On 17 July 1918, after three centuries in power, the Romanov dynasty came to a tragic end with the brutal execution of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, Empress Alexandra and their five children.
Tsar Nicholas II became Emperor of Russia on 1 November 1894 following the death of his father, Alexander III. Nicholas came to the throne at the age of twenty-six, significantly underprepared for his role and vehemently opposed to the call of the Russian public for an elected representation system – something which made gaining popular support difficult.
When the Russo-Japanese War began in 1904 Nicholas saw it as an opportunity to raise patriotism in Russia but the outcome was ultimately disastrous with significant financial repercussions. This led a group of Russian dissidents to attempt a peaceful revolution on Sunday, 22 January 1905 but they were swiftly cut down with 92 deaths and thousands of injuries on what would come to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
To quell the rising tide of frustration and anger in Russia, Nicholas approved the formation of a representative assembly (to be called the Duma) and made promises to his people that he would institute constitutional reforms. These concessions did not stand for long, however, and the Tsar dissolved the Duma whenever it opposed him. This led support for revolutionary groups – primarily the Bolsheviks – to grow.
Russia’s entrance into World War One in 1914 was swiftly followed by devastating defeats, food scarcity and widespread war-weariness, which only served to exacerbate public frustration and demonstrate Nicholas’s ineffectiveness as Tsar. Revolution broke out in March 1917 and Nicholas was forced to abdicate and take his family into exile.
17 July 1918
There are varied accounts of what exactly happened in the early hours of 17 July 1918 but many historians agree that the family (along with their doctor and three servants) were awoken and escorted from their beds to a small cellar at the back of the house. They were told that anti-Bolshevik forces were advancing on the house and they would be moved to safety as soon as a photograph was taken to prove they had not escaped.
The group was arranged in two rows but instead of a photographer a firing squad entered the room and the assembled group were told that they had been condemned to death.
Nicholas was stunned and it’s said that he asked ‘What? What?’ as he looked between his family and the executioners at which point the order was repeated and the lead executioner shot Nicholas several times.
What followed was complete chaos as a hailstorm of bullets filled the room. The Russian princesses survived the initial shots as they had 1.3kgs of diamonds and precious gems sewn into their clothing, providing a shield against the bullets, but the executioners quickly changed tactics when they realised this and used bayonets and close-range shots to complete their assignment.
Reports also claim that the execution took much longer than planned as the firing squad was drunk and had issues aiming at their targets.
The bodies of the family were driven to the Koptyaki Forest, stripped of their clothing and valuables, burned and then lowered into a pit and covered with a wash of acid. The muddy earth meant the grave was much shallower than intended and so the bodies were moved only hours later and then again the next day, only this time they were separated as during the previous burial the heir, Alexei, and one of his sisters were buried 50 feet away from the rest of the group to try and confuse things if the graves were ever discovered.
To this day there is no firm evidence about who gave the order for the deaths.
Since that July night, many people have come forward claiming to be survivors – the last living Romanovs – with Anastasia’s survival stories being the most famed and the inspiration for dozens of books and movies.
In 2008, however, all of the missing Romanovs were officially accounted for. The mass grave containing Tsar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, three of their four daughters and the servants who died with them was found in 1979 and in 1991 DNA evidence confirmed the identities of all buried within it. The bodies were exhumed in 1998 and the royal family was laid to rest in the St Catherine Chapel at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
In 2007 the grave of Alexei and the final Romanov sister was found and Russian forensic scientists confirmed their identities in April 2008. Plans were made in 2015 to rebury Alexei and his sister’s remains in the St Catherine Chapel so that they could be with their family but calls for more DNA testing have caused delays.
In August 2000 the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church for their ‘humbleness, patience and meekness’ and were recognised as ‘passion bearers’ – people who met death with Christian humility.