Read The Romanovs: The Final Chapter Online

Authors: Robert K. Massie

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #History, #War, #Biography, #Politics

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (3 page)

BOOK: The Romanovs: The Final Chapter
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Reverently, Nicholas Sokolov placed the physical results of his investigation—the charred bones, the finger, and the principal personal articles—inside a suitcase-sized box. In the summer of 1919, when the Red Army surged back into Ekaterinburg, Sokolov traveled across Siberia to the Pacific and went by boat to Europe. His box, later to become an object of mystery and contention, went with him.

When in 1924 he published his conclusion, skeptics argued that it was not possible to burn eleven corpses so completely in a bonfire. Nevertheless, Sokolov’s story was buttressed by his simple, seemingly indisputable statement: there were no bodies.

For most of the twentieth century, this is what the world believed.


From the beginning, the annihilation of the Romanovs—their execution and the disappearance of their bodies—had been approved by Moscow. As late as June 1918, the Bolshevik leadership had been uncertain what to do with the Imperial family. The Ural Soviet, in actual possession of the prisoners in Ekaterinburg, was vehemently in favor of execution. Leon Trotsky, the mercurial Red commissar for war, wanted a public trial of the former tsar in Moscow to be broadcast by radio throughout the country with himself as prosecutor. Lenin, always pragmatic, preferred to keep the family in hand as pawns in the game he was playing with Germany. In April, Soviet Russia had signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with Imperial Germany, achieving peace by handing over one third of European Russia and all of the western Ukraine to German occupation. Millions of Russians were dismayed by this decision, which they considered a betrayal. For a while, Lenin hoped that Nicholas could be persuaded to sign or at least to endorse the treaty, thereby partially legitimizing the document and diminishing the furor. Another complication was that
the Empress Alexandra was a German princess and the Kaiser Wilhelme first cousin. Now that Russia was out of the war, the new German ambassador in Moscow, Count Wilhelm Mirbach, had made clear his government’s concern for the safety of Alexandra and her four daughters. Lenin had no wish to antagonize the Germans—particularly at this moment.

By early July, civil war and foreign intervention were threatening Bolshevism’s grip on Russia. In addition to the Germans in the west and south, American marines and British soldiers had landed in the north, at Murmansk. In the eastern Ukraine, Generals Alekseyev, Kornilov, and Deniken had organized a White Volunteer Army. In Siberia, the Czech Legion of forty-five thousand men, former prisoners of war taken from the Austro-Hungarian Army, had taken Omsk and was advancing westward toward Ekaterinburg. When the Bolsheviks made peace, Trotsky had agreed that the stranded Czechs be permitted to leave Russia by way of the Pacific in order to return to Europe to fight for a Czech homeland. The Czechs were already in Siberia headed eastward in a string of trains when the German General Staff sternly objected to their passage and demanded that the Bolsheviks stop and disarm them. The Bolsheviks tried, but the Czechs fought back and, strengthened by anti-Bolshevik Russian officers and soldiers, began to prevail. It was the approach of this Czech-White army to Ekaterinburg that forced Lenin and his deputy Yakov Sverdlov (Trotsky had been called to the front) to change their plans for the former tsar and his family imprisoned in the Ipatiev House.

On July 6, the Bolsheviks suffered another blow. In Moscow, two Left Social Revolutionaries, passionately opposed to the Brest Litovsk Treaty, assassinated the German ambassador. Lenin and Sverdlov feared that German troops would enter the capital. In the midst of this confusion, talk of a show trial for Nicholas, of persuading him to sign a treaty, of using his family as bargaining chips, appeared senseless, irrelevant. The Romanovs themselves began to seem superfluous, almost an encumbrance. Sverdlov described this situation to his friend Filipp Goloschekin, a member of the Ural Regional Soviet, who happened to be staying that week in Sverdlov’s house in Moscow.
On July 12, Goloschekin returned to Ekaterinburg and told his comrades of the Ural Soviet that the government had no further use for the Romanovs and was leaving to them the timing and manner of the family’s disposition. The Ural Soviet immediately voted to execute the entire family. Yurovsky, the commandant at the Ipatiev House, was ordered to shoot all the prisoners and to destroy the evidence of what had happened.

In the days immediately following the executions, Moscow tightly controlled the release of all information about the event in Ekaterinburg. At nine o’clock on the night of July 17, the Kremlin received a coded telegram from the Ural Regional Soviet saying, “Tell Sverdlov that the whole family has suffered the same fate as the head. Officially the family will perish during the evacuation.” Sverdlov, expecting this message, telegraphed in reply: “Today [July 18] I will report your decision to Presidium of Central Executive Committee. There is no doubt it will be approved. Notice about the execution must follow from the central authorities. Refrain from publication until its receipt.” Sverdlov, whose title was Chairman of the Central Executive Committee, informed the Presidium and, unsurprisingly, obtained its approval.

The pretense that Moscow did not know until after the event was continued that evening, when Sverdlov arrived late at a meeting of the Soviet of People’s Commissars. Lenin was presiding over discussion of a public health project. Sverdlov entered, took a chair behind Lenin, leaned forward, and whispered into his ear. Interrupting the commissar for people’s health, Lenin said, “Comrade Sverdlov asks the floor to make an announcement.”

“We have received information,” Sverdlov announced in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, “that in Ekaterinburg, by decision of the Ural Regional Soviet, Nicholas has been shot. Alexandra Feodorovna and her children are in reliable hands. Nicholas wanted to escape. The Czechs were getting close. The Presidium of the Executive Committee has given its approval.” When Sverdlov finished, the hall was silent. After a pause, Lenin said, “We shall now proceed to read the project, article by article.”

The official announcement that Sverdlov drafted and gave to
again omitted to mention that Nicholas’s wife, son, and daughters had been killed along with the tsar. On July 20, papers appeared in Moscow and St. Petersburg declaring, E
! D
! That same day, the Ural Soviet drafted an announcement and asked Moscow’s permission to publish it: “The ex-tsar and autocrat Nicholas Romanov has been shot along with his family.… The bodies have been buried.” The Kremlin forbade release of this statement because it mentioned the death of the entire family. Only on July 22 were Ekaterinburg editors permitted to publish a Moscow-drafted version of what had happened in their city. On that day, newspaper broadsheets were plastered around the Siberian city declaring:


In view of the fact that Czechoslovak bands are threatening the Red capital of the Urals, Ekaterinburg; that the crowned executioner may escape from the tribunal of the people (a White Guard plot to carry off the whole Imperial family has just been discovered), the Presidium of the Divisional Committee in pursuance of the will of the people has decided that the ex-tsar Nicholas Romanov, guilty before the people of innumerable bloody crimes, shall be shot.

The decision … was carried into execution on the night of July 16–17. Romanov’s family has been transferred from Ekaterinburg to a place of greater safety.

Eight days after the massacre, on July 25, the White and Czech armies entered Ekaterinburg.

In 1935, Leon. Trotsky published his
Diary in Exile
. The former Bolshevik leader, who had been forced into exile by Stalin, described the link between Lenin and Sverdlov, who had authorized the Ekaterinburg
massacre, and the Ural Soviet, which had determined the time and method of execution:

My next visit to Moscow [Trotsky had been at the front] took place after the fall of Ekaterinburg. Talking to Sverdlov, I asked in passing: “Oh, yes, and where is the tsar?”

“It’s all over,” he answered. “He has been shot!”

“And where is the family?”

“And the family along with him.”

“All of them?” I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise.

“All of them,” replied Sverdlov. “What about it?” He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply.

“And who made the decision?” I asked.

“We decided it here. Ilych [Lenin] believed that we shouldn’t leave the Whites a live banner to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances.”

I did not ask any further questions and considered the matter closed. Actually, the decision was not only expedient but necessary. The severity of this summary justice showed the world that we would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing. The execution of the tsar’s family was needed not only in order to frighten, horrify and dishearten the enemy, but also in order to shake up our own ranks to show that there was no turning back, that ahead lay either complete victory or complete ruin.… This Lenin sensed well.

The report that Nicholas was dead, killed by the decision of a provincial soviet, and that his family was still alive spread quickly around the world. In Moscow, the counselor of the German Embassy, acting in place of the murdered ambassador, officially condemned the execution of the tsar and expressed concern about the fate of the German-born empress and her children. The Soviet government began telling the lie to foreigners which it continued to tell for the next eight years. On July 20, Karl Radek, head of the European Department of the Bolshevik Foreign Commissariat, informed the German counselor that it might be possible for the survivors to be
granted freedom “on humanitarian grounds.” On July 23 and July 24, Radek’s superior, Georgy Chicherin, head of the Foreign Commissariat, assured the German envoy that Alexandra and her children were safe. Through August and most of September, the German government continued to press and was continually reassured. On August 29, Radek proposed an exchange of the Imperial family for prisoners the Germans were holding; a few days later Chicherin again gave assurances that the empress and her children were safe; on September 10, Radek again discussed release of the prisoners; in the third week of September, Berlin was told that the Soviet authorities now were thinking of “moving the whole Imperial family to the Crimea.”

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