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What happened to Russia’s monarchy?

Taking a look at what happened to Russia’s monarchy in the early 1900s. “What happened to Russia’s monarchy?” is the first in our autumn series looking back at what led to the fall of various monarchies throughout history.

“For centuries the Tsars of Russia have been waging wars simply for the lust of territory and for the glory of Autocracy. The rulers of Russia have sown the wind and they are now beginning to reap the whirlwind.”

-Carl Joubert

The story of Russia’s last Tsar and his family is perhaps one of the most tragic royal stories to unfold. The Communist uprising led to the death of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their children. This dismantled and removed an ancient monarchy from the throne of Russia.

The Background

The fall of the Russian monarchy came from a multitude of problems. The Russian people faced severe hardship and poverty; they desired democratic participation, better worker’s rights, and land. The Tsar, although suitably informed of the problems by his court, was ultimately blind to the issues that plagued his subjects.

Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, was aware of the growing demand for democratic participation that his people had begun to cling to. At the start of his reign in November 1894, he spoke of commoners that had “senseless dreams of participation.” Historians say that the working classes started talking about democracy, equality, and liberty – the three concepts that acted as the rallying cry of the French revolutions. Despite knowing the problems that would stem from denying his people democratic representation, Nicholas II clung tight to his belief in his God-given right to rule the Russian Empire.

Tsar Nicholas II. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The events of Bloody Sunday in 1905 acted as a catalyst for the fall of the Tsar. The march on Sunday, 22 January (O.S. 9 January) 1905 did not stem from a desire for revolution. Many of the workers believed in the Tsar and traditionalism. The march’s goal was merely for better workers rights and fair treatment. It was never intended to spark a rebellion; it was only acting as a petition from the Tsar’s loyal subjects.

The Winter Palace guard reacted harshly to the march. They fired volleys into crowds of women and children. They reportedly shot at citizens who were not even taking part in the rally. In total, 96 people died during the events of Bloody Sunday (also called Red Sunday). The marchers had a lot of respect for the Tsar, viewing him in a fatherly light. The reactions from the Winter Palace shattered that respect and led to resentment across Russia. Many people declared that they “no longer had a Tsar”.

Soviet painting of Bloody Sunday. Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Tsar Nicholas II lost the admiration and reverence the people gave him. They no longer saw him as their “Little Father” as he was then widely known as “Bloody Nicholas”. From that day on, his administration was severely crippled. He endured two revolutions (one in 1905 and another in February 1917) which forced him to reluctantly create a parliamentary assembly known as the Duma on 5 August 1905.

The elections for the First and Second Duma saw a large number of peasant deputies who desired land for the peasants. These radical reforms were not well received by the Tsar. Nor were they supported by his wife who worked to convince the Tsar that he was an autocrat who didn’t need to deal with this “rabble.” Tsar Nicholas II was pleased to shut down the Duma, a move that that was seen as a coup by his people. This was another blow to the Tsar’s legitimacy in the eyes of his subjects.

The final blow to Tsar Nicholas’ position was the Russian government’s failure to produce supplies and the fast increasing hardship faced by the Russian people. World War One led to the near collapse of the Russian Empire, and men desperately needed in industry and farms were called away to fight. With the people starving on the streets and their voices not being heard by the ignorant Tsar, it was clear his position was untenable.

The Aftermath

These events led to Nicholas’ forced abdication on 15 March 1917 and subsequent imprisonment. He and his family were imprisoned first in St Petersburg before being moved to Yekaterinburg to the two-storey Ipatiev House.

Tsar Nicholas II; his wife, Tsarina Alexandra; their five children, Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia and Tsarevich Alexei; three servants, Anna Demidova, Ivan Kharitonov, and Alexei Trupp and; the family doctor, Eugene Botkin were herded into the basement early in the morning on 17 July 1918 around 2:00 am. They were unaware of the events that were about to unfold and believed they were posing for an innocent photograph to prove that they had not escaped.

A number of armed men entered the room, and commanding Bolshevik officer Yakov Yurovsky read off the order that they had been sentenced to death by the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Bursts of gunfire were let off into the room, which was said to have completely filled with dust and debris. In the chaos of what was happening, no one could see anything. The royal sisters had pounds of diamonds and jewels sewn into their clothes; this protected them mostly from the shots.

Those who survived the initial hail of gunfire were bayoneted and repeatedly shot. As the bodies were removed, they were shot and stabbed to ensure that the royal bloodline was wiped out. Investigations carried out recently estimated seventy bullets were fired during the bloodbath.

The aftermath of the basement where the Romanov family was killed in 1918. By Anonymous – выставка «Гибель семьи императора Николая II. Следствие длиной в век» Выставочный зал федеральных архивов. 2012., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19584445

The execution lasted twenty minutes and created one of the defining historical moments of the 20th century. It brought about the end of the third-largest empire in the history of the world and ended a 300-year royal dynasty.

The tragedy for the Romanovs did not end here. It would not be until 1991 that what was left of the remains were discovered.

After the execution, the bodies were transported to a forest. They were stripped and looted of all they had on them. The bodies had acid poured on them and were smashed with the butts of rifles. Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria were burned, and their bones were crushed with spades. They would be buried in another location to confuse anyone were to possibly stumble upon the remains.

The lengths that went into hiding and disfiguring their bodies meant that they would not be discovered until 1991. The Tsar, Tsarina, and three of their daughters were found, identified, and later laid to rest in 1998 in the family vault – seventy-four years after the execution.

The final resting places of the Romanov family and their servants in St. Catherine’s Chapel in the Peter and Paul Cathedral. By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada – Russia_2078, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48898726

It would be another sixteen years before Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria would be found. Intensive DNA testing that took place in 2009, and later in 2015, on the Tsar and Tsarina confirmed the bones belonged to the Imperial Family.

The bodies of the fallen family could now be laid to rest, together as one, in the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg.

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