Season five, episode six of The Crown , “Ipatiev House,” focuses on the relationship between the British royal family and the Romanovs. In light of the episode, we're resurfacing our 2018 feature on Russia's last imperial family.
At about 1 a.m. on July 17, 1918, in a fortified mansion in the town of Ekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, the Romanovs—ex-tsar Nicholas II, ex-tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and their four remaining servants, including the loyal family doctor, Eugene Botkin—were awoken by their Bolshevik captors and told they must dress and gather their belongings for a swift nocturnal departure.
The White armies, which supported the tsar, were approaching; the prisoners could already hear the boom of the big guns. They gathered in the cellar of the mansion, standing together almost as if they were posing for a family portrait. Alexandra, who was sick, asked for a chair, and Nicholas asked for another one for his only son, 13-year-old Alexei. Two were brought down. They waited there until, suddenly, 11 or 12 heavily armed men filed ominously into the room.
What happened next—the slaughter of the family and servants—was one of the seminal events of the 20th century, a wanton massacre that shocked the world and still inspires a terrible fascination today. A 300-year-old imperial dynasty, one marked by periods of glorious achievement as well as staggering hubris and ineptitude, was swiftly brought to an end. But while the Romanovs' political reign was over, the story of the line's last ruler and his family was most certainly not.
For the better part of the 20th century the bodies of the victims lay in two unmarked graves, the locations of which were kept secret by Soviet leaders. In 1979 amateur historians discovered the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters (Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia). In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the graves were reopened and the identities of the interred confirmed by DNA testing. In a ceremony in 1998 attended by Russian president Boris Yeltsin and 50 or so Romanov relatives, the remains were reburied in the family crypt in St. Petersburg. When the partial remains of two skeletons believed to be the remaining Romanov children, Alexei and Maria, were found in 2007 and similarly tested, most people assumed they would be reburied there as well.
Instead, events took a strange turn. Even though both sets of remains were identified by teams of top international scientists, who compared recovered DNA to samples from living Romanov relatives, members of the Russian Orthodox Church questioned the validity of the findings. More research was needed, they claimed. Rather than rebury Alexei and Maria, the authorities stored them in a box in a state archive until 2015 and then turned them over to the church for further examination.
Last fall the official state investigation of the tsar's murder was reopened, and Nicholas and Alexandra were exhumed , as was Nicholas's father, Alexander III. Since then there have been conflicting reports from government and church officials on when, or if, the entire Romanov family will be reburied and reunited, even if only in death.
Had Nicholas II died after the first 10 years of his reign (he came to power in 1894), he would have been regarded as a moderately successful emperor. Ultimately, though, his well-intentioned but weak personality—which also comprised duplicity, obstinacy, and delusion—contributed to the disasters that befell the dynasty and Russia.
He was handsome and blue-eyed but diminutive and hardly majestic, and his looks and immaculate manners concealed an astonishing arrogance, contempt for the educated political classes, vicious anti-Semitism, and an unshakable belief in his right to rule as a sacred autocrat. He was jealous of his ministers, and he possessed the unfortunate ability to make himself utterly distrusted by his own government.
His marriage to Princess Alexandra of Hesse only exacerbated these qualities. Theirs was a love match, which was unusual for the times, but both Nicholas's father and Alexandra's grandmother, Queen Victoria of England, regarded her as too unstable to succeed as empress. She brought to the relationship paranoia, mystical fanaticism, and a vindictive and steely will. Also, through no fault of her own, she brought the "royal disease" (hemophilia) into the family and passed it to her son, the imperial heir, Tsarevich Alexei, undermining the power of the family and distorting their interests.
The personal inadequacies of Nicholas and Alexandra led them both to seek support and advice from Grigori Rasputin, a holy man whose notorious sexual promiscuity, hard drinking, and corrupt and inept political machinations in their name further isolated the couple from the government and people of Russia.
The crisis of World War I placed the fragile regime under intolerable stress. In February 1917, Nicholas II lost control of protests in St. Petersburg (which had been renamed Petrograd during the war to sound less German) and was soon forced to abdicate, replaced by a republic under a provisional government.
The 1998 reburial of the Romanovs was a solemn state event meant to showcase the Russian nation's reconciliation with its past. In a televised procession, soldiers in dress uniform carried coffins down a red carpet, past Romanov descendants and assembled dignitaries, and into the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. President Yeltsin, a former Communist Party leader, told those gathered that the lesson of the 20th century was that political change must never again be enforced by violence.
Priests from the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church offered blessings, but, notably, the patriarch of the church was not in attendance. At that time the Orthodox Church, which had been an intrinsic part of the Romanov system of rule, was reestablishing itself as a national power. Many members of its hierarchy resented the fact that the burial ceremony had been directed almost entirely by Yeltsin's secular political agenda to promote a liberal democratic Russia.
A decade later scientists announced that the two bodies found in the second grave were Alexei and Maria. This time the church publicly objected to the findings of the "foreign experts" (many members of the forensic teams were American) and even questioned the earlier identifications of Nicholas and the others. The church had canonized the family in 2000, which meant that any physical remains were now holy relics. It was essential, the church maintained, that it have a role in making sure the bodies were correctly identified.
Yeltsin had resigned the presidency of the Russian Federation in 1999 and handed over power to a little-known ex-KGB colonel named Vladimir Putin. The young leader regarded the fall of the USSR as "the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century," and as soon as he took office he started centralizing power, reining in foreign influences and promoting a combination of nationalism, Orthodox faith, and aggressive foreign policy. It was an effective approach that, ironically, could have been taken from any number of Romanov tsars' playbooks.
Putin was no closet royalist, but he was an admirer of the autocracy perfected by the Romanovs. Though born under Soviet communism, he had a pragmatist's understanding of history, in particular the fact that the most forceful leaders of Russia, from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great to Joseph Stalin, had managed to personify the essence of not just the state but the Russian soul, and Russia's uniqueness in world history. Like the first Romanov rulers, Putin came to power during a time of troubles, and like his forebears he set about restoring the power of the state and the persona of its ruler.
Rejecting the findings of the international scientists was, of course, a power grab by the newly emboldened church, and it was supported by the growing anti-Western sentiment promoted by the Kremlin and shared by much of Russian society. By agreeing to the church's conditions, Putin was appeasing an important ally. But the move also reflected conspiracy theories (which often had anti-Semitic undercurrents) spreading among ultranationalists about the remains. One was that Lenin and his henchmen, many of whom were Jewish, had demanded that the heads of the saintly Romanovs be brought to Moscow as a sort of diabolical Hebraic-Bolshevik tribute. Was this the reason for the shattered state of the bones? Were these bones really the Romanovs? Or had someone escaped?
These questions might seem easy to dismiss, but there is long-established tradition in Russia of murdered royals suddenly reappearing. During the Time of Troubles, in the 17th century, there were not one but three impostor, known as the False Dmitris, who claimed to be Prince Dmitri, last son of Ivan the Terrible. And after 1918 more than 100 imposters claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia.
At first, during the spring of 1917, the ex-imperial family was allowed to live in relative comfort at a favorite residence, the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, not far from Petrograd. Nicholas's cousin, King George V of England, offered him sanctuary, but then changed his mind and withdrew the offer. It was not the finest moment for the House of Windsor, but it is unlikely that it made any difference. The window of opportunity was short; demands for the ex-tsar to stand trial were growing.
Alexander Kerensky, first justice minister and then prime minister of the provisional government, moved the royals to the governor's mansion in Tobolsk, in distant Siberia, to keep them safe. Their stay there was bearable but depressing. Boredom turned to danger when Kerensky was overthrown by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in October 1917. Lenin famously said that "revolutions are meaningless without firing squads," and he was soon considering, along with lieutenant Yakov Sverdlov, whether to place Nicholas on public trial—to be followed by his execution—or just kill the entire family.
The Bolsheviks faced a desperate civil war against the Whites, counterrevolutionary armies backed by Western powers. Lenin responded with unbridled terror. He decided to move the family from Tobolsk closer to Moscow, to which he had relocated the Russian capital. A trusted Bolshevik factotum was dispatched to bring the Romanovs westward, and in April 1918 they endured a terrifying trip by train and carriage.
The teenage Alexei suffered an attack of bleeding and had to be left behind; he came to Ekaterinburg three weeks later with three of his sisters. The girls, meanwhile, were sexually molested on the train. But eventually the family was reunited in the gloomy, walled mansion of a merchant named Ipatiev in the center of the city, whose leaders were the most fanatical of Bolsheviks.
The mansion was ominously renamed the House of Special Purpose and converted into a prison fortress with painted-over windows, fortified walls and machine gun nests. The Romanovs received limited rations and were watched by hostile young guards. Yet the family adapted. Nicholas read books aloud in the evening and tried to exercise. The eldest daughter, Olga, became depressed, but the playful and spirited younger girls, especially the beautiful Maria and the mischievous Anastasia, began to interact with the guards. Maria began an illicit romance with one of them, and the guards discussed helping the girls escape. When this was uncovered by Bolshevik boss Filipp Goloshchekin, the guards were changed, regulations were tightened. All of this made Lenin even more anxious.
By the beginning of July 1918 it was clear that Ekaterinburg was going to fall to the Whites. Goloshchekin rushed to Moscow to get Lenin's approval, and it is certain that he got it, though Lenin was clever enough not to put the order on paper: The killing was planned under the new commandant of the House of Special Purpose, Yakov Yurovsky, who decided to recruit a squad to murder the royals all together in one session and then burn the bodies and bury them in the woods nearby. Just about every detail of the plan was ill conceived and would be grotesquely bungled in practice.
Early on that July morning, the bleary-eyed Romanovs and their loyal retainers stood in the cellar as the heavily armed murder squad filed into the room. Yurovsky suddenly read out a death sentence. Then the men used their weapons. Each was meant to fire at a different family member, but many of them secretly wished to avoid shooting the girls, so they all aimed at the loathed Nicholas and Alexandra, killing them almost instantly.
The firing was wild; the killers managed to wound one another as the room filled with swirling dust and smoke and screams. When the first volley was done, most of the family was still alive, wounded, crying and terrified, their suffering made worse by the fact that they were in effect wearing bulletproof vests.
The Romanovs were famed for their collection of jewelry, and they had left Petrograd with a large cache of diamonds hidden their baggage. During the last months they had sewn the diamonds into specially made underwear in case they needed to fund an escape. On the night of the execution the children had pulled on this secretly bejeweled underwear, which was reinforced with the hardest material in existence. Tragically, ironically, the bullets bounced off these garments. Finally the murderers waded into the gruesome scene of wounded, bleeding children (one of the killers compared it to a slippery ice rink awash with blood and brains) and stabbed them manically with bayonets or shot them in the head.
The mayhem lasted 20 agonizing minutes. When the bodies were being carried out, two of the girls turned out to still be alive, spluttering and coughing before being stabbed into silence. This was surely the origin of the legend that Anastasia, the youngest daughter, had survived , a story that inspired so many impostors to impersonate the murdered grand duchess.
Now that the deed was done, drunken assassins and Bolshevik thugs argued about who was to move the bodies and where. They mocked the deceased royals, pillaged their treasures, and then failed to conceal or bury them. Eventually the bodies were piled into a truck, which soon broke down. Out in the woods, where the Romanovs were stripped naked and their clothing burned, it turned out that the mineshafts that had been selected to receive the bodies were too shallow. In a panic Yurovsky improvised a new plan, leaving the bodies and rushing into Ekaterinburg for supplies.
He spent three days and three nights, sleeplessly driving back and forth to the woods, collecting sulfuric acid and gasoline to destroy the bodies, which he finally decided to bury in separate places to confuse anyone who might find them. He was determined to obey his orders that "no one must ever know what had happened" to the Romanov family. He pummeled the bodies with rifle butts, doused them with sulfuric acid, and burned them with gasoline. Finally, he buried what was left in two graves.
Yurovsky and his killers later wrote detailed, boastful, and confused accounts for the Cheka, a precursor to the KGB. The reports were sequestered in the archives and never publicized, but during the 1970s renewed interest in the murder site led Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the KGB (and future leader of the USSR), to recommend that the House of Special Purpose be bulldozed.
Next year is the centennial of the Russian Revolution, and while the country will undoubtedly find many ways to mark the occasion, the unburied bones of its deposed ruling family present a dilemma. For a nation that aspires to regain its former influence and historic glory, coming to terms with complicated moments in its past is of paramount importance. But the protracted burial saga reflects issues that are universal and not easy to address.
Notions of birthright, bloodlines, and family power still have the ability to fascinate and resonate globally. Even though Britain, for example, is a constitutional monarchy in which the royal family has no power whatsoever, the E! channel is as obsessed with the elegant Duchess of Cambridge as with Taylor Swift and the Kardashians. And during the presidential election four years ago, a vocal "birther" movement tried to prove that Barack Obama did not have the right to be president of the U.S.
In 2015, the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, in conjunction with an investigation committee set up by Putin, ordered the retesting of all the bones. Nicholas II and his family were discreetly exhumed and their DNA compared with that of living relatives, including England's Prince Philip, one of whose grandmothers was the Romanov Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna. The tsar's DNA was also compared to that of his father, Alexander III, and grandfather Alexander II. (For the latter, scientists were able to use blood caked on a tunic the tsar was wearing when he was assassinated.)
There were also plans to test Alexandra's DNA against samples from the preserved body of her sister Ella, who was also killed by the Bolsheviks and whose body is now displayed in a glass case in a Russian church in Jerusalem. Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters were returned to their tomb, but Alexei and Maria remain unburied.
A year later there have been vague reports that the tests have been completed but no new announcements about a final burial. This might seem a strange process, but it reflects the opaque way power has always worked in Russia—under tsars, Bolsheviks, and now its contemporary leaders. The church certainly has its own agenda, but it has historically been an arm of the autocracy.
Most Kremlin observers agree that the final decision regarding the remains of the Romanovs will be Putin's. Somehow he has to reconcile the 1917 Revolution, the slaughter of 1918, and contemporary Russia. Will there be ceremonies to commemorate both? A reburial ritual with royal honors or a religious ceremony to revere saints? No one knows exactly how he will try to pull it off.
Members of the Russian public, particularly those who are either ultranationalists or Orthodox believers, are fascinated by the story of the Romanovs. And almost everybody is willing to embrace the tsars as part of Russia's magnificent past. Stalin promoted a few of them, such as Peter the Great, as rigorous reformers, but Putin's new textbooks present many as heroic leaders. So, even if there's little support for a restoration of the dynasty, there is huge enthusiasm for the restoration of the glory and prestige and power that the dynasty represented.
One thing is certain: Putin's view of Russian history, fueled by his regular reading of historical biographies, is organized by success and achievement, not ideology. The country's great "tsars" were Stalin and Peter the Great, the disastrous ones Mikhail Gorbachev and Nicholas II. And, as he has told his entourage, unlike Gorbachev and the last Romanov tsar, "I'll never abdicate."
I recently completed a history of the Romanov dynasty, and I am often asked if I censored anything from the gruesome and sexually explicit materials I discovered in the archives of the family's three-century rule. The answer is yes, but only one once. As I was finishing the book, I left out the more horrid and brutal details of the family's murder in 1918. Whatever the fate of the bodies, whatever the future of Russia, however one regards the violent drama of Romanov rule, this remains the most heartbreaking and unbearable scene of them all.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian whose latest book is The Romanovs, 1613-1918 .
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Town & Country .