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This Week In History

The Execution of the Romanov Family. July 17, 1918.

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The Ural Regional Soviet agreed in a meeting on 29 June that the Romanov family should be executed. Only seven of the 23 members of the Central Executive Committee were in attendance, three of whom were Lenin, Sverdlov and Felix Dzerzhinsky. It was agreed that the presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet should organize the practical details for the family’s execution and decide the precise day on which it would take place when the military situation dictated it, contacting Moscow for final approval.

The killing of the Tsar‘s wife and children was also discussed but had to be kept a state secret to avoid any political repercussions; German ambassador Wilhelm von Mirbach made repeated enquiries to the Bolsheviks concerning the family’s well-being.  As Trotsky would later explain, “The Tsar’s family was a victim of the principle that form the very axis of monarchy: dynastic inheritance”, for which their deaths were a necessity. Goloshchyokin reported back to Yekaterinburg on 12 July with a summary of his discussion about the Romanovs with Moscow, along with instructions that nothing relating to their deaths should be directly communicated to Lenin.

On 14 July, Yurovsky was finalizing the disposal site and how to destroy as much evidence as possible at the same time.  He wanted to gather the family and servants in a closely confined space from which they could not escape. The basement room chosen for this purpose had a barred window which was nailed shut to muffle the sound of shooting and in case of any screaming. Yurovsky’s plan was to perform an efficient execution of all 11 prisoners simultaneously.

On 16 July, Yurovsky was informed by the Ural Soviets that Red Army contingents were retreating in all directions and the executions could not be delayed any longer. A coded telegram seeking final approval was sent by Goloshchyokin and Georgy Safarov at around 6:00pm to Lenin in Moscow. There is no documentary record of an answer from Moscow, although Yurovsky insisted that an order from the CEC to go ahead had been passed on to him by Goloshchyokin at around 7:00pm.   At 8:00pm, Yurovsky sent his chauffeur to acquire a truck for transporting the bodies, bringing with it rolls of canvas to wrap them in. The intention was to park it as close to the basement entrance as possible, with its engine running to mask the noise of gunshots. Yurovsky and Pavel Medvedev collected 14 handguns to use that night.

In the commandant’s office, Yurovsky assigned victims to each killer before distributing the handguns. He instructed his men to “shoot straight at the heart to avoid an excessive quantity of blood and get it over quickly.” At least two refused to shoot the women. Yurovsky sent them to the Popov House for failing “at that important moment in their revolutionary duty”. Neither Yurovsky nor any of the killers went into the logistics of how to efficiently destroy eleven bodies. He was under pressure of ensuring that no remains would later be found by monarchists who would exploit them to rally anti-communist support.

Around midnight on 17 July, Yakov Yurovsky, the commandant of The House of Special Purpose, ordered the Romanovs’ physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, to awaken the sleeping family and ask them to put on their clothes, under the pretext that the family would be moved to a safe location due to impending chaos in Yekaterinburg.The Romanovs were then ordered into a 6 m × 5 m semi-basement room. Nicholas asked if Yurovsky could bring two chairs, on which Tsarevich Alexei and Alexandra sat. Yurovsky’s assistant Grigory Nikulin remarked to him that the “heir wanted to die in a chair. Very well then, let him have one.” The prisoners were told to wait in the cellar room while the truck that would transport them was being brought to the House. A few minutes later, an execution squad of secret police was brought in and Yurovsky read aloud the order given to him by the Ural Executive Committee:

Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”

Nicholas, facing his family, turned and said “What? What?” Yurovsky quickly repeated the order and the weapons were raised. The Empress and Grand Duchess Olga, according to a guard’s reminiscence, had tried to bless the children, but failed amid the shooting. Yurovsky reportedly raised his Colt gun at Nicholas’s torso and fired; Nicholas was the target of all of the assembled shooters, and he quickly fell dead, pierced by many bullets. The intoxicated Peter Ermakov, the military commissar for Verkh-Isetsk, shot and killed Alexandra with a bullet wound to the head. The remaining executioners shot chaotically and over each other’s shoulders until the room was so filled with smoke and dust that no one could see anything at all in the darkness nor hear any commands amid the noise.

Within minutes, Yurovsky was forced to stop the shooting because of the caustic smoke of burned gunpowder, dust from the plaster ceiling caused by the reverberation of bullets, and the deafening gunshots. When they stopped, the doors were then opened to scatter the smoke. While waiting for the smoke to abate, the killers could hear moans and whimpers inside the room. As it cleared, it became evident that although several of the family’s retainers had been killed, all of the Imperial children were alive and furthermore, only Maria was even injured.

The noise of the guns had been heard by households all around, and had awakened many people. The executioners were ordered to proceed with their bayonets, a technique which proved ineffective and meant that the children had to be dispatched by still more gunshots, this time aimed more precisely at their heads. The Tsarevich was the first of the children to be executed. Yurovsky watched in disbelief as Nikulin spent an entire magazine from his Browning gun on Alexei, who was still seated transfixed in his chair; he also had jewels sewn into his undergarment and forage cap. Ermakov shot and stabbed him, and when he failed, Yurovsky shoved him aside and killed the boy with a gunshot to the head. The last to die were Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria, who were carrying a few pounds diamonds sewn into their clothing, which had given them a degree of protection from the firing. However, they were speared with bayonets as well. Olga sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Maria and Anastasia were said to have crouched up against a wall covering their heads in terror until they were shot down. Yurovsky himself killed Tatiana and Alexei. Tatiana died from a single bullet through the back of her head. Alexei received two bullets to the head, right behind the ear.

While Yurovsky was checking the victims for pulses, Ermakov went back and forth in the room, flailing the bodies with his bayonet. The execution lasted about 20 minutes, Yurovsky later admitting to Nikulin’s “poor mastery of his weapon and inevitable nerves”.

Alexandre Beloborodov sent a coded telegram to Lenin’s secretary, Nikolai Gorbunov. It was found by White investigator Nikolai Sokolov and reads:

“Inform Sverdlov the whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die at the evacuation.”

 

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