The house in Tobolsk
We left the Romanovs sitting in Tobolsk in Siberia watching the situation in Petrograd worsening as the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 yet hopeful, perhaps unreasonably so, that plans for their rescue were coming to fruition. The white monarchist armies were growing in strength in the south and it didn’t seem to anyone, at least initially, that Lenin could hold on to power.
The story, while fascinating in a way, reads like so much of Russian history as if it were contrived by a third rate dramatist with no concern with the plausibility of his scenes.
The man on whom the Romanovs pinned their hopes was a glib and personable adventurer named Boris Soloviev, an Army lieutenant formerly attached to the staff of a rather left wing General. He was also married to Rasputin’s daughter Matrona, though he married her after Rasputin’s murder. Matrona was conveniently living in Tobolsk and made contact with the Czarina and Nicholas. Now isn’t that special!
Soloviev presented himself as the accredited agent of a mysterious monarchist underground organization – “The Brotherhood of St. John” and explained that he had been sent to Siberia to organize their rescue. Of course he had no difficulty in convincing the Romanovs that their salvation was at hand.
The Brotherhood Soloviev declared, were assembling around Tiumen, the nearest rail-head of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and he would establish his own headquarters there, coming to Tobolsk from time to time to keep the sovereigns informed about the progress of the conspiracy for their liberation.
While the Brotherhood was no doubt largely fictitious, it was not a one man show. Soloviev associates in European Russia demonstrated their existence by collecting substantial funds from monarchist sympathizers. One of the Czarina’s friends heard that Rasputin’s son-in-law was heading up the rescue conspiracy and hearing the magic name, told other conspirators to avoid any interference with Soloviev’s network and confine their activities to raising funds for it. This inadvertently helped to doom the exiled imperial family.
Nicholas and Alexie sawing wood in Tobolsk
Faith in Soloviev’s honesty and competence helped sustain the Romanovs through the bleak Siberian winter as the physical hardships of their captivity increased. The attitude of the guards – who now refused to take orders from anyone – became more menacing.
Yet the fantasy of rescue lived on. At the end of March 1918 a detachment of Red troops from Omsk, under Bolshevik control paraded through the streets of Tobolsk. The Czarina was convinced it was the Brotherhood in disguise.
Soloviev, along with his wife was ultimately arrested by the Whites during the Civil War, eventually escaped and showed up in Berlin in 1920. Whether he was a German agent, a Bolshevik agent, a confidence man or simply an irresponsible schemer is still obscure. In any case, like his father-in-law, he was a curious but deadly instrument of destiny. He made no overt moves to free the Romanovs from Tobolsk but his presence in Tiumen effectively blocked all other rescue attempts at a time when they had a real chance of success.
Meanwhile the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with Germany, taking Russia out of the war. The Germans demanded and got vast areas of Tsarist territory, including Ukraine. The Bolsheviks had little choice if they wanted to stay in power. The Army was in no condition to have the war renewed. Germany now supported the Bolshevik government in order to maintain peace on its eastern front while it transferred its troops to France. Civil war broke out in Russia as three White armies attempted to oust the Bolsheviks from power. Not all of the Generals were monarchists; several were actually orthodox socialists.
Spring was on its way to Tobolsk when on April 22 a special representative of the Moscow government had marched in at the head of 150 Red soldiers. The town had been under total Bolshevik control for more than a month. In fact it was occupied by two rival Bolshevik detachments – one from Omsk and one from Ekaterinburg in the Urals. Additionally the soldiers guarding the imperial family had formed their own Soviet and chased away the two Commissars sent by Kerensky.
The newly arrived Commissar, Vassilli Yakovlev was greeted with suspicion by all sides but he carried an impressive collection of written orders signed by the Bolshevik Central Committee ordering local officials to give him full cooperation in carrying out an “important special mission.” He was authorized to shoot anyone who was uncooperative.
Apparently he was to conduct the imperial family to “another place” but would not name it. He told the same story to all of the local military detachments and Soviets, including the guards of the former rulers.
While Yakovlev stubbornly refused to name the destination, he gave the impression it would be Moscow, where they would stand trial.
To Nicholas and Alexandra, with whom he had a private meeting and interview on April25, he dropped some rather different hints. Nicholas seems to have come to the conclusion that Yakovlev was a German agent disguised as a Bolshevik Commissar and that his real mission was to deliver the Romanovs to the Germans for some sinister political purpose.
Alexandra was even more explicit in her suspicions. She was convinced that the Germans wanted her husband’s signature on the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. “They want him to sign something ignominious by threats against his family. It is my duty to keep that from happening.”
So strong was Alexandra’s feeling of danger to her husband’s honor that she decided to leave with him and Yakovlev the following day without the children, trusting Yakovlev to ensure they would be reunited.
Yakovlev seemed desperately anxious to avoid passing through Ekaterinburg, whose Soviet had been demanding the imprisonment of the Romanovs. He took the more circuitous route through Omsk but his train was stopped by the Red guards before he could get there. When he wired Moscow he was advised to proceed to Ekaterinburg.
Upon arrival at the station the whole party was arrested and Yakovlev’s soldiers disarmed and locked up while the Romanovs were kept under guard in a house that had been owned by a local merchant. Yakovlev waived his orders in front if the Ekaterinburg Soviet to no avail.
Yakovlev left for Moscow a few days later and sent a telegram to the detachment he left behind in Tobolsk: “Assemble detachment and return. Have resigned. Cannot answer for consequences.” To this day there is no credible evidence that Yakovlev was a German agent no any real evidence that Germany ever made a serious attempt to ensure the Tsar’s safety. More likely it is illustrative of Bolshevik policy differences at the highest levels.
For the Romanovs, the dingy house at Ekaterinburg was the end of the line. The children left behind in Tobolsk rejoined their parents on May 23. Nicholas’ uniforms were now worn out and to avoid the jeers of his guards he usually wore plain trousers of some sort and a soldier’s khaki tunic. He always managed to look neat and dignified; even his local guards were impressed, in spite of themselves.
Nicholas, Alexandra and their son slept in one room, the girls in another. The faithful Dr. Botkin and five servants shared the Romanov’s captivity. Everyone ate from a common pot in the dining room as the guards who lounged about the room helped themselves, ,frequently getting drunk and baiting their prisoners, teasing the girls with coarse jokes and following them about. There was however, no systematic mistreatment of the family.
Witnesses to the captivity, later interrogated by the Whites agreed that Nicholas and Alexandra bore themselves up to the end not only with dignity, but with every appearance of serenity. It must have been all the harder because rescue was so near at hand. Yet the closer the rescuers came the greater the danger to their lives. White forces under General Denikin and the Czech Legion, 40,000 strong were advancing against the Reds, drawing nearer to Ekaterinburg each day.
Lenin knew the fall of the town was inevitable and feared the rescue of the imperial family by the Whites, especially the Tsarevich who many monarchists supported at the true heir. After a July revolt in Moscow by the Social Revolutionaries and the murder of the German Ambassador, Lenin unlease the Cheka Red Terror. The execution of the Romanovs would put a cap on it.
A Cheka squad under an officer named Yakov Yurovsky replaced the local guards. At midnight of July 16-17 the family was roused and ordered into the basement. Yurovsky hastily read out the sentence and immediately shot Nicholas at point blank range. Firing opened up on the remainder of the family, servants as well as the children’s little dog. The following night 5 Grand Dukes and 2 Grand Duchesses, including Alexandra’s sister Elizabeth were murdered. Only the Grand Dukes Nicholas and Cyril survived.
The execution of the Tsar was announced in the papers in Moscow the following day. Nothing was ever said about the murder of the Tsarina and the children. Alexandra was a German and when the new German Ambassador inquired about her welfare he was told she was moved “to a safer place.” Of course it all came out later.
The Armies of the White Guard captured Ekaterinburg on July 25, a week after the executions.
Much of the research for these posts sourced from “Fall of the Dynasties” by Edmond Tayor, published in 1963 and the biography of Alexandra Feodorovna by Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden published in 1928.