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.