Moscow exhibition casts new light on final days of ill-fated Romanovs


Killing of last tsar and his family was shrouded in mystery, but a new display explores facts, writes JENNIFER RANKINin Moscow

ON A hot night in July 1918, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, once emperor and empress of all the Russias, were taken with their five children and four servants to a dingy basement and shot.

The assassination without trial of Russia’s royal family, 94 years ago, was a state secret for decades until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, for the first time, an exhibition at the State Archive Agency in Moscow allows the Russian people to sift through evidence relating to the family’s arrest, killing and the painstaking efforts to find and verify their remains.

The exhibition is unique in that it provides a complete account of the last days of Nicholas II, from his abdication to the moment when he, his wife, children and servants were murdered, says Sergei Mironenko, director of the state archives and a professor at Moscow State University, which organised the event.

Rarely seen photographs show the family’s life in captivity. Princesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia are seen hoeing the gardens at Tsarskoe Selo, the imperial palace near St Petersburg, which was the Romanovs first place of house arrest.

As civil war engulfed Russia, the family were shunted east, eventually ending up at the modest two-storey Ipatiev house in Ekaterinburg near the Ural mountains, which was to be their final stop. Visitors can see Nicholas II’s diary, open at the last page where he recorded that the weather had been “warm and pleasant”. Three days later he was dead.

News from the firing squad reached Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin by telegram.

Lenin’s signature and terse acknowledgement “received” remain visible on the crumpled, yellowing envelope.

In the 1960s, some of the surviving assassins gave detailed accounts of the killings to a secret Soviet committee, recalling details such as Tsarina Alexandra’s request for a chair once they had gathered in the cellar – the family were probably unaware of their fate at that moment.

Other macabre clues recovered from the Romanovs shallow grave in Ekaterinburg in 1991 are the dentures of Dr Botkin, the tsar’s physician, which are still red and white despite years underground. Also displayed are dirt-streaked fragments of clay pots that contained the acid used to douse the corpses, as the Bolsheviks tried to hide all trace of the killings.

The grim collection of evidence shatters the myth that some Romanovs escaped, rumours that may have even been started by the Bolsheviks to hide the killing of the children. After the revolution, scores of “Anastasias” and “Alexeis” (the couple’s only son) roamed Europe, with one persistent pretender inspiring a 1950s Hollywood film.

The Russian Orthodox Church initially denied the authenticity of the bones that had been found at Ekaterinburg. The family and their servants were nevertheless interred in a chapel in St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress in 1998, when the then president Boris Yeltsin described the killings as a “heinous crime”.

The remains of Alexei and Maria were not discovered until 2007. The last mystery of the Romanovs was finally solved when scientists compared DNA from the bones found in the Ekaterinburg soil with samples taken from a blood-stained shirt that belonged to a relative who had survived an assassination attempt.

The genetic link was proven beyond reasonable doubt.

“The exhibition leaves no doubt for reasonable people who understand that science is science,” says Prof Mironenko.

Much of this evidence was gathered during an 18-year study by Russia’s investigative committee, which only closed in November 2011.

Despite the end of the official investigation, Tsarevich Alexei and Princess Maria have not found a final resting place.

Russia is still coming to terms with the brutal Soviet past, where millions were killed or died of starvation or disease as a result of state policy. There was an outcry from Russia’s ageing communists when the culture minister, in June, suggested it was time to bury Lenin. The communist leader’s waxy corpse remains on public display in a guarded mausoleum on Red Square.

Organisers say the exhibition has been more popular than they expected. “There are so many secrets connected with the family and people want to know more,” said Dara Mikheeva at the archive agency.

One visitor, Vladimir Postoyuk, recalled that the subject was forbidden when he was at school in the 1970s and 1980s. Although well-versed in the story, he said he had never seen such a full account and planned a second visit.

Of the testimony of the assassins, he said: “These were uneducated people, illiterate – now you can see for yourself.”

“I think this is very useful, very necessary, very timely,” said Irina Kordyukeva (50), who was visiting the exhibition with a church group. Visibly moved, she said she wished the exhibition lasted longer so more people could learn about the tragedy.

After such a dark story, several visitors said they were glad to linger in the final part of the exhibition, a collection of informal family photos and some rarely seen film footage of the Romanovs and their aristocratic friends at play.

Here are the young princesses, dressed in stripey blue-and-white jerseys, messing around in the garden or playing on a yacht. There is Nicholas II standing on the beach, playfully resting a foot on Alexei who lies covered in sand.

It is a reminder that, in some ways, they were just an ordinary family who had the misfortune to be royal during extraordinary times.