Nicholas II’s execution was rather bleak – against the backdrop of the horrors and atrocities of the Civil War that engulfed Russia. Vladimir Kokovtsov, former Minister of Finance, who had been in St. Petersburg on July 19, 1918, remembered in his Paris memoirs: “…On the day of the publication of the news, I was in the streets twice, rode a streetcar and never saw a slightest glimmer of pity or compassion. The news was read aloud, with sneers, mockery and the most ruthless comments… That’s some kind of senseless denigration, such boasting of bloodlust.”

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