1918, July: The Missing Romanovs

In July, 1918, the Bolshevik government of Russia announced that they had executed Czar Nicholas Romanov II and his entire family, thus ending the lives of the last royal family of Russia. But did the Bolsheviks lie? No bodies were displayed... had the Romanovs escaped? Or, if the Czar and his wife were executed, could just one or two of their children have escaped?

The Romanovs, Royal family of Russia

History of a Mystery

        On March 14, 1917, the six-hundred year reign of the Czars came to an end when Nicholas II, last monarch of Russia, was forced to abdicate his throne.

        The country was in a state of revolution after a series of devastations during its involvement in World War I, for which the populace held Czar Nicholas Romanov responsible. A Provisional Government had been set up by the Duma (elected parliment) with Alexander Kerensky as their chairman. Under the circumstances, the only way to pull the country back together and continue to support the troops still fighting on the fronts of the war was to give the people what they demanded... and so Czar Nicholas abdicated and the Duma became the ruling body of Russia.

        The royal family, consisting of Nicholas Romanov, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and their only son, Alexis, were kept under house arrest in Tsarskoye Selo Palace until an abortive uprising by Bolshevik revolutionaries prompted Kerensky to move the family to Tobolsk in Siberia for their own protection. In October 1917, the Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; and in April and May 1918, the Romanov royal family was moved to Ekaterinburg (now Sverdlovsk) on the eastern slopes of the Ural mountains, this time for the new government's protection.

        The Provisional Government had been courteous to the deposed royals; not so with the Bolsheviks. The new government saw the Romanovs as a potential rallying point for the counter-revolutionary forces that still opposed their rule. It was agreed that the royal family would only be kept alive so long as they remained a useful bargaining chip. But in July 1918, counter-revolutionary forces were advancing on Ekaterinburg... and the royal family's usefulness was at an end.

        On July 23, the counter-revolutionary White Army took control of Ekaterinburg. When they investigated Ipatiev House, where the Romanov royal family had been confined, the house was empty; but a room in the basement had been splashed with blood and partially washed. The worst fears of the counter-revolutionaries were confirmed at the end of that July when the Bolsheviks announced in Moscow that Nicholas Romanov had been executed for "innumerable foul crimes".

        The Announcement shocked not only the counter-revolutionaries, but all of Europe, for the royal family had royal relatives all across the continent. But shocking as this first announcement was, it paled against a further announcement made a few months later: the Bolsheviks claimed that not just the Czar, but the entire Romanov royal family, along with their attendants and servants -- eleven people in all -- had been executed by firing squad in the basement of Ipatiev House on the night of July 16, 1918.

        The Bolshevik government stated that the execution had been carried out under the supervision of Jakob Yurovski. The seven members of the royal family, the imperial physician Dr. Eugene Botkin, and three servants were awakened in the middle of the night, escorted to the basement, and shot with no warning by a small squad of men with guns drawn from the local armory just for the task. The eleven bodies were then stabbed with bayonets and crushed with rifle butts to be extra sure of their demise. The bodies were then taken fourteen miles away to the Four Brothers Mine, soaked with gasoline, burned, and dumped into a swamp... all personal effects were tossed down the mine shaft.

        The counter-revolutionaries responded to this news by capturing twenty-eight local revolutionaries on the charge of participating in the massacre; five were executed. They then tried to investigate the event, but it wasn't until months after the execution had occurred that the counter-revolutionaries' investigator, Nicholas Socalov, got started. All that was ever found were some bone fragments, jewellery, false teeth, and the tip of one human finger, all in the mine. And by 1920, the Bolsheviks had put down the counter-revolutionary movement and consolidated their control of the country... so there was no further opportunity to investigate.

Return of the Romanovs?

        Rumors flew... without bodies to show, many refused to believe that the Romanovs were dead. When a memorial service was held for Czar Nicholas in London, George V refused to attend or send a representative; many interpreted this as a sign that George V knew the Romanovs were still alive.

        Some said that the Bolsheviks had lied about the execution, and that they had secretly released the Romanovs from Russia presumably to honor an unspecified peace treaty with Germany and to gain "sympathy for their cause in the West"; of course, they could hardly gain sympathy for the Czar's release if they also continued to claim that he had been execuited, so this second claim was unreasonable. Others said the royal family had escaped to Poland. It was asserted that only Dr. Botkin and the servants had been killed in the basement of Ipatiev House, both to simulate the death of the Romanovs and to silence the witnesses to the family's exile.

        In 1919 a book entitled 'Rescuing the Czar' was published, in which the author, a self-described 'American secret agent' named James P. Smyth, explained how he guided the Romanovs through a secret tunnel to the British Consulate in Ekaterinburg, from where they were "spirited" out of Russia to Tibet. The book had little to substantiate it's claims, and serious researchers and historians never treated it as a true account.

        As time passed, the focus of the rumors and claims changed; fewer and fewer people believed that the whole Romanov family had escaped... but more and more believed that maybe just one or two of the children could have. These beliefs, combined with rumors of a fabulous Romanov fortune supposed to be held in Western banks, led some people to claim they were surviving children of the Russian royal family.

        The first serious claim was made in 1922 in Berlin by a woman being held in an insane asylum. She stated that she was Grand Duchess Anatasia, youngest daughter of the Romanov royal family, and claimed to have been smuggled away from the execution to the Balkens by a Bolshevik soldier; later, after the soldier died, she came to Berlin where she was placed in the mental hospital after attempting suicide. Controversy raged around her claim for decades, as no definitive proof for or against it came forward... until 1994, years after her death, when DNA evidence finally proved once and for all that she could not have been the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

        The second notable claim of Romanov descent came in 1961, when Colonel Michael Goleniewski, a Polish officer that had recently defected to the United States, claimed that he was the only son of the Romanov royal family, Grand Duke Alexis. His claim is said to have been supported by "a former research director of the CIA"; and some say that two women signed the guest book at his wedding in 1964 as Olga and Tatiana, the names of the former Czar's two oldest daughters. Goleniewski claimed to have exposed some 200 Russian agents to the United States government because of his hatred for Communism... but, in the end, his claims were never taken seriously for one simple reason. Alexis Romanov had suffered from hemophilia, an uncurable genetic disorder; Goleniewski didn't.

        Over the years, Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg had become a place of pilgrimage for Russian "Monarchists"... unamused, the Russian government ordered it destroyed in 1977. But despite this attempt to bury an unpleasant reminder of Communist Russia's rise to control, the site was marked again by those who would not forget the execuition with a simple Russian catholic cross.

End of the Mystery

        Though the rest of the world didn't know it, the Bolsheviks had indeed lied about the execution of the Romanovs... but not in the way expected. The royal family had in fact been shot, but then they were dumped into the mine, not the swamp. Forty-eight hours later, nervous that the corpses would be too easily found, Yurovski had the bodies retrieved, and then tried burning them. Only two bodies were burned... the two smallest, Alexis' and Anastasia's; both bodies were said to be reduced to ashes, though some believe the burning story might have been a coverup for an escape by the two children. In any case, it was decided that burning all the bodies was too much trouble, and, instead, the remaining bodies were then buried in a mass grave in the middle of a dirt road. Ironically, the White Army had almost certainly walked across the burial site several times while searching the swamps and Four Brothers Mine for the dead royalty.

        In 1979, the final grave of the Romanovs was finally found by a local historian and a Soviet TV personality; but it was not a good time, politically speaking, to announce the finding of the missing royal family. So two skulls were excavated, analyzed, and re-buried, and the discovery was kept quiet. Ten years later in 1989, under the aegis of Glasnost, the discovery was finally announced to the world press.

        In July 1991, the skeletons of the Romanovs and their attendants were finally, officially, excavated and recovered. After the bones had been sorted and examined, all agreed... there were only nine complete skeletons. The two missing skeletons belonged to two of the Romanov children; the two youngest, Alexis and Anastasia. In October, 1994, the results of DNA testing used to compare the DNA of the skeletons to the DNA of known living relatives of the Romanovs was announced, and, once and for all, the skeletons were confirmed as being those of the missing royal family and their attendents.

        But what of Alexis and Anastasia? Where there are no bodies, there is room for speculation; and while it is unlikely young Alexis would have survived long with hemophilia (which prevents blood from clotting, and so produces unstoppable bleeding), some do still believe that young Anastasia could have escaped the massacre that claimed the rest of the last royal family of Russia.

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