Modern history



From the beginning, the annihilation of the Romanovs—their execution and the disappearance of their bodies—had been approved by Moscow. As late as June 1918, the Bolshevik leadership had been uncertain what to do with the Imperial family. The Ural Soviet, in actual possession of the prisoners in Ekaterinburg, was vehemently in favor of execution. Leon Trotsky, the mercurial Red commissar for war, wanted a public trial of the former tsar in Moscow to be broadcast by radio throughout the country with himself as prosecutor. Lenin, always pragmatic, preferred to keep the family in hand as pawns in the game he was playing with Germany. In April, Soviet Russia had signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with Imperial Germany, achieving peace by handing over one third of European Russia and all of the western Ukraine to German occupation. Millions of Russians were dismayed by this decision, which they considered a betrayal. For a while, Lenin hoped that Nicholas could be persuaded to sign or at least to endorse the treaty, thereby partially legitimizing the document and diminishing the furor. Another complication was that the Empress Alexandra was a German princess and the Kaiser Wilhelme first cousin. Now that Russia was out of the war, the new German ambassador in Moscow, Count Wilhelm Mirbach, had made clear his government’s concern for the safety of Alexandra and her four daughters. Lenin had no wish to antagonize the Germans—particularly at this moment.

By early July, civil war and foreign intervention were threatening Bolshevism’s grip on Russia. In addition to the Germans in the west and south, American marines and British soldiers had landed in the north, at Murmansk. In the eastern Ukraine, Generals Alekseyev, Kornilov, and Deniken had organized a White Volunteer Army. In Siberia, the Czech Legion of forty-five thousand men, former prisoners of war taken from the Austro-Hungarian Army, had taken Omsk and was advancing westward toward Ekaterinburg. When the Bolsheviks made peace, Trotsky had agreed that the stranded Czechs be permitted to leave Russia by way of the Pacific in order to return to Europe to fight for a Czech homeland. The Czechs were already in Siberia headed eastward in a string of trains when the German General Staff sternly objected to their passage and demanded that the Bolsheviks stop and disarm them. The Bolsheviks tried, but the Czechs fought back and, strengthened by anti-Bolshevik Russian officers and soldiers, began to prevail. It was the approach of this Czech-White army to Ekaterinburg that forced Lenin and his deputy Yakov Sverdlov (Trotsky had been called to the front) to change their plans for the former tsar and his family imprisoned in the Ipatiev House.

On July 6, the Bolsheviks suffered another blow. In Moscow, two Left Social Revolutionaries, passionately opposed to the Brest Litovsk Treaty, assassinated the German ambassador. Lenin and Sverdlov feared that German troops would enter the capital. In the midst of this confusion, talk of a show trial for Nicholas, of persuading him to sign a treaty, of using his family as bargaining chips, appeared senseless, irrelevant. The Romanovs themselves began to seem superfluous, almost an encumbrance. Sverdlov described this situation to his friend Filipp Goloschekin, a member of the Ural Regional Soviet, who happened to be staying that week in Sverdlov’s house in Moscow. On July 12, Goloschekin returned to Ekaterinburg and told his comrades of the Ural Soviet that the government had no further use for the Romanovs and was leaving to them the timing and manner of the family’s disposition. The Ural Soviet immediately voted to execute the entire family. Yurovsky, the commandant at the Ipatiev House, was ordered to shoot all the prisoners and to destroy the evidence of what had happened.

In the days immediately following the executions, Moscow tightly controlled the release of all information about the event in Ekaterinburg. At nine o’clock on the night of July 17, the Kremlin received a coded telegram from the Ural Regional Soviet saying, “Tell Sverdlov that the whole family has suffered the same fate as the head. Officially the family will perish during the evacuation.” Sverdlov, expecting this message, telegraphed in reply: “Today [July 18] I will report your decision to Presidium of Central Executive Committee. There is no doubt it will be approved. Notice about the execution must follow from the central authorities. Refrain from publication until its receipt.” Sverdlov, whose title was Chairman of the Central Executive Committee, informed the Presidium and, unsurprisingly, obtained its approval.

The pretense that Moscow did not know until after the event was continued that evening, when Sverdlov arrived late at a meeting of the Soviet of People’s Commissars. Lenin was presiding over discussion of a public health project. Sverdlov entered, took a chair behind Lenin, leaned forward, and whispered into his ear. Interrupting the commissar for people’s health, Lenin said, “Comrade Sverdlov asks the floor to make an announcement.”

“We have received information,” Sverdlov announced in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, “that in Ekaterinburg, by decision of the Ural Regional Soviet, Nicholas has been shot. Alexandra Feodorovna and her children are in reliable hands. Nicholas wanted to escape. The Czechs were getting close. The Presidium of the Executive Committee has given its approval.” When Sverdlov finished, the hall was silent. After a pause, Lenin said, “We shall now proceed to read the project, article by article.”

The official announcement that Sverdlov drafted and gave to Pravda and Izvestia again omitted to mention that Nicholas’s wife, son, and daughters had been killed along with the tsar. On July 20, papers appeared in Moscow and St. Petersburg declaring, EX-TSARSHOT AT EKATERINBURG! DEATH OF NICHOLAS ROMANOV! That same day, the Ural Soviet drafted an announcement and asked Moscow’s permission to publish it: “The ex-tsar and autocrat Nicholas Romanov has been shot along with his family.… The bodies have been buried.” The Kremlin forbade release of this statement because it mentioned the death of the entire family. Only on July 22 were Ekaterinburg editors permitted to publish a Moscow-drafted version of what had happened in their city. On that day, newspaper broadsheets were plastered around the Siberian city declaring:


In view of the fact that Czechoslovak bands are threatening the Red capital of the Urals, Ekaterinburg; that the crowned executioner may escape from the tribunal of the people (a White Guard plot to carry off the whole Imperial family has just been discovered), the Presidium of the Divisional Committee in pursuance of the will of the people has decided that the ex-tsar Nicholas Romanov, guilty before the people of innumerable bloody crimes, shall be shot.

The decision … was carried into execution on the night of July 16–17. Romanov’s family has been transferred from Ekaterinburg to a place of greater safety.

Eight days after the massacre, on July 25, the White and Czech armies entered Ekaterinburg.

In 1935, Leon. Trotsky published his Diary in Exile. The former Bolshevik leader, who had been forced into exile by Stalin, described the link between Lenin and Sverdlov, who had authorized the Ekaterinburg massacre, and the Ural Soviet, which had determined the time and method of execution:

My next visit to Moscow [Trotsky had been at the front] took place after the fall of Ekaterinburg. Talking to Sverdlov, I asked in passing: “Oh, yes, and where is the tsar?”

“It’s all over,” he answered. “He has been shot!”

“And where is the family?”

“And the family along with him.”

“All of them?” I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise.

“All of them,” replied Sverdlov. “What about it?” He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply.

“And who made the decision?” I asked.

“We decided it here. Ilych [Lenin] believed that we shouldn’t leave the Whites a live banner to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances.”

I did not ask any further questions and considered the matter closed. Actually, the decision was not only expedient but necessary. The severity of this summary justice showed the world that we would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing. The execution of the tsar’s family was needed not only in order to frighten, horrify and dishearten the enemy, but also in order to shake up our own ranks to show that there was no turning back, that ahead lay either complete victory or complete ruin.… This Lenin sensed well.

The report that Nicholas was dead, killed by the decision of a provincial soviet, and that his family was still alive spread quickly around the world. In Moscow, the counselor of the German Embassy, acting in place of the murdered ambassador, officially condemned the execution of the tsar and expressed concern about the fate of the German-born empress and her children. The Soviet government began telling the lie to foreigners which it continued to tell for the next eight years. On July 20, Karl Radek, head of the European Department of the Bolshevik Foreign Commissariat, informed the German counselor that it might be possible for the survivors to be granted freedom “on humanitarian grounds.” On July 23 and July 24, Radek’s superior, Georgy Chicherin, head of the Foreign Commissariat, assured the German envoy that Alexandra and her children were safe. Through August and most of September, the German government continued to press and was continually reassured. On August 29, Radek proposed an exchange of the Imperial family for prisoners the Germans were holding; a few days later Chicherin again gave assurances that the empress and her children were safe; on September 10, Radek again discussed release of the prisoners; in the third week of September, Berlin was told that the Soviet authorities now were thinking of “moving the whole Imperial family to the Crimea.”

The British government, meanwhile, was receiving more ominous information. On August 31, British Military Intelligence received a report, passed to the War Cabinet and to King George V at Windsor Castle, that the Empress Alexandra and all five of her children probably had been murdered at the same time as the tsar. The king accepted the authenticity of this report and sat down to write to his cousin, Alexandra’s sister, Princess Victoria of Battenberg:

My dear Victoria:

May and I feel most deeply for you in the tragic end of your dear sister and her innocent children. But perhaps for her, who knows, it is better so; as after dear Nicky’s death she could not have wished to live. And the beautiful girls may have been saved from worse than death at the hands of those horrible fiends. My heart goes out to you.

Despite the king’s dispatch of condolences, the Foreign Office decided to investigate the matter further. Sir Charles Eliot, the British high commissioner for Siberia, was sent from Vladivostok to Ekaterinburg, and on October 15, his confidential report, addressed directly to Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, arrived in London. Eliot’s dispatch seemed to offer hope. “On July 17,” he wrote, “a train with the blinds down left Ekaterinburg for an unknown destination and it is believed that the surviving members of the Imperial family were in it.… It is the general opinion in Ekaterinburg that the empress, her son and daughters were not murdered.”

Thereafter, the survivors—if there were survivors—seemed to disappear. Four years later, at an international conference in Genoa, a foreign journalist asked Chicherin whether the Bolshevik government had killed the tsar’s four daughters. Chicherin replied, “The fate of the four young daughters is unknown to me. I have read in the press that they are now in America.”

In 1924, the mystery appeared solved when the White investigator Nicholas Sokolov, then living in Paris, presented his findings and conclusions in a book published first in French and then in Russian. The book, Judicial Enquiry into the Assassination of the Russian Imperial Family, provided the world with an eyewitness description of eleven bodies lying in pools of blood on the floor of the Ipatiev House cellar. Sokolov also printed photographs of the bones, severed finger, jewelry, corset stays, false teeth, and other articles and objects he had gathered from the Four Brothers mine shaft. He gave not only a brutal description of the actual massacre but a detailed, seemingly plausible account of the destruction of the bodies by acid and fire: “The bodies were chopped in pieces with cutting instruments … the bodies were destroyed with sulfuric acid and by burning on the bonfires with the aid of gasoline.… The fatty matter in the corpses melted and spread over the ground where it became mixed with the earth.” Evidence that the entire family was dead appeared overwhelming.

Sokolov’s path had not been smooth. He had been forced to give up his work in Ekaterinburg when the Red Army approached and recaptured the city in July 1919. Traveling east on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, he took with him, along with his box of charred bones and other physical evidence, seven fat folios of written material. In the West, Sokolov continually added to these volumes, endlessly interviewing emigres who had escaped the revolution and who might know something—anything—about the death and disappearance of the Imperial family. He received little assistance. His appearance and manner were not in his favor. Small with dark, thinning hair, he possessed a cracked glass eye that gazed disconcertingly from an intensely nervous face. While talking, he swayed from side to side, continually rubbing his hands or tugging at his stringy mustache. But his appearance and tics had nothing to do with the rebuff he received from the most important of all Russian emigres: Nicholas’s mother, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna. Although Marie had made a financial contribution to Sokolov’s work when he was in Siberia, once she learned that he believed the entire family was dead, she refused to see him or to receive his dossier or box of relics. Until the day of her death in October 1928, Marie insisted that her son and his family remained alive.

Obsessed, Sokolov continued interviewing and writing. For a while, he was supported by Prince Nicholas Orlov, who moved the investigator and his papers from the Hotel du Bon La Fontaine in Paris to an apartment in Fontainebleau. Here, Sokolov finally completed his book. A few months after its publication, he suffered a heart attack and died, still only forty-two. Sokolov’s reward was posthumous: for six and a half decades, until 1989, his work was the accepted historical explanation of how the Russian Imperial family had died and what had happened to their bodies.

Publication and worldwide acceptance of Sokolov’s book forced the Soviet government to change its story about the fate of the empress and her children. By 1926, after eight years of denying any knowledge as to their whereabouts, Moscow’s credibility on the subject had been unraveled by the details and photographs in Sokolov’s book. In addition, times had changed: German concern for a former German princess no longer existed; Lenin was dead; Stalin, his successor, possessed an even greater appreciation of the tonic nature of ruthlessness. Accordingly, a Soviet version of Sokolov’s book, The Last Days of Tsardom, was authorized. Written by Pavel M. Bykov, a new chairman of the Ural Soviet, and largely plagiarized from Sokolov’s work, it admitted that Alexandra, with her son and daughters, had been murdered along with Nicholas.

Now Reds and Whites agreed that the entire Imperial family was dead. But to Sokolov’s description of the destruction of the bodies, Bykov added what seemed a minor editorial variation:

Much has been said about the absence of corpses. But … the remains of the corpses, after being burned, were taken quite far away from the mines and buried in a swampy place, in an area where the volunteers and investigators did not excavate. There the corpses remained and by now have rotted.

In a single sentence, Bykov had offered five fresh clues: There were remains which had survived the fires; these remains had been buried; they had been buried “quite far away from the mines”; “in a swampy place”; “in an area where the volunteers and investigators did not excavate.” In other words, something had been hidden, but it was nowhere near the Four Brothers site where Sokolov had searched.

Bolshevism’s grip on Russia intensified, and the revolution appeared permanent. Famous cities were renamed after its heroes: St. Petersburg became Leningrad, Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad, Ekaterinburg became Sverdlovsk. Lesser men sought recognition of their revolutionary heroism in recording their personal participation in the massacre in the cellar. In 1920, Yakov Yurovsky gave the Soviet historian Michael Pokrovsky a detailed account of what he had done in Ekaterinburg in July 1918 “so history would know.” In 1927, he presented his two revolvers, the Colt and the Mauser, to the Museum of the Revolution on Red Square. Peter Ermakov, the local Ural commissar, sometimes challenged Yurovsky for “the honor of having executed the last tsar” and gave his revolver, also a Mauser, to the Sverdlovsk Museum of the Revolution. In the early 1930s, near Sverdlovsk, Ermakov liked to appear before groups of boys gathered around campfires on summer nights. His enthusiasm fueled by a bottle of vodka, he would describe how he had killed the tsar. “I was twelve or thirteen,” recalled one of these listeners, a member of the Chelyabinsk Tractor Pioneer Camp in 1933. “He was presented to us as a hero. He was given flowers. I watched him with envy. He ended his lecture by saying, ‘I personally shot the tsar.’ ”

Sometimes, Ermakov modified his story. In 1935, the journalist Richard Halliburton visited Ermakov, supposedly dying of throat cancer, in his Sverdlovsk apartment: “On a low, crude Russian bed … piled with red cotton quilts … a huge … fat man of fifty three [was] turning restlessly in his feverish efforts to breathe.… His mouth hung open and from one corner there was a trickle of blood.… Two bloodshot and delirious black eyes gleamed at me.” During a three-hour conversation, Ermakov admitted to Halliburton that it was Yurovsky who had killed Nicholas. His own victim, he said, was Alexandra: “I fired my Mauser at the tsarina—only six feet away—couldn’t miss. Got her in the mouth. In two seconds she was dead.”

Ermakov’s account of the destruction of the bodies buttressed Sokolov’s assumptions: “We built a funeral pyre of cut logs big enough to hold the bodies, two layers deep. We poured five tins of gasoline over the corpses and two buckets of sulfuric acid and set the logs afire.… I stood by to see that not one fingernail or fragment of bone remained unconsumed.… We had to keep the fire burning a long time to burn up the skulls.” Ultimately, Ermakov said, “we didn’t leave the smallest pinch of ash on the ground.… I put the tins of ashes in the wagon again and ordered the driver to take me back toward the high road.… I pitched the ashes into the air—and the wind caught them like dust and carried them out across the woods and fields.” Back in New York, Halliburton published his interview as Ermakov’s deathbed confession; in Sverdlovsk, however, Ermakov arose from his red quilts and lived another seventeen years.

In 1976, forty-one years after Halliburton’s book appeared, two journalists working for BBC Television asked new questions about the disappearance of the Romanovs. In their book The File on the Tsar, Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold challenged Sokolov’s conclusion that, in two days, even with a plentiful supply of gasoline and sulfuric acid, the executioners had been able to destroy “more than half a ton of flesh and bone” and, as Ermakov had claimed, “[pitch] the ashes into the air.” Professor Francis Camps, a British Home Office forensic pathologist with thirty years’ experience, explained to the authors how difficult it was to burn a human body. Fires char bodies, he said, “and the charring itself prevents the rest of the body being destroyed.” Professional cremation, performed in closed, gas-fired ovens at temperatures up to two thousand degrees, can reduce a body to ashes, but this technique and equipment were not available in the Siberian forest. As for sulfuric acid, Dr. Edward Rich, an American expert from West Point, told the authors that with “eleven fully-grown or partly-grown bodies … merely pouring acid on them would not do too much damage other than disfigure the surface.”

The most glaring forensic discrepancy in Sokolov’s findings, both the Home Office and the West Point experts agreed, was the total absence of human teeth. “Teeth are the only components of the human body which are virtually indestructible,” wrote Summers and Mangold. “If the eleven members of the Romanov household were really taken to the mine, there are about 350 missing teeth.” The West Point expert told them that he had once left several teeth completely immersed in a beaker of sulfuric acid, not for two days but for three weeks. They emerged as teeth.*

During the Second World War, Sverdlovsk grew from a town to a large city. As the German Army rolled eastward across Russia and the Ukraine, whole factories and thousands of workers were moved behind the Urals. By the end of the war, Sverdlovsk produced tanks and battlefield Katyusha rockets. After the war, once the Soviet Union acquired the knowledge to build an atomic bomb, secret new towns, ringed by barbed wire and watchtowers, mushroomed near Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk to the south. Both of these cities and the entire region were declared off-limits to foreigners, and a generation grew up in the Urals without ever meeting anyone from another country. It was to probe the secrets of Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk that CIA pilot Gary Powers flew his U-2 spy plane over these cities in 1960.

During these years, the Ipatiev House became a museum of the revolution, an antireligious museum, the home of the Council of Atheists Society, the Regional Party Archive, and the Rector’s Office of the Ural-Siberian Communist University. Pictures of Bolshevik leaders lined the walls; if they had been natives of the Urals, their hats, coats, and medals were displayed in glass cases. Posters and diagrams proclaimed the glories of Communism, showing how many more tractors, airplanes, tons of steel, and suits of underwear were made under Stalin than under the tsar. An upstairs room was devoted to the Romanovs. There were selections from Nicholas’s diary, pages of Alexis’s diary, and the front page of an Ekaterinburg newspaper with these headlines: EXECUTION OFNICHOLAS, THE BLOODY CROWNED MURDERER—SHOT WITHOUT BOURGEOIS FORMALITIES BUT IN ACCORDANCE WITH OUR NEW DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES. The cellar room was not part of the museum; piled to the ceiling with old packing cases, it became a storeroom.

Visitors to the Ipatiev House, perforce Soviet citizens, stared at the pictures, posters, and diaries, and then shuffled out into the Square of the People’s Revenge. They displayed no particular sympathy for the Romanovs; the Imperial family was a part of history, condemned, its diaries placed in glass cases, no longer relevant. But the Party and the KGB never forgot. In 1977, KGB chairman Yuri Andropov convinced aging President Leonid Brezhnev that the Ipatiev House had become a site of pilgrimage for covert monarchists. An order flashed from the Kremlin to the first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Region, a native Siberian named Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin was commanded to destroy the Ipatiev House within three days. On the night of July 27, 1977, a giant ball wrecker accompanied by bulldozers arrived in front of the house. By morning, the building, reduced to bricks and stones, had been carried off to the city dump. Subsequently, although Brezhnev and Andropov gave the orders, Yeltsin was blamed for carrying them out. In his autobiography, Against the Grain, he accepted his share of responsibility: “I can well imagine that sooner or later we will be ashamed of this piece of barbarism.”

* Although The File on the Tsar attracted wide attention, it also drew strong criticism onto itself and its authors. In part, this was because of its style, which breathlessly announced the discovery of “new evidence … deliberately suppressed at the time … [which] has lain hidden for nearly sixty years.” The villain in this thesis was Sokolov, who, the authors charged, “meticulously included all evidence that supported his premise that the entire family had been massacred at the Ipatiev House, but omitted evidence that hinted or stated categorically that something else had happened.” This “something else” was that the empress and her daughters had been taken to Perm, been imprisoned there from July to November, and then disappeared. Authority for this was a woman in Perm who had said, “In the poor candle light I could make out the former Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and her four daughters.… They slept on pallets on the floor without sheets or bedding. The weak light of a tallow candle was the only illumination.” Sokolov had read this statement, along with reports of numerous other Romanov “sightings,” during his investigation. He did not include it in his conclusions because he believed it to be false. But he did keep it in his papers. Summers and Mangold found it, not hidden or suppressed, in the Houghton Library at Harvard.

When the book appeared, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was asked, “What about the Romanov rescue and those sensational documents?” Inimitably, the secretary replied, “That whole story is a lot of crap.” Professor Richard Pipes of Harvard, reviewing the book in The New York Times, was so indignant at Summers and Mangold’s claim to have discovered fresh evidence and so scornful of a claim of identification in Perm by “the weak light of a tallow candle,” that he applied Kissinger’s statement to the book as a whole.

Nevertheless, the two authors did perform a service by asking questions of the Home Office’s Professor Camps and West Point’s Dr. Rich. One did not have to think Sokolov dishonest or believe in the woman in Perm to wonder what had happened to the bones and teeth, which are difficult to destroy with acid or fire.

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