Ninety-nine years ago today, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, alongside his wife and four children, was brutally executed at Ekaterinburg in the midst of the Russian Revolution and before the close of World War I. The extermination of the Romanov line impacted not only the course of Russian history, but that of Western Europe and Great Britain, in particular, with whom the two ruling families were closely tied.
Personally, it was would deeply affect George V who had been forced to deny his cousins refuge in England out of political necessity.
But before we reach the end, let’s provide some context. Who were these people, particularly to the British public? Nicholas, son of Tsar Alexander III, was related to the House of Windsor through his mother, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, born Dagmar of Denmark. She was the younger sister of Alexandra of Denmark, who married Queen Victoria’s son, the future Edward VII, in 1863. Their children, including George V, were thus first cousins of the Romanov children.
Alexandra was born Alix of Hesse to Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt and his wife, Alice, Princess of the United Kingdom, daughter of Queen Victoria. Therefore, Alice and Edward VII were siblings, making Alix and her siblings also first cousins of the British royals. Alix grew into a remarkably beautiful young woman who caught the eye of a number of her royal cousins, including George V’s older brother, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence – then second-in-line to the throne.
Alix, reportedly Queen Victoria’s favorite grandchild (quite the achievement, if true, given their sheer volume), turned down Albert Victor and instead became engaged to Nicholas in 1894. Remarkably, it was a genuine love match. While engaged, Nicholas’s father, Alexander III, died on November 1, 1894 and Nicholas became Tsar at the age of 26. A week after his father’s funeral, he married Alexandra on November 26th at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg following her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy.
While the marriage was a personal success, it was a public disaster. Alix, now Alexandra, was detested by the Russian people, a loathing primarily driven by her not-so-subtle dislike of Russian culture. She was considered cold, rude and out of touch, her complete favoritism for German customs offensive. For his part, Nicholas felt unprepared to assume the duties of Tsar. He also followed the conservative lead of his father, ignoring the wider Western trend towards constitutional monarchies. The result, obviously, would be a disaster.
The couple’s popularity wasn’t helped by the lack of a male heir. Between 1895 and 1901, Alexandra gave birth to four daughters: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. It wasn’t until August 12, 1904 that a son, Alexai, made an appearance, an event marred by the discovery that he suffered from hemophilia. Alexandra was blamed for introducing the disease into the Romanov line, it having first made an appearance in her family following the birth of Queen Victoria’s son, Leopold, in 1853. For the next 14 years, Alexandra’s focus, to the near exclusion of everything else, was protecting and nursing her son. As Empress, she lived as a near recluse and was easy prey for the controversial influence of Grigori Rasputin, a Russian mystic and “healer.”
But we’re not going to get into the weeds into Nicholas’s rule or the couple’s family dynamics. Instead, we’re going to jump to the relationship between Nicholas and his cousin, George. George ascended the throne alongside his wife, Mary of Teck, in 1910 and by 1914, Europe was embroiled in World War I. Russia and the UK were allies during the war, putting Nicholas and George in the unique position of fighting against another grandson of Queen Victoria, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II.
However, while Wilhelm was generally loathed within the family, George and Nicholas had been friends since boyhood, a bond that had only been deepened as they both assumed unexpected royal duties as young men – Nicholas by his premature accession to the throne and George by the unexpected death of Albert Victor in 1892.
World War I led to waves of revolutions through Europe, stirring up unrest almost universally, much of it anti-monarchist in sentiment. It was certainly apparent in Spain for their cousin, Queen Victoria Eugenie and in Greece for their cousin, Queen Sophie, among many others. Russia had already seen itself through the revolutions of 1905, which had resulted in the establishment of the State Duma, but World War I had brought to the forefront considerable anti-German sentiment. From the start, Alexandra’s German birth had been an issue. Indeed, Nicholas’s parents had been against the match from the get-go and it inspired critique from George’s mother, Alexandra of Denmark, herself rabidly anti-German.
Critiques of Alexandra had always been seeped in her espousal for Germany, a fact which could have been mitigated had she embraced Russia. Instead, she seemed to take seriously the opinion of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had urged her to accept Nicholas’s proposal back in the 1890s as her duty as a German woman. It was advice from a dubious source and Alexandra’s inability to consider the realities of her situation sincerely calls into question her judgment and ability to hold her position, however tragic her story.
It certainly didn’t help a country that was shuttling towards Revolution, which it finally broke in 1917, ushering in three years of civil war. On March 15, 1917 Nicholas formally abdicated the throne, sending shockwaves through Europe. The Romanov dynasty had been one of the most powerful royal authorities – its dissolution – and not only that, but its dissolution at the hands of the people – was a terrifying reality for the established Western order. Nicholas’s announcement read:
In the days of the great struggle against the foreign enemies, who for nearly three years have tried to enslave our fatherland, the Lord God has been pleased to send down on Russia a new heavy trial. Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war. The destiny of Russia, the honor of our heroic army, the welfare of the people and the whole future of our dear fatherland demand that the war should be brought to a victorious conclusion whatever the cost.
The cruel enemy is making his last efforts, and already the hour approaches when our glorious army together with our gallant allies will crush him. In these decisive days in the life of Russia, We thought it Our duty of conscience to facilitate for Our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma, We have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power. As We do not wish to part from Our beloved son, We transmit the succession to Our brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, and give Him Our blessing to mount the Throne of the Russian Empire.
We direct Our brother to conduct the affairs of state in full and inviolable union with the representatives of the people in the legislative bodies on those principles which will be established by them, and on which He will take an inviolable oath. In the name of Our dearly beloved homeland, We call on Our faithful sons of the fatherland to fulfill their sacred duty to the fatherland, to obey the Tsar in the heavy moment of national trials, and to help Him, together with the representatives of the people, to guide the Russian Empire on the road to victory, welfare, and glory. May the Lord God help Russia!
In the immediate aftermath of the abdication, Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were kept in captivity at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Upon returning to his family, Nicholas went to his wife’s bedroom and wept; he was described as a man whose “spirit seemed completely broken down.” Nevertheless, the couple quickly assumed a new sort of quasi-normalcy, even though they were now under guard 24/7. Nicholas worked on physical exercise and spent time outdoors, while Alexandra turned to religion even more fervently. Her physical health, however, was on the decline and she was forced to use a wheelchair, which Nicholas devotedly pushed her about in.
She wrote of the time:
“They write so much filth about Him; a weak mind and so forth. It gets worse and worse, I throw the papers down, it hurts, it hurts all the time. Everything good is forgotten, it is so hard to read curses against the people you love most … When they write filth about Me – let them, they started tormenting me long ago, I don’t care now, but that they slander Him, throw dirt on the Sovereign Anointed by God, that is beyond the bearable.”
They were surrounded by jeering crowds outside their gates who taunted and threw things at the unpopular couple, protected only by guards who were equally as abusive. One exchange from a soldier to Nicholas in 1917 has been captured with:
Well, well, [Little Nicholas], so you are breaking the ice now, are you? Perhaps you’ve drunk enough of our blood? … And in the summer, when there’s no more ice – what’ll you do then, [our darling]? Perhaps you’ll throw a little sand on the walks with a little shovel?
Even so, death was not immediately on the table. Some of their guards came to care for Nicholas and Alexandra, their personal experience with them changing their minds. They also had allies in the new government, though the fact remained no one really knew what do with a deposed monarch and his family. The question of exile in Britain came early on and was initially endorsed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
It was Nicholas’s friend and cousin, George V, who vetoed the idea, though that decision deserves to be unpacked. First and foremost, he would have had no way of knowing that he was helping to sign his cousins’ death warrants. The myriad royal depositions taking place in Europe led, each and every time, to exile, not execution. King Constantine and Queen Sophie of Greece ended up in Switzerland, as did Kaiser Wilhelm II. The idea that the Russians would round up a family, including children, keep them captive and then murder them was barbaric to 20th century eyes…or really anyone’s, for that matter. Even in the Middle Ages, women and children were usually spared.
The idea that revolutionary sentiment might sweep to Britain wasn’t out of the question either and George had his own throne and family to care for. Taken together with the fact that the Russian Royal Family was widely reviled in Britain, particularly Alexandra, and it would have been an ongoing issue as to how and where to house and keep the Romanovs, it was untenable. Already, the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had been forced to change its name to the House of Windsor in a bit of face-saving PR. In short, George said no, but thought he was only re-directing his cousins from Britain to a neutral country while everything died down.
There is also a rumor that the decision to bar them access may have come from George’s wife, Queen Mary. Reportedly, she personally disliked Alexandra, believing the Tsarina had been snobbish to her about her inferior birth. Even if that was the case, the likelihood of the final decision resting on Mary is out of the question and, like George, she also would have had no way of knowing what was about to happen.
In August 1917, five months after the abdication, the family was moved to Tobolsk, 700 miles from Moscow in western Siberia. By the end of October, the next stage of the Revolution was complete and the Bolsheviks, with Vladimir Lenin, seized power, ushering in an even more radicalized government. Their fate still up in the air, Alexandra wrote:
“Although we suffer horribly still there is peace in our souls. I suffer most for Russia; it is the suffering of the innocent which nearly kills us.”
A doctor who shared the family’s exile during the time period wrote to his son:
“I was moved to tears. Here are we, come to Tobolsk for the purpose of helping the Imperial family to keep up their courage in exile, but in reality it is they who are helping us … [Alexandra] behaved throughout with true heroism and exhibited a touching kindness for everybody who shared the exile of her family.”
And then there was Treaty of Brest Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918, which would haunt Russia for decades (if not the next century), in which Lenin signed away Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, the Baltic States and most of Byelorussia in a harsh agreement hammered down by Germany and the Central Powers. To Nicholas and Alexandra, it was nothing short of treason.
It was then that the rumor floated that Germany was asking for custody of the royal family, though it was not received well. Despite her unpopularity for her German birth and perceived sympathy, the fact remained that Germany had been on the opposing side of World War I and Alexandra was loyal first to Nicholas. She remarked candidly that, “After what they have done to the Tsar, I would rather die in Russia than be saved by the Germans.”
Her wish would be granted. In April 1918, Nicholas was ordered to leave Tobolsk for the industrial city of Ekaterinburg. At the time, Alexei was suffering from another hemophiliac attack and Alexandra didn’t know whether to go with her husband or stay with her son. To her family, she said:
“It is the hardest moment of my life. You know what my son is to me, and I must choose between him and my husband. But I have made up my mind. I must be firm. I must leave my child and share my husband’s life or death.”
The departure was gut-wrenching, punctuated by Alexei hysterically crying out for his mother to come back.
Several weeks later, the children were sent to follow their parents. One of the guards watching over them later remarked after coming to know them:
“After I had seen them several times I began to feel entirely different towards them. I began to pity them. I pitied them as human being … I kept on saying to myself, ‘Let them escape, or do something to allow them to escape.”
By now the family lived with a sense of imminent danger. On July 14th a deacon and priest came to say Mass for the household and the family fell to their knees, some weeping, and prompting the deacon to remark to the priest on their way out, “You know, Father Archpresbyter, I think something must have happened there.”
On the night of July 16th, the family went to bed as usual. Alexandra’s last diary entry notes “Played bezique with Nicholas. To bed. 15 degrees.” She had already written the next day’s date on the next page.
The family was awoken at 2 am on the morning of July 17th, told that the White Army was advancing and that they needed to go to the basement for their safety. The six of them huddled in an empty room, Nicholas holding Alexei in his hands while Alexandra complained there were no chairs. Three were eventually brought in – Alexandra, Nicholas and Alexei each sat in them and the four girls remained standing near their mother.
The head of the Bolshevik Secret Police, Jacob Yurovsky, entered the room with a squad of men at close to 3 am and told them, “Your relations have tried to save you; they have failed, and now we must shoot you.”
Nicholas shouted, “What does this mean?”
Yurovsky responded, “This! Your race must cease to live.” He lifted his revolver and shot the Tsar point-blank in the head as he tried to bodily shield Alexandra.
At that point the entire squad began to shoot, the noise of the bullets drowned out by a running truck strategically placed outside. Alexandra was killed with a single gunshot while making the sign of the cross. The daughters, unfortunately, had sewn the family’s jewels into the bodices of their dresses to keep them safe from theft. The bullets ricocheted off them, causing the executioners to finish them off by stabbing and then again shooting them close-range. Alexei, wounded, still appeared alive, somehow protected from within his father’s arms. Yurovsky approached him and shot him in the head.
The entire ordeal lasted less than 20 minutes, going down in history as one of the most notorious and disgusting acts of political assassination. Pavel Medvedev, an eyewitness, later said:
“The sight and the smell of blood made me sick. I saw that all the members of the Tsar’s family were lying on the floor with many wounds in their bodies. The blood was running in streams.”
News of the deaths came out in waves and it took time for the details to be confirmed. Pro-royalist military victories in Ekaterinburg a few weeks after the murders allowed foreign officials to investigate and send back intel. A British intelligence report dated that September, nearly two months later, reads:
“Last night I received following information from an officer eye-witness whom I have no reason to doubt. After the Czechs took Ekaterinburg enquiries were made as to the whereabouts of the Imperial Family but these were without result. Then on the second day after the occupation a heap of charred bones was discovered in a mine shaft, about 30 versts north of the town. Among the ashes were shoe buckles, corset ribs diamonds and platinum crosses … Amongst trinkets and buckles he recognised articles belonging to the Empress, her four daughters and the Tsarevitch.”
George V was notified, however “gruesome details” were omitted from the original report. In fact, it would be a year before he learned the truth about how his cousins had died and when he did, he was horrified, ordering that it was kept from the press.
The family’s bones weren’t found until 1979 and weren’t confirmed to be those of the Romanovs until 1998. Even then, the bones of Alexei and one of the daughters were missing – thus prompting the Anastasia phenomenon. In the summer of 2007, bones of a young man and woman were found in the surrounding area, and in 2008 they were confirmed to be those of Nicholas and Alexandra’s children.
On July 17, 1998, the 80th anniversary of the executions, the family’s remains were formally interred at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Saint Petersburg. The ceremony was attended by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who said:
“Today is a historic day for Russia. For many years, we kept quiet about this monstrous crime, but the truth has to be spoken.”
Prince Michael of Kent, grandson of George V, represented the British Royal Family at the funeral.