I’ve been fascinated by the Romanov dynasty for as long as I can remember and in particular the fate of the last Tsar and his family. Well, who isn’t? It’s one of the most extraordinary, dramatic and heartbreaking reversals of fortune in history that sweeps from the opulent Imperial palaces of St Petersburg to a dingy cellar in an industrial town in the Urals. It’s a story that has everything – romance, Queen Victoria, the byzantine opulence of the Russian court, diamonds as big as bird eggs, fabulous clothes, beautiful princesses, a handsome prince, tragedy, war, revolution and then, ultimately, terrible tragedy.
I’ve read very widely on this subject, starting with Robert Massie’s iconic Nicholas and Alexandra when I was around eight years old, but have to say that Helen Rappaport’s book Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs is one of the most gripping that I have yet encountered. The premise is a simple one – Rappaport chooses to focus on the last thirteen days of the Romanov’s lives, devoting a chapter to each day and focussing in turn on each person involved in the dreadful events of the 17th July 1918 from the Tsar to his daughters, the ‘Girls in White Dresses’ to Yakov Yurovsky, the implacable Commandant of the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, who became increasingly frantic about the lack of instruction from Moscow as those simmering summer days rolled by.
It’s a chilling tale of political iniquity, cold blooded murder and despair and it would be impossible not to be moved by the contrast between the simple piety of the warm and affectionate Romanov family, who have no idea of their impending doom and the inept machinations of the men who are secretly preparing for their assassination.
There is a tendency towards mawkish hagiographic fawning when writing about the Romanov family – after all, Nicholas and Alexandra were undoubtedly very much in love and they were fondly adoring parents of their charming, beautiful children (as an aside, I’ve always felt that use of the word ‘children’ is something of a misnomer here, implying that they were much younger than they actually were whereas in fact, the eldest daughter Olga was twenty two and the Tsarevich Alexei was thirteen). However, as generally is the case, the truth isn’t quite so enchanting – Nicholas, like Louis XVI before him in one of the many parallels between the Romanovs and their predecessors Louis and Marie Antoinette, was a good man but a pretty terrible ruler and was, additionally, dominated by his wife, while their children, in their own ways, struggled against both their exalted positions and, more crucially, the often claustrophobically stifling confines of their family life, which was dominated by both the Tsarevich Alexei’s haemophilia and Tsarina Alexandra’s depression, anxiety and various incapacitating ailments. Helen Rappaport turns an unflinching eye upon the Romanovs, who are starkly revealed against the backdrop of their empty days in close confinement in Ekaterinburg and reveals a family both in crisis and also simultaneously apparently accepting of whatever fate lies in store for them – there’s certainly hints that they knew that the end was on its way, although it is unlikely they realised how brutal it would be.
The final chapters of Rappaport’s book deal with the murder itself and then the disposal of the bodies. The last moments of the Romanov family are relayed here with shocking attention to detail and it’s made clear that this was no organised execution but instead a horrifying, gruesome and disorganised act of butchery. The fate of each member of the family is described in terrible detail and it makes for extremely upsetting reading, especially as the previous chapters have done so much to bring them all to life.
Ultimately, I’d really recommend this book to anyone even slightly interested in the fate of the Romanov family and their last days in the aptly sinister named House of Special Purpose.