“The Revolution is dying and it is now your turn to die”

Photographs from the binder relating to the murder of nicholas II and his family: the view from the balcony and the Ipatiev house, and the Tsarevich Alexei.

Photographs from the binder relating to the murder of Nicholas II and his family: the view from the balcony and the Ipatiev house, and the Tsarevich Alexei.

Thus did the imprisoned Russian ex-Emperor Nicholas II learn his fate, according to once-secret documents in the UK’s National Archives.

Having seen facsimiles of some of the reports in the (fantastic) exhibition The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution at the Science Museum, I thought that, while I was in London I might as well go to see the real things for myself.

If reading (parts of) them is difficult – on account of the content – actually getting to read them in the first place ain’t exactly easy either.

Normally, at the National Archives, you order your document/s, and when they’ve been retrieved from storage, you collect them from a counter. You carry them into the reading room, a big open space with places for maybe 100 or more people, where you’re pretty much left to your own devices (although, obviously, staff would intervene if you started tearing up documents or scrawling all over them).

So sensitive is the binder containing these documents, though, that I could only view it in the “invigilation room”, a (locked) room off the reading room, with one wall that’s a massive window, through which Archives staff can watch you at all times. But not only that, when I wasn’t actually viewing the binder, it was kept in the “saferoom”, a locked metal cupboard.

Even viewing Medieval Pipe Rolls (financial records on massive rolls of parchment), which I had to do once, was less complicated!

And, so it seems, I wasn’t even viewing the actual documents anyway, just exact copies. I don’t know why the originals aren’t generally available, other than if you get special, special, special permission to view them.

Unfortunately, I had only a couple of hours in the Archives, so I flicked through the binder and photographed the most interesting-looking things.

First, a little scene setting: At the time of the murders, Russia was, in effect, in a state of civil war, between the ‘Red’ Russians – the Bolsheviks – and the ‘White’ Russians, who were (far) less radical than the Bolsheviks, and some of whom were actually monarchists.

The Whites were in charge when the Tsar abdicated in March 1917, but that October, the Reds unseated the White “Provisional Government” and formed their own, Bolshevik, government. However, the two sides were still fighting (literally) for proper, permanent control over the country.

The Tsar and his family became victims of this power struggle. Under the Whites, the family had been under a loose-ish form of house arrest, but when the Bolsheviks took over, the family became proper prisoners – as the papers reveal (more on this later).

As the Whites and their allies closed in on Ekaterinberg, the Imperial family were murdered. Soon afterwards, the Whites took the city, and set about investigating the killings.

Britain had a presence in Russia because Britain and Russia had been allies in World War I. The Bolsheviks withdrew Russia from the war, but Britain was supporting the Whites against them. Even if Britain hadn’t been supporting the Whites, though, she would still have had an interest in the situation, as Nicholas, the Tsar, was the King (George V)’s cousin – and the Empress/Tsarina, Alexandra, the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria.

One of the first documents about the murders was a transcription of a telegram ‘conversation’ between the (British) Consulate in Ekaterinberg and Charles Eliot, “His Britannic Majesty’s High Commissioner for Siberia” in Vladivostock, dated 12 December 1918.

Sir Charles had asked the Consul, Thomas Preston, “what are the ‘convincing grounds’ for believing” that the ex-Tsarina and the Imperial children had been killed at Ekaterinberg along with the Tsar?

(According to a later paper in the binder, soon after 17 July, the Bolsheviks had put up posters, and made a public announcement in a theatre, that the Tsar had been shot but the rest of the Imperial family moved “to a safe place”.)

The Consul’s reply was, basically, well, this is our proof… and listed evidence from:

“a Redguardsman” who had testified to overhearing a conversation between Bolsheviks to the effect that the whole family had been murdered at Ekaterinberg, buried and re-buried, and that they had had jewellery and valuables concealed in their clothes. And, indeed, burned remains of clothing and jewellery had been found outside Ekaterinberg and identified as belonging to the Royal family.

The wife of a Red guardsman who had taken part in the killing. It was this woman who said that the whole family, and their attendants, had been shot in the cellar of the Ipatiev House, “the late Tsar being the first to be shot by Komissar Euroffsky, who exclaimed: ‘The revolution is dying and it is now your turn to die’.”

The Consul’s opinion was that any claims that the family, apart from the Tsar, had been taken to (the city of) Perm had been proved to be false.

I found this paper especially interesting because it said that a “Mr Sergieff” had been “entrusted with the investigation” into the fate of the Imperial Family. From researching my post about visiting Ganina Yama (the place where the family members were buried at first), I knew that a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov had investigated the killings at the behest of the White Russians (after they had driven the “Red” Russians/Bolsheviks from Ekaterinburg).

But it would appear, from the papers, that the task could well have fallen first to I A Sergeiev. (Many of the names of the people involved, suspected killers, witnesses, investigators and all, are spelled several different ways, even in the same document. Such is the difficulty of transcribing from a different alphabet.)

I think this telegram may have been a precis of a “preliminary report” to the Public Prosecutor for the city of Kazan, which is also dated 12 December 1918 (but date-stamped in the archive 19 June 1919 – don’t ask me why).

It revealed that the prosecutor knew almost immediately what had happened, ie that the Imperial family – all members – had been murdered in the Ipatiev House, and that attempts had been made to dispose of their bodies in some disused mineshafts in a forest outside Ekaterinberg.

The Acting Public Prosecutor had charged Sergeiev, ‘a member of the Court of Justice’, with investigating the case.

It was Sergeiev who ordered that chunks of wall and floor around bullet-holes in the room where the killings were likely to have taken place be cut out, revealing: “some of the holes being filled with clotted blood”.

The Tsar’s valet told investigators how, after abdicating in March 1917, the Tsar, and his family were taken, first to Tsarskoe Selo [a Royal residence near St Petersburg] and then, in August, to Tobolsk [a town in Siberia]. Their daily life was “not restricted” at first, but after the Bolshevik “coup d’etat” in October, “severe restrictions were introduced both in the allowance made for the maintenance of the Imperial Family, as well as in their daily life and exercise.”

In April 1918, the “Central Executive Committee of Soldiers, Peasants and Workmen’s Deputies” ordered that the family be moved to Ekaterinberg. Nicholas, however, persuaded the Committee representatives to allow his son, the ex-Tsarevich Alexei, to stay in Tobolsk with three of his sisters. [Alexei had haemophilia and had recently suffered a severe bleed after a fall.] So only Nicholas, the ex-Tsarina, Alexandra, and one daughter, Maria, went to Ekaterinberg, with some of their staff.

They were imprisoned in the former home of a merchant, Ipatiev. There, they were subject to “a very strict regime”, guarded by 36 members of the Red Army.

A month later, the rest of the family joined them.

The report details interviews with witnesses to what happened on the night of 16/17 July, and subsequently.

One witness, a soldier of the Red Army, described how, after arriving at his guard post opposite the Ipatiev house on the morning of 17 July:

The wife of Urovsky’s assistant, Medviedev, came out with a very similar tale, adding that: “the bodies were thrown into shafts but it is not known into which.”

Other witnesses gave evidence that backed up that the family had been killed, from one neighbour who heard muffled shots from the house, to a Red Army soldier who said a colleague had told him about the shooting, but that the family had been buried in the garden.

Another witness, a civil servant, described how the Commissioner for Supplies for the Front had demanded he provide five motor lorries and two barrels of petrol. At least one vehicle was returned “entirely covered with mud and blood, although it could be seen that it had been washed.”

Other witnesses said they had heard that several people had been killed in the house, but they did not know who, but that the Tsar and his family were still alive; while two cleaners who visited the house on 19 July to collect their wages, were told that the house was empty as “everybody had been taken towards Perm”.

Interestingly, one interviewee, who was “in the service of the Council of Commissars” said he had learned, by accident, that before the family had left Tobolsk for Ekaterinberg, the Ekaterinberg Commissars had received “from the Centre of the Bolshevist Powers” a warning that they “answer with their own heads” for the safety of the Emperor.

The report gives an indication of the confusion and uncertainty that surrounded the fate of the Imperial family – immediately after the killings, in any case.

For example, one witness testified that two days before it was announced that Tsar Nicholas had been shot, her cousin, a driver for a detachment of sailors, had told her that the Tsar was to be taken away to a monastery, rather than killed, and if the Czecho-Slovaks [White allies] took the town, he would be taken to Germany, “as the Bolsheviks had received from there a large sum of money for him”.

Some Bolsheviks actually seemed to give inaccurate information, although whether they were trying to cover up what had happened, or genuinely did not know, who knows?:

However, Medviedev’s wife, and another witness, confirmed their earlier statements, thus “[upsetting] the supposition that somebody else could have been shot in Ipatiev’s house and not the Imperial family”.

And yet more confirmation came from a witness who had overheard a conversation between some prominent Bolsheviks, one of whom claimed: “it is the second day that we have all this bother, we buried them yesterday and we buried them again today.”

Another had said “among other things”: “when we came they were still warm. I myself felt the Empress and she was still warm…. now it is not a sin to die, I have felt the Empress’s….” (It’s the report that doesn’t say what the Empress’s “….” was, but we can probably make a good guess.) And then the group had gone on to describe how they had disposed of the bodies.

So far, the reports of the killings themselves had been rather vague: ‘the family was gathered in one room and shot, but not everyone died straightaway’, that kind of thing.

A supplementary report, of 4 January, however, lays the horror bare, in testimony from a woman whose brother had actually been present during the murders and who had clearly “lived through a terrible experience”. The woman described how her brother had turned up looking extremely upset:

 

The Prosecutor says investigators are planning to seize from the Ekaterinberg Post Office “telegraphic ribbons used to send messages from the District Council of the People’s Commissars concerning the murders, with the object of establishing their complicity, as well as the Central Soviet Powers, in the fate of the ex-Emperor Nicholas II.”

They probably needn’t have bothered, as, within two years of the murders, Medviedev’s version of events appeared in the book The Last Days of the Romanovs, by former Russian Justice Minister George Gustav Telberg and (UK) Times journalist Robert Wilton. Two years after that, Yurovsky gave his own testimony (apparently to counter the claim that he had pocketed valuables found on the bodies of Imperial Family members). Yurovsky’s account, however, was kept secret until after the end of the Soviet Union; it can be read (in English) here.

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My visit to Ganina Yama, Romanov burial site, Yekaterinburg

November 2001

“That’s where the Tsar was buried,” K had told me.

“That” was a simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross set among snow-sprinkled trees. It was late 2001 and K and I were on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the city notorious as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and almost his entire family were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Simple wooden cross in the trees, marking the site of Ganina Yama.

Ganina Yama, or ‘Ganya’s Pit’, in November 2001. Just visible through the trees, between the cross and the tree with the plaque is the pale outline of a simple building that could be the beginnings of the monastery built to commemorate the murdered Romanovs.

I took a picture of the cross but I didn’t find out where it actually was. So nearly 15 years later it was still uncaptioned in the album. If I was going to do a proper job of writing up this trip, I decided, I really should find out where that picture was taken. I did, but I found out, too, a little about how Russia has changed in that decade and a half.

I started by doing an internet search for the burial place of Nicholas II. The top result was Ganina Yama, or “Ganya’s Pit”. There were lots of pictures, and countless reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. But that couldn’t be the place where my photograph was taken. Sure, there was a plain wooden cross, a slightly different style to ‘mine’, but seeing as wood rots it could easily be a replacement for the one in my picture. However, everything else was different too. Behind the cross in my photograph there is a low metal fence and beyond that, under the snow, what appears to be a depression in the earth. Around that are some slender trees, and just visible through them a shadow of what could be a largish building. There are no people in the picture because there was no one else there with us, nor did we see anyone on the road leading to the burial place.

There were lots of people in the pictures of Ganina Yama, though, lots and lots of people. There were some trees around the cross, but far fewer than in my photograph. There was also a depression, clearly visible, but running round the edge of it was a covered walkway, a rather substantial, obviously permanent structure. There were pictures, too, of the seven churches at Ganina Yama, one church for each murdered member of the Imperial family, who were canonised as saints by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981.

Nah, no way was that the place I had been to. So I (pardon the pun) dug a little deeper. I learned that, while the Orthodox Church still officially regards Ganina Yama as the place where the bodies of the Tsar and the people murdered with him were dumped and burned to nothing, it has now been established that this wasn’t the case. The remains, of the Tsar, members of his family and a couple of retainers, were indeed deposited at Ganina Yama within hours of the killings, but they were not cremated there. (Attempts may have been made, but burning 11 bodies to ash is almost impossible, especially in a wood in the middle of nowhere and without fuel to aid the blaze along.)

Within less than a day it was decided that Ganina Yama was just too public, too easy for the people of Yekaterinburg to find, so the bodies were moved to a place just a couple of miles away but less obvious, called “Pig’s Meadow” or “Piglet’s Meadow”. This fact was established in the mid-late 1970s by three local researchers, but they kept their discovery secret until the Soviet Union had collapsed and the political climate changed. The site was subsequently excavated and the remains comprehensively tested to confirm their identities. In 1998 the bones of the Imperial family members were re-interred at St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in a formal and very public ceremony. However, senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the event, as the Church was still insisting that the Romanov bodies had been burned to dust at Ganina Yama.

So, it must have been Pig’s Meadow that K had taken me to. But while there were countless pictures of Ganina Yama, there were hardly any of Pig’s Meadow, and most of what few there were dated from around the time of the killings and the first investigation into the fate of the Tsar. Eventually, though, I unearthed some modern(ish) pictures of Pig’s Meadow. The only marker was a simple cross, but in some kind of black stone. The immediate area was bare of trees – and any possible depression in the earth – and bore no trace of any fence, present or past. Plus, the topography was nothing like that in my picture, unlike that of Ganina Yama.

After a lot more searching, I found an article on a Russian Orthodox Church news website. It was about the then-Patriarch visiting Ganina Yama in October 2000 (ie a little over a year before my trip to Yekaterinburg) to give his blessing to the foundation of a monastery to honour the “Holy Royal Martyrs”. Apart from all the people on it, the cross and the setting looked just like those in my picture.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama, surrounded by scores of people.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama. Spot the difference between this cross and the one in my pic? You won’t – there isn’t one!

So my photo had been taken at Ganina Yama after all! Yet a decade and a half after I was there the place was all but unrecognisable.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the change in attitudes towards the Romanovs in Russia over just, say, 25 years. For decades the mere existence of the Imperial family was such a sensitive subject that it was only in 1989/1990 that the discoverers of the remains in Pig’s Meadow had felt safe enough to report their discovery to the authorities in Moscow. Yet now, in 2015/16, Ganina Yama is an officially-recognised, openly-visited, substantial shrine to them. (Even if the bodies were only buried there for a matter of hours – despite the official Orthodox Church line.)

Of course it wasn’t just the Romanovs that the Soviets had a problem with – they weren’t too keen on the Church either, seeing it as a challenge to the ethos and authority of Communism. Put it this way, there’s a reason why the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church “in exile”. Now, though, in the 20-teens, Vladimir Putin is bezzie mates with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and tourists are posting selfies from the churches of Ganina Yama.

If you’re interested, the potted history of how the bodies came to be in Ganina Yama and Pig’s Meadow in the first place goes something like this:

At the time of the killings, in mid-1918, Russia was in the throes of what amounted to a civil war. The main protagonists were the Bolsheviks, or ‘Red Russians’, and the ‘White Russians’, who wanted change in Russia, but nothing as drastic as that sought by the Bolsheviks (some White Russians were actually monarchists). The Tsar abdicated in March 1917 and he and his family were taken into custody by the Bolsheviks. After several months the family was moved to Yekaterinburg. By July 1918 White forces were closing in on the city, and the Bolshevik leaders decided that rather than risk having the Tsar and his family ‘rescued’ by the White army, they should be disposed of. Which is what happened in the cellar of the Ipatiev House on 17 July. Within days the White forces had taken Yekaterinburg, and a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov, was tasked with establishing what had happened to the Romanovs. Just a few months later, though, the Bolsheviks re-took Yekaterinburg and Sokolov was forced to flee – but not before he had amassed a whole heap of evidence, which he managed to get out of Russia before he left the country in 1920. Although Sokolov never actually found physical proof of the fate of the Romanovs, the earlier story about the remains being totally destroyed at Ganina Yama stuck and no one sought to question it – especially as even mentioning the deaths would probably have led to a trip to a Gulag during Soviet times.

Despite the dangers, in the 1970s two local geologists, Alexander Avdonin and Michael Kochurov, and a filmmaker, Geli Ryabov, and their wives, set out to establish once and for all what had happened to the Imperial remains. Using the material Sokolov had gathered during his investigation, and a contemporaneous account of the murder and subsequent disposal of the bodies, they eventually located the real burial site – Pig’s Meadow.

(In 2007, two other sets of remains were uncovered in Pig’s Meadow. Tests confirmed that they are of the missing children, the Tsarevitch Alexei and his sister Maria, but as of October 2015, they had yet to be recognised by the Russian Patriarch.)

Simple cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House.

Yekaterinburg: Cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House. This was taken in November 2001.

Ganina Yama isn’t the only site around St Petersburg that demonstrates how much attitudes to Russia’s Imperial past have changed. My picture of the site of the Ipatiev House – where the Romanovs and their courtiers were murdered – features a simple cross and a tiny wooden chapel. In 2016, while the cross appears to have gone, the chapel is still there, but now it is dwarfed by the newly-built, gleaming white Church on Blood, which commemorates the dead Romanovs. That said, I suppose the cross and chapel of my picture marked progress even in 2001: it was only a quarter of a century earlier that the house had been razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage for royalists. (The demolition was ordered by the then-Chairman of the local Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, although he claimed later he only did it because he had been told to by the Politburo.)

Note: I’ve re-published this blog to mark the Centenary of the deaths of the Tsar and his family. There are more posts about my trip along the Trans-Mongolian Railway on the Trans-Sib tab on the header menu.

Ganina Yama, Romanov burial site, Yekaterinburg

November 2001

“That’s where the Tsar was buried,” K had told me.

“That” was a simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross set among snow-sprinkled trees. It was late 2001 and K and I were on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the city notorious as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and almost his entire family were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Simple wooden cross in the trees, marking the site of Ganina Yama.

Ganina Yama, or ‘Ganya’s Pit’, in November 2001. Just visible through the trees, between the cross and the tree with the plaque is the pale outline of a simple building that could be the beginnings of the monastery built to commemorate the murdered Romanovs.

I took a picture of the cross but I didn’t find out where it actually was. So nearly 15 years later it was still uncaptioned in the album. If I was going to do a proper job of writing up this trip, I decided, I really should find out where that picture was taken. I did, but I found out, too, a little about how Russia has changed in that decade and a half.

I started by doing an internet search for the burial place of Nicholas II. The top result was Ganina Yama, or “Ganya’s Pit”. There were lots of pictures, and countless reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. But that couldn’t be the place where my photograph was taken. Sure, there was a plain wooden cross, a slightly different style to ‘mine’, but seeing as wood rots it could easily be a replacement for the one in my picture. However, everything else was different too. Behind the cross in my photograph there is a low metal fence and beyond that, under the snow, what appears to be a depression in the earth. Around that are some slender trees, and just visible through them a shadow of what could be a largish building. There are no people in the picture because there was no one else there with us, nor did we see anyone on the road leading to the burial place.

There were lots of people in the pictures of Ganina Yama, though, lots and lots of people. There were some trees around the cross, but far fewer than in my photograph. There was also a depression, clearly visible, but running round the edge of it was a covered walkway, a rather substantial, obviously permanent structure. There were pictures, too, of the seven churches at Ganina Yama, one church for each murdered member of the Imperial family, who were canonised as saints by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981.

Nah, no way was that the place I had been to. So I (pardon the pun) dug a little deeper. I learned that, while the Orthodox Church still officially regards Ganina Yama as the place where the bodies of the Tsar and the people murdered with him were dumped and burned to nothing, it has now been established that this wasn’t the case. The remains, of the Tsar, members of his family and a couple of retainers, were indeed deposited at Ganina Yama within hours of the killings, but they were not cremated there. (Attempts may have been made, but burning 11 bodies to ash is almost impossible, especially in a wood in the middle of nowhere and without fuel to aid the blaze along.)

Within less than a day it was decided that Ganina Yama was just too public, too easy for the people of Yekaterinburg to find, so the bodies were moved to a place just a couple of miles away but less obvious, called “Pig’s Meadow” or “Piglet’s Meadow”. This fact was established in the mid-late 1970s by three local researchers, but they kept their discovery secret until the Soviet Union had collapsed and the political climate changed. The site was subsequently excavated and the remains comprehensively tested to confirm their identities. In 1998 the bones of the Imperial family members were re-interred at St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in a formal and very public ceremony. However, senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the event, as the Church was still insisting that the Romanov bodies had been burned to dust at Ganina Yama.

So, it must have been Pig’s Meadow that K had taken me to. But while there were countless pictures of Ganina Yama, there were hardly any of Pig’s Meadow, and most of what few there were dated from around the time of the killings and the first investigation into the fate of the Tsar. Eventually, though, I unearthed some modern(ish) pictures of Pig’s Meadow. The only marker was a simple cross, but in some kind of black stone. The immediate area was bare of trees – and any possible depression in the earth – and bore no trace of any fence, present or past. Plus, the topography was nothing like that in my picture, unlike that of Ganina Yama.

After a lot more searching, I found an article on a Russian Orthodox Church news website. It was about the then-Patriarch visiting Ganina Yama in October 2000 (ie a little over a year before my trip to Yekaterinburg) to give his blessing to the foundation of a monastery to honour the “Holy Royal Martyrs”. Apart from all the people on it, the cross and the setting looked just like those in my picture.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama, surrounded by scores of people.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama. Spot the difference between this cross and the one in my pic? You won’t – there isn’t one!

So my photo had been taken at Ganina Yama after all! Yet a decade and a half after I was there the place was all but unrecognisable.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the change in attitudes towards the Romanovs in Russia over just, say, 25 years. For decades the mere existence of the Imperial family was such a sensitive subject that it was only in 1989/1990 that the discoverers of the remains in Pig’s Meadow had felt safe enough to report their discovery to the authorities in Moscow. Yet now, in 2015/16, Ganina Yama is an officially-recognised, openly-visited, substantial shrine to them. (Even if the bodies were only buried there for a matter of hours – despite the official Orthodox Church line.)

Of course it wasn’t just the Romanovs that the Soviets had a problem with – they weren’t too keen on the Church either, seeing it as a challenge to the ethos and authority of Communism. Put it this way, there’s a reason why the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church “in exile”. Now, though, in the 20-teens, Vladimir Putin is bezzie mates with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and tourists are posting selfies from the churches of Ganina Yama.

If you’re interested, the potted history of how the bodies came to be in Ganina Yama and Pig’s Meadow in the first place goes something like this:

At the time of the killings, in mid-1918, Russia was in the throes of what amounted to a civil war. The main protagonists were the Bolsheviks, or ‘Red Russians’, and the ‘White Russians’, who wanted change in Russia, but nothing as drastic as that sought by the Bolsheviks (some White Russians were actually monarchists). The Tsar abdicated in March 1917 and he and his family were taken into custody by the Bolsheviks. After several months the family was moved to Yekaterinburg. By July 1918 White forces were closing in on the city, and the Bolshevik leaders decided that rather than risk having the Tsar and his family ‘rescued’ by the White army, they should be disposed of. Which is what happened in the cellar of the Ipatiev House on 17 July. Within days the White forces had taken Yekaterinburg, and a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov, was tasked with establishing what had happened to the Romanovs. Just a few months later, though, the Bolsheviks re-took Yekaterinburg and Sokolov was forced to flee – but not before he had amassed a whole heap of evidence, which he managed to get out of Russia before he left the country in 1920. Although Sokolov never actually found physical proof of the fate of the Romanovs, the earlier story about the remains being totally destroyed at Ganina Yama stuck and no one sought to question it – especially as even mentioning the deaths would probably have led to a trip to a Gulag during Soviet times.

Despite the dangers, in the 1970s two local geologists, Alexander Avdonin and Michael Kochurov, and a filmmaker, Geli Ryabov, and their wives, set out to establish once and for all what had happened to the Imperial remains. Using the material Sokolov had gathered during his investigation, and a contemporaneous account of the murder and subsequent disposal of the bodies, they eventually located the real burial site – Pig’s Meadow.

(In 2007, two other sets of remains were uncovered in Pig’s Meadow. Tests confirmed that they are of the missing children, the Tsarevitch Alexei and his sister Maria, but as of October 2015, they had yet to be recognised by the Russian Patriarch.)

Simple cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House.

Yekaterinburg: Cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House. This was taken in November 2001.

Ganina Yama isn’t the only site around St Petersburg that demonstrates how much attitudes to Russia’s Imperial past have changed. My picture of the site of the Ipatiev House – where the Romanovs and their courtiers were murdered – features a simple cross and a tiny wooden chapel. In 2016, while the cross appears to have gone, the chapel is still there, but now it is dwarfed by the newly-built, gleaming white Church on Blood, which commemorates the dead Romanovs. That said, I suppose the cross and chapel of my picture marked progress even in 2001: it was only a quarter of a century earlier that the house had been razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage for royalists. (The demolition was ordered by the then-Chairman of the local Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, although he claimed later he only did it because he had been told to by the Politburo.)