Tsar Nicholas II and his family are in the hands of the Bolsheviks. The Tsar had abdicated from the Russian throne in March 1917. It’s now July 1918, and the imperial family – known as the Romanovs – have been imprisoned in a house in Yekaterinburg since the end of April. Then in the dead of night on July 17, the Romanovs are woken up and taken to the basement of the property. What happens next shocks and horrifies the world.
Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov was born in 1868 in St Petersburg, the first son of Empress Maria Feodorovna and Emperor Alexander III. He was related to a network of European royalty including the kings of Greece, the United Kingdom and Denmark, as well as the emperor of Germany.
It’s said that the young Nicholas was no intellectual. But his military-style schooling gave him a delight in parades, uniforms and all things martial. Official engagements intimidated him, however, and he seems only to have been at ease in the company of his own family. Whether his character suited him to a future as the Tsar of all Russia is highly debatable.
In an imperial system of rigid hereditary rule, though, Nicholas had no say in his future. And he was thrust into the position of heir to the Russian throne in 1881. This was because of what happened to his grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, in that year.
Alexander was in the habit of attending a military ceremony in Saint Petersburg each weekend, arriving there by carriage. On this particular Sunday, however, two bombs were hurled, one hitting his carriage and the second causing Alexander hideous and fatal injuries. His violent death was a grim portent of what the future held for his grandson Nicholas.
On the death of Alexander II, his son – Nicholas’ father – became Alexander III, Emperor of Russia. That meant Nicholas was next in line for the throne, assuming the title of Tsarevich. Since his father was only in his 40s, though, no one expected the Tsarevich to become Tsar any time soon, least of all Nicholas himself.
The year 1894 was a momentous one for Nicholas. In April he became engaged to Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine. When they married in November of that year, she joined the Russian Orthodox Church and became Alexandra Feodorovna. On November 1, meanwhile, Nicholas’ father had died. As a result, at the age of just 26, a scarcely prepared Nicholas became Emperor of all Russia.
From the outset of his reign, Nicholas left his subjects in no doubt as to the style of rule they could expect from their new Tsar. This became clear when a delegation of representatives from a selection of local bodies visited the magnificent Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.
In the most moderate of terms, these representatives suggested that Nicholas might consider the idea of introducing some measure of democracy to the Empire. The new Tsar’s response was blunt. Catherine Radziwill quoted his words in her 1931 biography Nicholas II, The Last of the Tsars.
“I want everyone to know that I will devote all my strength to maintain, for the good of the whole nation, the principle of absolute autocracy, as firmly and as strongly as did my late lamented father,” the Tsar declared. This reply, made against the counsels of his advisers, left little if any room for political maneuver. It can be seen as the start of the troubles that the Tsarist regime would experience in the coming years.
Further evidence of Nicholas’ autocratic instincts came in 1905 with an incident dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” In January of that year Father Georgy Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest and working-class activist, announced a parade of workers scheduled for a few days later in Saint Petersburg.
The plan was that the deputation would march to the Winter Palace and present a petition to the Tsar. Amongst other things, the petition asked for an eight-hour working day, higher wages and for all Russians to be given the right to vote. The petition was written in a spirit of appealing to the Tsar as protector of the Russian people. It was not intended to be a revolutionary proclamation.
Nevertheless, the procession was met by a powerful military force. Cossacks charged the crowd with sabers drawn. Other soldiers fired on the marchers. Casualty figures were disputed. The official numbers were 96 dead and 333 injured. In contrast, supporters of the procession said 4,000 had been killed. Whatever the true numbers, though, it was a cold-blooded massacre of unarmed demonstrators.
Bloody Sunday had a quick and disastrous effect on the Tsar’s position in the public mind. The belief among the ordinary people of Russia that Nicholas was essentially on their side evaporated. Strikes disrupted life across the nation. The Tsar’s response was brutal repression. Some 15,000 were executed and 20,000 wounded, while close to 50,000 were exiled.
In an attempt to placate the anger of his own people, Nicholas now introduced a Duma, a kind of advisory assembly. But it was a toothless body and too little, too late to fundamentally improve the political situation. At the same time, harsh measures kept the autocratic Tsar’s power more or less intact.
After a series of tumultuous years, the First World War broke out in 1914. The Russians were pitted against Germany. Although it had a huge army – some 4.5 million men – Russia was catastrophically ill-prepared for the conflict. After some initial success, the Russian Army was defeated time and again, sustaining massive numbers of casualties.
An inevitable collapse came in 1917. With the army effectively disintegrating and Russia in chaos, the Tsar was forced to abdicate in March, and a provisional government was formed. It was the end of the Romanov dynasty. But the authority of the provisional assembly was constantly challenged by the Communists, whose power grew as that of the new government waned.
And so the provisional government was a short-lived affair. With the October Revolution of 1917, the Communists, dominated by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik group, seized power in Russia. This also gave the Bolsheviks control over the fate of Nicholas and his family. After a period of what had been somewhat luxurious conditions for the Romanovs, things changed drastically. In the hands of the Bolsheviks, the terms of their imprisonment became increasingly restrictive.
Now our story returns to the early hours of that July 1918 morning at the house in Yekaterinburg, where Nicholas and his family were incarcerated. As we’ve seen, the family and some of their servants were ordered to dress and assemble in a cellar room. Then, a unit of the Bolshevik secret police joined them. After reading out a sentence of death, the executioners opened fire, killing the entire family and their servants in cold blood. The killers used clubs and bayonets to finish the job.
While it’s true that the autocratic Tsar Nicholas II had an enormous amount of blood on his hands, this pitiless cutting down of his entire family still has the power to shock a century later. And this incident, many believe, left an indelible stain on Russia’s Communist regime in its earliest days, one that has lasted even after that regime’s demise.