The End of a Dynasty: The Legend of the Romanovs

In February 1917, a revolution came to Russia. One month later, Nicholas II, emperor and autocrat of the Russians, resigned from his throne to live a normal life. The family had just celebrated their third generation in power in 1913. With the revolution at home combined with the disastrous failure abroad during World War I, the Romanov dynasty came to an end.

Execution cellar of Ipatiev house / The Romanovs / Anna Anderson / Russian Orthodox Believers.
Source: Getty Images

The Romanov family were held prisoners by Bolshevik forces, who moved them to different places until that dark, fateful night in the summer of 1918. The entire family was taken out and became victims to a fate they never saw coming.

An Indecisive Leader

After taking the throne in 1894, following his father Alexander III’s death, the resignation was a relief for Nicholas. Nicholas was described as a limited man who lacked creativity and imagination. Unfortunately, his abilities and traits didn’t make him a suitable ruler, especially during such turbulent times.

Portrait of Czar Nicholas II / The library of Czar Nicholas II at The Winter Palace.
Photo by Mondadori, Getty Images / Universal History Archive, Universal Images Group, Getty Images

The incredibly indecisive Nicholas pushed off issuing an order until the very last minute and simply repeated a piece of advice that he was recently given. There was a joke going around St. Petersburg that said the two most powerful people in Russia were the tsar and the last person who spoke to him.

Life Under His Rule

Nicholas wasn’t the progressive overlord type, he strongly believed in his divine right to rule, and his wife Alexandra shared these views. The Okhrana, his secret police, who were also an organization of dangerous murderers, operated freely.

Tsar Nicholas II Romanov and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna Romanova.
Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

As a leader, the tsar saw very few successes. He fought and lost a war with Japan in 1904, and in 1905, he faced a revolution against his monocratic regime. In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly promised to make the Dima an elected legislative body. But before the first meeting, the tsar limited its powers so that he could hold on to his own leadership and governing power.

Nobody Liked Him

In 1914, when World War I broke out, Nicholas led his people into a conflict that would negatively affect the nation’s resources and cause millions of deaths. But despite his lack of leadership abilities and horrible decision-making skills, he didn’t understand the extent of his growing unpopularity.

Nicholas II declares war on Germany from the balcony of the Winter Palace.
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although people were infuriated with him, Nicholas was convinced that the people adored him. He had no idea that everyone had a much different outlook. They even nicknamed him “Nicholas the bloody.” So far, their economy was ruined, and people died because of the tsar’s bad choices, so he should have suspected something.

A Loving Husband and Father

Even though he wasn’t the best at his job leading the nation, Nicholas was a caring family man. He and his wife Alexandra were head over heels in love. They were so lucky to have found each other during an age when monarchs only married for dynastic convenience instead of love and affection.

The Empress and Nicholas II sit for a portrait / Nicholas II lifts and holds his daughter Grand Duchess Tatiana.
Empress Alexandra, Czar Nicholas II, Duchess Tatiana, Alexei. Photo by Fine Art Images, Heritage Images, Getty Images / Laski Diffusion, Getty Images

They got married in 1894 and had four beautiful daughters together: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. But Alexandra yearned for a son and heir, and her wish was granted in 1904, when her last child, Alexei, was born. By all accounts, the Romanovs were a happy, loving, and devoted family.

Alexandra’s Royal Blood

Alexandra was German by birth, and her grandmother was Britain’s Queen Victoria. She possessed a more powerful and imposing personality than her husband, Nicholas. Despite her leadership skills, Alexandra was introverted. She distanced herself from the Russian people, who looked at her as an outsider.

Profile portrait of Alexandra / Alexandra sitting on a couch in The Winter Palace.
Photo by Laski Diffusion, Getty Images / Universal History Archive, Universal Images Group, Getty Images

But unlike her husband, Alexandra was self-aware enough to recognize how unpopular she was. Nevertheless, the realization made her extremely sensitive, controlling, and paranoid. And even though Nicholas was the ruler of the nation, Alexandra appeared to be the center of their household.

Taking Care of Mama

Sigmund Freud once explained that a family often conducts itself around the most damaged member. When it came to the Romanovs, that person was Alexandra. Her high-strung temperament certainly got her constant attention and solicitude from her family, whether it was intentional or not.

Alexandra sits surrounded by her four daughters, Tatiana, Maria, Olga, and Anastasia.
Empress Alexandra, Duchess Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia. Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

The oldest and youngest grand duchess were six years apart. Alexandra kept them close and relied on them. The older daughters, Olga and Tatiana, were fondly nicknamed the “Big Pair,” and the younger girls, Maria and Anastasia, were called the “Little Pair.”

The Favorite Child

As the baby of the family, everyone doted on the youngest child Alexei, especially his mother. The heir to the throne wasn’t necessarily spoiled, but he needed the extra attention. Alexei was born with hemophilia, which came from Alexandra’s side of the gene pool. Evidently, his health became their first priority and the main focus of their lives.

Empress Alexandra with Alexei, who is sitting on her lap.
Empress Alexandra, Alexei. Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

Almost every activity included the risk of a hit or injury that could trigger insane bouts of bleeding. During the weeks of recuperation, Alexandra would sleep on the floor by his bedside. The boy was sweet and gentle, with a mischievous side, adored by his mother and sisters.

The “Holy Man” Enters the Picture

During an era when upper-class parents cultivated a distant relationship with their kids, Alexei’s physical dependence created a tight special bond with his mother and father. But it also made them vulnerable – and when someone came along to exploit that vulnerability, they fell for it.

Grigory Rasputin sits dressed in a religious costume as he opens his book of faith.
Photo by Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Grigory Rasputin from western Siberia was a self-proclaimed “holy man.” His reputation consisted of immodest behavior, healing powers, and the ability to see the future. It’s unclear whether he was a conman or if he actually believed he had supernatural powers. Either way, the Romanovs believed in his abilities which gave him a strong influence over the royal family, especially Alexandra.

Healing Hopes

In 1905, when Rasputin first met the Romanovs, the tsarina was desperate. The revolution almost resulted in overthrowing the monarchy. The birth of Alexei the year before gave them the heir they wished for, but his hemophilia was more than a personal tragedy – it was a threat to the dynasty.

Alexei sits behind the table next to his father, Nicholas II.
Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The current circumstances of political crisis and maternal agony allowed Rasputin to get close to the Romanov family. When Alexei suffered a serious bleeding episode in 1908, Rasputin was able to lessen the little boy’s pain.

Rasputin’s Ulterior Motives

Apparently, the mystic psychic warned Nicholas and Alexandra that their son’s health would be linked to the strength of the dynasty. Rasputin’s apparent healing powers would secure him a place in the palace and, subsequently, the power to influence the tsar.

Grigori Rasputin sits among his female followers at the Romanov court.
Grigori Rasputin. Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis/Getty Images

Rasputin’s relationship with the family may have helped the tsarevitch, but it destroyed Alexandra’s reputation, and she alienated herself from the Russian people even more. Rumors circulated that Rasputin’s immoral behavior included seducing Alexandra. He was almost definitely not her lover, but he certainly had affairs with the unspecified number of ladies at the Romanov court.

The Start of a Revolution

Nicholas was asked to remove Rasputin from court, but Nicholas ignored the suggestion – which of course, added to the anger of the Russian people. Since he was focused on making his wife happy and his son healthy, Nicholas didn’t remove the possible threat. In fact, he was oblivious to the fact that there even was a threat.

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II while Grigori Rasputin walks in the background.
Grigori Rasputin, Czar Nicholas II. Photo by VLAD LONSHAKOV/AFP/Getty Images

In September 1915, during World War I, Nicholas traveled to the front to take personal command of the Russian forces. Meanwhile, Alexandra saw to domestic affairs, and Rasputin’s influence over her became evident with her choice of useless, incompetent ministers. With losses in the front line and Rasputin’s conduct back at home, the Russian people turned against the Romanov family. It was the perfect time for a revolution.

What Do We Do With Them, Now?

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks took power, and the Romanovs turned into a headache and bargaining chip. Russia needed to negotiate its departure from World War I while simultaneously avoiding a foreign invasion.

The assault on the Winter Palace.
Photo by Dea Picture Library/Getty Images

The enemies of the country would obviously be watching what went down with the former rulers, but if the Romanovs were still alive, they would symbolize the monarchist movement forever. Some wanted them to go into exile, and others wanted to put them on trial for the crimes they were accused of. But some people just wanted them gone – for good.

Bouncing Around

The Romanovs were sent to the palace at Tsarkoye Selo at first. But due to security concerns, they were moved to Tobol’sk, just east of the Ural Mountains. They weren’t mistreated there, and Nicholas even seemed happy. He enjoyed the outdoors and did not miss the stress that came with being the tsar. The family also had a large staff of 39 servants.

The Empress bedroom after the storming of The Winter Palace.
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

They kept a lot of their personal items, including their leather-bound family photo albums. During the early days of their imprisonment, the family had hopes of a happy ending. Perhaps they would reach England and live in exile with King George V, their British cousin. Or even better, maybe they could retire to their home in the Crimea, where they spent many summer vacations. However, slowly but surely, each route closed except for one: the road to Yekaterinburg.

Life in Captivity

Yekaterinburg was the most radicalized city in Russia and was highly communist and extremely anti-tsarist. “I would go anywhere at all, only not to the Urals,” Nicholas reportedly said as he got off the train at his final residence. The Romanovs were taken to a large building called the Ipatiev House (named after its former owner).

The former empress of Russia and Nicholas II work on the house garden during their captivity.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

The high wooden wall was built in order to cut off the rest of the world, and they were able to exercise in the garden. Avdeev, the person in charge, was corrupt – his men stole from the Romanovs – but he was not evil. The guards were regular folk recruited from local factories. As time went on, they got used to the idea of the charges against them.

Replacing Avdeev

But their acceptance of the situation didn’t last. The local Bolsheviks decided to switch out Avdeev with Yakov Yurovsky, the person who would orchestrate their killing. He stopped the petty burglary that went unpunished by his predecessor. Instead, he instituted harsher, stricter, and more disciplined guards.

Portrait of the Bolsheviks leader, Yurovsky.
Yaakov Yurovsky. Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Yurovsky preserved a distant but professional relationship with Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov… even as he was plotting their murders. But Nicholas got things wrong once again. The naïve former leader even seemed to like Yurovsky.

Their Final Days

The last civilians to ever see the family alive were four women from the town who were brought in to clean the Ipatiev House. Mariya Starodumova, Evdokiya Semenova, Varvara Dryagina, and the unidentified fourth released the family from their boredom in confinement with a final interaction with the outside world.

The room where Czar Nicholas II spent his last days in captivity.
Photo by Corbis/Getty Images

These women’s testimony gave an insightful and humane depiction of the doomed family. Although they were forbidden to speak to the Romanovs, the cleaners had the chance to closely observe them, and they saw them in a whole different light.

They Were Ordinary People

In the beginning, the women didn’t know what to think. They were confused by the gap between the stories of the family’s arrogance spread by anti-tsarist propaganda and the modest people they saw in front of them. They saw them as people, not former rulers. The grand duchesses were just regular girls.

Alexei and the three former duchesses are sitting outside.
Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

As for Alexei, Semenova described the boy as the epitome of delicate suffering. Like many others, she was specifically stunned by his soft and callow eyes. She explained that they looked like they were full of sadness, which is honestly just heartbreaking.

Talking to the Cleaners

The family, on the other hand, was thrilled with the change. The girls were eager to help scrub the floors so that they could speak to the cleaners, even though it went against the house rules. Semenova even found the opportunity to sneak a few kind words to Alexandra.

Nicholas II with his children sitting on the roof of the house in Tobolsk.
Nicholas II, Alexei, Olga, Maria, Anastasia, Tatiana. Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

One of the events that Semenova and Sraeodumova both clearly remembered was when Yurovsky sat next to Alexei and asked about the boy’s health. This rare scene of kindness and sympathy was retrospectively disturbing, considering the fact that Yurovsky was fully aware that he would be the child’s executioner in just a short time. The visit to the Ipatiev House made a strong, long-lasting impression on the women.

They Symbolized Aristocracy

The reason the Romanovs needed to be executed was simply because they were the supreme symbols of autocracy. The irony? In Yekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks turned the family into the complete opposite of aristocrats. In Evdokia Semenova’s words, “They were not gods. They were actually ordinary people like us. Simple mortals.”

The Romanovs royal family portrait.
Nicholas II, Duchess Olga, Duchess Maria, Grand Duchess Anastaia, Alexei, Duchess Tatiana, Alexandra. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

On the night of July 16, Moscow received a telegram informing Lenin of the decision to carry out the murders. At 1:30 a.m., the family and the four servants were awakened from their bed. Yurovsky told them that a fight between red and white forces was threatening the city and that they must go down to the basement for safety.

The Last Night

No evidence suggests that the family reacted with anything but obedience. Nicholas held his son Alexei in his arms and led the family and his four servants – family doctor Eugene Botkin, maid, Anna Demidova, chef Ivan Kharitonov, and footman Alexei Trupp – down to the basement.

The cellar of Ipatiev house after the Execution of the Imperial Family during the night.
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Even once they were gathered in a small cellar, the family still seemed to be oblivious to their horrific fate. Chairs were brought in for Alexandra and Alexei, but everyone else stood. Then… the time came to wipe out the Romanov family.

Just Letting You Know, We’re About to Kill You

Yurovsky headed toward them with executioners standing in the doorway behind him; then, he began reading a written statement to the shocked prisoners: “The presidium of the Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, has decreed that the former Tsar Nicholas Romanov, guilty of countless bloody crimes against the people, should be shot.”

Czar Nicholas II is sitting in his room days before the execution.
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images

As soon as they finished reading the family their fate, they began firing at them. There are conflicting accounts, but most people believe that the main target was the tsar, and he died from multiple gunshots. Poor Alexandra died from a bullet to her head.

Can You Say Overkill?

As gun smoke filled the room, the killers lost all discipline. The grand duchesses appeared unharmedby the shots since the bullets had ricocheted off their bodies. It was later discovered that they had diamond jewelry sewn to their clothes which protected them like armor during the initial attack.

The Children of Czar Nicholas II in a royal portrait.
Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia, Olga and Alexei. Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images

One of the murderers, a drunkard named Ermakov, lost total control and started slashing the family with a knife. After a terrifying 20 minutes, the entire Romanov family and their servants were finally dead: shot, stabbed and beaten.

Disposing of the Bodies

The 11 bodies were carried out of the house and loaded into a truck. The disposal of the remains was a different story. Scholars think that bodies were first thrown into Ganina Yama, a shallow mine which the Bolsheviks tried to destroy with grenades.

Koptyaki forest near Yekaterinburg, where the bodies were disposed of.
Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

However, the shaft remained intact, so the bodies were quickly removed. But on the way to the next burial site, the truck got stuck in the mud, so they removed two bodies and disposed of them in the forest. The two bodies are not believed to be Alexei and Maria. The other nine bodies were burned, covered in acid, and buried in a separate grave nearby.

The Legend of the Romanov Family

Almost immediately after their apparent deaths, rumors flew about how the Romanovs actually survived the execution. Since their remains were undiscovered for decades and the Communist authorities didn’t discuss the events at the Ipatiev House that night, the whispers turned into legends.

A convalescent woman at a hospital in Berlin is claiming to be Anastia,
Anna Anderson. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one point or another, all the Romanov children were impersonated. The most notorious claim to the Romanov estate surrounded Anastasia. Possibly the most famous impersonation of a Romanov family member was a woman rescued from a Berlin canal in 1920.

Back From the Dead

She was taken to the hospital and had no identification on hand. She reluctantly told law enforcement that she was Anastasia Romanov and proceeded to tell a detailed story about how she escaped the execution. She moved to the United States and took on the name Anna Anderson, but she continued to pretend she was Anastasia until she died in 1984.

Portrait of an old Anna Anderson.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

It is generally believed that Anna Anderson was a mentally ill Polish factory worker, but her remarkable story became a topic of public fascination and the inspiration behind the movie Anastasia, released in 1956 and starring Ingrid Bergman. The rumors and lingering hope that some may have survived were put to rest in 2008 when all the Romanov remains were found.

The Soviets Are Hiding Something

After the Romanov family execution, Soviet officials were secretive when addressing the subject. Even after that fateful night, the Bolsheviks announced that Nicholas was dead, but Alexei and Alexandra were in a safe place. We now know that was a flat-out lie.

A view of the house where the Romanovs lived during their exile.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

It wasn’t until 1926 when the deaths were officially confirmed. Even then, the Soviets wouldn’t take any responsibility for the murder. In 1938, Josef Stalin officially suppressed discussing the family’s fate, and in 1977, the Ipatiev House was demolished because the Soviets pronounced that it had “no historical value.”

Adding Fuel to the Curiosity

Ironically, the forced silence about the Romanov’s fate seemed to have opened up the discussion since it piqued curiosity. Royal imposters would continue to pop up through the decades pretending to be one of the Romanov children.

Portrait of Czar Nicholas II daughters sitting behind a small marble table.
Maria, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia. Photo by Apic/Getty Images

Every time a new imposter appeared, the story would recirculate, making it impossible for the mystery to die as the Soviets hoped. Instead, it has become a widely spread legend. In 1979, a few wanna-be sleuths found a bigger burial site near Yekaterinburg, but their findings were kept a secret until the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Reclaiming History

Russian scientists returned to Yekaterinburg to reclaim history in 1991. The remains of nine people were exhumed and were soon scientifically identified as Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and their four servants. In 2007, Alexei and Maria’s remains were discovered and identified using DNA analysis.

Scientist reconstructs the heads of the members of the Romanov Family.
Sergei Niktin. Photo by Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

Once all their bones were discovered, a healing process began where the horrors of their murders and their place in history would be remembered and acknowledged. The remains were finally put to rest in 1998 in St. Petersburg’s Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral – the traditional burial spot for the tsars. In 2000, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their kids were sanctified by the Russian Orthodox Church as “passion-bearers.”

They Can Finally Rest in Peace

The Russian Orthodox Church established a monastery at Ganina Yama – the first disposal site for the bodies. In 2013, the magnificent Church on the Blood sanctified the spot where the Ipatiev House once stood, and it’s not a pilgrimage site.

Thousands of Russian Orthodox believers participate in a nighttime procession marking 100 years since The Romanovs execution.
Photo by VLAD LONSHAKOV/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes, tight-knit families tend to cut themselves off from the rest of the world. When it comes to the Romanovs, their self-absorption made them oblivious to the danger surrounding them. But the only reason their confinement was bearable was that their love strengthened one another. The greatest mercy of their final moments and their horrific end was that they were all together.