The Haunting Story of Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs
The Romanov family ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. Today I will tell you about the tragic and brutal end to their three centuries of Imperial control. The family produced eighteen different ruling Czars and Czarinas, the Russian term for Emperor and Empress, coming from the name of everyone’s favorite Emperor and decent salad, Caesar. They were responsible for transforming Russia into the Empire that was officially established in 1721 by Peter the Great, and that still exists in the mind of Vladimir Putin. Catherine The Great, (they weren’t super creative with the nicknames back then), helped Westernize Russia’s culture in the late 1700s. In the 1810s, Czar Alexander fended off Napoleon and his troops.
Czar Nicholas II, the star of our story, came to power in 1894 with very little political experience. His grandfather had been unexpectedly assassinated when Nicholas was young, and he witnessed the attack. His father’s health rapidly declined at the age of 49 and he died of kidney disease. Nicholas became Emperor at age 26, and he did not have an easy time. He was able to implement some positive reforms, like literacy and infrastructure programs, but he was widely criticized for his leadership during the war with Japan from 1904–1905, the 1905 rebellion of Russian workers, and during World War I.
Right before Nicholas’s father died, Princess Alix of Hesse (a region of Germany), was brought to Russia as Nicholas’s bride and the new Empress. She was a favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria, nicknamed Sunny, and Victoria had hoped that Alix would one day Alix would be the new British Queen. But Alix rejected a proposal from the British heir and her first cousin Prince Albert Victor. She had already fallen in love with Nicholas, who she had met at a wedding. The feeling was mutual, as Nicholas wrote in his diary:
“It is my dream to one day marry Alix H. I have loved her for a long time, but more deeply and strongly since 1889 when she spent six weeks in Petersburg. For a long time, I have resisted my feeling that my dearest dream will come true.”
There was pushback from both families. The Russians disliked the Germans. Queen Victoria disliked Nicholas’s father and worried about the safety of Alix in Russia, which, oof, probably should have listened to grandma on that one. But as the Emperor lay dying, he finally relented.
When Alix married Nicholas her name was changed to Alexandra Feodorovna, although the rest of her never really adapted to Russian culture, which rubbed the Russian people the wrong way. She seemed cold and curt at formal events, but friends would report in reality she was nervous and shy. Her German ancestry also did her no favors as Russia faced Germany in World War I. Many people took it as a bad omen that she arrived right as the Emperor died. It also didn’t help that their wedding celebration for the Russian people resulted in a mass stampede known as the Khodynka Tragedy that killed over 1,000 people. Regardless of how the citizens and other nobles felt about the couple, Nicholas and Alexandra were deeply in love until their untimely deaths.
Over the course of their marriage, they had five children: one son Alexei and their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and the one who would later earn an entire beloved animated film, Anastasia. Collectively, the girls are referred to as OTMA. The kids were raised simply for royals, taking cold baths every morning and sleeping on hard cots without pillows.
OTMA and Alexei
The eldest daughter. Olga was smart and quick-tempered and as she got older, she was especially charitable and compassionate. She was particularly close with her sister, Tatiana, and together they were known as The Big Pair. During World War I, the Big Pair worked as nurses for wounded soldiers. Olga had a string of possible suitors from around Europe, but she wanted to marry a Russian. She fell in love with a junior naval officer named Pavel Voronov, but their relationship was not allowed because of his low rank. She also had a relationship with a wounded soldier she cared for, Dmitri Chakh-Bagov, but suffered the same rank problem.
Tatiana was known as the most beautiful sister, and also the leader. They nicknamed her “The Governess” and she was their representative when they needed to beg a favor from their parents. She was the closest to their mother. She was also an honorary colonel for the Russian army and had her own regiment of soldiers, the Ascension Lancers. She also had a romance with an officer named Dmitri Malama, and he gave her the dog that would suffer an unfortunate fate with the rest of the family. She was also nearly engaged to Serbian Prince Alexander, who was reportedly distraught when he heard about Tatiana’s eventual fate. Both Tatiana and Olga witnessed the assassination of a government official at an opera when they were young teens.
Maria, the third daughter, was flirtatious and lively, with big blue eyes that the family called, “Marie’s saucers”. She was also fond of Russian soldiers since she was young, so we can confidently say these girls liked a man in uniform. Her nurse recounted that when she was young…
“Marie was looking out of the window at a regiment of soldiers marching past and exclaimed, “Oh! I love these dear soldiers; I should like to kiss them all!”
Reportedly, her cousin Louis Mountbatten had a crush on her and kept a photograph of her on his bedside table until his death. She and Anastasia were called The Little Pair.
Anastasia, the most famous Romanov sister today, was a mischievous and energetic little girl, and she stayed lively to entertain her family throughout the dark period that was to come. Both she and Maria were too young to be nurses, but visited and played games with injured soldiers instead.
Alexei was a long-awaited son, and the family loved him dearly, nicknaming him “Baby” and “Sunbeam”. When he was born during the war with Japan, all the active soldiers of the Russian Army and Navy were named as his god-fathers, unfortunately not the Michael Corleone kind. His tutor wrote about him:
“Alexei was the center of this united family, the focus of all its hopes and affections His sisters worshipped him. He was his parents’ pride and joy. When he was well, the palace was transformed. Everyone and everything in it seemed bathed in sunshine.”
Although he was the heir to the Russian empire, unfortunately, was not physically equipped for the task. He suffered from severe hemophilia, also known as the royal disease because of how commonly it occurred in the in-bred European royal network. Hemophilia prevents blood from clotting normally and causes excessive bleeding both externally and internally after even minor injuries. Doctors warned the family that he would die by age 16, if not sooner. But he would not die of hemophilia, and the Romanov’s desperate steps to save him may have contributed to his tragic death.
Ra Ra Rasputin
The Romanovs were searching for any treatment or cure that could help their son and they were vulnerable when a strange and mystical man came to them, one that I was personally introduced to through a particularly catchy 1978 pop song featured on Just Dance: Rasputin.
Grigori Rasputin was no ordinary doctor. In fact, he was about as much of a doctor as Charles Ponzi was a businessman. He was born in 1869 in the small peasant village of Pokrovskoye, Siberia.
When he was 28, married ten years with a baby and another on the way, he decided that was a great time to go on a religious pilgrimage. It may have been inspired by a vision, or by a need to leave town because he possibly committed the serious crime of horse theft. He visited St. Nicholas Monastery at Verkhoturye and spent time with a starets or elder monk. When he returned home after several months, he was not himself. He appeared disheveled, gave up meat and alcohol, and left home for months or years at a time to become a strannik or holy wanderer.
In the early 1900s, he developed a small circle of devotees and built a secret chapel in a root cellar. Rumors quickly spread about the nature of the group, that he had inappropriate relationships with female followers or that they were conducting violent rituals.
Although he may not seem like the charming type, word of his religious leadership and charm spread around Siberia and then farther East, to the part of Russia that does not have an average temperature of 23 degrees Fahrenheit on a good day. In St. Petersburg, Rasputin rapidly collected a number of influential friends, like a college freshman during welcome week, including two noblewomen known as the “Black Princesses” because of their interest in the occult. The Princesses, who were married to the tsar’s cousins, they helped introduce Rasputin to Czar Nicholas and Alexandra, which, in hindsight was not a great move. Nicholas even wrote in his diary that day, November 1st, 1905 that he and Alexandra “made the acquaintance of a man of God — Grigory, from Tobolsk province”.
Rasputin was asked to pray for the health of Alexei and Alexandra especially became firmly convinced that Rasputin had the powers of faith-healing.
In one particular incident in 1912, Alexei was bleeding heavily internally because of a rough carriage ride. He suffered severe pain and fever and seemed as if he might die, and the desperate Alexandra sent a telegram to Rasputin in Siberia asking for his prayers. He sent a message back that read:
“God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.”
Rasputin quickly worked his way into the family’s inner circle, which freaked a lot of people out. Accusations spread of him accepting monetary and sexual favors, being a religious heretic, misusing his influence, and there were even rumors of an affair between him and Czarina Alexandra, which have become a part of his lasting mythos. Ra-ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen. The idea of this strange peasant outsider controlling the royal family caused people to turn against not only him but the royals as well.
In 1914, a peasant woman stabbed Rasputin, but he survived. Eventually, a group of nobles, including Prince Felix Yusupov, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, who was one of Olga’s suitors, lured Rasputin to Yusupov’s palace and offered him tea and cakes, which would have been lovely, if they weren’t laced with cyanide. He ate them, but they strangely didn’t affect him at all. They then gave him three glasses of poisoned wine, and if I may quote: he drank it all and said I feel fine.
Prince Yusupov, feeling done with the shenanigans, shot him in the chest. The prince and the duke dressed up as Rasputin and drove to his house so people would think he had returned home that night. When they went back to the palace, a very much still alive Raputin jumped up and attacked them. The team finally shot Rasputin three times in the head and dumped him off a bridge. The royal family hosted a funeral for him although his wife and children weren’t invited. One of his daughters, Maria, (there were a lot of Maria’s around in Russia back then) later became a lion tamer in an American circus.
The Romanovs After Rasputin
In 1915, Czar Nicholas left the capital of St. Petersburg to lead the Russian army in World War I. However, the damage the war did to the economy, along with what was seen by many as ineffective and corrupt leadership, led to unrest. Some moderate Russians allied with the Bolshevik revolutionaries, who I’m not going to lie, I was first introduced to in the movie musical Annie. Many people joined the revolutionaries, led by Vladimir Lenin, in calling for the Czar to be removed. In 1917, Nicholas stepped down on behalf of himself and his son. He believed it was in the best interest of his county and his family. The first outcome is debatable, but hard to get worse than Lenin and later Stalin. The second reason was fatally wrong.
The Russian revolution began that year, and Lenin and his socialist revolutionaries formed the world’s first communist state and ended 300 years of Romanov rule. The family was sent into exile under house arrest in Siberia. In April of 1918, they were moved to the Ipatiev House in the city of Yekaterinburg, also known as the House of Special Purpose. As they entered their new prison, the former Tsar was addressed:
“Citizen Nicholas Romanov, you may enter.”
There would be no royal titles under the Bolsheviks.
The House of Special Purpose
Their life at the House of Special Purpose was harsher than their previous places. They were only allowed to speak Russian, which was hard on Alexandra, who preferred English. Their belongings were confiscated, including their cameras. They were regularly searched and money taken. Guards even tried to remove gold bracelets from Alexandra and the princess’s wrists. Their windows were sealed and pasted over with newspaper.
There was a tiny window for ventilation, but a sentry fired a shot through it when Anastasia tried to peek out. The guards took their piano and their phonograph. They were required to ring a bell when they left their room to use the restroom, which they shared with guards who defaced it with crude messages about the rumors about Alexandra and Rasputin. They were no longer permitted visitors, even eventually from Alexei’s doctor. Their visits to church were halted and they no longer received the newspaper.
The Bolsheviks also lied to the family about two of their beloved servants, Klementy Nagorny, Alexei’s sailor nanny and protector, and Ivan Sednev, the princess’s footman. In reality, the Soviet Secret Police (the Cheka) had murdered them and other hostages in revenge for the death of a Bolshevik leader. There were three hundred guards at the house by the end of their time there.
But even at House of Special Purpose, the Romanovs had some freedoms under commander Aleksandr Avdeev. Then he was replaced by Bolshevik leader and professional a-hole Yakov Yurovsky, who the family privately called “Commander Ox”. Yurovksy and the Cheka secret police replaced the guards who had been there with hand-picked replacements. All of them swore that they were willing to kill the Czar if necessary, although they were not asked if they were also willing to kill his family and servants, which they probably would have appreciated some warning about.
Yurovsky purposefully chose foreigners so that the Romanovs could not fraternize with these guards like they had sometimes done with the last. The guards also reportedly scared and humiliated the girls by repeatedly walking into their bedroom unannounced.
Czar Nicholas wrote in his diary the understatement of the century about Yurovsky:
“We like this man less and less.”
Despite this, the family kept their spirits up. Their religious faith and deep love for one another seems to have helped them during these dark days. They played games, read, sewed. Alexei played with toy soldiers. If you think you’re bored during this pandemic, imagine it’s 1918.
In June of that year, civil war broke out between the Bolsheviks red army and the anti-Bolshevik Russian white army. The White Army was approaching the city and the Bolsheviks feared that the White army could rescue the royal family. If one of the Romanovs survived, they would have an iron-clad claim to the throne of Russia that would be recognized by other nations. They would also make a fantastic figurehead for the rebellion, much like any protagonist from a young adult dystopian novel.
One story states that a soldier Ivan Skorokhodov had snuck Maria a cake for her 19th birthday during this month, and they had been caught together, further angering the guards, although this account is contested.
While the White Army was moving on the city, the Romanovs received letters in French from someone claiming to be a friendly officer who wanted to rescue them. They wrote back to him to form a plan for escape. But with a twist ripped right from a spy thriller, the letters weren’t from a friendly officer at all, but from the Cheka secret police.
With that, the Bolsheviks had a final justification to get the Romanovs out of the picture. The new Soviet government had a meeting of its leadership committee, with Lenin in attendance. They approved Yurovsky’s request to execute the Romanov family.
Some other European political figures attempted to intervene before their death, including German ambassador Wilhelm von Mirbach, but they were vastly ignored by the rest of Europe’s leadership, including King George V of England, who was a first cousin to both Nicholas and Alexandra (genetic yikes there). Two of the children’s tutors, Pierre Gilliard and Sydney Gibbes tried to pressure the British consul into taking action, but he did not.
King George expressed in private letters that he was concerned about his relatives, but the political implications of helping them were too difficult for him to handle. Anti-German sentiment was at a peak, in fact, this was when the British royal family even changed their last name from “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” to “Windsor”.
The royal families of Spain, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway also considered saving the family… and decided against it. It’s possible that the family could have escaped on their own without the Czar before they were moved to the House of Special Purpose, but Alexandra would not leave without Nicholas, who was separated from them at the time. Later, some of the surviving Romanov relatives, including Nicholas’s mother, Maria (that’s Maria number 3 for anyone keeping score at home) and sister Xenia, were rescued from Russia and taken to Britain, where I imagine they had some choice words for their cousin George.
The Beginning of the End
In July, 30,000 Czech soldiers mutinied against the Bolsheviks and joined the White Army. They were marching on Yekaterinburg. Yurovsky decided there was no time to wait any longer. He telegraphed Stalin his plans and presumably received a yes, otherwise I’m sure Comrade Yurovsky would have had some kind of unfortunate accident.
The last civilians to see the Romanovs alive were a priest who had been brought in to perform a service for them, and four maids who were cleaning the house. All five were forbidden to speak to the prisoners, although when the princess knelt to help them clean, a maid allegedly whispered to the girls
“Please God you will not have to suffer under the yoke of these monsters for much longer.”
Yurovsky and his men gathered fourteen handguns, black powder, and a truck and rolls of canvas to transport the bodies. The previous day, they had driven to a nearby abandoned mine and brought petrol, acid, and firewood in preparation for the cleanup.
The 78th Day
Now it was July 16th, 1918. It was the 78th day of the Romanov’s imprisonment at the House of Special Purpose. Olga was now 22, Tatiana 21, Maria 19, Anastasia 17, and Alexei 13, so weakened by his illness he could barely walk.
Alexandra wrote in her diary:
“Grey morning, later lovely sunshine. Baby has a slight cold. All went out 1/2 hour in the morning, Olga & I arranged our medicines. Tatiana read Spir. readings. They went out. Tatiana stayed with me Scripture we read: Book. of the Prophet. Amos and Prophet. Obadiah. Tatted. Every morning the Command, comes to our rooms, at last after a week brought eggs again for Baby. Supper. Suddenly Lyonka Sednyov was fetched to go & see his Uncle & flew off — wonder whether it’s true & we shall see the boy back again! Played bezique with Nicholas. to bed. 15 degrees.”
She dated the page for the next day’s entry, one that would forever remain blank.
As she wrote, the morning started like any other, except for one small difference: there were a lot more eggs. Local nuns made a daily trip to the home to bring milk and sometimes food, and that day Commander Yurovsky had requested 50 eggs. He needed them to feed the firing squad he had put together at the house.
The family had their tea and black bread. All but Olga and Alexandra went for a walk outside. They were, as she wrote, “arranging the medicines”, but in this case, the medicine in question was the Romanovs remaining diamonds and jewels, and the arranging was sewing them into the lining of their clothing.
Yurovsky interrupted the family’s dinner to tell them that he had sent away the kitchen boy, Leonid Sednev, to visit his uncle Ivan. The family was upset, because four other members of their entourage had already been removed, and Lenoid was the only boy there for Alexei to play with. Yurovsky assured them that Lenoid would come back soon, but in reality, his uncle Ivan had already been murdered and Leonid was sent away permanently to live with relatives.
The family had their evening prayer and went to bed.
Yurovsky was awake and making preparations downstairs. He assigned each chosen soldier to a target and instructed them, never one to mince words: “shoot straight at the heart to avoid an excessive quantity of blood and get it over quickly.” Two of the non-Russian guards refused to shoot the women, and were sent away from the house for, as Yurovsky put it, failing “at that important moment in their revolutionary duty”. Several of the soldiers started to get drunk on vodka shots. The truck was late, and Yurovsky was angry.
Eugene Botkin, the family doctor, had a sense of what was to come, perhaps with some supernatural intervention. Later on the night of the 16th Botkin was writing a letter that he would never get to send.
He wrote in part:
“I am making a last attempt at writing a real letter… My voluntary confinement here is restricted less by time than by my earthly existence. In essence I am dead — dead for my children — dead for my work … I am dead but not yet buried, or buried alive — whichever, the consequences are nearly identical … The day before yesterday, as I was calmly reading… I saw a reduced vision of my son Yuri’s face, but dead, in a horizontal position, his eyes closed. Yesterday, at the same reading, I suddenly heard a word that sounded like Papulya. I nearly burst into sobs. Again — this is not a hallucination because the word was pronounced, the voice was similar, and I did not doubt for an instant that my daughter, who was supposed to be in Tobolsk, was talking to me … I will probably never hear that voice so dear or feel that touch so dear with which my little children so spoiled me … I unhesitatingly orphaned my own children in order to carry out my physician’s duty to the end, as Abraham did not hesitate at God’s demand to sacrifice his only son.”
Yurovsky interrupted Botkin and told him to wake the Romanovs. They were told to get dressed and that a truck was waiting to move them out of the city. In reality, it was the truck that had been brought to take away their bodies. The family and four members of their entourage who had willingly gone with them into exile: Dr. Botkin, their footman Alexei Trupp, their cook Ivan Kharitonov, and Alexandra’s maid Anna Demidova. Anastasia and Alexei brought their King Charles Spaniels, Jemmy and Joy.
The group was brought to a 20ft by16ft basement room. The girls were wearing their dresses with their jewels sewn in. Alexei and Nicholas were wearing their military uniforms. Nicholas had to carry his weakened son in his arms. He told his family, “Well, we’re going to get out of this place.”
Alexandra asked for chairs, and two were brought for her and Alexei. A guard said to Yurovsky:
“The heir wants to die in a chair. Very well, let him have one.”
Nicholas gently placed Alexei in a chair and stood in front of him. The truck arrived and revved the engine to hide the sounds of what will come neck.
Yurovsky read them their sentence.
“Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”
Nicholas had just a moment to turn and ask “What?” twice before Yurovsky killed him with three shots to the chest. Alexandra and Olga tried to bless themselves but were unable to complete it. A drunken soldier killed Alexandra next. Maria attempted to flee through the locked door but was hit in the leg.
The room filled with smoke and noise. Each of the guards was assigned a single target, but everything quickly turned to chaos. The single lightbulb hanging in the room was shattered. The plaster ceiling broke and filled the room with dust. Yurovsky called a cease-fire and but it took a little while for the soldiers to hear him and step outside.
All the children and two servants survived the original onslaught. Alexei hadn’t moved from his chair, diamonds in his shirt protecting him from the bullets. A guard rushed in to tell Yurovsky that the sounds of shots and screams are being heard outside, despite the noise of the truck. The rest of the murders were finished with bayonets, and the soldiers stumbled out of the room coughing, choking, and vomiting.
As the other guards in the house come to see what had happened, some began to cry. The bodies were stripped of their jewels. Yurovsky went upstairs and lay down with a cold cloth on his head. Several soldiers refuse to sleep in their room in the basement, so close to where the murders have taken place, and sleep in Yurovsky’s office.
The British consul, Thomas Preston, lived only a few houses away and found out about the death of Nicholas. He wrote a telegram back to the British government: “The Tsar Nicholas the Second was shot last night.” A Bolshevik altered it before it was sent to say:
“The hangman Tsar Nicholas the Second was shot today — a fate he richly deserved.”
The bodies were brought to the mine, met with anger from the soldiers there who had expected to be part of the killing. When the soldiers try to dump the bodies, they realize they forgot to check how deep the mine was. Answer: not deep enough to hide them. Yurovsky had a humiliating meeting with the council about this failure and has to drive the bodies to a new spot. The truck gets stuck in a field, and Yurovsky decided that spot is fine.
Nine of the bodies were buried together. Alexei and Maria’s bodies were burned and buried separately nearby to try and confuse anyone who might be looking for the remains, and boy it did. Yurovsky told the men who buried the bodies:
“Never speak of what has taken place here. You must forget all you have seen.”
The only surviving member of the family was Alexei’s dog, Joy, who was rescued by a British military officer.
Lenin, and later Stalin, hid the details of the grisly crime. Only the Tsar’s death was reported to the people. A number of people came forward pretending to be surviving Romanovs, particularly Anastasia and Alexei, the most famous imposter being Anna Anderson, who I will discuss in another episode. And of course, there was the 1997 animated film and Broadway musical inspired by the myth of Grand Duchess Anastasia surviving. It features Rasputin as the villain
In May of 1979, most of the remains were found by an amateur investigation by Alexander Avdonin and filmmaker Geli Ryabov, but they hid the discovery until the end of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Nicholas, Alexandra, and three of the girl’s bodies were exhumed, identified through DNA, and laid to rest in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Russian President Boris Yeltsin attended the funeral, as well as Prince Michael of Kent from the British Royal family to which I’d like to say, too little, too late, guys.
The bodies of Alexei and one of the sisters, likely Maria, were found and confirmed in 2007.
In 2000, the family members were all declared saints by the Russian Orthodox church. Alexei and Maria have still not been buried with the rest of their family.
At the funeral in 1998, President Yeltsin gave a speech where he stated:
“We have long been silent about this monstrous crime. We must say the truth: The Yekaterinburg massacre has become one of the most shameful episodes in our history. By burying the remains of innocent victims, we want to atone for the sins of our ancestors. Those who committed this crime are as guilty as are those who approved of it for decades. We are all guilty.”
Sources for this episode include: