On Sunday 13 March 1881, the 13-year-old Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov, the future tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, was accompanying his father and grandfather on a carriage through the streets of St Petersburg. His grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, had been to see his routine Sunday morning parade, despite advice that there were plots to have him assassinated. The tsar insisted on keeping to his routine but on this morning would pay for his obstinacy. A bomb thrown by a member of a terrorist group called the People’s Will killed the tsar. It was, for the young Nicholas, a terrible scene to have to witness.
Alexander II had been a reformer and a liberal, introducing 20 years earlier the emancipation of the serfs and keen to introduce a raft of new reforms. In consequence of the tsar’s violent end, his son and the new tsar, Alexander III, undid much of Alexander II’s reforms, suppressed liberalism and brought back the full force of autocracy.
The new tsar intended to start teaching his son the art of statesmanship once Nicholas had reached the age of 30. But on 1 November 1894, aged only 49, Alexander III died of kidney disease. His son was still only 26. Thus, following the death of his father, Nicholas (pictured) was thrust unprepared into the limelight. Fearful of the responsibility that was now his to bear, he reputedly asked, ‘What will become of me and all of Russia?’
The Khodynka Tragedy
From the start the omens were not good. Four days after his coronation on 26 May 1896, Nicholas II and his wife of 18 months, Alix of Hesse, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, attended the public celebration held in their honour in Khodynka Field, on the outskirts of Moscow. 100,000 people gathered to enjoy the coronation festivities but a stampede caused the death of 1,389. Many more were injured. In a state of shock, Nicholas wished to pray for the dead. But he was persuaded by his advisors to attend a planned gala at the French embassy, arguing that not insulting the ambassador was more important than praying for his subjects. His subsequent attendance may have soothed the ambassador’s vanity but it showed the new tsar in the worst possible light. He later visited the injured in hospital and donated vast sums to help the affected families. But the damage had been done.
Nicholas II ruled as his father had done. But whereas his father had been a physically domineering man, strong, brash and confident, Nicholas was slight, unsure of himself and prone to agree with whoever spoke to him last. Although aware of his own weakness, once describing himself as ‘without will and without character’, Nicholas II saw his rule as one sanctioned by God – ‘I regard Russia as one big estate, with the tsar as its owner’, he said in 1902. Nicholas could speak English with a refined accent and was known as the ‘most civil man in Europe’.
The Romanov dynasty had ruled Russia and its empire since 1613. Nicholas II would prove to be its last tsar. His wife, Alix of Hesse, was German, which caused considerable disquiet amongst his nationalistic subjects. Her attempts to become more Russian, changing her name to Alexandra and accepting the Russian Orthodox faith, did little to overturn their prejudice.
The seeds of the tsar’s downfall began on 22 January 1905, ‘Bloody Sunday’, when he was held responsible for turning on his own people and gunning down unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. His half-hearted efforts to appease the masses by replacing his autocracy with a constitutional monarchy did little to ease the widening discontent throughout the empire. Nicholas, deeply anti-Semitic, was quick to blame Jews for the country’s discontent. During the strikes of 1905, he wrote to his mother, ‘Nine out of ten troublemakers were Jews’.
Having witnessed another assassination, this time of his uncle, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich on 17 February 1905, Nicholas II withdrew from public life, affecting further his popularity. His credibility was not helped by allowing his wife to become overly dependent on the mystic, Grigori Rasputin, who seemed to be the only one able to stem the bleeding of his haemophiliac son, the tsarevich Alexei.
Following early defeats during the First World War, Nicholas took personal command of his army and left the everyday administration of government to his wife. It was a mistake – every Russian setback was now his responsibility; as commander, the tsar took the blame. Meanwhile, his wife’s nationality and her continued reliance on Rasputin earned the Imperial Family much criticism, both within the Russian parliament, the Duma, and among the general population. Russia’s appalling record in the war, and the amount of territory lost to the Germans on its Western borders, further discredited the monarchy.
The Tsar’s Abdication
Strikes broke out, first in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg), then other cities, but Nicholas II failed to judge the import of the situation and refused to leave his command post at the front. On 11 March, the Chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent the tsar a desperate telegram, ‘The situation is serious. Measures must be taken at once; tomorrow will be too late. The capital is in a state of anarchy; troops of the Petrograd garrison cannot be relied upon. The Government is powerless to stop the disorder… General discontent is growing… Your majesty, do not delay. Any procrastination is tantamount to death.’ Nicholas wrote in his diary, ‘this fat Rodzianko has written me lots of nonsense, to which I shall not even deign to reply’. Nicholas did, however, do as he had warned – on 12 March, he dissolved the Duma.
Finally, Nicholas decided to return to Petrograd – but it was too late. On 15 March 1917, the tsar was forced to abdicate, thus ending the three-century-old Romanov dynasty. Few mourned its passing.
The British government had wanted to offer Nicholas II and his family asylum but King George V, the tsar’s cousin, refused, fearing that the presence of the fallen tsar in Britain could cause trouble.
The House of Special Purpose
Following the tsar’s abdication, the Imperial Family (pictured in 1913) was kept under house arrest first in the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, 15 miles south of Petrograd, then, from August 1917, in Tobolsk in Western Siberia. In April 1918, they were transferred to Yekaterinburg in the Urals and kept in a former merchant’s house, known by the Bolsheviks obscurely as the ‘House of Special Purpose’.
Meanwhile, in November 1917, the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Lenin, seized power.
In July 1918, a legion of Czech troops were closing in on the town, and the Bolsheviks, fearing the Romanovs might be rescued and become a rallying point for their enemies, decided to act, probably under the orders of Vladimir Lenin. Around midnight on 17 July 1918, the family was awakened, told to get dressed and washed, and taken down to the basement of the house.
Alexandra’s request for a couple of chairs was granted. The former royal couple sat down, with the 13-year-old Alexei sitting on his father’s lap (both wore soldiers’ shirts and caps) and the girls gathered behind their mother. Also with them, the family doctor and three servants that had remained loyal to the last. Yakov Yurovsky, in charge of the house, led in a squad of executioners and read a short statement announcing the order for execution. An incredulous Nicholas said, ‘What?’ before being shot dead by Yurovsky. The squad then opened fire. Alexandra and her daughters had, over the weeks, sewn their jewellery into their undergarments (lest they could be used for bartering at some point) and thus to a degree were protected from the bullets. But they were finished off by bayonet and finally a shot each to the head.
The following day, Lenin announced to a Danish newspaper that the tsar was well and that rumours concerning his death were ‘lies put out by the capitalist press’.
Initially dumped down a mineshaft, the bodies were hastily buried in nearby forests. Their exact location remained a mystery until their discovery in 1979, although it would be another 19 years before DNA confirmed their identification. On 18 July 1998, exactly 80 years after their execution, the family was given a state funeral and a Christian burial and, in August 2000, the tsar was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria, is now available.