Ancient history

The death of the Romanovs

The thirty-three communist officials gathered around The table barely moved and Sverdlov then urged his comrades to ratify that decision of the local communists. There was a silence.

Lenin he left for a moment a note that he was writing for the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Georgy Chicherin, and exclaimed "any questions for Comrade Sverdlov?" Only one apparatchik spoke out , whose name does not appear in the minutes, which he asked "and the family has been eliminated?". However, no response was recorded.

Lenin paused for a moment, looked around the table at him and asked "what solution should we adopt?", but it was an unnecessary discussion; ratified the action of the comrades in Yekaterinburg. The brief minutes record that "Comrade Sverdlov's report has been received and noted." They then proceeded with the rest of the twenty-point agenda, including the reorganization of the Red Cross, a draft decree on health coverage, and a report on the collection of government statistics. Lenin looked at those present again and said:"We must now proceed with the reading of the draft decree of the Commissariat for Health, article by article."

Izvestia , the official government newspaper, reported the next day that “the former Emperor Romanov had been executed […] Nicholas Romanov's wife and children have been sent to a safe place”. This was one of the first big lies the Soviet regime would have to deal with for the next seventy years, and even some commissars believed it for several days. The most famous of the communist leaders, Leon Trotsky , he did not return to Moscow until a week after the meeting and recorded in his diary the conversation he had with Sverdlov upon his arrival in the capital. According to what was written there, he told him about the czar's execution "almost in passing".

The dethronement of the tsar

Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in February 1917 , which caused the collapse of the Old Regime amid a wave of revolutionary popular fervor. It is important to remember the hatred aroused by the Tsar and his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. The Russians were suffering appalling human losses in a war they were losing; the tsar had stood up to any democratic reform; there was a food shortage in the cities; his regime was mired in corruption, etc. Therefore, the rejoicing spread immediately after the abdication for the fall of the Romanov monarchy. Statues of historical tsars were toppled and imperial ensigns were destroyed in a succession of spontaneous celebrations throughout the country and the Russian Empire.

The tsar's security had been guaranteed by the Provisional Government that had replaced the monarchy. The new prominent figure in the administration, Alexander Kérenski , who had visited Nicholas several times after the abdication, declared:“We must not make a martyr of him” and added “he seemed to really enjoy his new way of life […] as if he had freed himself from the heavy burden that fell on him. on their shoulders.”

At first, the Provisional Government thought that the Romanovs would seek asylum in Britain, but George V, the Tsar's cousin, having initially declared that they would be welcome, miserably changed opinion, considering that it would be a very unpopular maneuver that would fall on him, so he reneged on his commitment with misleading words and let his prime minister, David Lloyd George – who was in favor of welcoming the Romanovs in Great Britain – , bear the responsibility. Instead of exile, the Romanovs were transferred, in the spring of 1917, to the Siberian town of Tobolsk, because of Kerensky's fear that they would be attacked if they stayed near Petrograd. There they were comfortably housed in the old governor's mansion "with some of his favorite courtiers, six maids, two valets, three cooks, a sommelier, and two spaniels as pets."

The death sentence

The first time Lenin discussed the fate of the royal family was in November, a few days after he had seized power in the second of the 1917 revolutions, but he did not came to no decision. Most of the comrades wanted to put them on trial and voted on repeated Sovnarkom resolutions. to bring the former tsar to court, without proposing legal action against the rest of the family, while Lenin stalled and responded evasively. At all times he was clear about the destiny he had in mind for the Tsar, it was just a matter of deciding when and how Nicholas should die.

Lenin did not conceive the concept of regicide; for him, the Tsar was an "enemy of a very special class" and the Romanovs were a "three-hundred-year-old ignominy." Revenge was part of his plan:Alexander, Lenin's older brother, had been hanged at the age of twenty-one for having participated in the attempted assassination of Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III. Lenin was then seventeen years old, and he would never forget how his family had afterwards been despised by bourgeois society. Faced with his reputation as a cold and calculating character, Lenin was more conditioned by emotions than by his Marxist ideology.

There is no proof that Lenin gave the order to assassinate the Tsar. It is unlikely that he would ever sign such an order, and even if he had, he would have carefully removed the trace. Had there been any evidence, the Soviet leaders who succeeded him would surely have destroyed it. But there is no doubt that Lenin gave the order almost certainly verbally to Sverdlov and probably at the July 12, 1918 meeting in the Kremlin. The timing and details were up to others – Sverdlov and his henchmen – but the decision to execute the Romanovs, and to do so in secret, was Lenin's. Aside from the two of them, most of the red leaders didn't know the assassination had taken place until after it happened.

There was a struggle between Bolsheviks in two regions over who would have the “revolutionary honor” of taking care of Nicholas. Sverdlov made sure he was Filip Goloschekin (an old friend from exile in Siberia, leader of the Ural Soviet and head of the Yekaterinburg communists) who gave the go-ahead. Lenin agreed. At forty-two years old, Goloschekin had been imprisoned and tortured for two years in the imposing fortress of Schlusselberg for the crime of subversion. Sverdlov described him as "cold [and] very energetic."

In June, the former tsar was transferred with his family to Yekaterinburg, where they resided in the Ipatiev house , a neoclassical building of splendid proportions in which, however, its living conditions are no longer good.

Time was pressing and Lenin could not delay the decision any longer:Yekaterinburg was surrounded by allied troops of the white armies who were fighting Lenin's Reds; if they got any closer – indeed, Yekaterinburg would be taken by the Whites a week after the tsar's assassination – they would be in a position to release the tsar, so Goloschekin pressed Sverdlov. Goloschekin went to Moscow to get final authorization to kill the entire family , which was granted to him after that meeting in the Kremlin on July 12. He had already chosen the man who would do the dirty work:Yakov Yurovski, whom he had already appointed head of the Ipatiev house.

Tall, corpulent and in his forties “with a shock of wavy black hair, elegant and sophisticated, with a well-trimmed Van Dyck beard”, Yurovsky was a Bolshevik ascetic, very intelligent, who burned with rancor against the bourgeoisie and, in particular, against the royal family. Member of a family of ten children, he had been raised in conditions of extreme poverty and had suffered discrimination because of his Jewish roots. He was thirsty for revenge.

The death of the Romanovs

Yurovski had selected the platoon and the method of execution days before. He had toured the area near the town to locate a place to incinerate the eleven bodies of his victims and bury their ashes:the gallery of an abandoned mine near a village 12 km from Yekaterinburg.

At 1:30 a.m. on July 16, Yurovsky woke up Dr. Yevgeny Botkin, the faithful physician who had been part of the Tsar's entourage for years, and told him to get the others up . He told her that "there were disturbances in the city and, concerned for their safety, they were going to move them" to the basement. The explanation was convincing, since in recent nights they had heard shots from their rooms.

The Tsar, the Tsarina, her son and their three daughters, and the royal entourage took half an hour to wash and dress. Around 2:00, they descended the narrow, steep staircase in the gloom. None of them could have known that the execution squad He was in the adjoining room. According to Pavel Medvedev, one of the tsar's assassins, who wrote a posteriori a detailed account of events, the "family remained calm as if they feared no danger."

They were taken to a room in the basement , five meters wide by six long, which had previously been occupied by the guards and which had a small oval and barred window. Alejandra asked why there were no chairs in the room and two were brought. Nicolás placed his son Alexis in one and Alejandra sat in the other. The remainder were told to line up against one of the walls and remained so for a few minutes until Yukovsky returned with the executioners. Later, as he himself recounted years later:

The guards did a real bottom job . Six of the victims were still alive when the shooting stopped. Alexis lay moaning in a pool of blood. Yurkovski finished him off with two shots to the head. The entire "procedure," as he defined it, took more than twenty minutes, in part because the Tsarina and the three princesses had hidden jewels inside their corsets. of a millionaire value.

Medvedev recalled the scene:“they had several bullet wounds in different parts of the body; their faces were covered in blood, as were their clothes.”

The executioners brought sheets from an adjoining room and, after stripping the corpses of valuables They were loaded onto a truck waiting at the front gate. The vehicle's engine had been running since the Romanovs had been awakened, in an attempt to mask the noise of the gunfire. They piled the bodies on top of each other.

Yurovski was a ruthless killer, but he had moral qualms about stealing “public property”. He demanded, under threat of death, that the loot taken from the corpses be returned:he confiscated a gold watch, a diamond-encrusted cigarette case and other valuables.

Medvedev was responsible for the cleanup operation. The guards brought mops, buckets of water and sand to clean up the traces of blood. One of them described the scene:

The detachment drove towards the “cemetery” Yurovsky had chosen. As they began stripping the corpses of their clothing, they found even more loot. Yukovski deposited the jewels in a sack, only the diamonds weighed more than 8 kg. The bodies were incinerated and then they lowered them to the mine.

Yurovski was concerned that the well was too shallow to hide the remains of the Romanovs for long. He located other deeper mines a few kilometers further away. The following night, they were exhumed and taken to their new grave, a shallow grave near the old one. The remains were sprayed with acid and the grave was covered with earth and weeds. A day later, the rest of the Tsar's immediate family was massacred, some 120 km away, in Alapayevsk:Grand Duchess Ella, who had become a nun, and her companion, Sister Alexandra, Grand Duke Sergei and five other Romanovs were killed. As night fell, they were herded into an abandoned mine, where they were knocked to the ground with rifle butts and thrown down a waterlogged quarry hole. Sergei died quickly, as he somehow managed to reach the surface and was shot in the head there. The others were abandoned until they died of starvation.

The impact of the assassination

The Soviets tried for years to maintain the charade that the murderers of Yekaterinburg had received orders from the local soviet and promoted the idea that the rest of the family had died by chance of the civil war, as if they were collateral damage, although they later justified their elimination in practical terms. In the 1930s, Trotsky showed no remorse when he explained it in his diary:

During the revolutionary period in Russia, assassinations were irrelevant, as people had become accustomed to violent deaths. Diplomat Robert Bruce Lockhart, then head of British intelligence in Russia, wrote:“The people of Moscow received the news [of the Tsar's death] with incredible indifference. His apathy towards everything that was not his own destiny was total, very symptomatic of the times in which we live.

The former tsarist prime minister, Vladimir Kokovstov, was on a tram in Petrograd on the day the news broke. "There were no symptoms of sadness or compassion among the people," he said. "The news of the Tsar's death was received amid smiles of satisfaction, mockery and murmurs. Some passengers exclaimed, "It's about time."


  • Gilliard, P. (1921): Thirteen Years at the Russian Court:A Personal Record of the Last Years and Death of the Tsar Nicholas II, and His Family of him. London:Hutchinson.
  • Lieven, D. (1996):Nicholas II, Twilight of the Empire. New York:St. Martin's Griffin.
  • Service, R. (2017):The Last of the Tsars:Nicholas II and the Russia Revolution. New York:Pegasus Books.

This article was published in Desperta Ferro Contemporánea nº 23 as a preview of the next number, the Desperta Ferro Contemporánea no. 24:Russia 1917. Revolution and war.