What Happened to the Romanovs After the Russian Revolution? | History Hit

What Happened to the Romanovs After the Russian Revolution?

Members of the Romanovs, the last imperial family of Russia including: seated (left to right) Maria, Queen Alexandra, Tsar Nicholas II, Anastasia, Alexei (front), and standing (left to right), Olga and Tatiana. Taken around 1913/14.
Image Credit: Levitsky Studio/Hermitage Museum via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1917, Russia was engulfed by revolution. The old order was swept away and replaced instead by the Bolsheviks, a group of revolutionaries and intellectuals who planned to transform Russia from a stagnating former power, rife with poverty, to a world-leading nation with high levels of prosperity and happiness amongst the workforce.

But what happened to those they swept away? The Russian aristocracy, headed up by the Romanov tsars, had ruled the country for nearly 500 years, but now they found themselves classified as ‘former people’. Their lives were wrenched from under them and their futures became deeply uncertain. On 17 July 1918, former tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in the basement of a Yekaterinburg house.

But why did the Bolsheviks execute the exiled, imprisoned imperial family? And what exactly happened on that fateful day in 1918? Here’s the story of the Romanov family’s demise.

After the Russian Revolution

The Romanovs were one of the primary targets of the revolution as the blame for much of Russia’s suffering could be laid at their feet, directly or indirectly. After Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, the first plan was to send him and his family into exile: Britain was the original choice, but the idea of the exiled Russian royal family arriving on British shores was met with outrage by many politicians of the day, and even the King, George V, who was Nicholas’ cousin, was uneasy about the arrangement.

Instead, the former royal family were kept under house arrest, initially at their palace in Tsarskoye Selo, on the outskirts of St Petersburg. They were permitted servants, luxurious foods and daily walks in the grounds, and in many respects, the lifestyles of the tsar, tsarina and their children remained largely unchanged.

However, this could not last forever. Russia’s political situation was still turbulent, and the Provisional Government was far from secure. When rioting erupted in the newly renamed Petrograd, it became apparent that the comfortable arrangements of the royal family were not secure enough for the liking of the Bolsheviks.

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Alexander Kerensky, the new Prime Minister, decided to send the Romanovs further away from the major cities, deep into Siberia. After over a week of travelling by railway and boat, Nicholas and his family reached Tobolsk on 19 August 1917, where they would remain for 9 months.

The Russian Civil War

By the autumn of 1917, Russia was engulfed in civil war. Bolshevik rule was far from universally accepted and as factions and rivalries developed, civil war broke out. It was loosely divided along the lines of the Bolshevik Red Army and its opponents, the White Army, who were made up of a variety of factions. Foreign powers quickly found themselves involved, in part out of a desire to stem the revolutionary fervour, with many backing the Whites, who advocated for the return of the monarchy.

The Whites launched significant offensives and proved themselves to have the potential to be of great danger to the revolution. Many of these offensives were initially aimed at reinstalling the Romanovs, meaning they became figureheads for the Whites. Nicholas and Alexandra certainly believed that help was at hand and that they would be rescued by their royal relatives or loyal Russian people in the not-too-distant future. Little did they know that this was looking less and less likely.

Instead, the Bolsheviks had loose plans to bring the Romanovs back to Moscow for a show trial. By the spring of 1918, conditions were growing steadily worse for the family as they endured captivity in exile. In April 1918, plans changed once more, and the family was moved to Yekaterinburg.

Tsar Nicholas II and his daughters Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana in the winter of 1917 on the roof of their house in Tobolsk.

Image Credit: Romanov Collection, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The House of Special Purpose

Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg – often referred to as the ‘House of Special Purpose’ – was the Romanov family’s final home. There, they were subject to stricter conditions than ever before, with guards specifically instructed to be indifferent towards their charges.

Back in Moscow and Petrograd, Lenin and the Bolsheviks feared their situation might be deteriorating: the last thing they needed was unrest, or to lose their prized prisoners. With a trial looking less and less likely (and it becoming increasingly difficult to transport the family across such large distances), and Czech forces encroaching on Yekaterinburg, orders were sent that the family should be executed.

In the early hours of the morning of 17 July 1918, the family and their servants were woken and told they were going to be moved for their own safety as forces were approaching the city. They were hustled into the basement: a firing squad entered shortly after, and the family were told that they were to be executed on the orders of the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

There is little doubt that the entire family was murdered in the room: some of the Grand Duchesses survived the first hail of bullets as they had kilos of diamonds and precious stones sewn into their dresses which deflected some of the first bullets. They were killed with bayonets, before their bodies were taken to nearby woodland and burned, drenched in acid and buried in a disused mine shaft.

The cellar of Ipatiev House, where the family was murdered. The damage to the walls was done by investigators looking for bullets.

Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A haunting decision

The Bolsheviks were quick to announce that the family had been executed, stating Tsar Nicholas was “guilty of countless, bloody, violent acts against the Russian people” and that he needed to be removed prior to the arrival of encroaching counter-revolutionary forces who wanted to release him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the news dominated the media across Europe. Instead of getting rid of a potential threat or distraction, the Bolsheviks’ announcement diverted attention away from military campaigns and successes and towards the execution of the former royal family.

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The precise circumstances of the deaths and the burial site of the bodies was a source of contention, and the newly-formed Soviet government began to change their statement, covering up the murders and even going as far as to announce in 1922 that the family were not dead. These oscillating statements helped fuel the belief that the family may have still been alive, although these rumours were later widely dispelled.

It wasn’t just Nicholas and his direct family who were murdered in this period. Assorted Romanov cousins and relatives were rounded up and executed by the Bolsheviks in their anti-monarchy drive. It took years for their remains to be uncovered, and many have since been rehabilitated by the Russian government and church.

Tags: Tsar Nicholas II Vladimir Lenin

Sarah Roller