In the bleak morning hours of today back in 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs who had ruled Russia for three centuries, was executed along with his wife, Alexandra and their five children by Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg. They had been living for 78 days under house arrest in the ‘dom osobogo znachenie’ or ‘House Of Special Purpose’.
Nicholas had been a reluctant ruler whose iron fist was his biggest weakness. Twenty four years earlier Nicholas had said, ‘I am not ready to be Tsar…’ as he succeeded his father Alexander. He failed to improve the conditions of his subjects. Trotsky once described him as “not fit to run a village post office”. Russia’s loss in the war against Japan in 1904-05 was the first loss a European nation suffered at the hands of an Asian army. This did push the revolution forward but matters came to a head when a peaceful march of 150,000 workers delivering a petition to the Tsar were shot at by Cossack troops. An estimated 1,000 people died. This was the last time the Tsar was called the ‘Father of the People’. Nicholas’s blind and naive devotion to his wife, her German blood and her devotion to the mad Rasputin distanced him from his Russian children even further.
In the morning the family was informed that they were to be photographed to reassure their people that they were still alive. After the first shots were fired bullets ricocheted off the jewels sewn inside the girls’ clothing. Stabbing them failed for the same reason. They were then killed with shots to the head. The bodies were moved several times before ending up in an unmarked grave where they remained for years.
The absence of bodies gave rise to a rumour that one or more of the family had survived. In 1921 a mysterious woman showed up in Germany in a mental hospital claiming to be Anastasia, the youngest daughter. After 30 years it was proved that she was unrelated to them. The Russians did discover the remains of the Tsar, the Tsarina and three of the daughters in 1976 but they kept it a secret from the world in the best Soviet tradition till 1991. Finally clues left by one of the assassins led police to the bodies of the Crown Prince Alexei and his sister Maria. They had been 13 and 19 when they were killed.
In every photograph, the family seems weighed down by premonitions of their fate.