In the early hours of 17 July 1918, the Cheka firing squad (the Soviet secret police) fired volley after volley into Nicholas Romanov, Czar of all the Russias, and his family: Empress Alexandra, son Nikkei, and four daughters, Maria, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia.
In the March 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks successfully overthrew the Romanov’s régime of Russia. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Union of Socialist’s Republics. His clutch on power was tenuous—two White Armies were in revolt against his Communist dictatorial rule. Western armies had invaded Murmansk, the Caucasus, and the Japanese captured Vladivostok. And the large and well-armed Czech Legion had captured the Trans-Siberian Railroad and was fighting its way to the Pacific.
Lenin, fearful that Romanovs could rally the proletariat to fully support the White armies, had the royal family imprisoned in the Ipatiev House in the Siberia city Ekaterinburg. Lenin and his Bolsheviks cohorts dubbed this place “The House of Special Purpose.”
Around 0200 hours, Cheka guards awoke the royal family and told them to dress, and led them to the basement. The guards told the family that this move was for their protection—elements of Admiral’s Kolchak’s White Army were close by as were the Czech’s trains. In the upcoming fire-fights, this house would be in danger.
Yakov Yurovsky, the Bolshevik commanding officer, insured that the family was positioned correctly and ordered, “Fire.”
To those who have an interest in this topic, please enjoy the following short story from my book, Aviators, Adventurers, and Assassins, a conglomeration of 20th Century novellas, short stories, and flash fiction quips. Some of the characters are real (usually disguised in a nom de plume), some are fiction, some of the stories are based on real incidents, and some are figments of my imagination. Nonetheless, take none seriously—even though your empathy may be intense. Also, at the end of the story a free book offer!
16 July 1918
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is writing at his desk with an intense focus. He wears a grey suit with a scarlet tie over his off-white shirt. It is a dark afternoon that matches the dull grey of his suit and office. On the walls are photographs and posters extolling the virtues of collectivism.
Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, is now the Chairman of the People’s Commissars of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He is fifty-eight-years old, bald, with a full mustache and a Van Dyke beard. His deep brown eyes are alive with passionate fervor.
He writes with slow precision on a paper bearing the official seal of the Soviet government—the hammer and sickle in yellow on a red background—then he puts down the pen and leans back in his chair. As he reads the document, a faint smile spreads over his face.
Satisfied, he hands it to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the ruthless leader of Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka. He is exactly the kind of unbridled sociopath that Lenin wants as his lead henchman. Dzerzhinsky is a medium-sized man with a brown, stony face and a fixed expression. He wears a walrus mustache and a short, pointed Van Dyke beard. Lenin leans forward and dictates, “Read it, Felix. Read it out loud. I want to hear how it sounds. I want the world to hear it. Read it now!”
Dzerzhinsky looks mildly interested as he begins to read the short note. Now, seriously interested, he reads it again, then once again. He looks up from the document to Lenin and tentatively asks him, “You are positive that this is the correct action at this time?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
Dzerzhinsky, with a mild retort, suggests, “Comrade, my point is that I wonder if it would not be prudent to wait until we have consolidated more control over the country. Our political and military positions are still in flux.”
Lenin snaps, “Comrade Dzerzhinsky, you keep the Cheka working to eliminate the counter-revolutionaries and I will lead our socialist country.” Irritated, he shifts in his chair, then picks up a pen and taps it on his desk. He stares blankly out a window as the Kremlin glows scarlet in the dusk. Clearly, he is evaluating Dzerzhinsky’s comments because they have a ring of truth. The tap, tap, tap of the pen continues. Lenin puzzles over the scarlet sunset. Is it an omen—red for Red?
After a minute or so he shifts in his chair to face Grigory Zinoviev, the third man in the room. Lenin holds him in a thoughtful gaze for a few moments then says in a spirited voice, “Let us hear what Comrade Zinoviev has to say.”
Dzerzhinsky turns to Grigory Zinoviev, the Interior Minister, revolutionary, and close confidant to Lenin. Zinoviev is a big brute of a man with icy blue eyes and long midnight-black hair. His face is littered with smallpox scars, but he is clean shaven, almost proud of his disfigurement.
After a brief pause and in a gruff bass voice Zinoviev responds, “My respects, Comrade Lenin, but I ask you to reconsider. The majority of the proletariat still loves their Czar, who is also the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church. Such an audacious action will cause many loyal people to question your motives. I do not recommend this precipitous order. Over the next few months, let us reflect on some of the alternatives.”
Lenin shouts, “Stop! Stop it, Zinoviev. Am I surrounded by naysayers? The Communist Party and the Third International Congress of Soviets made me Party Chairman and Head of State. I know what is best for our Soviet Union. The peasants will do as the State directs.”
Zinoviev, who has remained standing, straightens his shoulders and responds deferentially, yet with conviction, “If you insist on this course of action, our socialist government will be in extreme peril and may well fall to the Western imperialists. We are fighting them on five fronts. The White Armies of General Denikin and Admiral Kolchak defeat our Red Army in every engagement. Our desertion rates are excessively high. The Northern Russian Expedition of fourteen battalions of British Commonwealth, American, and French colonial troops have occupied Murmansk and Archangel, and they are advancing into the interior.”
Lenin is clearly annoyed that his old friend should question his judgment. He rises from his chair, glares at Zinoviev, shakes his closed fist at him and snaps, “The Soviet Union will prevail over these Western interlopers. Our allies—the sharp winter and the vast steppes—ultimately will engulf and destroy them.”
Zinoviev, stunned by Lenin’s sharp rebuke, looks to Dzerzhinsky for support. Dzerzhinsky looks away and shakes his head from side to side. Then he says, “Comrade Lenin has made his decision. I manage the Cheka on his authority.”
Realizing that he is alone in this discussion, Zinoviev counters, “Comrade Lenin, we have been together for years. Please do not dismiss my report with such a cavalier comment, or underestimate the seriousness of these Westerners on our soil. Hear me out.”
Lenin, still irritated, returns to his chair, and says, “Speak your piece, Grigory.”
“There is more. American and Japanese troops have occupied Vladivostok, and the Japanese are moving up the peninsula and assembling at our border with Mongolia near Nomanhan. They have occupied all of Sakhalin Island. The Japanese are continuing the war of 1904 unopposed, in violation of the Treaty of Portsmouth. British and Indian troops have invaded the Southern Caucasus. And perhaps most important, the Czech Legion has control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Kazan to Novosibirsk.”
Lenin snaps, “Your point, Comrade? Make it. I have a country to run.”
Zinoviev responds forcefully, “Comrade Lenin, my point is critical. We cannot defeat them all. We are isolated from the rest of the world. If our socialist government is to survive we must have peace—peace at any cost. We do not need more armed hostility. We need Western recognition and wheat, lots of wheat, if we are to survive this winter. I implore you to reconsider.”
“Zinoviev, you were my loyal ally in our Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the Czar and his imperialist lackeys. Remain loyal to me now. Read my telegram. Read it out loud.” demands Lenin.
With trepidation Zinoviev whispers, “Your telegram is headed Top Secret. It reads: ‘To: Comrade Major Vasili Yurovsky, Commanding Officer, Cheka, Ekaterinburg. No later than tomorrow evening, you are to execute the prisoners held in the Ipatiev House. Specifically, I name the Romanov royal family of Imperial Russia, the Czar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, Czarevich Alexis, and the Grand Duchesses Marie, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia. Confirm results. Signed, Lenin.”
Lenin smirks and tells Zinoviev, “Give this telegram to Comrade Roman Malinovsky, our new Commissar of Posts and Telegraphs. Have him encrypt it in our Omega code for immediate transmission.”
Ipatiev House, Ekaterinburg, Siberia,
17 July 1918
The corner windows in the second story are lit in the Ipatiev House, an elegant two-story dacha on several hundred acres of well-tended gardens, fountains, ponds, and virgin birch forest. The Bolsheviks have dubbed this dacha “The House of Special Purpose.” It is shortly before midnight, but the house is astir with activity.
The imperial family has been prisoners of the Cheka in this house since April, closely confined and daily suffering the insults of their Red guards. Their only comfort is the fact that they are together. Rumors of impending rescue reach them periodically, but each time they wait in vain.
This evening the family calmly retired at the usual time. About an hour later, the sergeant of the guard aroused them and ordered them to dress and hurry downstairs to the cellar. He explains that the Czech Legion and a unit of the White Army are approaching Ekaterinburg, and the Regional Soviet has ordered that they be moved.
The family rushes to dress and pack a few personal belongings. “Put on your blue dress,” Alexandra whispers to Anastasia as they pass in the upstairs hallway. When the family arrives in the cellar, the sergeant tells them that their transportation will arrive shortly. A Cheka guard brings a chair for the Empress. For a moment, Alexandra’s heart fills with hope. If the Czech and White Army are so near, rescue might be imminent. Soon they might all be free, on their way to England. She was right, she thinks, not to send Anastasia away on her own. Now the family will be together. She puts an arm around her youngest daughter’s waist. Thanks be to God.
Suddenly a squad of Cheka soldiers with their rifles at port arms marches single file and at double time into the cellar. After the last soldier is in position, the first sergeant commands, “Squad, halt! Right face.” The soldiers turn to face the Romanovs. After a moment, the sergeant shouts, “Squad, ah-ten-hut!” The sound of rifle butts hitting the concrete floor reverberates throughout the cellar.
Several minutes later, Major Vasili Yurovsky enters. He is the senior Cheka office in the area. He wears the summer grey short-sleeved tunic uniform with red piping and his major’s pips on the shoulder boards.
“Present. Arms!” commands the first sergeant.
The soldiers bring their rifles to the present-arms position to salute their commanding officer.
In return, Major Yurovsky returns a snappy hand salute.
The Czarevich giggles in delight at the military prompt.
However, fear and concern race through the rest of the Romanov family. Alexandra knows exactly what is happening. The Czar, Anastasia, and her three sisters wonder what this military demonstration has to do with their rescue by the Whites or the Czech Legion.
“Order arms!” commands the sergeant. The soldiers return their rifles to their right side. The pounding of the rifle butts hitting the concrete floor sends chills through the Romanovs, causing them to wonder what is happening.
Yurovsky orders Alexandra to stand. The indignity of this crass Bolshevik officer ordering the Empress of All the Russias to comply with his command is unthinkable. She stares with smoldering hostility at Yurovsky. But, no longer enjoying the resources of royal status, she complies. After a moment or two she slowly moves a few paces to her left, next to Anastasia.
With his arms akimbo, Yurovsky walks down the line of the imperial family. He stops in front of each person and looks intently into their eyes. All but the Empress turn away from him. Summoning all her courage, she returns her most imperious glower of disdain. He smiles faintly at her feeble attempt at bravado.
The Czarevich is dressed in his sailor uniform. Maintaining proper military protocol, he salutes Yurovsky. The major stares at him contemptuously and does not return the salute.
This military display does not look like a rescue to the four daughters. Extreme apprehension engulfs Maria and Tatiana. Unsure of what is happening and fearing the worst, they cannot control their fear and sob softly.
Major Yurovsky turns to the first sergeant and snaps, “On my orders!”
“As you say. Sir!”
Yurovsky moves to the cement steps and climbs three. “Port arms!” he shouts. He surveys the scene to ensure that the Romanovs are positioned correctly and that his soldiers are ready.
Satisfied that the staging is correct, Yurovsky commands, “Fix bayonets!”
There is a loud clanging of metal as the soldiers snap their bayonets onto their rifles.
Anastasia now understands with crystal clarity the task that her mother assigned to her so long ago. They are not going to be rescued, and she and her family are going to be murdered by the Bolsheviks. An overwhelming fear of death engulfs her. Her family is in this cellar for an execution. She fights to be brave and to hold back her tears. Her mother cannot help her.
“Load!” The soldiers pull back the bolts of their rifles, then jam the bolts forward, loading a round into the rifles’ chambers. The metal-on-metal clicking sends a vibration of horror through the cellar.
The other three daughters begin to sob and make the sign of the cross as they realize their fate is death. Alexandra commands, “Be brave. You are Romanovs. St. Nicholas will guide you.”
The Czar has been standing silently, as if he were in a dream. Aroused by the loud clicking of metal, he exclaims, “What!”
“Aim!” The riflemen select the nearest target.
The Romanovs see the loaded rifles with bayonets pointed at them. Their fate is all too clear. Cries. Screams.
The deafening thunder of the first volley reverberates through the cellar. Agonized screams! Another volley. Another. And another. Silence.
Major Yurovsky, obeying Lenin’s orders, has assassinated the Romanov imperial family. He cannot see clearly in the small, smoke-filled cellar. He checks the mutilated human forms askew on the concrete floor. There are no heartbeats. There is no light in any of the eyes. He grimaces at the bloody corpses. Even for a hardened Cheka officer it is a gruesome scene. In a few minutes, the basement window goes dark.
Satisfied that the regicide has been successfully executed, he orders his communications officer to send an encoded telegram to Lenin and Dzerzhinsky, in care of the Presidium of the Central Executive Council, Moscow: “The Romanovs are dead this night. Yurovsky.” In the upstairs lounge, he and his Cheka soldiers celebrate the foul deed well done, and toast frequently with shots of vodka.
Some believe that the youngest daughter, Anastasia escaped the assassins. My book, St. Catherine’s Crown tells the story of Anastasia making a perilous journey across Siberia via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Starting today, the anniversary of the assassination of the royal family, my book, St. Catherine’s Crown will be available for free from Amazon. Enjoy this free download with my compliments from July 17-21.