In Episode 12 we tackle WWI and the fall of the Romanovs:

  • WWI nurses
  • Nicholas at Stavka
  • The March Revolution
  • Romanovs under house arrest
  • The murder

*Scroll through for photos!

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Russia Enters WWI

Alexandra and Vera Gedroits

As with any war, nurses and doctors were needed to take care of the wounded. The government decided around 10,000 nurses should fit the bill.

Since so many nurses were needed, women were sped through the training process.

Training took two months instead of one year, but don’t think that they were speeding women through and taking on subpar nurses. If the women didn’t meet the mark they didn’t become a nurse. In Russia, the nurses were known as Sisters of Mercy.

Alexandra, Olga, and Tatiana went through the training and became very dedicated nurses. When it came to nursing, Alexandra, Olga, and Tatiana were in the thick of it.

They saw all kinds of wounds, surgeries, and amputations. They took nursing very seriously and wanted to help in any way possible. 

Since it was war-time, Alexandra decided photos with her and her girls had to be plain. She and the Big Pair were dressed in their nurse’s uniforms while the Little Pair were dressed in plain dresses.

Some people thought this was great. Just as many people, if not more, thought this was a terrible idea. The imperial family always had to look imperial. End of story. 

Even some of the soldiers felt that way. But even more of them loved that the imperial ladies were looking after them. Not just because it was the royal family showing that they cared about what happened to their people, but because of how they looked after the wounded. Because they weren’t just showing or playacting, Alexandra and her girls truly did care.

Olga in her Nursing Uniform
Tatiana in her Nursing Uniform

Nicholas and The Front

When it comes to the actual war effort, Russia was lacking in supplies. This included weapons, as well as clothing and boots for the men. Nicholas had no idea about the shortages.

He had reports coming in telling him that everything was just fine. They even lied to his face when he went to check out everything, to make sure everything was kosher. They dressed the men, put them all in boots, and made it all look spick and span. 

In May 1915 the German/Austrian forces ended up taking Russian Poland and all the ground Russia kept from Austria after the war started. This became known as The Great Retreat, and it lasted until September 1915.

Men were being cut down left and right, thousands were deserting. A deep seated hatred started to take hold. Partly having to do with the tsar, mostly having to do with Alexandra because of her ties to Germany even though she was very much for Russia.

In 1915 Grand Duke Nicholas was fired from his position by the tsar. He was heading up battlefield operations. Nicholas himself decided to head up the war effort. His advisors said, don’t do it!

Nicholas thought that he’d be a beacon of shining light and inspiration. So off he went to Stavka, leaving Alexandra in charge of things while he was away. Alexandra had full reign. 

Downfall of Rasputin

Since a lot of people didn’t like Rasputin, Nicholas had police looking after him and his apartment. When the cops took all their information to Alexandra, she threw the information away. A bunch of guys got together and decided that Rasputin had to go. 

The conspirators were: Valdimir Purishkevich, Prince Felix Yusupov (the husband of Irina, Nicholas’s niece), Nicholas’s cousin Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, army doctor Stanislaw Lazovert, and army officer Sergei Sukhotin.

On December 29, 1916 Rasputin came over to Prince Yusopov’s palace. Rasputin chowed down on some wine and cakes, which had a special ingredient: cyanide. Like magic, Rasputin was just fine. Prince Felix was freaking out. Solution: shoot him.

He used Grand Duke Dmitri’s gun to put a bullet in Rasputin’s back. When his co-conspirators went off to get something to wrap the body in, Rasputin got up and ran off, almost making it to the palace gate. 

Purishkevich ran after him and fired his gun, eventually hitting Rasputin in the shoulder and head. Prince Felix ran out afterward and beat him with a club.

Rasputin was then wrapped up tight in a blue curtain and inevitably tossed into the Neva River, which was mostly frozen over. And so ends Rasputin. After three days, the cops got his body out of the river. 

The Revolution Begins

Alexei and Alexandra

By the time 1917 rolled in, the people of Russia were at the end of their tether.

Shortages abounded of pretty much everything: bread, sugar, butter, meat, and fuel.

People were losing their jobs, unable to bring money home. The average Russian was suffering, but the Russian aristocracy and imperial family were still living it up. 

The perfect storm was brewing in Russia, but Nicholas and Alexandra still couldn’t see it. Nicholas did leave Stavka for Alexander Palace when Rasputin was murdered and stayed there instead of heading back.

And yet, even though Nicholas was back, things weren’t getting better. The mood of the people was becoming darker. The people were edging closer to revolution.

It’s at this point that even the members of the Duma started talking about the end of Nicholas’s reign. They didn’t want him dead, but they did want him off the throne. Alexei was Nicholas’s son and heir. Alexei would rule and the Duma ministers would basically rule for him.

The March Revolution

By the end of February 1917, Nicholas was back at Stavka and the unrest was coming to a head in St. Petersburg, which had actually been changed to Petrograd during the war to sound less German. 

Olga, Tatiana, and Alexei had all come down with measles. Alexandra didn’t know how bad things had become until March 12, when she was told that she and her kids were in danger.

The revolution was in full swing. But she wouldn’t move the children. They were too sick. In any case, Nicholas was on his way back. So they weren’t going anywhere. 

The next day, March 13, soldiers came to Tsarskoe Selo to destroy Alexandra and Alexei. Luckily, 1,500 men from their beloved Standart had also come to Tsarskoe Selo.

These were men still loyal to the imperial family. Unfortunately, most of the other imperial guards and soldiers were now on the side of the revolution. They had deserted their posts.

Eventually Alexandra learned that the imperial train carrying Nicholas back home had been stopped. To make matters even worse, those heroic sailors who showed up to stand guard left. The palace staff started fleeing as well. Whatever servants and staff stayed did so out of loyalty.

Meanwhile, Nicholas was stopped at Pskov. He asked for advice from his generals, and they all pretty much said the same thing. Abdication was the only way to save Russia and even himself. Which is exactly what he did.

At first he abdicated with the intention of having Alexei succeed him. But then he decided he couldn’t subject Alexei to the tsardom. Instead, his brother Mikhail would be the next tsar. As for the people, they were thrilled Tsar Nicholas was no more. 

Mikhail, after speaking with Kerensky and Rodzianko, decided to abdicate as well. If he became tsar, there would be more bloodshed, perhaps even his own.

The Romanov dynasty was at an end. Russia’s monarchy was no more. For the people, this meant it was time to celebrate. Red, and only red, became the new favorite color. People were singing in the streets.

Help? You need somebody? Anybody?

Tatiana and Anastasia with their Bulldog Ortipo in Tsarskoe Selo during Captivity

Nicholas wrote a list of his four “must haves”:

  • He gets to go to Tsarskoe Selo with his entourage
  • They all get to stay there safe as houses until the kids are better
  • Then everyone gets to leave Russia via Murmansk
  • Then come back and live in the Crimea at Livadia Palace once the war is over.

The Provisional Government wasn’t really against it. They did want to get the Romanovs out of the country to keep them alive, but the Government wanted them out forever. 

Quite a few people were calling to have the tsar locked away in prison or tried and executed. But Kerensky was adamant that the family be kept safe. On March 21, Nicholas began the journey back to Tsarskoe Selo. He was in the custody of the Provisional Government.

Alexandra was told that she and her children were under house arrest. The time had come for Alexandra to explain to her kids that their father was no longer the tsar, she no longer the tsaritsa. Alexei would never be tsar, and the girls were Grand Duchesses in memory only. 

On March 22 Nicholas was finally home. And it’s here, with his wife and children, that Nicholas finally let loose his grief over the abdication. The family truly became prisoners within their own home.

Guards were posted to watch them, all their letters were searched, and they weren’t allowed to use the phone or telegraph to communicate with the outside world.

On April 16, Vladimir Lenin finally returned to Russia. And he immediately got to work. Lenin wanted the Provisional Government gone.

He capitalized on the fact that things weren’t any better than they were under the tsar. More and more people were identifying with Lenin and his ideologies.

The Girls at Tsarskoe Selo during Captivity

The Provisional Government couldn’t figure out what to do with the family. England kept going back and forth about whether or not to offer Nicholas and his family safety in Great Britain.

Geroge V was anxious that bringing his family to Britain would cause unrest. Finally the British government settled on yes. And just as quickly as the offer came, it was taken back.

When France was asked if it would take the Romanovs, the country came back with a very hard pass. It wasn’t their problem. Most countries weren’t willing to take them in. No one wanted to upset the balance during the war or be seen colluding with the enemy. 

The Danish royal family went to the Germans. If the tsar and his family were taken from Russian to Denmark on a British ship,would they let it pass? The Germans agreed.

But nothing came of this plan. Then there was Kaiser Wilhelm. He wasn’t going to do anything either. King Alfonso of Spain, on the other hand, was still hoping some deal could be reached. 

But, at this point, it came down to whether or not the Provisional Government was willing to release the family to seek asylum elsewhere? Not any more.

Kerensky was at a loss. What was he supposed to do with the Imperial Family? The only thing he could think of was moving them as far away from Petrograd as he could. 

Kerensky picked a town called Tobolsk. He trusted very few with the travel plans. Kerensky devised a way to move the family to Tobolsk in plain sight. He put up a sign and Japanese flags that made it appear as though the train was part of the Japanese Red Cross. 

Alexandra at Tsarskoe Selo during Captivity

With that sorted, there was only one thing left to do — pack. Nicholas made sure to take the letters Alexandra wrote to him and his diaries. Alexandra gave away the majority of her clothes to war victims. Then she packed up her family photos alongside religious books and icons. 

Then, of course, there were the children. Aside from the essentials, such as clothing, they also made sure to pack their books, photo albums, arts and crafts supplies, and their Brownie box cameras. Alexei made sure to grab his tin soldiers, a chessboard, and his toy gun. 

While they packed the things they valued most, there were also items considered necessary, such as the electroshock machine Dr. Botkin used on Alexei’s legs, medicines, Alexandra’s nursing tools, and the childrens’ army cots and bedding. This was in addition to the fine china, Turkish rugs, velvet pillows, cologne, bathing oils, and much more. 

The entourage following them to Tobolsk: a couple of valets, a handful of chambermaids, ten footmen, three cooks, four assistant cooks, a clerk, nurse, doctor, barber, butler, wine steward, two spaniels, and a bulldog. There were also courtiers who were going with. And it was all by choice.

August 13, 1917 was the last day the Romanovs were at Tsarskoe Selo. Everyone was roaring and ready to go at five in the evening, but the train never came. At three in the morning, Kerensky made a call. At 5:15 a.m., the cars finally arrived to transport the family to the trains.

They took one last look at Tsarskoe Selo. They were leaving their home for the last time, never to return. It wasn’t until they were on the train the Romanovs were told where they were going. 

Off to Siberia

Governor’s House

After a week of travel, the family arrived in Tobolsk. The house had fourteen rooms. But with the family and all the people accompanying them, it would be impossible to fit them all in. So most of the servants were moved across the street.

The house was known as the Governor’s Mansion or Freedom House, but there was very little freedom to have. Before the suitcases could even be unpacked, a huge fence was built around the property. 

So what did they do for fun? They chopped wood, took photos, played games, knit, read, and sometimes sat on the greenhouse roof where Nicholas built the family a little getaway.

Nicholas and Alexei Chopping Wood

That’s how they spent their time for the next seven months until October 1917 when Sydney Gibbes, one of the tutors, showed up in Tobolsk, after finally receiving permission to join the family. 

Nicholas II

Gibbes couldn’t believe how much Alexandra had aged. She was so thin and haggard looking.

Olga and Tatianna had lost so much weight and pulled into themselves. Maria was still a sweetheart.

Even Anastasia remained her mischievous self. She was still the one making the family laugh, which was necessary considering their circumstances. Alexei, on the other hand, listened to no one. He did what he wanted and when.

The Provisional Government was falling apart, and the Bolsheviks were read to take control. The only troops the government had on hand were some untrained cadets and a unit of women.

The Bolsheviks barely had to do anything to defeat these troops. They fired one blank at the Winter Palace and the Provisional Government’s army surrendered.

Just a couple hours later, the ministers also surrendered after 2 more shots were fired at the palace. In the early hours of November 8, 1917, the Bolsheviks took power. 

Nicholas didn’t learn about the Soviets taking power until many weeks later. For the first time since his abdication, Nicholas regretted his decision.

By giving up the throne, he thought he was doing what was best for Russia. But, after learning the news, he thought he’d essentially handed the power over to the Soviets.

Nicholas II

The Romanovs didn’t feel the effects of the regime change until the early months of 1918.

In February, the guards were changed out. Die hard revolutionaries were switched in.

When they were marching into town, the family climbed on top of the snow mountain they built to see everything.

The new guards got rid of the mountain. Apparently, by climbing on it, the family was basically painting target signs on their foreheads and no way were the guards going to be responsible for them getting killed. 

The family had their butter, sugar, coffee, and eggs taken from them. Soldiers rations, it was called. Then their monthly allowance was lowered.

As a result of this budget cut, the family was forced to fire 10 servants. That’s 10 families relying on that income suddenly left with nothing. Nicholas and Alexandra didn’t want to let any of them go, but they had to. It broke their hearts.

The guards took pleasure in exerting their power over the Romanovs. They graffitied the swingset, the fence, and more. They wrote foul things the girls and Alexei shouldn’t see.

Sometimes Nicholas or Gilliard would be able to get rid of it before the kids could see it, but not always. 

In March 1918, Alexei was once again sick. He had a bad cough that caused a hemorrhage in his groin. Alexei was in so much pain he told Alexandra he wanted to die. The family grieved, Alexandra especially, but Alexei was showing signs of improvement by April 19. 

Tatiana, Alexandra, and Olga: Last Known Photograph of Alexandra – Tobolsk
Olga, Nicholas, Tatiana, and Anastasia in Tobolsk
Anastasia in Tobolsk

Some advised Lenin to put Nicholas on trial or imprison him. There was the worry the White Army would free him. And from there, place him back on his throne no worse for wear. Couldn’t have that. They decided to move the family again. 

Commissar Vasily Yakovlev was put in charge of the task. He made it to Tobolsk on April 22, 1918. He didn’t expect to find Alexei so sick so he let Moscow know that moving the whole family was impossible.

Moscow told him to take Nicholas first. Yakovlev told them Nicholas was to be moved to Moscow the next day. When Nicholas protested, Yakovlev said he could take whoever he wanted with him.

Either way, they were leaving the next day at 4 a.m. Eventually, it was decided that Alexandra and Maria would go with Nicholas and Gilliard, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia would look after Alexei. 

Ekaterinburg and the House of Special Purpose

On their way to Moscow, the destination was changed from Ekaterinburg, a town in the Ural mountains known for its anti-tsarist feelings. Yakovlev was anxious for the family and leaving them there. Moscow didn’t care. So Yakovlev did as he was ordered, reluctantly. 

Since Alexei wasn’t well enough to travel, Moscow sent a new man to look after the family until it was time to move. His name was Nicholas Rodionov, and he hated the Imperial Family.

Things quickly changed. No more closed doors, even the girls’ bedroom. They had to wake up early for roll call, and he threatened servants when they didn’t do as they were told. 

Even with Alexei still sick, Rodionov decided he was healthy enough to leave for Ekaterinburg. Alexei wasn’t going to complain. The kids couldn’t wait to see their parents and sister again. On May 20, 1918, the children left Tobolsk.

Last Known Photograph of Alexei and Olga aboard the Rus on their way to Ekaterinburg
Last Known Photograph of Anastasia aboard the Rus on her way to Ekaterinburg

On the 23rd, their train arrived in Ekaterinburg. Mostly, there were people shouting at the children, spewing hatred, calling for their deaths. 

The girls got off the train and straight into a carriage that would take them to their family. Gibbes and Gilliard weren’t allowed to go with them.

Pretty much everyone, including courtiers and staff, was kept on the train, aside from Nagorny. Probably because he was Alexei’s sailor nanny. This was the last glimpse the remaining staff had of Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Alexei.

Ipatiev House, where the family was staying, was surrounded by a newly built fence that was as tall as the second story windows, although, eventually, the fence was built even higher.

The windows were whitewashed. No one could see in or out. Ipatiev House, however, had another name. It was also called the House of Special Purpose by the Bolsheviks. 

Ipatiev House: “The House of Special Purpose”

There were five rooms on the second floor dedicated to the family and their companions. This included Dr. Botkin, Anna Demidova, the maid, Ivan Kharitonov, the cook, Leonid Sednev, the kitchen assistant, and Alexei Trupp, the footman.

There was only one window in all of these five rooms that actually opened. In charge was Commandant Alexander Avdeev, a staunch Bolshevik. His men were factory workers in need of money with zero experience. 

While in Ekaterinburg, every day was pretty much the same. Get up, pray, eat breakfast, make sure they were present for roll call, read, sew, play games, help with the chores, etc. One of the best parts of their time there was when they were given permission to go outside for 30 minutes.

This was once in the morning and once in the afternoon. There was a small garden they could stretch their legs in, breathe fresh air, let their pups run around. Since Alexei couldn’t walk, Nicholas carried him or Leonid pushed him outside in his wheelchair, keeping him company. 

Eventually, the line dividing the family and the guards completely disappeared. Things drastically changed because of a birthday and a surprise inspection. While at Ipatiev House, Alexandra turned 46, Tatiana turned 21, Anastasia turned 17, and Maria turned 19. That’s when it all went wrong.

One of the guards who was sweet on her managed to sneak in some contraband – a cake. He and Maria stole away together so he could give it to her. And then the Bolsheviks walked in. Time to tighten security. 

Yakov Yurovsky – The Finisher

Yakov Yurovsky

Yakov Yurovsky arrived in Ekaterinburg on July 4, 1918 and things immediately changed. Guard positions were shuffled around after the new guards arrived, the single open window granted to the Romanovs had iron bars installed.

A few days later Nagorny was arrested after trying to stop one of the guards from stealing a gold chain belonging to Alexei. He was shot a few days after that. 

The White Army was getting closer and closer to Ekaterinburg, and they had the numbers to take the city and save the Romanovs. The Bolsheviks got together for a meeting. It was only a matter of time before the White Army arrived.

Lenin claimed didn’t want the family killed. The men in Ekaterinburg did. They decided they would execute the family when the time was right and Yurovsky would be in charge of it.

On July 13, Yurovsky started looking for a place to get rid of the bodies. He found a place in Koptyaki Forest near mine shafts that no one really went near anymore. It was isolated and perfect for what he had planned. 

On July 14, a Sunday, Father Ivan Storozhev was invited to the house for services, which was strange since the family hadn’t been allowed to observe Mass with a priest present until now.

During the service when a prayer was said for the dead, the family all kneeled down, except Alexei since he physically couldn’t. This wasn’t a usual response to the prayer. Did the family know what was coming? Father Storozhev was pretty sure he did. 

On July 15, four women came to the house to clean the floors. Yurovsky didn’t want the family to think there was anything amiss. The girls were excited to help. The cleaning ladies were sweet, smiling and laughing with the girls.

When they entered Ipatiev House, they still believed the Tsar and his family were touched by divinity. When they left, they realized that the Romanovs were just people. Normal people…just like them.

On July 16, Yurovsky returned to Bolshevik headquarters in the morning. Tonight was going to be the night. The time had finally come for Yurovsky to murder and dispose of 11 people because yes, the servants were always a part of the plan.

As Yurovsky and his men hurried to get things done, the family went about their day like normal. Breakfast, prayers, a morning walk. During dinner, Leonid was told to pack. Yurovsky lied and said he was heading back home with his uncle.

Honestly, he was going across the street to another house because Yurovsky didn’t want to kill him. The rest of the evening followed the same old pattern: evening prayers, get changed for bed, and then after the children went to sleep, Nicholas and Alexandra played some cards before turning in themselves at 10:30. 

The house was quiet, Yurovsky was waiting. At 1:30 in the morning on July 17, 1918, Yurovsky woke Dr. Botkin. He told Botkin to get everyone up and dressed. The family needed to be moved for safety reasons since the White Army was getting closer.

The family got dressed, putting on the clothing they had sewn their jewels into. Alexandra had a belt that contained several strands of pearls, the girls had their camisoles, and Alexei had his undershirt. Both he and Nicholas were dressed in soldier’s tunics. 

The family and their servants entered the hallway. First came Nicholas with Alexei in his arms. Behind him was Alexandra. She was having trouble walking because of her sciatica, so she relied on Olga’s help to stay upright.

Following behind were Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia with Alexei Trupp, Ivan Kharitonov, and Anna Demidova at the end. Even though Yurovsky said no dogs, Anastasia refused to listen. She picked up her dog Jemmy and took him with her.

The family descended into the cellar where they were ushered into a small and empty 11×13 room with only window that had been boarded over. Then Yurovsky placed the family where he wanted them. He claimed it was for a photograph.

There were two rows. In the first were Nicholas, Alexei, and Alexandra. In the second row stood Dr. Botkin, Demidova, and Kharitonov behind Alexei and Nicholas, while Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, with Jemmy in her arms, stood behind Alexandra. 

Yurovsky left the room and when he returned, a group of men followed him in. Yurovsky pulled out a piece of paper and read from it, announcing to the family that they were to be shot.

Everyone was confused and horrified. Yurovsky kept reading, and when he was done, he pulled out his gun and shot Nicholas, who fell where he stood. 

That was the signal to start shooting. Alexandra didn’t finish crossing herself before she was killed. Dr. Botkin, Alexei Trupp, and Ivan Kharitonov died next.

The children and Anna Demidova were still alive. No matter how many bullets were fired at the kids, they didn’t penetrate. That was due to the jewels sewn into their clothing, they were like makeshift bulletproof vests. Alexei was at a severe disadvantage.

He couldn’t run, couldn’t make himself a smaller target. So when his chair toppled over, Yurovsky shot him in the head while Alexei held on to his father’s arm. 

The girls huddled close to one another. The Big Pair and Little Pair crouched down in separate corners while screaming for their mother. Yurovsky came over and shot Tatiana in the back of the head and another guy shot Olga in the jaw.

They died with Olga lying on top of Tatiana. The men turned their attention to Anastasia and Maria. Maria was already wounded, shot in the thigh. Yurovksy shot Maria in the head while another guy then shot Anastasia when he realized stabbing the helpless girl wasn’t going to work. 

Anna Demidova was still alive. They had trouble killing her, but once they had her cornered, they stabbed her over thirty times. Then, after 20 minutes of chaos, there was nothing but silence. We can only imagine the carnage and blood that covered the floors.

When the dust settled, or in this case, the gunpowder dissipated, Yurovsky checked the victims for pulses while the other men went around using the butt of their rifles to make sure everyone was dead. Disfigured and bloody, they were.

This was no execution. This was a massacre. It was savage, brutal, and those children spent the last of their moments in complete and utter terror. What happened to the Romanov family and their loyal servants on July 17, 1918 was nothing short of murder, plain and simple.

The Romanov Family

Photos: Photos are in the public domain, located on The Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

*Music: Initial classical piece that’s a part of the intro is Concerto for 2 Oboes in F Major Op9 no3, 3 Allegro by Advent Chamber Orchestra under the Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.*