Seven Little Temples
On the centennial of the murder of the last royal family of Russia, thousands of people traveled over two thousand kilometres from St. Petersburg to the Church on the Blood in the city of Ekaterinburg. From worshipers to students, all had congregated to pay homage to the events that took place on the spot over 100 years ago: the bloody extermination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family (canonized in 2000). The event was commemorated by a night-long liturgy and subsequent procession to the former burial site located in the Koptyaki Forest.
There, attendants were met by a humbling sight. Seven wooden temples surround the vicinity — one for each member of the family. A little ways away, there is a divot in the earth with its surface spangled with lilies. It was in this former pit that most of the family and their retainers were thrown in after being doused with acid and disfigured. But for those miles away from Russia, the proof of the fascination with its royal family lies in the frenzy of blogs, articles and badly colourized images scattered across the Internet. Even for those not so attuned to the history, the Broadway musical and film by the name of Anastasia might ring a bell.
Pit into which the Romanovs were thrown following the execution. (Image Source: Washington Speaks Blog)
A Gilded Poison Chalice
Amid the Ivans, Sophias and Catherines littering the pages of Russian history books, the names Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei stand out. The four girls were born to Nicholas — the hastily styled tsar — and his wife Alexandra — the withdrawn and frequently ill tsarina. When their much longed-for heir Alexei was born, the couple’s joy was short-lived when it was discovered that he suffered from hemophilia which severely truncated his lifespan.
This subjected the royal family to a future of misfortune compounded by events, such as the arrival of the mystic Rasputin (“ra ra Rasputin” for those more musically inclined) who was able to control Alexei’s severe bleeding episodes. His influence, a losing streak in the war, and the family’s increasing reluctance to meet the demands of the public proved to be crucial missteps that propelled the drip-drip of the Russians’ confidence in their leader. When a revolution had taken over his army and his country, Nicholas had no choice but to abdicate his throne in March 1917.
The ex-tsar and his family were put into house arrest at various locations and were eventually sent packing to Siberia. Despite their hopes to be saved, the prospects looked grim with the presence of virulent revolutionaries — the Ural Bolsheviks – who spared no mercy for “Nicholas the Bloody”. The family was completely cut off from the rest of the world and had only a few servants and limited rations to keep them going. Still, they held on steadfast to their faith and to each other. Their end was served in a cramped and dim basement of the grimly-named “House of Special Purpose” where they were imprisoned. In an execution that lasted over 20 minutes, the family and their attendants were made to stand together and then were systematically shot, bayoneted and beaten until they lay cold.
For the children, the agony was long-lived and horrific as they had sewed various precious stones into their undergarments as a trust fund for a possible escape. These ended up serving as bullet-proof vests that prolonged the slaughter. Disposing of their bodies also proved to be difficult and they were mangled before being dumped into a large pit. With Russia then subject to a political hot-potato between the White and the Red forces, no formal investigation came to fruition. For a time, it was unclear if the children were even alive or if they had been killed alongside their parents. However, in 1998, these rumours were quelled when the majority of the family were re-interred in the St Peter and Paul Cathedral.
But now that so many of the mysteries have been solved, why does the fascination surrounding the family remain?
The basement room where the execution took place as discovered by investigators. (Image Source: The British Library)
A Chilling Contrast
Our fascination with royal families has always been strong. From Anne Frank pasting pictures of a young Queen Elizabeth on her wall to royal experts scrutinizing every motion of the British Royal family, this preoccupation has been ingrained in our history. In a Time article, professor at Temple University, Dr. Frank Farley explains our royal obsession: “Life is hard, and becoming a success is difficult. Look at these people: They inherited wealth, and social influence, and style, and fame, and they live this fairy tale life in castles — all the stuff that we grow up on.” From the outset, this fairy tale existence defined the Romanov royals. According to a New York Times article, the total wealth of the Russian imperial family reached over $45 billion when it fell. This kind of unparalleled money and power coupled with five pretty children exuded the image of absolute perfection.
Behind the scenes, however, the rosy life of the family quickly came to a gruesome end. For instance, the jewels which were sewn into their underclothes as insurance only prolonged the children’s lives and made them witness the death of their family members and suffer excruciating pain. The family’s death was so horrible and medieval in its execution that it is hard to reconcile the two images of perfection and of the subsequent bloodbath. In other words, it is chilling to imagine the pristine, beautiful girls in identical dresses juxtaposed with the grimy and blood-soaked basement room where they met their gruesome end. This through-and-through tragedy stirs pity in even the hardest of hearts. The immediate emotional response provokes curiosity to keep on searching and learning more about the doomed lives of the Grand Duchesses and their family.
“My Own Daughters”
At the end of The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport, there is a section dedicated to a conversation with the author. It is here that Rappaport describes that by the time she had finished her book, “[the sisters] felt like my own daughters.” This sense of deep personal connection is due in part to how much we can access about the lives of the royal children. The family was survived by a trove of diaries, letters, photo albums and the memories of those who knew them. Photography in particular was a popular pastime and allows us to get a glimpse into their private life. The photos allow us to see the family on their yacht, vacationing in the Crimea and playing with their friends and loved ones. A direct contrast from the formal press images produced, the pictures and primary source material we can obtain humanize the children. Their diaries in particular allow us to get a glimpse of their personal feelings, and their unremitting curiosity about the world they never got to know.
Page from a photo album depicting various scenes of play and work in the children’s lives. (Image Source: Flickr)
Old Hearsay Dies Hard
By 1924, the hoopla surrounding the death of the Imperial family had died down. With Lenin’s government only acknowledging the death of the tsar and scant evidence to go by, Russia’s interest had waned. It was only in 1979 that an amateur geologist was able to locate the mass grave where the family was hidden. But, he was forced to sit on his story until the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 10 years later. When the bodies were finally exhumed, however, two were missing: Alexei and one of the daughters. Could one of the children have survived the carnage?
Indeed, this thought was first entertained back in 1920 when a woman by the name of Anna Anderson claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anderson paraded the claim for the course of her life, and her story was even depicted in the 1956 movie Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman. But it was too good to be true. After her death, it was confirmed that the Anderson was a Polish factory worker by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska who was placed in a mental asylum after a failed suicide attempt. Even so, the stream of movies and books continued, and Romanov imposters turned up in countries across the globe.
The truth was finally revealed in 2007 when the remains of Alexei and his sister (most likely Maria) were discovered in a separate site. But the myth had stood the test of time and despite its origins dating well over 100 years, the loose ends took years to finally be tied. The story that one member of the family might have survived is compelling. Thinking about what they might have become and what their lives might have been like is a magnetic prospect and draws the world into the story of the ill-fated family.
Home, Love, Family
In the song “Journey to the Past” featured in both the animated movie and Broadway musical Anastasia, the lost princess sings about her quest to find “Home, love, family.” In the end, the heroine reunites with her grandmother with the help of a charming con man and finds all three. The productions paint the story the way we wish and at times, believe it could have been.
But no matter who you are and what your familiarity with history is, there is one thing that everyone seems to be searching for behind the sparkling wealth, the photographs and the undying rumours: an element of truth. It is this quest for the truth that has made us enamoured with the doomed family. Questions abound. What were the children like? What would they have grown up to be? What if Nicholas had made different decisions? What if someone is really still alive? It is questions like these that, although may forever be left unanswered, resurrect the Romanovs from their harrowing reality in that basement room and into the immortal modern imagination.