Murders of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and His Family

The Room Where Czar Nicholas and Family Were Murdered
The room where Czar Nicholas II, his family and attendants were executed, Yekaterinburg, Siberia, Russia, July 17 1918. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The tumultuous reign of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, was tarnished by his ineptitude in both foreign and domestic affairs, and helped to bring about the Russian Revolution. The Romanov Dynasty, which had ruled Russia for three centuries, came to an abrupt and bloody end in July 1918, when Nicholas and his family, who had been held under house arrest for more than a year, were brutally executed by Bolshevik soldiers.

Who Was Nicholas II?

Young Nicholas, known as the "tsesarevich," or heir apparent to the throne, was born on May 18, 1868, the first child of Czar Alexander III and Empress Marie Feodorovna. He and his siblings grew up in Tsarskoye Selo, one of the residences of the imperial family located outside of St. Petersburg. Nicholas was schooled not only in academics, but also in gentlemanly pursuits such as shooting, horsemanship, and even dancing. Unfortunately, his father, Czar Alexander III, did not devote a great deal of time to preparing his son to one day become the leader of the massive Russian Empire.

As a young man, Nicholas enjoyed several years of relative ease, during which he embarked upon world tours and attended countless parties and balls. After seeking a suitable wife, he became engaged to Princess Alix of Germany in the summer of 1894. But the carefree lifestyle that Nicholas had enjoyed came to an abrupt end on November 1, 1894, when Czar Alexander III died of nephritis (a kidney disease).

Virtually overnight, Nicholas II—inexperienced and ill-equipped for the task—became the new czar of Russia.

The period of mourning was briefly suspended on November 26, 1894, when Nicholas and Alix were married in a private ceremony. The following year, daughter Olga was born, followed by three more daughters—Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia—over a period of five years.

(The long-awaited male heir, Alexei, would be born in 1904.)

Delayed during the long period of formal mourning, Czar Nicholas' coronation was held in May 1896. But the joyous celebration was marred by a horrible incident when 1,400 revelers were killed during a stampede at Khodynka Field in Moscow. The new czar, however, refused to cancel any of the ensuing celebrations, giving the impression to his people that he was indifferent to the loss of so many lives.

Growing Resentment of the Czar

In a series of further missteps, Nicholas proved himself unskilled in both foreign and domestic affairs. In a 1903 dispute with the Japanese over territory in Manchuria, Nicholas resisted any opportunity for diplomacy. Frustrated by Nicholas' refusal to negotiate, the Japanese took action in February 1904, bombing Russian ships in the harbor at Port Arthur in southern Manchuria.

The Russo-Japanese War continued for another year and a half and ended with the czar's forced surrender in September 1905. Given the large number of Russian casualties and the humiliating defeat, the war failed to draw the support of the Russian people.

Russians were dissatisfied about more than just the Russo-Japanese War. Inadequate housing, poor wages, and widespread hunger among the working class created hostility toward the government.

In protest of their abysmal living conditions, tens of thousands of protestors marched peacefully upon the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on January 22, 1905. Without any provocation from the crowd, the czar's soldiers opened fire on the protestors, killing and wounding hundreds. The event came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," and further stirred up anti-czarist sentiment among the Russian people. Although the czar was not at the palace at the time of the incident, his people held him responsible.

The massacre enraged the Russian people, leading to strikes and protests throughout the country, and culminating in the 1905 Russian Revolution. No longer able to ignore his people's discontent, Nicholas II was forced to act. On October 30, 1905, he signed the October Manifesto, which created a constitutional monarchy as well as an elected legislature, known as the Duma.

Yet the czar maintained control by limiting the powers of the Duma and maintaining veto power.

Birth of Alexei

During that time of great turmoil, the royal couple welcomed the birth of a male heir, Alexei Nikolaevich, on August 12, 1904. Apparently healthy at birth, young Alexei was soon found to be suffering from hemophilia, an inherited condition that causes severe, sometimes fatal hemorrhaging. The royal couple chose to keep their son's diagnosis a secret, fearing it would create uncertainty about the future of the monarchy.

Distraught about her son's illness, Empress Alexandra doted upon him and isolated herself and her son from the public. She desperately searched for a cure or any kind of treatment that would keep her son out of danger. In 1905, Alexandra found an unlikely source of help—the crude, unkempt, self-proclaimed "healer," Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin became a trusted confidante of the empress because he could do what no one else had been capable of—he kept young Alexei calm during his bleeding episodes, thereby reducing their severity.

Unaware of Alexei's medical condition, the Russian people were suspicious of the relationship between the empress and Rasputin. Beyond his role of providing comfort to Alexei, Rasputin had also become an adviser to Alexandra and even influenced her opinions on affairs of state.

WWI and the Murder of Rasputin

Following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, Russia became embroiled in the First World War, as Austria declared war on Serbia.

Stepping in to support Serbia, a fellow Slavic nation, Nicholas mobilized the Russian army in August 1914. The Germans soon joined the conflict, in support of Austria-Hungary.

Although he had initially received the support of the Russian people in waging a war, Nicholas found that support dwindling as the war dragged on. The poorly-managed and ill-equipped Russian Army—led by Nicholas himself—suffered considerable casualties. Nearly two million were killed over the duration of the war.

Adding to the discontent, Nicholas had left his wife in charge of affairs while he was away at war. Yet because Alexandra was German-born, many Russians distrusted her; they also remained suspicious about her alliance with Rasputin.

General loathing and mistrust of Rasputin culminated in a plot by several members of the aristocracy to murder him. They did so, with great difficulty, in December 1916. Rasputin was poisoned, shot, then bound and thrown into the river.

Revolution and the Czar's Abdication

All across Russia, the situation grew increasingly desperate for the working class, which struggled with low wages and rising inflation. As they had done before, the people took to the streets in protest of the government's failure to provide for its citizens. On February 23, 1917, a group of nearly 90,000 women marched through the streets of Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) to protest their plight. These women, many of whose husbands had left to fight in the war, struggled to make enough money to feed their families.

The following day, several thousand more protesters joined them. People walked away from their jobs, bringing the city to a standstill. The czar's army did little to stop them; in fact, some soldiers even joined the protest. Other soldiers, loyal to the czar, did fire into the crowd, but they were clearly outnumbered. The protestors soon gained control of the city during the February/March 1917 Russian Revolution.

With the capital city in the hands of revolutionaries, Nicholas finally had to concede that his reign was over. He signed his abdication statement on March 15, 1917, bringing an end to the 304-year-old Romanov Dynasty.

The royal family was allowed to stay on at the Tsarskoye Selo palace while officials decided their fate. They learned to subsist on soldiers' rations and to make do with fewer servants. The four girls had all recently had their heads shaved during a bout of measles; oddly, their baldness gave them the appearance of prisoners.

Royal Family Is Moved to Siberia

For a brief time, the Romanovs had hoped they would be granted asylum in England, where the czar's cousin, King George V, was reigning monarch. But the plan—unpopular with British politicians who deemed Nicholas a tyrant—was quickly abandoned.

By the summer of 1917, the situation in St. Petersburg had become increasingly unstable, with Bolsheviks threatening to overrun the provisional government. The czar and his family were quietly moved to western Siberia for their own protection, first to Tobolsk, then finally to Ekaterinaburg. The home where they spent their final days was a far cry from the extravagant palaces they had been accustomed to, but they were grateful to be together.

In October 1917, the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, finally gained control of the government following the second Russian Revolution. Thus the royal family also came under the control of the Bolsheviks, with fifty men assigned to guard the house and its occupants.

The Romanovs adapted as best they could to their new living quarters, as they awaited what they prayed would be their liberation. Nicholas faithfully made entries in his diary, the empress worked on her embroidery, and the children read books and put on plays for their parents. The four girls learned from the family cook how to bake bread.

During June 1918, their captors repeatedly told the royal family that they would soon be moved to Moscow and should be prepared to leave at any time. Each time, however, the trip was delayed and rescheduled for a few days later.

Brutal Murders of the Romanovs

While the royal family waited for a rescue that would never take place, civil war raged throughout Russia between the Communists and the White Army, which opposed Communism. As the White Army gained ground and headed for Ekaterinaburg, the Bolsheviks decided they must act swiftly. The Romanovs must not be rescued.

At 2:00 in the morning on July 17, 1918, Nicholas, his wife, and their five children, along with four servants, were awakened and told to prepare for departure. The group, led by Nicholas, who carried his son, was escorted to a small room downstairs. Eleven men (later reported to have been drunk) came into the room and began firing shots. The czar and his wife were first to die. None of the children died outright, probably because all wore hidden jewels sewn inside their clothing, which deflected the bullets. The soldiers finished the job with bayonets and more gunfire. The grisly massacre had taken 20 minutes.

At the time of death, the czar was 50 years old and the empress 46. Daughter Olga was 22 years old, Tatiana was 21, Maria was 19, Anastasia was 17, and Alexei was 13 years old.

The bodies were removed, and taken to the site of an old mine, where the executioners did their best to hide the identities of the corpses. They chopped them up with axes, and doused them with acid and gasoline, setting them afire. The remains were buried at two separate sites. An investigation soon after the murders failed to turn up the bodies of the Romanovs and their servants.

(For many years afterward, it was rumored that Anastasia, the czar's youngest daughter, had survived the execution and was living somewhere in Europe. Several women over the years claimed to be Anastasia, most notably Anna Anderson, a German woman with a history of mental illness. Anderson died in 1984; DNA testing later proved she was not related to the Romanovs.)

Final Resting Place

Another 73 years would pass before the bodies were found. In 1991, the remains of nine people were excavated at Ekaterinaburg. DNA testing confirmed they were the bodies of the czar and his wife, three of their daughters, and four servants. A second grave, containing the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters (either Maria or Anastasia), was discovered in 2007.

Sentiment toward the royal family—once demonized in Communist society—had changed in post-Soviet Russia. The Romanovs, canonized as saints by the Russian Orthodox church, were remembered at a religious ceremony on July 17, 1998 (eighty years to the date of their murders), and reburied in the imperial family vault at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Nearly 50 descendants of the Romanov dynasty attended the service, as did Russian President Boris Yeltsin.