Assassination of Russia’s royal family
The Last Days of the Romanovs
by Helen Rappaport
Hardcover: 272 pages
Rec. prices: AUD$57.00
This work examines in detail the events surrounding the last 14 days of former Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family before they were murdered by the ruling Communists in the early hours of July 17, 1918.
The author Helen Rappaport says: “The cold-blooded murder of the Romanov children and with it an attempt at the systematic liquidation of the entire dynasty had been the ultimate litmus test of the amorality of the Bolshevik policy. Some historians have seen it as being a turning point in the history of the twentieth century, laying the foundations for far greater acts of organised genocide later, during the Holocaust, in Africa and in Yugoslavia” (pp.213, 214).
Ninety years after their murders, the fate of the Romanovs still attracts considerable interest. While a significant percentage of earlier Romanov tsars had been assassinated, what makes the last tsar’s different from the rest is that not only were members of his nuclear family murdered but also every member of his extended family whom the Bolsheviks were able to capture, in a deliberate strategy of destroying the dynasty to prevent its restoration.
Rappaport’s book chronicles the events surrounding the last fortnight of the Romanov family’s imprisonment in the Ipatiev mansion (known to the Bosheviks as the House of Special Purpose), in the central Russian city of Ekaterinburg.
Rappaport commences her narrative with July 4, as this was the date on which Yakov Yurovsky became commandant of the House of Special Purpose, replacing an incompetent predecessor and tightening the discipline of the guards. It concludes by detailing the macabre details surrounding the disposal of the bodies.
From his appointment as commandant, Yurovsky was keen to have the Romanovs killed. However, Rappaport sheds new light on the matter using both material now available from the Russian archives and hitherto previously overlooked contemporary sources such as papers of the British consul in Ekaterinburg, Sir Thomas Preston. She concludes that the murders were not the action of a local group of fanatical Bolsheviks acting on their own authority.
Instead, she shows from key documents, particularly telegrams, that the murders were carried out with the full authority of the Bolshevik leadership in Moscow. Yakov Sverdlov was a key player in this. However, he in turn was acting ultimately on verbal orders from the Soviet dictator Lenin himself. As with Hitler and the Holocaust, Lenin was careful not to commit such orders to writing, so as to distance himself from the crime.
Rappaport examines the range of factors that precipitated the murder of the Romanovs. Initially, the Bolsheviks had wanted to put the former Tsar Nicholas II on trial. However, Lenin and his associates soon realised that such a trial would serve only as a condemnation of brutal and arbitrary way they were treating people.
The communists were prepared to use unlimited terror to cow their subject peoples. Such was their brutality that when the anti-communist White forces captured Ekaterinburg a few days after the Romanovs had been murdered, they were feted by the townspeople as liberators.
The Bolshevik suppression in early July 1918 of their political rivals, the Social Revolutionaries, and their tenuous hold on power prompted them to launch a reign of terror against anyone suspected of being a counter-revolutionary, including, not surprisingly, members of the Romanov family.
However, another significant factor, which ultimately sealed the Romanovs’ fate, was the White army of Czech soldiers rapidly approaching Ekaterinburg. The last thing the Bolsheviks wanted was for either Nicholas Romanov or any surviving claimant to the throne to be liberated by the Whites and serve as a rallying point to the cause of anti-communism.
Yurovsky was careful to obtain the consent of the authorities in Moscow before proceeding with the murders. Rappaport describes this episode and the aftermath in chilling detail. Both the killings and subsequent attempts at burial were mismanaged, and attempts to dispose of the remains secretly were largely unsuccessful.
The Western powers quickly learned of the former tsar’s murder, but it was some months later before the fate of the rest of the family was known. As a political ploy, the Bolsheviks maintained the fiction for as long as they could, particularly with their German allies, that the Romanovs were still alive.
In examining each of the last 14 days of the Romanovs, Rappaport focuses on particular members of the family, their associates and those involved in their murder, together with key events associated with the murders, similar to the manner in which Jim Bishop structured The Day Lincoln was Shot (1955).
For example, Rappaport provides a detailed analysis of Tsar Nicholas’s career and personality under the heading of Friday, July 5. The portrait of the family that emerges is a sad one. Nicholas gradually became overwhelmed with his responsibilities as Russian tsar and with his wife Alexandra’s and son Alexei’s ill health.
By the time of his imprisonment, he had accepted his fate. He had been largely abandoned by royal relatives abroad. In particular, his cousin George V of Britain did not act quickly and decisively enough immediately after his abdication to accept the Romanov family into exile.
Nicholas and his family were sustained by their genuine love and affection for each other and by their strong Orthodox faith.
Although it would be inappropriate to describe a work such as Ekaterinburg as enjoyable, it is a riveting account of some of the seminal events in 20th-century history. Those who think that Bolshevism had any redeeming features are strongly advised to read this work as an antidote.