Monday, June 17, 2013

The Last of the Romanovs

Russian history has always been something of a blind spot for me, probably since I fainted during the film Nicholas and Alexandra (I’m just not good at people talking about blood  disorders like Haemophelia!) so my recent trip to Russia was an eye opener.

Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra and their five children - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei
In St. Petersburg, the line of Tsars since Peter the Great are interred in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, a surprisingly modest church placed in the middle of the Peter and Paul fortress first constructed by Peter the Great. The question on the tip of my tongue to ask my guide as we entered the church was “What became of the remains of Nicholas II and his family?”.  I didn’t need to ask the question because there, in a little chapel in a corner of the church, are the remains of the last Tsar of Russia, his wife, children and family retainers, interred in July 1998.

My father’s ongoing interest in the fate of the youngest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, Anastasia, rubbed off on me and I had read several books about the last days of the Romanovs.  I love a good mystery and the question as to whether the youngest daughter of the Tsar survived has one that intrigued me for years.

Tsar Nicholas II succeeded his father, the oppressive Alexander III in 1894. In his short reign, Russia went from being a major international power to economic and military collapse. His reign was marked by the violent oppression of any form of opposition to military disasters in the Russian Japanese wars and the first world war.  Following the October revolution of 1917, he was forced to abdicate and he and his family were imprisoned in the pleasant rural Alexander palace in Tsarkoye Selo (outside St. Petersburgh). Initially the British Government offered the family sanctuary but Nicholas’ cousin, George V vetoed the plan, believing Nicholas’ presence in Britain would provoke revolution in that country. 

The Tsar and his family in Tobolsk 1917
Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters and their sickly son were moved deeper into Russia first to Tobolsk and then to Yekaterinburg where they were lodged in the house of the engineer Ipatiev. This house would infamously become known as the “House of Special Purpose”. There the family were kept on soldier’s rations. Their few remaining jewels were sewn into the girls’s clothing and they struggled to keep warm in the harsh climate. They sustained themselves with the belief that someone beyond the walls of the Ipatiev House would be plotting to release them while around them a civil war between the “soviet” forces and the loyal “White” Russians raged.

By May 1918 the White Russian forces had begun to prevail and  in view of the proximity of the enemy forces to Yekatrinburg and the threat of a plot to release the Tsar the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet made the decision to execute the Tsar whom they deemed (without trial) “guilty of countless, bloody, violent acts against the Russian people.”

The bullet ridden cellar of the Ipatiev House
On 17 July 1918, the Tsar, his wife, his children and their loyal servants were led down into the cellar of the Ipatiev House where an execution squad awaited them. The Tsar died first. The four girls, protected to some extent by the jewellery they wore in their clothing, survived the first hail of bullets but were bayoneted and stabbed to death. The bodies were taken by lorry to a disused mine where they were stripped, dismembered and burnt by fire and acid.

A few days later the town of Yekaterinburg was taken by the White Russian forces and an official enquiry launched. It concluded that the entire royal family and their servants died in the cellar of the Ipatiev House.

Anna Anderson
Many “pretenders” to be one or other of the slain family appeared in the years following but the most persistent was Anna Anderson.  In 1920 a young woman came forward claiming to be Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the Tsar. In her biography she claims to have been wounded in the Ipatiev massacre and rescued by one of the Red Guard, named Tchaicovski. He carried her across Russia in farm cart to Romania where she bore him a son. She claimed Tchaicovski was killed in Bucharest and her son placed in an orphanage. Abandoned and in despair she threw herself into a canal in Berlin, revealing her “true” identity to the police sergeant who pulled her out. Superficially her claims had some credence…she was the right age, she had scars consistent with some sort of violent encounter and no papers.  Controversy over her claims raged for her lifetime and various Romanov family members were called in to interview her but contrary to films and plays she never met her ‘grandmother’ the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna. Anderson died in 1984, still claiming to be Anastasia.

The remains of the Romanov family were exhumed in 1991. They had actually been discovered many years earlier by an amateur archeologist but the discovery kept secret during the dying days of the Soviet government. DNA tests on the skeletons proved without doubt that they were the remains of Nicholas II, his wife, three of his daughters and the family servants. However the remains of the two missing children fuelled speculation that these two had, in fact, survived and there may be credence to Anderson’s claims.

In 2007, the remains of the boy, Alexei, and the fourth daughter (later identified as Maria) were discovered by accident, closing once and for all any claims that members of the Romanov family had survived the massacre. It is speculated that they were removed by their murderers from the mass grave of the rest of the family to obfuscate the number of bodies which could have led to an earlier identification.

Scientists working on the remains of the Romanov family

In the meantime DNA testing had been carried out on some samples of genetic material belonging to Anna Anderson and compared against the DNA of the Duke of Edinburgh (Lord Mountbatten was a first cousin of the Romanov children). There was no match. However there was a match to a Polish factory worker called Franziska Schanzkowska, a young woman who had been injured in a factory accident and with a history of mental illness. A story in itself.

The last two members of the Romanov family are still to be interred in the chapel of St. Catherine but soon they will all lie together – at peace at last.

My own photograph of the last resting place of Tsar Nicholas II, his family and loyal servants

For more reading: Click HERE

Alison Stuart is the author of the multi award nominated GATHER THE BONES, a "Downton Abbeyesque" ghost story set in 1923.


Sasha Cottman said...

A brilliant article Alison, what a horrid and bloody end to a royal family. Interesting how the Russians have now given the Romanovs some dignity in death.

Alison Stuart said...

There are so many parallels between Nicholas II and Charles I (weak, ineffectual rulers who brought their countries to revolution), that I'm sure there is an article in there. At least Charles had the "dignity" of a trial.

Anonymous said...

Just a frightful story, but one that continues to fascinate as the legends continued through the 20th century about those lost children. Nice to know they are being laid to rest together at last.

Maggi Andersen said...

It was an intriguing mystery, following a horrendous brutal slaying. Very sad. We lost touch with our Russian relatives generations ago. It's a fascinating country, I've always wanted to visit.

Alison Stuart said...

There were plenty of other pretenders to the Russian throne, including Nicholas Romanov, but Anna Anderson's claims persisted loudest and longest. DNA testing makes it easy to put an end to any such claims.
And Maggi, you should definitely visit, but it's not an easy country to get into or around. Glad I did it as part of a "tour". I saw parts of Russia most ordinary tourists don't get to.

Allison Butler said...

Thanks so much for this fascinating post, Alison. I know little about Russian history but after reading this I'd love to visit Russia and learn more. What a sad and gruesome end for any royal family.

Alison Stuart said...

I think what makes it particularly poignant are the photographs of the royal family...unlike previous generations who are only known through stiff formal portraits, thare is a wealth of photographic evidence of a happy family. They have humanity which makes their violent end all the more chilling. That photograph of them sitting on the roof of the Tobolosk house is particularly sad.

Suzi Love said...

Fascinating story, Alison. Thanks so much for sharing the mystery of the Romanovs with us.

Jennifer Ensor said...

What an intriguing, chilling and terribly sad episode in history. I would love to go to Russia and Latvia one day (my mother was Latvian and my grandmother was Russian) but I've always been nervous about the idea of travelling over there. It sounds like your tour was wonderful though. I also loved your post about the Amber Room. Thanks for sharing Alison.

Joanna Lloyd said...

I love Russian history and would so like to visit the country. I didn't realise they had DNA evidence to disprove Anna Anderson's claim to being Anastasia - so interesting. The photographs do make the people so human, don't they. Thanks for a great article, Alison.

Erin Grace said...

Thanks for such a great article..I've always Loved Russian history..xo

Anonymous said...

Wonderful reading Alison.
I think Today's science is a marvel with what it is doing for the past. Just goes to show Money, Prestige and Name isn't everything.
Thanks Alison