Last week, I posted about a photo of Tsar Alexander III and his family. In the photo is Nikolai Alexandrovich, the tsar’s son who later became Tsar Nikolai II (more commonly known as Nicholas in English). The photo I want to talk about this week also has Nicholas in it, but many years later, towards the end of his life. (It should be noted that he was in pretty good health at the time of his death and probably wouldn’t have died for many more years, had he not been shot in the head by a firing squad.)
In 1917, Nicholas made the difficult decision to abdicate the throne. Originally, he was going to abdicate in favor of his son, Alexei (pictured above in the photo), but since Alexei had health problems (he had very severe hemophilia, which could not be treated at this time) and he feared that the boy would be separated from his family, he abdicated in favor of his brother Mikhail, who was next in line to the throne after Alexei. Mikhail wanted no part of being tsar, though, and so he refused to take the throne.* After ruling Russia for three hundred four years, the Romanov monarchy came to an end.
After the abdication, Nicholas wasted precious time in moving around Western Russia. If only he’d fled then, perhaps he and his family would have escaped their later untimely deaths. He visited his mother and military headquarters, then eventually went to his palace outside St. Petersburg in the village of Tsarskoe selo (that means “Tsar’s Village” in Russian) where his wife and children were. It was here that the family became virtual prisoners, guarded by the Provisional Government (the government that ruled Russia between the fall of the monarchy and the Bolshevik seizure of power). Though the Provisional Government was allegedly guarding Nicholas “for his own protection,” in my opinion that’s debatable.
Later that year, in August 1917, Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, sent the tsar and his family into exile—in Siberia. Again, this was ostensibly for their own protection, but I’ve always had a hard time believing this. If Kerensky and his Provisional Government truly wanted to protect the former tsar and his family, why not send them to the Crimea? At this point in time, southern Russia (yes, dear readers, Crimea was a part of the Russian Empire at this time!) was a lot safer and less war-torn than Siberia. Imagine with what interest I read this excerpt from a letter sent by Alexander Mikhailovich, Nicholas’ brother-in-law, March 1917: “I personally see that the Provisional Government has lost its balance, being completely in power of the Soviets of workers’ deputies. And if the Provisional Government does not prevail, total anarchy and the collapse of Russia will follow.”** When you look at the Provisional Government in that light, things make more sense.
Anyway, the family was sent into exile in the town of Tobolsk. It was there, at the end of the year, that the photo above was taken. In it, the tsar and his son Alexei are chopping wood together. The tsar’s second-youngest daughter, Maria, took the photo. She was very interested in photography and many of her photographs survive. In the photo, the tsar is forty-nine, Alexei is thirteen, and less than a year to live.
From Tobolsk, the family was moved to Yekaterinburg and imprisoned in a merchant’s house, where they were all shot in the basement at point-blank range on the night of July 16-17, 1918. Just to ensure that everyone died, they were then bayoneted. The executioners attempted to destroy their bodies with acid and then dumped them in two separate graves. The Bolsheviks never admitted to what they did—they only said that Nicholas was dead—so for years, rumors of the family’ escape persisted. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, all the remains of the eleven people executed have been identified and their identities verified with DNA testing.
*When I first learned that Mikhail didn’t want to be tsar, I thought he was just being prescient and could see that public opinion was turning against the monarchy. However, I recently learned that he never really wanted to rule, even in his younger days, and was stressed when he was second in line to the throne before Alexei was born.
**See The Flight of the Romanovs: A Family Saga by John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 161.