An Imperial Killing, The Legend of the Romanov Murders

An Imperial Killing, The Legend of the Romanov Murders

Romanov family

A Worrisome Discovery

On July 25th of 1918 the White Guard, a force made up of  a motely mixture of Russian monarchists, democrats, right-wing socialist, (all of them vehemently anti-communists) along with their allies The  Czech legion entered the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg. The men were exhausted after weeks of hard fighting to dislodge the well entrenched Bolshevik Red army. Yet they had reason to rejoice. The Siberian Red army was on the run and it appeared that the Bolshevik government was on the verge of collapse. Yet all was not well.

Rumors had filtered out of Ekaterinburg to the White Guard that Russia’s former Imperial family had been imprisoned within the city but exactly where they were at that very moment still remained a mystery. There was reason for concern. Days before Ekaterinburg fell to the Whites the local Soviet as well as Lenin’s government in Moscow had both announced that Tsar Nicholas the II had been executed. The fate of the rest of the family was unknown, there were rumors that they had been evacuated north. The White did in fact have intelligence on where the Tsar and his family were being imprisoned in Ekaterinburg. Immediately after their forces entered the city a special detachment was sent to secure the villa where the family was believed to be held. The ornate villa where the family had been sequestered was known as the Ipatiev house, named for it’s owner Nikolai Nikolayevich Ipatiev a local engineer. Ipatiev himself has been summoned by the Ural Soviet some time prior, and told to vacate his home as it was required for a special purpose by the “Revolution”. After losing his home Ipatiev fled Russia eventually settling in Czechoslovakia.

Upon entering the villa the Whites found it eerily silent. It was clear though the Bolsheviks had left in a hurry. The house was in complete disarray, belonging and clothing were strewn about. Each room appeared to have been pilfered. It became clear to the team investigating many of the belonging had come from the Imperial family. If the White’s had any lingering doubts as to what had happened to Russia’s Imperial Family, the discovery of a bullet riddled blood spattered basement wall seemed to confirm the worst. The investigating team found a large number of bullets in the wall, of different caliber from different makes and models of guns. Bayonet slashes were also found in the wall and the floor. The wall paper and floor boards were still stained with blood and gore.  This seemed to indicate something bigger then the relatively simple execution of just one man.  Clearly something of great violence had taken place in that room. Did the Bolsheviks actually execute the entire family? No one knew but it did not look good.

A White Officer by the name of Lieutenant Sheremetievsky had been hiding in the forests outside of Ekaterinburg. He claimed to have witnessed some odd events in the forest before the Bolsheviks evacuated the city. Road blocks where none had existed previously, armed patrols, a series of explosions and the coming and going of trucks from an old abandon mine. Clearly the Bolsheviks were up to something, but what? Sheremetievsky waited until the Bolsheviks fled the city, then with the assistance of some local peasants began a search of the forest. It wasn’t long before he found something. Near the mine something had been burned, in fact it appeared to have been a funeral pyre. In the charred remains of the fire, bits of clothing, buttons, jewelry, an emerald cross, and a Romanov double headed eagle belt buckle were discovered, but no human remains. Sheremetievsky realized the implication of what he had discovered and quickly bundled up the items and presented himself and his discovery to the commander of the 8th municipal district now in charge of Ekaterinburg.

The blood spattered basement wall. The large holes are where White investigators dug bullets out of the wall for their investigation

The Whites Investigate

As the White’s began their investigation a local resident presented himself to the new Ekaterinburg prosecutor and told a fifth hand story which had supposedly filtered it’s way to him via a former Bolshevik guard of the Ipatiev house.  The story was that the entire family had been shot in the dinning room by a contingent of Lett (Baltic) guards. Apparently the execution volley had not done it’s job and the youngest Romanov daughter Anastasia survived. The enraged Letts after finding the young girl alive beat here over the head with their rifles and stabbed her 32 times with their bayonets. This story, one that was in fact riddled with inaccuracies. Fantastic as it sounded it became the first document in what would become an eleven volume evidence file complied by the White, as to what happened to the Romanov family. At this point the investigation team felt confident that the family had in all likelihood been murdered, but what had happened to the bodies? The team had dug up the Villa garden and scoured the forests but the graves were allusive. While the White investigation team did all they could to piece together what had happened in the bloodstained basement room. The trajectory of the investigation would change dramatically due to a political development. On November 17th 1918 the White Government in Omsk was overthrown in a military coup, which installed Admiral Kolchak as the new supreme ruler of White government. The new Kolchak government saw a opportunity to use the Romanov murder to their political benefit, and declared the entire family dead. Instead of allowing the investigation to run it’s course the Kolchak’s government sought to assign blame, and they knew exactly who they wanted to blame to; the Jews. The Kolchak government was extremely anti-Semitic even for the era, and generally categorized Jews and communists as one in the same. Kolchak’s government early on sought to blame the Jews for much of the misfortune that had befallen Russia. The fact that many of the Bolshevik leadership were Jews played right into the hands of the White’s propagandists. The murder of Russia’s Imperial family was just one more crime to assign to this hated minority, which the White government hoped to use to it’s political advantage. Perhaps oddly the lead investigator of the Romanov murder was a Jew, and man by the name of Sergeyev. After the change of government Sergeyev was relieved of duty, almost certainly because he was a Jew. One White officials wrote, “the investigation was in the hands of the murderer’s race”. The White governing council appointed a new investigator, Nicholas Sokolov.

Nicholas Sokolov, the lead investigator on the Romanov murders
Nicholas Sokolov, the lead investigator on the Romanov murders

Despite his higher ups designs to quickly find someone to blame, Sokolov did try to get to the bottom of what actually had happened to the family. He would spend the next five months investigating. Sokolov would catch a lucky break not long after his appointment with the capture of four former Ipatiev house guards. The guards were interrogated at length but their stories were full of contradictions, and all four of them claimed to have only guarded the family, not actually taken part in the murders. Sokolov was closer to the truth then he knew, as one guard in custody, Paul Medvedev was in fact one of the murderers, although he vigorously denied it under interrogation. In the interrogation conducted by none other than Sergeyev who had been asked to come back to the investigation by Sokolov, Medvedev claimed to have seen the Romanov corpses soon after the murders. Medvedev would reveal the family had in fact been murdered by 10 Letts, although he would later change his story to include two members of the Cheka (secret police) being among seven Letts who did the killing. To complicate things further Medvedev’s wife Marie under interrogation would contradict both accounts pointing the finger at her husband as being one of 12 members of the Romanov execution team. Unfortunately for the investigation Medvedev would die soon after his last interrogation, cause of death listed officially as Typhus. These contradictor stories would give raise to the myth that the Romanov’s had been murdered by a squad of faceless Letts, foreigners not Russians. The Lett myth is still commonly believed and often repeated today.

Some explanation is necessary to understand who exactly were Letts. In the Imperial era, Letts, (derived from the old German term for the region, Lettland)  were understood to be ethnic Lithuanian, or Latvians from Russia’s Baltic providences. During the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War Letts were recruited by the Bolsheviks in large numbers as mercenaries. These so call Latvian riflemen as they became to be known were some of Lenin’s mostly loyal troops, and stood by him in the summer of 1918 when it appeared the Bolshevik regime would collapse. Some historians have argued that Lenin could not have been victorious without them. The mysterious Letts referred to by Medvedev and others are sometimes confused with these Latvian rifleman. The meaning of “Lett” would change during the Civil War in Siberia to mean almost anyone who spoke a second language. Former Austro-Hungarian as well as German POWs who found themselves stranded in Siberia during the Civil War were commonly referred to as Letts even though they were nothing of the sort.

Lett (Latvian) members of the Red Guard in Moscow. Lett troops like these have long been accused as having been the murders of the Romanov family

Despite the loss of a key perpetrator Sokolov would continue to compile whatever evidence he could. In his final brief Sokolov concluded that the entire family had all been murdered by being shot with pistols, and in some cases bayoneted. The bodies were then disintegrated with acid in the forests outside of Ekaterinburg and what remained burned .Whether he realized it at the time, the Romanov murders would become a life long obsession. After the collapse of the Whites in Russia, Sokolov would flee to France with the Romanov murder investigation files; where he settled in White émigré community in Paris. No longer working for any legitimate government Sokolov would continue obsess about the murders, reworking and revising his brief. It must have weighed heavily on him, as his health began to deteriorate. At one point he wrote to a friend that he believed his investigation was killing him. Soon after completing the brief to his satisfaction in 1924 Sokolov died of a massive heart attack, he was 42. Whatever errors were in the final edit, Sokolov’s files, titled, Enquête judiciaire sur l’assassinat de la famille impériale Russe would be the only information in the West for decades as to what happened to Russia’s last Imperial Family.

Romanov Odyssey

The Romanov family was made up of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, the German born Alexandra Feodorovna. Their daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia, and finally their son the heir apparent Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaievich. In the modern era some have taken to picturing the Romanov offspring as small children. They were not. Olga, the oldest was 23, Tatiana 21, and Marie was 19. The only family members who would qualify as children were Anastasia, who was 17, and Alexei who was 13. Once the Emperor of one of the largest empires in the world, Tsar Nicholas II had lost it all. After a failed war against the Japanese in 1905, crushing unemployment, and an on going costly World War, Imperial Russia was tottering at the edge of an abyss. The empire, had already survived one revolution attempt in 1905 and was ripe for another. That revolution came in February 1917. With the political situation spiraling out of his control on March 15th, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his throne. Initially Great Britain offered asylum to Nicholas and his family but this was over ruled by his cousin King George V. Historians still argue as to exactly why, but it seems George was concerned the action could cause unrest at home, after already dealing with the Irish rebellion a year before. MI1 did in fact put together a rescue operation for the Tsar and his family later on, but it was scrapped as being unfeasible as the Bolsheviks strengthened in power.

There's a remarkable resemblance between Tsar Nicolas II (left) and the British monarch George V (right). They are first cousins: they have the same grandmother, Queen Victoria.

(photo credit: BnF/Gallica)
There’s a remarkable resemblance between Tsar Nicolas II (left) and the British monarch George V (right). They are first cousins: they have the same grandmother, Queen Victoria.

In August of 1917, the new provisional government of Alexander Kerensky moved Nicholas and his entire family to the city of Tobolsk in the Urals for their own safety. They would live in the governor’s mansion in relative comfort. The Romanov’s did not come into captivity along. With them a few loyal servants, a doctor, a chef, a footman and a maid followed their former masters into captivity and would eventually share their fate. In October of 1917 another revolution would rock Russia’s capital of Petrograd collapsing Kerensky’s regime. A communist government would be established with Vladimir Lenin at it’s head. With the new government in place, the Tsar and his family would be moved for a final time, this time to the remote Siberian city of Ekaterinburg.

The Ipatiev House, in 1918

A House of Special Purpose

Perhaps as a nod to the planned sinister conclusion the Ural Regional Soviet had in store for the Romanov’s and their retainers the Ipatiev house was referred to as the House of Special Purpose. When the Tsar and his family arrived the house was under the command of one Alexander Avdayev, he would eventually be replaced by a member of the Ural Regional Soviet, Yakov Yurovsky. One of the many myths that has crept into the Romanov allegory is that while incarcerated at the Ipatiev house that family and their servants were treated deplorably by the thuggish often drunk Bolshevik guards. Western Historians for years relied heavily on the memoirs of White Russian Émigrés who painted the time the Tsar and his family were imprisoned in Ekaterinburg as one constant humiliation and barbarity. Being the fact that they would be brutally murdered by their Bolshevik captors the stories of sadistic treatment are easy to believe. Surprisingly the family was in fact well treated, and have left ample record of their day to day routine in surviving journals. While the house was under the command of Avdayev the Tsar and his family enjoyed some degree of freedom to move about the estate, they also enjoyed games and were provided with reading material to pass the time. The family was in fact well fed, and their basic needs were all taken care of. None of the more lurid stories of rape or other abuses that would emanate from the White Russian Émigrés is based on anything more than wild rumors that developed after the murders. It should be noted though at least one guard, Avdayev’s assistant Alexander Moshkin who did seem to take whatever opportunities he could to humiliate the family. Most of what is true of poor treatment, seems to be traced to this one guard.

Avdayev arranged for priests to come to the house to attend to the religious needs of the family and their retainers. Avdayev even allowed a surprising degree of fraternization between the guards and the Romanovs. It should come as to no surprise that some degree of rapport developed between the prisoners and their charges. The Grand-Duchesses in fact openly flirted with some of the young guards. One guard, Ivan Skorokhodov appears to have fallen in love with Marie. Skorokhodov went as far as to smuggle a small cake into the house for Grand Duchess Marie’s 19th birthday. At least once, but probably more the two were able to get alone together. They eventually were caught. The record is disappointedly vague as to what exactly they were caught doing, but the incident contributed to Commandant Avdayev being relieved of duty. Skorokhodov was expelled from the Ipatiev house, and soon disappears from the pages of history. Aside from Skorokhodov, and his forbidden tryst with Marie many of the guards seemed to have developed a bond with their charges, which would have some unfortunate consequences later.

Happier Days. A photo of the Grand Duchesses taken before the revolution.

The guards were hardly thuggish or even revolutionaries for that matter. 105 men served as guards in the Ipatiev house. Of these men 97 were raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, 72 still considered themselves faithful members of that faith. Only one man, Benjamin Yakovlevich was Jewish. While these men’s faith may seem trivial, it goes a long way to demonstrate they were not the hard line atheist Bolsheviks that for years they were purported to be. Half of these men were married with families of their own. Of the 105 only 26 were actually members of the Bolshevik party. Records show only a mere 13 had ever engaged in revolutionary or criminal actives. Of these 105 men, 102 of them were ethnic Russian, two were Polish, and one, Abdul Latypov was a Muslim from Georgia.

It is also important to note that the Soviet government had adopted compulsory conscription in the Red army. With the Red army taking staggering loses against the Whites in the Civil War a guard position at the Ipatiev house made them exempt from being sent to the front. With the local economy in ruins a guard position at the Ipatiev house also meant money to feed one’s family.

Aside from these 105 guards there were a small number of Magyars who served as guards. These men were former Austro-Hungarian POWs who had been paroled after the peace agreement at Brest-Litovsk between Lenin’s regime and the Central Powers ending Russia’s involvement in World War I. With the ongoing civil war that had broken out with the Whites these men had become stranded in Siberia and were forced to find ways to sustains themselves. Little is known about them.

Ural regional soviet
Members of the Ural Regional Soviet, it was these men who ordered the Tsar and his family murdered

Murderous Decisions

The month of June of 1918 would be a fateful one for the Romanov family and company. The Civil War was turning badly for the Bolshevik forces in Siberia and there was the very real possibility that either the Whites, or their allies the Czech legion would rescue the Tsar and his family. The Ural Regional Soviet deeply feared a rescue of the family would provide enough of propaganda blitz as to give the White’s the momentum they needed to win the Civil War. With the Czech’s closing in on Ekaterinburg the Soviets were near panic. On June 29th of 1918 the Ural Regional Soviet conducted a fateful meeting in room 3 of the Hotel Amerika in Ekaterinburg. With the Bolshevik forces in full retreat, and the very real possibility that the Romanov’s would be rescued by the Czechs, the Ural Regional Soviet decided it must act. Instead of moving the family and their retainers to Moscow, and running the risk of their rescue the council felt it would be more feasible to simple murder them. This decision seems to smack more of vengeance than practicality. Had the Whites or Czech managed to liberate the Tsar and his family, it would have without a doubt been a propaganda boom to their cause. The family’s brutal murder by the Bolsheviks would have also fueled White propaganda, and certainly their anger perhaps even more so. By murdering the family the Bolsheviks demonstrated to the world the level they were willing to sink to. In the end with the White Guard literally at their gates and very real danger of the Bolshevik revolution collapsing the Ural region Soviet saw an opportunity to reek vengeance on their hated former ruler and his family. With the decision made, the council ordered the resolution sent by hand to Moscow in order to receive Lenin’s endorsement. This resolution is the earliest indication that any of the Bolsheviks sought to actually murder the family. Contrary to the notion that Lenin ordered the Tsar, his family and their retainers murdered this document indicates the Ural Regional Soviet made the decision independently and only sought a stamp of approval from Moscow, they didn’t get it.

Lenin has long been blamed for the murder of the Romanovs. A number of historians to this day still ascribe blame to him. He is truly one of the 20th century’s villains with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands, and it is just as easy to in implicate him in the murder of a few more. As of yet no actual documentation has surfaced that implicates him. There is hearsay though. Leon Trotsky, Lenin deputy would later claim from exile that Lenin ordered the murders himself. This story is somewhat suspect as Trotsky claimed he was not in Moscow when the decision was made. Surviving official minutes from the meeting show that not only was Trotsky in Moscow, but he was in the very meeting with Lenin where the purported decision was made. Yet this same Trotsky would later change his story implicating Stalin. With the bitterness of having been exiled Trotsky was known to implicate those who he did not like with many of the unpopular decisions made in the Soviet Union. So it is hard to verify the truthfulness of his statements.

In truth the Tsar and his family were worth more to Lenin alive than dead. Lenin wanted a massive show trial for the Tsar, with Trotsky as the prosecutor. He hoped to use this trial to not only expose the Tsar’s crimes but give his regime international legitimacy. When the Tsar was finally tried, convicted and executed it would be done so legally, by the Russian people and thus giving Lenin the international recognition he wanted. While Lenin had no issue with executing the Tsar, he stated clearly the children were not to be harmed, believing the murder of the Imperial children would harm the Bolshevik’s imagine abroad. The Tsar’s family also served another benefit to Lenin. For some time the German government had been demanding Lenin turn the Tsar and his family over to their custody. In the late spring the German’s demands were growing more insistent. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II were first cousins,  and the Tsar’s wife Alexandra, a former German princess. The Imperial German army still occupied a third of the former Russian empire and despite signing a peace agreement with them, Lenin knew the Germans represented a possible threat to his regime’s sovereignty. Leftist revolutionary terrorists, the so called SR had managed to assassinate a number of German officials, including the German ambassador. The Germans were demanding Lenin allow a large number of German troops to be stationed in Moscow for the protection of German interests. Lenin wanted no part of German troops in his capital as he probably rightly determined them to be a threat. As the Germans made these demands Lenin was in a fairly weak position to resist. Aside from things going badly for the Red army in the ongoing Civil War, an internal revolution broke out in Moscow. The SR, a group of revolutionaries to the left of even Lenin sensing weakness attempted a putsch to over-throw the Bolsheviks. Lenin with the help of his loyal Latvian riflemen was able to restore order but in his government’s weakened state he was in no position to antagonize the Germans. The Tsar’s family was an excellent bargaining chip to use against the Germans to keep them out of his capital. It would be a trump card Lenin would not get the chance to use. During the midst of the SR revolt a representative of the Ural Regional Soviet arrived in Moscow with the resolution to murder the entire Romanov family and their retainers. His purpose was to ask for permission to be granted from the central executive committee. Permission was not granted.

Lenin, the murderer of many, but probably not the Romanovs

This representative, after receiving word that the Tsar and his family were not to be harmed would return to Ekaterinburg to report the news to the council. He arrived on July 12th with the city in complete chaos. The Czech Legion had managed to seize control of the Tran Siberian rail road, and cut the rail lines to Ekaterinburg. The Czechs and White Guard had created a noose around the city and they were going to tighten it. The town would fall any day. At this point the Ural Soviet leadership’s communication with Moscow was severed. Despite the order that Moscow had given, the Ural Regional Soviet had made it’s decision, and they would murder the family. It should come as to no surprise that the they would disobey Moscow’s orders. The Ural Region Soviet was well aware of the turmoil going on in Moscow and saw the Lenin’s regime as weak and faltering. Therefore they had no reason to fear retribution for disobeying orders. As the council prepared to flee the city there must have been a palpable anger among them. They had once been the rulers of the capital of the “Red Urals”, but now their revolution was in serious danger of being reversed. These revolutionaries had no use for the former Imperial family.

Word of the impending execution did leak out to Commandant Avdayev that the Ural Soviet intended to murder his charges. When he found out he was furious. He charged into the Hotel Amerika where the council was still meeting, angrily stomping his feet. He courageously argued for the lives of his prisoners. Apparently he argued on their behalf for hours, but it was to no avail. The council wanted the Tsar and his family dead, the decision had been made. It should came as no surprise Commandant Avdayev was relieved of duty, and replaced with someone who was willing to murder the family, one Yakov Yurovsky

Yakov Yurovsky


The Enigmatic Yakov Yurovsky

When Yakov Yurovsky took over operations at the Ipatiev house he did so knowing that his sole purpose was to prepare to execute the Romanov family and their retainers. Realizing the current guards had developed too amicable of a relationship with their prisoners, and believing they might try to stop the execution he brought in a team of seven new guards. These men would become known as the “Lett detachment” They were commanded by Captain Lepa, a Lithuanian. At least two of the others were former Austro-Hungarian POWs, the rest were from the Baltic. Only one of these men, Victor Netrebin was Russian. These men had been drawn from the Verkh-Isetsk factory battalion and had been told that they would likely probably be called on to be part of the Tsar’s execution team.

When Yakov Yurovsky is mentioned he is usually described as a Chekist thug, drunk, Jew, jeweler, thief and a murderer. The only one of these that is completely accurate is, murderer. Like many others in the cast of characters that make up the Romanov passion play Yurovsky is complicated. Yakov Yurovsky hailed from Siberia and came from a solidly working class family. He was one of 10 children. His family were deeply religions members of the Russian orthodox faith. As a young man Yurovsky was a strong Russian nationalist and Monarchist. Contrary to later reports Yurovsky was not a jeweler but a watch repairman. At some point he moved his family to Berlin where he would change professions to become a photographer. While in Berlin for unspecified reasons he converted to Lutheranism. Since the murders, Yurovsky religion has taken on a life of it’s own. White Émigrés who wrote about the murders in the 1920s in typical anti-sematic fashion referred to him as “the Jew Yurovsky”. Some of them went as far to change the spelling of his first name to Yankel to make him sound more Jewish. The White often tried to paint Bolshevism as a foreign ideology brought by outsiders (typically Jews) to Russia in order to establish themselves as the new leaders, usurping true Russians. Making the murderer of Russia’s Imperial family into a Jew, therefore an outsider fit well into that narrative. The origins of the Jewish myth may stem from Yurovsky’s brother’s interrogation. The Whites managed to capture one of Yurovsky brothers. During his interrogation he told the them his grandfather had been a Polish Rabi. The brother was tortured during the interrogation and he may have told the interrogator simple what they wanted to hear. It is doubtful there is any truth to a Jewish connection. Yet the story that Yurovsky was a Jew even to this day is repeated. Yurovsky was a Russian in every sense of the word

Yurovsky path to revolution may have started during WWI. After returning to Russia from his sojourn in Berlin, World War I broke out. In 1915 Yurovsky was drafted into the medical corps of the 198th Perm Infantry Regiment and sent to the Carpathian front. He would eventually desert the army. Whatever horrors Yurovsky witnessed in the blood soaked trenches of the Great War the experiences changed him. Those that knew him say he came back from the front a very different man. One friend recalled it seemed he had lost all decency. Yurovsky would return to Siberia and join the Bolshevik party. When the revolution broke out he would raise quickly though the party ranks. He joined the Cheka (secret police) and would also be a founding member of the Ural Regional Soviet. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence he was a violent man or engaged in any thuggish or terrorist activities before he murdered the Tsar and his family.

The Murder Squad

The early morning hour of July 17th 1918 were a nervous time for Yurovsky. Enemy artillery explosions could be heard in the distance. There was only one thin line of Red army troops between the Czech Legion and Ekaterinburg, and it appeared that line would be pierced at anytime. Yurovsky knew if he wanted to carry out his orders he would have to do so quickly. At 1:30 am he summoned empresses’s doctor Eugene Botkin to awake the Tsar and his family and to tell them to dress and prepare to leave. Certainly the family could hear the Czech artillery’s close proximity and they may have taken hope that a rescue might be at hand. As the family dressed, Yurovsky prepared his team for the killing.

The Austrian Rudolf Lacher, the only foreign member of the execution team

The initial execution squad that Yurovsky put together from the Verkh-Isetsk factory battalion would change. When he informed the men whom he selected that they would be part of the execution squad two of the men refused to take part. One man was the Lithuanian Captain Lepa, the other was a former Hungarian POW named Andras Verhas. Yurovsky excused both men. Contrary to the myth that the execution was carried out by a team of unknown Letts, of the 10 men only three came from the Baltic. Michael Kabanov, and his brother Alexei (who were actually ethnic Russians), and one man known only as Soames. The only truly foreign member of the squad was Rudolf Lacher, an Austrian. The other men,Victor Netrebin, Nikulin, Kudrin, and Paul Medvedev were all Russians. One man, another Russian who was not among the original squad but was brought in to participate in the murders at the request of the Ural Regional Soviet was Peter Ermakov. In the end Russia’s last Imperial family would be murdered not by some foreign element, but by Russians themselves.

Peter Ermakov, the Bolshevik psychopath who's hands itched to kill
Peter Ermakov, the Bolshevik psychopath who’s hands itched to kill

If there was a true monster among these men Peter Ermakov was it. Ermakov was a tall bear of a man, with mane of unkempt dark hair and menacing eyes. The look in his eyes may have been due to near constant inebriation. He had been a long time Bolshevik terrorist, with a long list of murders under his belt. He seemed to enjoy the act of killing. Before the revolution he was arrested for murdering a night watchmen who’s head he brutally sawed off. A fellow revolutionary recalled that, “his hands itched to kill” With this psychopathic blood lust his fellow revolutionaries called him Comrade Mauser, after his favorite pistol.

An artist’s rendition of the way the Imperial family and their retainers were positioned just as the execution commenced

The Killing

Earlier the prior evening Yurovsky ordered his subordinate Paul Medvedev to confiscate all of the pistols from the guards in the house. He also told Medvedev that no one was to know that the family would be shot, his concern was that those guards who had developed a friendly relationship with the family would raise up and put a stop to it. It is very possible had the guards known what was going to happened that Yurovsky would have had a full blown revolt on his hands. Just prior to 2 am Yurovsky assembled his squad and issued them a pistol, ammunition and assigned them a particular victim. Ermakov was assigned two victims, both Dr. Botkin and the Empress herself. As the preparations began Ermakov was already drunk and clumsily jammed four separate pistols into his belt. The sight of him being so over armed apparently made the other members of the squad smile, Kudrin would later recall. An odd reaction for men preparing to murder women and children. Yurovsky had never actually planned an execution before and the results of his inadequate knowledge would soon be evident. The pistols were a mixture of American, Russian and German manufacture. At 2 am Yurovsky assembled the family and their retainers and asked them to follow him. The Tsar came carrying his 13 year old son Alexei in his arms followed closely by his daughters. When they arrived at the small empty basement the Empresses asked why there were no chairs, and if it would be possible for her to sit down. Yurovsky ordered two chairs to be brought in, one for the Empress, the Tsar placed Alexei in the other. The basement was small only about 25 by 21 feet, and was illuminated by a single bulb hanging on a cord from the ceiling. With everyone inside Yurovsky announced that they must wait for the transport trucks, and he left closing the door behind him. It is impossible to know what passed though the family’s mind while they waited but from the accounts the guards left they appear to have showed no nervousness or anxiety. They clearly had no idea of what was about to happen to them.

The doors to the basement room

Yurovsky with the rest of his squad. He ordered all of the prisoners to stand. Placing himself in front of the Tsar, holding the execution declaration in his hand he declared, “In view of the fact that your relatives continue their offensive against Russia, the Ural Regional Soviet has decided to sentence you to death.” Nicholas stared back and stuttered in disbelief, “Lord, oh my God!” He hesitated for a moment and turned to look at his family then turned back to Yurovsky, “Oh, my God what is this, I can’t understand you, read it again.” Yurovsky attempted to read the order again, but the Tsar interrupted, “What, What?” Yurovsky crumpled up the order in his hand, drawing his pistol with the other, “This” he exclaimed while pulling the trigger. The round exited the barrel of the of the gun with a defining thunder clap, slamming into the Tsar chest which exploded in a crimson gush. Suddenly everyone in the squad starting firing their pistols rapidly into the body of the Tsar. Nicholas lurched forward slamming to the floor, a red puddle rapidly forming around his body. No one followed the order to only shoot the victim they had been assigned to kill. The room quickly began to fill with smoke, making the other intended victims hard to discern. Yurovsky yelled for them men to aim at the other victims, but to no avail. The rapid poorly aimed shots began to ricochet and a few of the execution squad member were lightly injured. When the smoke began to clear the Empresses’ Doctor Botkin, the chef Kharitonov and the Tsar’s footman Alexei Trupp were badly wounded, but not dead. The first volley had sent bullets into Dr. Botkin’s lower extremities although wounded he had tried to throw his body in front of the Tsar, probably not realizing the he was already done for. Trupp had collapsed to his knees having been shot in the femur and thigh. One of the executioners who saw the Tsar’s former footman on his knees beneath the smoke ended his suffering with a few well placed rounds in his skull. Another executioner fired several rounds in succession at the Imperial family’s former chef Kharitonov. The bullets hit him with such forces and Yurovsky would later say,”he sat down and died. With all the firing that had been directed toward the Tsar, the empress, Alexei, the daughters, and Anna Demidova the empresses’ maid were all very much alive. Ermakov on seeing this swung his Mauser pistol at the head of the Empress, upon seeing the barrel of the gun she attempted to cross herself, but only got half way though the act when Ermakov pulled the trigger. Her head literally  exploded covering the crazed Ermakov in her blood and gore. The force of the bullet drove her violently back and her corpse crashed to the floor.

The Mauser pistol Ermakov used to kill the Empress
The Mauser pistol Ermakov used to kill the Empress

The Killing was far from done. When the shooting started the Tsar’s daughter’s stood frozen in place unable to comprehend what was happening to them. Marie, the daughter who only weeks earlier had shared her birthday cake with one of the guards broke from the group and hurled her little body against the set of locked double doors in the back of the room. She pounded against the door, rattled the knob and screamed for help. No help would come. Upon hearing the commotion Ermakov turned toward Marie. With his Mauser empty of bullets he reached into his belt for one of his other pistols and fired off a poorly aimed shot. The round hit her in the thigh and she collapsed on the blood stained floor, wounded but very much alive. He then turned to the empresses’ maid Anna Demidova still frozen in fear and fired several rounds. The bullets caught her in the upper thigh shattering the bone sending her crashing to the floor, no doubt in excruciating pain but alive. At this point the room was filled with toxic acrid smoke. The executioners could see almost nothing and were choking on the fumes and plaster dust. Realizing the shooting was haphazard at best, and fearing for the safety of his men, Yurovsky ordered the shooting stopped. With their eyes stinging from the gun powder, their lungs burning from the toxic fumes Yurovsky threw open the basement room doors and his men staggered from the room into the corridor. Paul Medvedev, collapsed against the corridor wall and began to vomit. He slumped down further, pale faced and began to convulse. He wasn’t alone, at least a few of the other men did the same. In the room the victims not dead, some withered on floor screaming out in utter agony. Sadly the pain had just began. Yurovsky waiting a few moment for the fumes to clear and reentered the room with Alexei Kabanov, the bloodthirsty Ermakov, Kudrin and his second in command Nikulin.

When the men crossed the threshold, they found that Dr. Botkin had not perish. On the floor covered in blood the badly wounded doctor was attempting to raise himself from the floor. Yurovsky stepped across the now massive pool of blood pressing the barrel of his Mauser pistol again the doctor’s temple and pulled the trigger. The bullet ripped though Botkin’s head and exited the lower right of his skull, the force causing his body to slam to the floor. Shockingly the 13 year old Alexei still sat on the chair where his father had placed him with a terrified look on his face, spattered with his father’s blood. This time it was Nikulin turn. With trembling hands Nikulin raised his Browning pistol to the little boy’s chest and emptied the clip. Strangely it seemed to do little, Alexei remained in the chair. Another round from Yurovsky Mauser caused the small body to slump to the floor. Yet he still lived. Both men were out of bullets, Yurovsky yelled to Ermakov to finish the boy off. Ermakov pulled his Mosin-Nagant bayonet from his belt and began plunging the triangular blade into the pone body. Alexie struggled against each strike, it was as if he simply refused to die. Yet this was no miracle. Unknown to Yurovsky, Alexei, was wearing an under shirt that had some of the royal jewels sewn into it, basically creating a bullet proof vest. The bayonet probably glanced off the hard surface of the jewels. Unable to stand by any longer Yurovsky pulled a second gun from his belt, this time an American colt, pushed aside Ermakov and pumped two shots into Alexei’s head, ending his short life.

1891 Mosin-Nagant bayonet, the type used by Ermakov

Next the men turned to the Tsar’s daughters who were all very much alive, only Marie was wounded. The three men opened fire on the girls, but it appeared that the bullets simple bounced off their bodies. Olga and Tatiana wrapped their arms around each other both screaming and crying. Yurovsky started to walk toward the girls, but slipped in the blood. Righting himself he stepped behind Tatiana and placed his Colt against her head and pulled the trigger. The bullet literally tore the young girls face off, and covered her screaming Sister Olga in brain matter. Seeing Tatiana dead Olga tried to raise herself to her feet, Ermakov who was covered in blood and must have looked like a crazed fiend kicked her in the chest knocking her to the floor. He unloaded his Nagant revolver into her head. Ermakov then turned his attention to Marie who was still laying on the floor begging for help. Ermakov leaped onto the poor girl with his bayonet and attempted to plunge the blade into her chest. Again and again he thrust the blade into her body, but she still lived. The bayonet would not piece her bodice. She was finally finished off, or so it was thought with a shot to the head. With Marie subdued, one of the daughter still lived. Anastasia had backed into the corner of the room. Once again Ermakov, with bayonet in hand grabbed the 17 year old and repeatedly stabbed her in the chest. Yurovsky would later write that she struggled desperately screaming and fighting to fend off the bayonet blade. Once again Ermakov’s bayonet seemed to have little effect. She was finally finished off with a shot to her head. Just like their brother, the Grand Duchesses were all wearing under garments with the royal jewels sewn into them. For a brief moment all was quiet, then suddenly the maid Anna Demidova, who had only passes out awoke and attempted to raise herself up. She reportedly exclaimed, “God has saved me”. In this she was mistaken. Ermakov sunk his bayonet deep into her chest and she sank to the floor, dead. With the killing done the men took stock of what they had done. The room was a sea of blood and gore. Ermakov wasn’t done and drove his bayonet with such force though the lifeless body of the Tsar that it pinned the corpse to the floor. He then pulled the bayonet out and did the same to the Empress. Yurovsky and Kudrin then checked the pulses of everyone to make sure they were dead and left the room. The execution had taken 10 minutes.

Yurovsky ordered Kudrin to take over and supervise removal of the corpses to a waiting truck. It was planned to dump the bodies in an abandoned mine shaft in the forest. Yurovsky then left the murder scene and was found later laying on a couch with a cold compress on his forehead, whether from guilt or exhausting he never said. Kudrin gathered a group of guards together and they began the task of removing the bodies. A few of the guards upon seeing the carnage vomited and left the room. These men were hardened veterans of the Great War and still could not stomach what they were seeing. Although both Yurovsky and Kudrin later claimed that they had checked for signs of life, they hadn’t done a good job. Both Marie and Anastasia were still living. When the guards attempted to move the bodies of the two girls they began to cry out, one threw her hands over her face. Once again the monster who was Ermakov upon seeing life in his victims grabbed a rifle from one of the guards and began to thrust the fixed bayonet blade into their bodies. Again the bayonet failed to penetrate the bodices. He turned the rifle around and repeatedly smashed the butt down onto their faces until their cries were silenced. Both girls were dead.

An artist’s version of the Tsar’s room the day after the execution. Alexei’s toy soldier, which he often carried with him stand on the chair as if waiting for him to return

Hiding the Evidence

The corpses were loaded into the back of a Fiat truck. During the loading Tatiana’s French Bull dog Ortino who she had been allowed to bring with her into captivity; maybe sensing his mistresses’ presence ran toward the truck. One of the guards callously ran his bayonet though the dogs quivering body and tossed it into the truck bed. The bodies were taken deep into the Koptyaki where they were stripped of their clothing. The jewels and other valuable were removed, these would be later carefully inventoried and sent to Moscow. The clothing was burned. Yurovsky ordered acid to be poured over bodies in order to make them completely unrecognizable. They were then unceremoniously dumped into the abandoned Four brothers mine.

Sokolov looking for the grave. He would not find it.
Sokolov looking for the grave. He would not find it.


If Yurovsky had believed he conducted his murders in secret, it quickly became evident he had not. The shooting had been heard by all the guards. At least one them watched the entire execution from outside the basement window. Some of the guards who saw the horrible mangled bodies were so sickened and angered they went into town and told everyone what had happened. To make matters worse Ermakov went to a local bar and with some pride told the entire story to anyone who would listen. Many of the guards, perhaps feeling they were complicit in what had happened took to drinking. Even some members of the execution team drank themselves into a stupor to blot out from their memory what they had done. One of the guards, the 21 year old Nicholas Sadchikov was distraught when he heard the new of the murder. He collapsed in the street market, uncontrollably sobbing; he apparently loved the Grand Duchesses. Sadly he never recovered from the loss and sank into deep depression. He later committed suicide.

With the new rapidly spreading and the city about to fall to the Whites, Yurovsky decided to move the bodies before he fled for his life. The bodies were fished out of the mine and moved deeper into the forest. A pit was found and the bodies were placed in the bottom, rubble was placed over them, and then four rail road ties were placed above that. Not all the bodies would rest together. Yurovsky knowing, that the Whites would look for 11 bodies in order to confuse them moved two of the corpse and buried them in a different location. He would later write that it was the body of the maid Anna Demidova and Alexei, but it was in fact Alexei and Anastasia. There the bodies would stay undiscovered for the next 61 years all but forgotten by the Soviets.

The Grand Duchess Anastasia

They All Died

No discussion of these murders is complete without touching on the legend of Anastasia. In short she died  that night. All of the executioners who discussed the murders later on were very clear that all the victims perished. Yet that did not kept a legend from being born. Part of the issue was the fact that the White investigation team never located the remains. This fact gave hope that at least one of them must have survived. For years in the West there were rumors that at least one family member had made it out. Usually it was Anastasia, but sometimes Marie or Alexei were substituted. One of the most reasonable stories was that Anastasia was badly wounded but alive when here body was thrown in the back of the Fiat. While in the forest the truck broke down and the guards left to find help. An advanced rescue team of White Russian some how miraculously stumbled upon the truck, found that Anastasia was still alive and brought her to safety. It is a great story, full of the sort of stuff Hollywood loves, but there is little truth to it. Certainly had the White rescued her it would have been a huge propaganda opportunity for them and their cause. They would have had little reason to keep such a rescue quite. Even with the flaws in the story, the very notion of a survivor would inspire novels, films and not to mention a few Royal pretenders for years to come.

The Romanov skulls. The horrific damage is evident
The Romanov skulls. The horrific damage is evident

The Romanov remains would not stay hidden forever though. In 1979 two amateur historians succeeded where Sokolov had failed. Using Yurovsky’s unpublished notes they obtained from his still living son and after some searching they found the remains. Fearing that the discover would get them into trouble with the KGB they decided to keep quiet about what they had uncovered. They would wait until the fall of the Soviet Union. After the establishment of  a new government both men came forward with what they had found in 1979. President Boris Yeltsin ordered the remains dug up and studied. DNA tests were conducted and sure enough, the skeletons were those of the Romanov’s and their retainers. The grave yielded up everyone but the bodies of Alexei and Anastasia. This discovery gave life once again to the legend that somehow one or two of the family members survived.

The open Romanov grave
The open Romanov grave

Unfortunately for supporters of the myth, it would be shattered in 2007. Another amateur archeologist would succeed where both Sokolov and the professional team who had excavated the grave in 1991 failed. He would locate the remains of both Alexei and Anastasia. Once again DNA tests would be preformed and would confirm the identities. Unfortunately due to the fact that Marie and Anastasia were so close in age there is still debate about who’s bones were actually discovered, so perhaps one mystery remains.

Victims of a Brutal Civil War

The Romanov family and their retainers are all together today, interned in St. Petersburg. The meaning of their murder will continue to be debated among historians, Russian history enthusiasts and Russian people for that matter. All civil wars are bad. The Russian Civil War was particularly bloody and resulted in the death and misery of hundred of thousands. The murder of the Romanovs was collateral damage of that war. Whatever the Ural Region Soviet’s intentions truly were, vengeance, or the belief that it was in their revolution’s best interest to do away with these living symbol  of a downed regime, the murders had a chilling effect. It said to every Russian that there would be no going back. Truly there would not be. Despite the White’s best effort the Bolshevik forces would eventually be victorious. Lenin’s communist state would be established, and soon the Russian people would suffer the consequences.

The family of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, c1906-c1907(?). The Tsar (1868-1918), Tsarina Alexandra (1872-1918) and their children Grand Duchesses Olga (1895-1918), Tatiana (1897-1918), Maria (1899-1918), Anastasia (1901-1918) and the Tsarevich Alexei (1904 (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The family of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, c1906-c1907(?). The Tsar (1868-1918), Tsarina Alexandra (1872-1918) and their children Grand Duchesses Olga (1895-1918), Tatiana (1897-1918), Maria (1899-1918), Anastasia (1901-1918) and the Tsarevich Alexei (1904 (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)