‘What? What?” were the last words of Tsar Nicholas II, according to his murderer.
On July 17, 1918, at 2:15 a.m., the recently abdicated tsar; his wife Alexandra; their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia; their 12-year-old son Alexey; their doctor Evgeniy Botkin; chambermaid Anna Demidova; valet Alexey Trupp; and cook Ivan Kharitonov were roused from their sleep in their tightly guarded house in Ekaterinberg and led by Bolsheviks into the basement.
There, Iakov Iurovskii, under orders from Vladimir Lenin, told the Romanovs that because their relatives continued their offensive against Soviet Russia, the Executive Committee of the Ural Soviet had decided to shoot them. According to Iurovskii’s diary, Nicholas turned to face his family. Then, “as if collecting himself,” he turned around and asked, “Kакие? Какие?”
By 1917, Russia was ripe for revolution. The tsar’s slow-moving parliamentary reform and the 1905 revolution had shattered the unity of “the people.” War and food scarcity compounded the problem. In February 1917, riots broke out in Petrograd; in March the tsar was forced to abdicate. The provisional government was weak and short-lived, and the Bolsheviks came to power via a coup in October.
Who knows what one’s final thoughts are when faced with certain, murderous death. But this former emperor and current husband and father’s pain was surely tempered by his Christian faith. Days before, on July 14th, the Romanovs were paid an unexpected visit by a priest who had noted their astonishing forbearance and composure. Perhaps they had already accepted that their hope was in heaven, not earth.
Back in the basement, at Nicholas’s last “What?” Iurovskii repeated the order as the guards assembled. The former tsar turned, for the last time, to face his family. Though the murders were premeditated, the execution was sloppy. Iurovskii had assigned one guard to each family member, but three had refused to shoot the girls, whom they had come to know and like. Their loyalty, however, may have cost the young women a swift death.
The guards directed their first shots at Nicholas. As bullets sunk into his back, the survivors’ screams were silenced by pointed bayonets. The young hemophilic Alexey lay bleeding and gasping on the floor: Iurovskii shot the child twice in the head.
Their bodies were stripped, and the girls’ hidden jewels ripped from their corsets. Their corpses were doused in sulfuric acid, burned, and tossed in a mineshaft in the Koptyaki Forest. After reconsideration, they were extracted and buried elsewhere, for fear of peasants finding and venerating the remains as holy relics.
The Soviet’s international campaign of lies and confusion about what had become of the Romanovs was remarkably effective. And in the forest of Ekaterinburg, their bodies lay deep in earthy darkness for the better part of a century.
It would be tempting to file the Romanovs’ death under the category of “revolutionary executions”: unfortunate, certainly, but all part of a necessary shift in global politics. However, the reality was quite different. Unlike the bloodshed of the French Revolution, the Romanovs did not receive even elementary due process. Nor a public execution. Indeed, the entire episode stands as a powerful symbol of the savagery, lawlessness and terror of the Soviet regime — and of more enduring significance still, the ideology behind it.
It would be tempting to file the Romanovs’ death under the category of “revolutionary executions.” The reality is quite different.
After the death of Nicholas was announced, the Soviets cruelly deceived the Romanovs’ European relatives by claiming that the rest of the family was safe. The Russian people were largely indifferent. And one can understand why. Nicholas’s incompetent reign had had catastrophic consequences. Abroad, the Russian–Japanese war had been a disaster. At home, Bloody Sunday had crushed belief in the legitimacy of the dynasty. Nicholas’s heart was never in it, anyway: Upon becoming tsar at 26, he wept. But he accepted the throne, much like everything, as Providence.
The apathy of the Russian people to the death of the Romanovs soon turned to terror: Red Terror. Under the tsar, one knew the laws and how to avoid breaking them. But no such luxury existed in post-Tsarist Russia. With the establishment of the Cheka, the Soviet’s secret police, the innocent along with the “guilty” were bundled off in the night. Thousands were killed under Lenin; millions by Stalin. Those who were spared the gulags starved under the economic havoc of collectivization. How did it come about? Blood and terror. But why? And for what?
Edmund Burke, at the time of the French Revolution, wrote that it was necessary to “reform in order to conserve.” And indeed, the Russian dynasty was moving in this direction with Alexander II (Nicholas’s grandfather). When the revolutionaries murdered Alexander II, his son became a reactionary, and his son, Nicholas, followed suit. Nevertheless, a provisional government was up and running by the time of Nicholas II’s abdication. The Bolsheviks turned to terror, not democracy, to enable minority control over the majority.
Foreign support was also necessary for the global vision of communism. In his autobiography, Witness, the American Communist-turned-conservative Whittaker Chambers explained:
From the Communist viewpoint, Stalin could have taken no other course, so long as he believed it was right. The Purge, like the Communist-Nazi pact later on, was the true measure of Stalin as a revolutionary statesman. That was the horror of the Purge — that as acting as a Communist, Stalin had acted rightly. In that fact lay the evidence that Communism is absolutely evil. The human horror was not evil, it was the sad consequence of evil. It was Communism that was evil, and the more truly a man acted in its spirit and interest, the more certainly he perpetuated evil.
The Soviet Union’s swift decline in the 1990s was unexpected. The Romanovs’ resting place was made public in 1989, and a criminal investigation was opened by the post-Soviet government in 1993. But the ideological embers that inspired the murders of the Romanovs, and the millions of Russians after them, burned on. In Revolutionary Russia: 1891–1991, Orlando Figes writes:
In the autumn of 2011, millions of Russians watched the TV show The Court of Time (Sud vremeni), in which various figures and episodes from Russian history were judged in a mock trial with advocates, witnesses and a jury of the viewers who reached their verdict by voting on the telephone. The judgements reached do not hold out much hope for a change in Russian attitudes. Presented with the evidence of Stalin’s war against the peasantry and the catastrophic effects of collectivization, 78 percent of the viewers still believed that collectivization had been justified (a ‘terrible necessity’) for Soviet industrialization, and only 22 percent considered it a ‘crime.’ On the Hitler-Stalin Pact, 91 percent thought that it was necessary; only 9 percent considered it a factor contribution to the outbreak of the Second World War. The same voting figures were recorded on the Brezhnev period, and on the break-up of the Soviet Union, with 91 percent agreeing with the verdict that it was a ‘national catastrophe.’
It will take many decades for the Russians to be cured of the social traumas and pathologies of the Communist regime. Politically the revolution may be dead, but it has an afterlife in the mentalities of the people swept up in its violent cycle of one hundred years.
And it is not just Russia where these pathologies linger. They have infected governments around the world, with varying success, and to different degrees, from Cambodia to the U.S.
Almost exactly a hundred years since the Romanovs’ brutal end, on July 15th, 2018, Teen Vogue published a sweet little Q&A with a young journalist who had proudly declared herself to be “literally a communist” on TV. The journalist’s media outlet came up with T-shirts to promote their cause, and have enjoyed some pleasant interviews since. One generous interpretation is that, as Douglas Murray suggests in The Spectator, this is ignorance: “ignorance on such a scale and of such a catastrophic obscenity that any person becoming aware of it would hide away from shame.”
Or perhaps the death toll of Communism seems distant and impersonal and, for those born after the regime had ended, irrelevant. This is no excuse. One only has to read books to learn of the screams in the night, the slaughter of innocents and the submergence of human flesh in acid and fire.
Communism in 1918: blood and terror. Communism in 2018: What? What?