Book Excerpt - The Last Days of the Romanovs

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg
By Helen Rappaport

About the Book

On the sweltering summer night of July 16, 1918, in the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg, a group of assassins led an unsuspecting Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, the desperately ill Tsarevich, and their four beautiful daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, into a basement room where they were shot and then bayoneted to death.

This is the story of those murders, which ended three hundred years of Romanov rule and set their stamp on an era of state-orchestrated terror and brutal repression.

Book Excerpt : Chapter 1

Behind the Palisade

30 APRIL–3 JULY 1918

It took five days of bone-rattling travel by tarantass – a crude springless carriage – for the Romanovs to get from Tobolsk to Tyumen. During the journey, Alexandra and Maria huddled together and shivered as they were jolted across rivers and through spring floods and quagmires of mud. Drained and exhausted, Alexandra had been glad of the company of Maria, who had volunteered to come with them as a comfort to her. Nicholas, in contrast, seemed cheerful, glad to be on the move and out in the fresh frosty air.

Faced with the choice of accompanying her husband to Moscow, as she thought, and defending his position, or staying behind to nurse the sick Alexey in Tobolsk, Alexandra had agonised over her decision, torn between the overwhelming emotional pull of her son and her ingrained fears for Nicholas. Eventually she resolved that her first duty was to the Tsar, if only for her malleable husband’s own protection.

At Tyumen the royal party transferred to the heavily guarded first-class carriage of Special Train No. 8 VA, commandeered by Vasily Yakovlev. En route Yakovlev continued to give the official line that Nicholas was being sent back to the capital to be put on trial. Privately, the Tsar and the Tsaritsa were convinced that fate would intervene and that this would be but the first stage in the Imperial Family’s safe passage out of Russia. After a series of delays, the train arrived at Omsk, the junction of two major lines on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the couple were suddenly gripped by alarm. Where would they be taken next? Eastwards across Siberia to Vladivostok and out of Russia via Japan? Or west towards Moscow and a public trial? Nothing was said as the train idled for hours in a siding at Lyubinskaya while Yakovlev parlayed over the telegraph with Moscow. Finally a change of plan was agreed. The train moved off, back in the direction of Tyumen. The Tsar and Tsaritsa were to be escorted not to Moscow after all, but to Ekaterinburg, where the Ural Regional Soviet would take custody of them.

At 8.40 a.m. on Tuesday 30 April, the train pulled into the city with its blinds drawn. As it did, Nicholas and Alexandra’s anxiety levels rocketed. For here, at last, they encountered the full, ugly force of Russia in revolution. As the Tsaritsa later recalled in her diary, the day might have been ‘gloriously warm and sunny’, but the welcoming committee had been decidedly frosty. Rumours of the imminent arrival of the hated Tsar and Tsaritsa had spread like wildfire and an angry mob had gathered at the main railway station demanding that they be paraded before them. Fearful of a lynching, the Urals military commissar, Filipp Goloshchekin, who had been waiting to receive the Romanovs, decided to send the train on to the city’s freight station No. 2 at Shartash, on the eastern outskirts. The Romanovs’ first sight of Ekaterinburg was, after several hours kept sitting in the train, a goods siding at four in the afternoon. Waiting for them on the platform was a group of stony-faced Bolsheviks – Aleksandr Beloborodov, chair of the Ural Regional Soviet, Boris Didkovsky, his deputy, and Sergey Chutskaev, a member of the Ekaterinburg Soviet and the local secret police, the Cheka.

The Tsar and his family were now received into the hands of the Ural Regional Soviet for ‘detention under surveillance’, along with Dr Evgeny Botkin, their maid Anna Demidova, the valet Terenty Chemodurov and footman Ivan Sednev. With a bureaucratic flourish, Beloborodov signed the official receipt for them, like so much baggage. Aleksandr Avdeev, who with Yakovlev had accompanied the Tsar and Tsaritsa from Tobolsk, was appointed commandant of the Romanovs’ new place of confinement. Later that hot summer afternoon the party made the short journey to Voznesensky Prospekt along eerily deserted streets, in closed motor cars, escorted by a truck bristling with armed soldiers. As their car pulled into the courtyard of the Ipatiev House, the former Tsar and his wife looked their last on Russia and the outside world. It was Passion Week and the bells – the beautiful bells that had so beguiled Anton Chekhov – were ringing out across the city. But they could not drown out the sound of the heavy wooden courtyard gates as they slammed shut behind them.

The Tsar and Tsaritsa moved to enter the Ipatiev House, to be greeted at the entrance by Goloshchekin, who had gone on ahead to meet them and now turned to his former monarch and declared: ‘Citizen Nicholas Romanov, you may enter.’ Impervious to insult, reconciled to his fate, Nicholas did not react, but the slight cut the Tsaritsa to the quick. Though Alexandra would continue, stubbornly, to take exception to Bolshevik disrespect, from now on there would be no more acknowledgement of Romanov status and titles, which, even in Tobolsk, had still been part of the daily protocol observed by staff and guards alike. The former Tsar of Russia was now an ordinary Soviet citizen like any other, with his own ration card. While he may have looked on their life at Tobolsk as a kind of house arrest, here Nicholas finally found himself in prison, within that vast annexe of the Russian empire that was itself a prison: Siberia.

Via emphatic instructions sent from Moscow by Yakov Sverdlov to the Ural Regional Soviet, it was the clear intention of the Kremlin leadership that the family should now be confined ‘in the strictest way’. Seething with class hatred and desire for revenge on ‘Nicholas the Bloody’, the Ekaterinburg Bolsheviks delighted in with­drawing comforts previously accorded the Imperial Family. If the relative idyll in Tobolsk had prevented them taking their fate seriously, then now, surely, their presence in Ekaterinburg was for Nicholas and Alexandra a stark awakening. On her arrival it prompted the Tsaritsa to inscribe the date and a reverse swastika on the bedroom wall, a last faint gesture that this ancient symbol of faith, love and hope might eventually bring release.

Together with Maria, the Tsar and Tsaritsa spent their first three weeks at the Ipatiev House cooped up together in a single bedroom with only the use of the bathroom and sitting room, where Dr Botkin and the servants Chemodurov and Sednev slept; Anna Demidova occupied a small room in the back. The electricity supply was sporadic, but when she could, Alexandra wrote endless letters to the children in Tobolsk, as Nicholas read aloud from the Gospels. Despite the glorious sunshine, heavy snowfalls had continued well into May and emotional comforts were few until, at 11 a.m. on the unseasonably cold and snowy morning of the 23rd, the remaining four children arrived from the city station. But the 27-strong Tobolsk entourage who had travelled with them were informed that they could go no further. The Ekaterinburg Soviet had no wish to burden itself with the additional expense of their maintenance. They were left sitting on the train at Ekaterinburg station, to be later dispersed, a few to freedom but most to prison (where the Tsar’s loyal aide Prince Dolkorukov had already been taken on arrival in April). Only three more servants, the cook Ivan Kharitonov, the kitchen boy Leonid Sednev (the nephew of Ivan Sednev) and the manservant Alexey Trupp, were allowed to follow the Imperial Family into the Ipatiev House, bringing with them Alexey’s beloved pet spaniel, Joy, and Tatiana’s two dogs, Jimmy and Ortipo.

The arrival of Alexey, Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia from Tobolsk, of which the Tsar and Tsaritsa were forewarned only a few hours before their arrival, greatly lifted the family’s flagging spirits. There was no doubt, Nicholas noted in his diary, that the four children had all suffered personally and spiritually when left in Tobolsk on their own. But the closely interdependent family unit was once more reunited and what greater joy could there be than for it to be during Passion Week – the most sacred festival in the Orthodox calendar. That evening they gathered together in front of their treasured icons and said fervent prayers of thanks. But Alexandra had already noted with alarm that her son was worryingly frail and wasted, having lost 14 pounds since his latest attack of haemophilia. That same first evening, all it took was one small slip and twist of the knee getting into bed and Alexey spent the whole of the night in unremitting pain. The Tsaritsa lay nearby, sleepless and watchful, listening to the boy’s moans, as she had done for so many long nights now over the last 13 years.

But at least the family had each other again – and God. Their only line of resistance to the new and far more draconian regime imposed on them was to turn in on themselves and draw on their intense religious faith. It would sustain them through the days to come as they entered into a new, strange state of suspended animation. Existing but not living; locked in the deadening familiarity of a narrow, tedious daily ritual which day by day led them ever closer to – what? Release? Escape? Rescue? Whatever their ultimate fate might be, of one thing this strangely insular family were certain. God would take a hand in their fate.

And he was doing so already in that of several of their Romanov relatives now, unbeknown to the Imperial Family, being held in the city. The Tsaritsa’s sister Grand Duchess Elizabeth (known as Ella), Grand Duke Sergey, the Tsar’s cousin, and Princes Ioann Konstantinovich, Konstantin Konstantinovich and Igor Konstantinovich (three Romanov brothers descended from Konstantin, the second son of Nicholas I), together with Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley, had all been brought to Ekaterinburg in May and shut up in the Atamanov lodging house. But at least they had been allowed out to celebrate midnight mass in the cathedral at Easter, a privilege denied the Imperial Family. Here they had stood holding lighted candles of red wax, praying that the transcendent beauty of the Easter liturgy would bring hope and release. Prince Paley, himself a soulful and talented poet, wrote home to his mother of his anguish for his Romanov cousins. He had ventured up to the Ipatiev House in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Imperial Family, but the palisade was too high and the windows at that time were covered with newspaper. Meek, calm, submissive to his fate, he confided to officer’s wife Madame Semchevsky his personal anguish for ‘our poor Russia’. The country had, for him, become like some once majestic and powerful ship, now being engulfed by the waves and vanishing into the darkness. The great pools of Prince Paley’s melancholy eyes spoke volumes for his sense of loss, remembered Semchevskaya, reflected in the lines of a poem he read that evening: ‘Our near and dear ones are so terrifyingly far away; our enemies so terrifyingly near . . .’ – sentiments no doubt shared by his Romanov relatives a few streets away.

As a place of confinement, the Ipatiev House at No. 49 Voznesensky Prospekt was adequate, if cramped. It had been the original intention of the Ural Regional Soviet to incarcerate Nicholas in the city’s prison, but security problems had prevented it. A suitable private house had been opted for instead, the Ipatiev House finally being chosen in preference to the residence of local doctor Kensorin Arkhipov because it was closer to the Cheka headquarters. Though boasting 21 rooms, it was small by the standards of the more spacious and airy Governor’s House in Tobolsk. But situated as it was at the top of one of the few gentle hills leading out of Ekaterinburg, it had a fine view of the lake, public gardens and city below, through which the River Iset wound its course. Built between 1875 and 1879 by a mining engineer, Andrey Redikortsev, its present owner, Nikolay Ipatiev, had acquired the house in around 1908 for 6,000 roubles. Boasting as it did a private bathroom and flush toilet, it was considered one of the most modern residences in the city. Ipatiev was a well-respected citizen and intellectual, a member of the Ekaterinburg Duma who had been involved in the construction of the Perm–Kungur–Ekaterinburg section of the Trans-Siberian Railway and who ran his railway engineering business from the house’s basement rooms. He had been out of Ekaterinburg taking a rest cure for his weak heart, and friends from Petrograd had been staying in the house, when order no. 2778 had arrived from the Ekaterinburg Soviet on 27 April, giving 48 hours’ notice to quit. Ipatiev had hurried back to rescue some personal belongings but largely left the house intact with all its comfortable furnishings, down to the stuffed bear on the upstairs landing.

The house appeared rather low and unimposing from the outside, because it was built into the side of the hill, so that the lower semi-basement was only visible at its full height from the side, along Voznesensky Lane. But it was attractive and reassuringly Russian in style rather than classically elegant. It was built on the site of an old wooden church, pulled down in the eighteenth century when the grand new Voznesensky Cathedral had been built across the road.

Constructed of brick and stone and faced with white stucco, it had carved decorations on the doors and window frames and under the eaves and faced a dusty, unpaved street shaded by linden trees. Opposite was Voznesensky Square with its baroque cathedral and the grandly classical Rastorguev-Kharitonov mansion, but beyond, the poorer log and frame houses of ordinary working-class Ekaterinburgers were a stark reminder of the contrast between wealth and poverty still to be seen all over the city. Near the front door stood a small shrine dedicated to St Nicholas, built where the altar of the old wooden church had been located, but the family could not see this poignant and ironic reminder of the Tsar’s patron saint because a palisade blocked it from view.

Having failed to keep the family’s presence in the city a secret (it had been announced in the daily Ural’skiy Rabochiy on 9 May), the Romanovs’ Bolshevik captors had initiated a deliberate policy of isolation and desensitisation from the very beginning. Before the Tsar’s arrival the house had been descended on by a gang of 100 workmen who hastily surrounded it with a high palisade of sawn timber and telegraph poles standing a few feet from the front of the house. Originally about 12 feet, the palisade was heightened at the end of May, but worse was to come. On 5 June a second, higher palisade was thrown up in an even larger sweep, enclosing the entire house from the courtyard at the northern end, right across and down into Voznesensky Lane. The front entrance to the house was now dominated by Guard Post No. 1, the first of 10 placed in and around the building, and the exterior of this fortress was patrolled twice hourly – day and night – by a constantly changing roster of guards. All 10 guard posts had connecting bells to both Commandant Avdeev’s room and the guardhouse across the street.

With the palisade only 14 feet from their windows, Alexandra’s ‘lovely world’ was now finally shut off from the family. Despite the approach of summer, every window had been sealed tight, and on 15 May the world outside was whitewashed from view when an old man came and painted the windows over, thus ensuring no one could see in or out. Nicholas wrote that it felt ‘as if there is a fog outside’. No matter how bright the day, there was a perpetual gloom indoors. As the temperature rose and the rooms became increasingly stuffy, the Tsar made repeated requests to Avdeev for the windows to be reopened. The Bolsheviks were reluctant to accede: the Romanovs already had access to the fortochka, a small winter ventilator in the upper section of a window looking on to Voznesensky Prospekt. Repeatedly, early in the morning, the sentries outside had noticed the head of one or other of the daughters peeking out. Warnings were ignored, and finally one morning a sentry had fired when Anastasia’s head had appeared, the bullet striking the upper sill and ricocheting into the plaster on the bedroom wall.

Not surprisingly, after this near miss it took weeks of further pleading about the lack of air inside the Ipatiev House until finally the grinding wheels of bureaucracy responded with a formal inspection by the ‘Committee for the Examination of the Question of Windows in the House of Special Purpose’, after which the second window in from Voznesensky Lane was unsealed on 23 June. But the guards were ordered to increase their surveillance outside accordingly. The family were strictly forbidden to put their heads out of the window or attempt to signal to people outside – not that they could see them – on pain of being shot. Beyond the window and above the top of the palisade, they could at least detect a small, elusive patch of sky and, rising up from the cupola of Voznesensky Cathedral opposite, a spire topped with the Orthodox cross. If they stood close enough to the window they could still catch the sounds of the city – birdsong and the clatter of the electric tramway. But they could not see the machine-gun emplacement nestling in the cathedral’s bell tower that was pointing straight at them. There were two more machine-gun emplacements: one monitored the balcony over­looking the garden at the back of the house, the other the basement window facing the street.

The Special Detachment of about 40 external guards on duty at any one time were drawn from a pool of 100 or so mainly young workers in their twenties, recruited at short notice from local factories. By early June, 35 of these were men from the Sysert metallurgical works located in the Ekaterinburg suburbs, where the workers had been heavily politicised. Before being recruited, the external guard were vetted for membership of the Bolshevik Party and for any fighting experience or handling of weapons. Those who had already fought in Red detachments against the Cossack rebel leader Dutov or the Czechs were given priority; others had served on the Eastern Front. But they were soon complaining about the long hours on duty and an additional 21 men were recruited from the Zlokazov factory, bringing the external guard numbers up to 56, with another 16 men making up the internal guard.

Poorly educated, oppressed by poverty and food shortages, most of the men were attracted to the job by the offer of 400 roubles a month (plus board and lodging in town) while being able to retain their factory jobs. And by signing on they could evade conscription into Trotsky’s newly established Red Army. Armed with rifles with fixed bayonets and a few standard-issue Russian Nagant revolvers, they might have seemed a threat, but in reality few had any experience in handling weapons. They all enjoyed frequent visits from wives, families and friends, so much so that requests were made for overnight facilities for them, and the Popov House opposite the side of the house in Voznesensky Lane was requisitioned for the purpose by the Ural Regional Soviet.

These men were overseen by Pavel Medvedev – a civilian Bolshevik from the Sysert works who had already seen action in a Red Army detachment against Dutov – along with three senior guards. At first the external guards lived in the basement, crowded together on camp beds in the storerooms. The additional guards from the Zlokazov works brought in in June were allowed to bed down in the hallway and the small room next to the commandant’s quarters on the upper floor of the house where the Romanovs lived. From the courtyard at the northern end of the house, entered through the big double gates, a side door led up a carved wooden staircase to the Romanovs’ accommodation on the first floor. The flight of stairs was shut off by a locked doorway. Behind this the Romanovs and their servants were crowded into a suite of five interconnecting rooms, at the far end of which lay the landing, bathroom and toilet and a small kitchen.

Life here for the Imperial Family became noisy, crowded, disruptive, the stuffy summer air fetid with so many living on top of each other. Later the external guards were moved to rooms on the first floor of the Popov House and the internal guard moved down to the basement rooms of the house, but the commandant and his three senior aides had complete access at any time to all rooms occupied by the Imperial Family. The lack of a common landing across the rooms was itself an excellent security feature, making escape from the first floor past the guards impossible, something which might well have influenced the Bolsheviks in their choice of the Ipatiev House.

Nicholas was not one to grumble and, on arrival, had pronounced their accommodation ‘pleasant and clean’; as had Maria, who found it ‘small but nice’. The Tsar and Tsaritsa had taken the largest, corner bedroom, which had two tall windows facing the street. Two other windows overlooked the narrow lane to the side of the house. With its pale yellow wallpaper and frieze of flowers, the room was congenial enough and contained the usual furniture: two beds, a dressing table, couch, occasional tables and étagère with china knick-knacks, bronze lamp, bookcase, wash basin on a washstand and an armoire for clothes. Alexey, who had shared his sisters’ room when he first arrived, moved in here with his parents on 26 June. The only exit from this room was into the Grand Duchesses’ bedroom beyond, where Maria had moved in with her sisters.

Reunited in one single room, the Romanov girls happily crammed in together, sleeping on a pile of coats and blankets on the floor until the four portable metal camp beds they had brought into exile arrived from Tobolsk on 27 May. Compared with the communal living and sitting rooms, their room was light and airy, with linoleum on the floor, an Oriental rug and floral wallpaper. The rest of the furniture was sparse – a small table, upright chairs and an incongruously large looking-glass on a stand. What use had the girls for such things now? Their clothes were becoming increasingly worn and threadbare. No more white dresses with satin ribbons like they used to wear every summer in the Crimea. The only significant features on the walls were their family photographs and the miniature icons of saints hung above each of their beds. Setting the room off was a delicate art nouveau chandelier of Venetian glass tulips (which would eventually find its way to England). Beyond the Grand Duchesses’ room, towards the back of the house, was a small room where the maid Anna Demidova slept. Originally designated for Alexey, the room had been given to her after his continuing poor health prompted his parents to move him back in with them.

A connecting door to the right of the Grand Duchesses’ room led into a large drawing-cum-sitting room, separated into two halves by an archway. In the sitting room the Tsaritsa improvised an altar on Sundays, decorated with her own lace bedspread and the family icons. It was an attractive room with carved, gilded features and unobtrusive wallpaper. Down to the landscapes in gilded frames on the walls and the large potted palm, the furnishings left by Ipatiev included the familiar pieces of the day – a suite of chairs and sofa, another étagère of knick-knacks, a desk and an opulent-looking electrified chandelier of Italian glass. Here the daughters occasionally played the mahogany piano. Botkin and Chemodurov slept at one end of the drawing room, while the servants Trupp, Nagorny, Kharitonov, Sednev and his nephew the kitchen boy Leonid, eventually bedded down in either the kitchen or a small room next to it.

With its parquet floor and large oak doors, the dining room beyond contained a pier glass mirror over the marble mantel and a solid oak side­board. Reflecting the prosperity of a successful businessman, the furniture was dark and heavy, with ornately carved fin de siècle pieces upholstered in leather, but the dark objects soaked up what little light penetrated through the opaque windows. Here the Romanovs sat down to meals together with their servants. It had been the Tsar’s express wish that they do so. But the expensive table linen and silver service that they had brought with them from the Alexander Palace lay unopened in an outhouse, and there was not enough cutlery to go round.

The commandant’s office was also located upstairs, in Ipatiev’s old study, at the northern end of the first floor. With its wooden wainscoting, glass-fronted mahogany bookcase, plush sofa and red wallpaper decorated with golden date palms, it was a genteel room for such unsophisticated, dirty men as the guards. Avdeev, a locksmith by trade and a political commissar at the Zlokazov works who had overseen the dispossession of its owners and their replacement by an ‘executive’ soviet, made himself comfortable here. He enjoyed his new-found status, issuing memorandums and orders on ‘House of Special Purpose’ notepaper printed to order. His control over the lives of his illustrious prisoners gave him a sense of power and he liked to show off by allowing his worker friends in to take a look at ‘Nikolashka’, as he referred to the Tsar. As they came and went in Avdeev’s office between shifts, the men of the internal guard would throw their rifles down, skewing the pictures on the walls, soiling the sofa with dirty boots as they lounged around drinking endless glasses of tea from the samovar. They filled the room with cigarette smoke, and slept wherever they could, curled up in every available corner. From the wall, a mounted stag’s head stared down as the men listened to the Imperial Family’s gramophone records on the confiscated phonograph. In early May they had moved the piano from the dining room in here, and when Avdeev went home off duty, his assistant Moshkin and the night guard would sit around like good tovarishchi singing Russian revolutionary songs as well as the ‘Marseillaise’ and the Marxist ‘International’ and getting drunk. Avdeev himself was often dead drunk on duty, and sometimes when Beloborodov turned up from the Ural Regional Soviet for an impromptu inspection, the commandant’s colleagues had to cover up for him.

Two armed guards were always present on the landing near the lavatory, bathroom and kitchen, but no others were allowed upstairs into the Imperial Family’s living area and only the guards on duty upstairs were allowed to use the lavatory. Some could not resist the temptation to scribble political slogans and crude graffiti – relating mainly to the Tsaritsa’s relationship with Rasputin – in the hallway and on the lavatory walls. There were 14 more rooms located downstairs in the semi-basement, some given over to Ipatiev’s business premises, three of which were used by the external guards on duty during the day. But most of them were storerooms and lay dark and empty.

When they arrived, the family had only been allowed to bring small suitcases, but there was a great deal more luggage to follow from Tobolsk. Case upon case of it arrived at Ekaterinburg station a few days later and nearly sparked a riot from a crowd of onlookers who huddled round to view its contents as it was unloaded with revolutionary shouts of ‘Death to the tyrant!’ ‘Death to the bourgeois!’ ‘Hang them!’ ‘Drown them in the lake!’ Many of these possessions – everything from fur coats to binoculars, riding crops and – improbably – suitcases full of Alexey’s baby clothes – were promptly siphoned off at Ekaterinburg station by local commissars and Bolsheviks. After being thoroughly searched and pilfered again by the guards at the Ipatiev House, what remained had been stored in an outhouse in the interior courtyard.

Nevertheless, when finally allowed to unpack their things after numerous rigorous inspections overseen by Avdeev, the Romanovs had crammed as many precious items as possible into their cramped living space. Essential to them were their prayer books and Bibles, novels and history books for the Tsar, toys and board games for the Tsarevich, sewing, knitting and embroidery materials for the Tsaritsa and her daughters. Surprisingly, they were still allowed to use their bed linen with personalised monograms and Imperial crest, as well as the fine porcelain dinner plates bearing the name ‘Nicholas II’. Other valuable tableware and silver from the Alexander Palace had also been packed under Alexandra’s strict instructions: faience soup plates, silver sugar tongs, clocks, letter openers and silver pencils, embroidered cushions and delicate crystal vases, all the clutter of their home at the Alexander Palace. Anything to maintain a semblance of the life they had once led.

Other indispensables were the electro-shock machines used to stimulate the Tsarevich’s weak leg muscles after long periods of enforced bed rest. Even the Tsar’s one indulgence was catered for – bath oil for his daily ablutions before dinner. So great was the Romanov predilection for copious baths that the water supply at the house regularly ran out, provoking much grumbling among the guards, for it had to be carted up the hill in barrels from the city pond and heated up. Strict rationing of this privilege was soon introduced. The Tsaritsa had also brought supplies of her favourite English eau de cologne by Brocard, as well as cold cream and lavender salts. But if one thing dominated the Romanov living quarters, it was the bottles of holy water, jars of ointments and ranks of medicine bottles. These came in every shape and size: aromatic oils, tinctures, drops, medicines and smelling salts – all specially labelled by the Imperial Court pharmacist, Rozmarin. Alexandra had her own personal medicine kit and there was a supply of Cascarine Leprince laxative to ease the Tsar’s haemorrhoids. There was morphine too, a precious supply, but not, as one might expect, to control the Tsarevich’s agonising attacks of haemophilia; this was a drug his doctor and parents resisted administering, for fear of dependency. The morphine was to dull Alexandra’s aches and pains, and sometimes Nicholas’s too. This and an array of other cocaine-based liquids and opiates betrayed the increasing physical toll imprisonment was taking on Nicholas and Alexandra, both of whom suffered from crippling headaches and insomnia.

Most precious of all were the family’s portable icons, which came in an assortment of sizes, some very simple and rustic, others in diamond-studded silver frames. Among these, by far the most valuable and treasured was the ‘Fedorovsky Mother of God’ which accompanied the devout Tsaritsa everywhere. Nor had the family been able to travel without the dozens of photograph frames in leather, silver and ormolu that so characterised their obsessive love for each other. But their precious Box Brownie cameras and photographic equipment which, even in Tobolsk, regularly recorded their family life had now been confiscated. Sentiment had prevailed over many of the choices made about what to bring into exile, none more so than in the Tsar’s decision to bring with him the 50 volumes of neatly written diaries he had kept since the age of 14, as well as the 653 letters Alexandra had sent him during their 24 years of marriage, the bulk of them during the war years of 1914–17. Only now they both constantly worried about what would happen if all these most personal of documents, packed away in crate number 9 marked A. F. and no. 13 marked N. A., were discovered by the guards at the Ipatiev House.

At Tobolsk, the family had enjoyed regular access to the open compound surrounding the Governor’s House. Here they had been able to sun themselves on the greenhouse roof, soaking up the view of the free world beyond. Passers-by would often stop to reverentially acknowledge them. Despite the obvious boredom and monotony – especially felt by young Alexey, whose life was already tragically circum­scribed by illness – the Romanovs had lived a peaceful life for eight months at Tobolsk, enduring the bitter winter in the poorly heated Governor’s House without complaint. The simple rural life paradoxically suited this cosily bourgeois family, and for a while it had lulled them into a false sense of security. Indeed Maria had confided to tutor Sidney Gibbes that she could happily live at Tobolsk for ever if only their guards would allow them to ‘walk out a little’. Beyond their own self-absorbed world, the family maintained few aspirations or interests. Even at Tsarskoe Selo outside St Petersburg they had lived relatively modestly, preferring the smaller Alexander Palace to the formal rococo splendour of the Catherine Palace next door. Imprisonment at Tobolsk had almost been a positive in their lives, a release into ordinariness and anonymity. There they had both sent and received letters. English, French and Russian newspapers had been provided, while the children enjoyed daily lessons from their German, Swiss and English tutors. Life in Siberia had opened their eyes to a different world, a world free of the hidebound court rituals and official functions that they all hated.

But here in Ekaterinburg, Maria wrote to a friend that ‘every day brings unpleasant surprises’. They were not allowed visitors. They could not enjoy the pleasures of working in the kitchen garden as they had done when confined at the Alexander Palace, or even the large exercise yard at Tobolsk, where the Tsar had vigorously sawn wood in winter. The receipt and sending of letters had soon been curtailed and in early June the Tsar no longer received his daily newspapers – the one remaining pleasure left to him. Here they were strictly forbidden to speak any language other than Russian, something which particularly irked the Tsaritsa, who always spoke English with the children. Occasional gifts from relatives had now stopped, chocolate and coffee from the Tsaritsa’s sister Ella being the last to arrive. (Unknown to Alexandra, after being held initially in Ekaterinburg, her sister had now been incarcerated along with the Grand Princes at Alapaevsk, 93 miles away.) At the Ipatiev House there would be no more Sunday evening theatricals punctuated by the mischievous laughter of Anastasia, the family entertainer. No excursions to mass at the nearby church were permitted, and a priest had only been allowed in twice since their arrival to conduct services. Yet still the Imperial Family hoped for God’s deliverance. In her dreams the Tsaritsa had visions of monarchist knights on horseback riding to their rescue. But Nicholas was more pragmatic, increasingly recognising the impossibility of rescue or flight from this grim Bolshevik stronghold.

Daily life had become a matter of endurance. Beyond devotion to each other and to God there remained one consuming obsession in their daily lives – Alexey’s fragile state of health. Since the middle of April, the Tsarevich had been suffering from a recurring haemorrhage in a damaged knee, causing agonising pain that wrecked his sleep and crippled his leg so that he could not walk. Thin, wasting away and with no appetite, the boy no longer had the support of his tutors, the devoted Pierre Gilliard from Switzerland and the sober Cambridge graduate Sidney Gibbes, who had taken it in turns to read and talk with him during his painful attacks. The Tsaritsa and her daughters were exhausted from all-night sessions sitting by Alexey’s bed, listening to his moans of pain. The sailor Klementy Nagorny, who for years had protectively shadowed Alexey, sitting with him at nights and carrying him when too weak to walk, had been taken away on the evening of 27 May (along with the Grand Duchesses’ servant Ivan Sednev), never to return. By July even the visits of the Tsarevich’s physician Dr Vladimir Derevenko, who had been allowed to remain on call in Ekaterinburg and on whom the family relied so heavily, had been curtailed. He continued to come to the house but was refused admittance by Avdeev on the grounds that the Tsarevich was ‘well enough’ and did not need him. It was more than eight days after his arrival that the weak and sickly Alexey, his injured knee at last taken from its splint, went outside into the garden for the first time, carried by Dr Botkin. But he was never able to walk or play outside again with the others.

By early July the daily ritual of life at the Ipatiev House was rapidly taking on a numbing predictability. The family rose at eight in the morning, washed, dressed and said their prayers together. Tea and black bread were provided by Avdeev at nine, when he made his obligatory roll call to ensure the family were all there. Cocoa was occasionally on offer, but with the Romanovs on rations like all other Soviet citizens, coffee and butter were luxuries beyond their reach; ‘they were no longer permitted to live like tsars’, Avdeev informed them. At around one in the afternoon a simple lunch of cutlets or soup with meat was delivered to the gates, sent in from a canteen run by the Ekaterinburg Soviet in the Commercial Assembly House, a short distance away on the corner of Glavny Prospket. Supper was delivered to the house around 8 p.m. From mid-June the family’s own cook, Kharitonov, had been allowed to prepare some of the family’s modest meals on a small oil stove in the upstairs kitchen, where he tried to coax the Tsaritsa’s always difficult and now rapidly fading appetite (she was a vegetarian) with the simple, bland dishes of vermicelli she preferred. In mid-June, Dr Derevenko had voiced concerns about the family’s poor diet to Commandant Avdeev and, with his consent, had gone to the Novo-Tikhvinsky Convent in the city suburbs to ask the sisters to bring the family eggs, milk, cream and bread on a daily basis from their farm. Other foods were brought as well: meat, sausage, vegetables and tasty Russian pies, but much was siphoned off on arrival by Avdeev for his and the guard’s use.

During the morning there was little to do but read, which the Tsar did at length, in an increasingly desperate attempt to counter the physical frustration of his incarceration. He voraciously consumed the collected works of the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin that he had discovered on the bookshelves in the house, followed by Shilder’s biography of the Emperor Paul I. During Easter he also daily read out loud from the Gospels and other edifying spiritual works while the women sat endlessly mending their increasingly threadbare clothes, knitting or sewing. True, they had brought plenty of clothes and shoes with them, but most of these were in storage in the outbuilding to which they were persistently denied access, even when Nicholas’s boots were clearly falling apart and in need of replacement. In the beginning they had filled up their time writing letters daily to friends, but few reached their destination and even fewer were passed on when they arrived. Now, all there was were endless games of cards – patience and the French game bezique, which was a great family favourite – while Alexey played with his model ship and tin soldiers. Sometimes the women sang sacred songs together, a favourite being the ‘Cherubim’s Song’, the song of the angels from the Orthodox liturgy. Mundane new diversions were created for the girls when the Ural Regional Soviet refused to have the family’s large quantities of laundry sent out any more. Even in exile the Romanovs changed their underwear and bed linen with excessive regularity, and the Grand Duchesses now found themselves learning to be laundresses, helping Demidova the maid. They were also taught by Kharitonov to cook and make bread. With the Tsaritsa and Tsarevich frequently sick or resting, the girls created their own amusements until afternoon tea between four and five. A final modest supper was served at eight, after which the remainder of the evening was filled with further prayers and Bible reading, more games of bezique, more embroidery and sewing until bedtime.

The only break in the monotony of it all was the recreation allowed twice daily in the garden, once in the late morning around eleven, and again in the afternoon before tea. Until mid-May Avdeev had tended to be lax applying the rules, sometimes allowing the Imperial Family as much as 90 minutes when the weather was fine. But this had now been reduced to half an hour morning and afternoon, in order, the family were told, that their life at the Ipatiev House more closely resembled ‘a prison regime’. The Romanovs had been under strict instructions not to engage in con­ver­sation with their guards, a rule which Nicholas had broken in an effort to establish relationships, particularly after he and Alexandra had recog­nised one of the guards, a former soldier named Konstantin Ukraintsev, as a beater who had worked for Romanov shooting parties in the Caucasus. But here there was to be none of the camaraderie of Tobolsk, where Nicholas had often gone to the guards’ room to smoke and play draughts with his captors. The hapless Ukraintsev was soon dismissed for his sympathetic response to the family, and sent to the Eastern Front.

Grateful for the chance to walk in the sun and breathe the summer air, the three younger Grand Duchesses had also smiled and been friendly with the guards outside, their elder sister keeping herself to herself. The scent of Ekaterinburg’s parks and gardens wafted tantalisingly close, and on these brief occasions the sound of laughter could be heard as the sisters chased their dogs Ortipo, Joy and Jimmy round in the hot sunshine or enjoyed the double swing that some of the guards had hung for them in the garden.

But this last remaining luxury was rarely indulged in by Alexandra. Plagued by migraines, heart palpitations and sciatica and intolerant of the heat, she rarely ventured outside. When she did, she donned jacket and hat while her daughters ran around bare-headed. She frequently gave in to her physical frailties, keeping one of her daughters indoors to read aloud as she lay with her head swathed in cold compresses. Her heart palpitations were now so bad that she could hardly walk; at night she was frequently tormented by insomnia. When she did, very occasionally, emerge into the garden, she was too exhausted to do anything but sit in the shade of the porch.

From here she would watch Alexey, when he was not bedridden, sit playing at toy soldiers with the kitchen boy Sednev, who, when Alexey was too frail, would push him around the garden in his mother’s wheelchair. Nicholas and the girls meanwhile would take the 40 paces walk that measured the length of the small overgrown garden, going back and forth relentlessly in the sun – as though anxious not to waste a single precious moment of recreation – amidst a few poplars, birches and limes and bushes of yellow acacia and lilac. The man who had once ruled eight and a half million square miles of empire was now master of a single room of his own and a small, scrappy garden. Free of the responsibilities of state, Nicholas seemed unengaged with the unreality of it all, but he sorely missed physical exercise and was bitterly disappointed that his requests to Avdeev to be given something active to do –­ clearing the garden or chopping wood – had been curtly refused, as had his request to put up a hammock for the children. Dr Botkin’s written appeal to the local soviet that the family be allowed two hours’ recreation outside daily for the sake of their health fell on deaf ears as well. During June the weather had become increasingly hot and thundery, making life inside their prison even more intolerable. The sealed, airless rooms trapped the smells of cooking and cigarette smoke, human sweat and the lavatory. They also spread germs and that most tenacious of parasites, head lice, forcing Nicholas to trim his beard and the girls to keep their hair short. ‘It’s unbearable to be locked up like this, and not to be able to go into the garden when we want to, or spend a pleasant evening in the air’, wrote Nicholas in his diary, as the humidity and sudden storms of a changeable Urals summer gathered pace.

Had Nicholas been able to see beyond his prison, he would have discovered that, from the day of his arrival in Ekaterinburg, people had been venturing up to the ‘Tsar’s House’, as the Ipatiev House rapidly became known (none of the locals using the official name), in hopes of seeing him – despite the severe warnings not to do so. The guards, rifles in hand, had pushed them away: ‘Walk on, Citizens, walk on. There’s nothing to see here’, they would say, to which came the often argu­mentative response: ‘If there’s nothing to see, then why can’t we just stand here if we want to?’ People tried to get the guards to take in presents and letters for the family and were all turned away, though one or two guards occasionally relented and allowed the curious to take a quick look inside the palisade. Others anxious to see the Imperial Family approached the house from a different direction – congregating at the bottom of Voznesensky Lane, near the Iset Pond. Here, in the centre of town, you could just make out the balcony overlooking the garden at the back of the Ipatiev House. A man in uniform was often seen standing there. Word got round that it was the Tsar. Some thought they had caught a glimpse of him. But the rumours were false; the man on the balcony was only one of the guards. Yet still people came. One of the reasons for the construction of the second, higher palisade had been the discovery that when the Tsar took a turn on the swing in the garden, his booted legs flew up over the palisade and could be seen by the curious outside. That did not stop two young schoolboys, the Telezhnikov brothers, who were caught by the guards outside the Ipatiev House trying to take photographs and hauled off to the offices of the Cheka for a severe warning.

Although the lack of physical exercise was hugely stressful to him personally, Nicholas and his family had by now become long inured to isolation – an isolation that had for many years been largely self-imposed. They had always preferred their own company to anybody else’s, including that of most of their Romanov relatives. The life of a prisoner was, as it turned out, nothing new to Nicholas, for he had already observed to Chief Marshal of the Imperial Court Count Benckendorff, during his confinement at the Alexander Palace, that he was hardly less free now than formerly, adding, as he reached for the cigarette that was the ready prop in moments of stress: ‘For have I not been a prisoner all my life?’

Whilst he might still be in denial about the true nature of his imprisonment and his ultimate fate, on the morning of 4 July, the former Tsar of Russia would begin, finally, to discover what captivity in the Urals really entailed.

*** Thank you, St.Martins, with whose permission I've posted this interesting Excerpt ***
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1 People said

  1. That cover is intriguing. THis sounds like a great historical read.


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