Thursday, December 27, 2018

One hundred years since the Romanov murders

One hundred years have just passed since the Bolshevik regime in what was to become the Soviet union decided to kill all members of the Romanov house that they could lay hands on. After 300 years of Romanov rule, the last Czar of Russia, Nicholas II, had abdicated in early 1917. His reign had been characterized by large economic progress but also continuous unrest, terrorist attempts, revolts, and two disastrous wars the Russian empire was unprepared for and could not carry politically-structurally (especially since the Emperor had put himself at the helm of the armed forces). After the abdication, a liberal, west-oriented provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky was put in place and general elections to a new parliament were prepared for in the spring of 1918. The Great War had been fought since the summer of 1914. After initial great successes against Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, which had relieved the West Front of France and Flanders that certainly would have collapsed and led to a swift German victory in 1914 had the two-front war not forced Germany to split its resources, the Russian people was totally exhausted by the war by 1917, and in spite of the promise of victory brought by the US entrance, could not withstand the coup d'état of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. The planned election was called off and the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was proclaimed. Soon, Russia (to be renamed the Soviet Union) turned away from the West and its former close ties with Europe diplomatically, culturally and economically were broken off. 

In Russia, Nicholas remained with his wife Alexandra and their five children, living a fairly comfortable life in captivity in a governor's residence in Siberia. His brother and several uncles had remained in Saint Petersburg with their families and his mother, sister and other family members had gone to the Crimea. The Bolshevik regime soon agreed to the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany, in which Russia gave up large areas of Central Europe for peace. Nevertheless, almost immediately a civil war broke out to depose the Bolsheviks, who were only supported by a small part of the population. The question of what would happen to the more than twenty members of the Romanov family who remained in Russia was in the air. Claims for public trials specifically against Nicholas and Alexandra in the style of those against Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette more than a hundred years before were raised. That the end would be similar started to seem likely.

On the other hand, few people could imagine that the Bolsheviks would decide to eradicate the entire Romanov family, as far as its members were in Bolshevik-controlled territory. But this was Lenin's and Sverdlov's plan. They started with Nicholas younger brother Michael, an officer with liberal leanings, in order to probe the international mood. He was abducted from the Siberian city of Perm in June, 1918, with his English secretary, and his destiny remains enigmatic ever since. More importantly, there was no international outcry, not even what could be called a "reaction". Then, on July 17, 1918, Nicolas was massacred with his wife, five children (the oldest, Olga, was 22, the youngest, the haemophiliac Heir, Alexey, had just reached the age of 14). The family's doctor, cook and two servants shared their destiny, only a 14-year-old kitchen boy was saved. The next day, Alexandra's sister Ella, who upon being widowed in 1905 had given away all her possessions, started a religious order and worked among Moscow's poor, was thrown alive in a mining shaft followed by burning faggots and live hand grenades together with a fellow nun, an old Grand Duke, three Princes and the 21-year-old poet and officer cadet Prince Vladimir Paley. Hymn singing was heard from the shaft for several days afterwards and in it, the sisters might even have been able to dress some of the men's wounds. Finally, four Grand Dukes were shot in St. Petersburg in January the following year, 1919. In Crimea, the Czar's Danish mother with her daughter, grandchildren and some cousins were rescued by the British navy in April, after having long refused to abandon Russia to its destiny. A few other family members succeeded in various daring escapes. In one way, the Bolsheviks succeeded in their purpose: since 1920, the Russian Imperial family in exile has consisted of rival fractions. Only in recent years have some of them moved back to Russia, but without playing a political role. Claimants to be miraculously saved children of the Czar became part of the 20th century folklore and the subject of several Anastasia movies. A new grasp on the history has been taken by the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, in his new TV-series, The Romanoffs.  


In the background to the fall of the Czarist regime in 1917, Grigorij Rasputin, a wandering Siberian man, is always referred to. He had become indispensable to Alexandra through his ability to stop Alexey's bleedings. Presenting himself as a "Man of God", he was neither priest nor monk, and lived a life of debauchery when given the opportunity, in a manner that scandalized the Imperial family in the eyes of contemporary society. In recent years, several scientific biographies have been published about him (FuhrmanSmith), which makes it easier to understand his person and the role he played. He had great charisma, impressive to people in high society, which helped him gain a following, in spite of his lack of religious education and far from conventionally pious life-style. His core message ("The more you sin the more abundant Grace you will receive"), however, has always gained traction, especially among the higher echelons of society. 

After a few years of wandering and pilgrimage, including to the Mount Athos, Rasputin was established as a phenomenon in St Petersburg society and was introduced to Nicholas and Alexandra by 1905, and to their children the following year. Then he prayed for Alexey, who had an attack of haemophilia. Alexandra was deeply religious with mystical traits, and when Alexey instantly recovered, she came to see Rasputin as her son's saviour, possessing magic insights in the future. For long, his advice was sound, including a prophetic warning for the Great War to be declared. Unfortunately, this was one of the times Nicholas did not heed his advice. Alexandra was an Orthodox Christian (after converting from Lutheranism shortly before her marriage) and a Russian patriot - the rumors that she had worked to favor her native Germany are as false those of intimate relationships with Rasputin. 

How Alexandra could isolate herself and her family from the court and the people (the same basic mistake as Marie Antoinette did, whose portrait Alexandra had in her audience room and should have had lots of opportunities to contemplate) and then give Rasputin access to the family's private circles, has been discussed widely and the historians' judgment about Alexandra has been consistently severe). One possibility is that she modeled her relationship with Rasputin on those of her grand-mother, Queen Victoria of Britain, who first granted the Scotsman John Brown and then the Hindu muslim Abdul Karim access to her family life as some sort of deputies for the common people. As a child and a young woman, Alexandra must have seen both of these two men in the presence of her grandmother, and we know she had the British Queen as model for her way of managing her family and her court (though, unfortunately, she rejected British constitutionalism for Russia). It is possible that she simply saw Rasputin as no more scandalous than her grand-mother's "friends". 

Several events when Rasputin's presence or prayers coincided with Alexey's sudden recovery from life-threatening bleedings are documented. The most famous occurred at the Polish hunting lodge Spala in the autumn of 1912. Alexey had a haematoma in his groin that had become infected and led to peritonitis and septicaemia. Bulletins of his imminent death were sent out to the Russian Empire (although his disease was otherwise treated as a state secret). Rasputin had been banned from court the prior year after an especially vicious drinking bout. In total despair, Alexandra telegraphed him to ask for prayer and his imminent answer was just "Be calm. The boy will live". The next day, Alexey sat up and ate. After that, nothing could shake Alexandra's faith in Rasputin's miraculous powers. It has been speculated whether this was linked to the bleeding disease being of a less serious nature or a totally different disease. This can, however, be rejected on the basis of genetic analyses made on the skeletons of the family, where a specific base pair mutation was found that completely inhibits the synthesis of coagulation factor IX in Alexey, his mother and one of his sisters (women do not get sick but act as carriers of the disease as they have a healthy gene copy on their second X chromosome, whereas men just have the defective gene on their single X chromosome, and therefore bleed). These results have also shed new light on the disease in the British, German, and Spanish royal families (tragically enough, the same disease contributed to the weakening of the Spanish monarchy and the ensuing civil war there). Most probably, it was due to a de novo mutation in Queen Victoria herself, who had a haemophilic son and at least two carrier daughters.

Verdict of History

Nicholas, Alexandra, their children and last "court" who shared their destiny have been rehabilitated from the very negative image propagated after the revolution, not least through modern evidence that the Czar tranferred all his bank assets back to Russia at the outbreak of war in 1914 in order to support the war effort. They have been declared saints by the Russian Orthodox Church, first the whole family and their entourage by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1981 and then by the joint Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 (the family only, as "passion-bearers", and then the doctor, Eugene Botkin (stemming from a very well-known Russian medical family), in 1916). During their captivity, they showed unusual dignity and courage, reconciliation with their destiny and forgiveness of those who did them ill, which have made them icons for today of family closeness in adversity and patience and equanimity before death. The judgment on Nicholas' reign, which was first only defended by a handful of historians, among them Sir Winston Churchill, has become more nuanced. But it is as human beings that the Romanovs have come to touch people in our age. During their imprisonment, they showed unusual dignity and courage, made peace with their destiny and forgave their guards and prayed for the new men in power. The family, parents and children alike, were carried by affection for each other and lived a deep Christian faith that during the last year became a mystical identification with each other and the suffering Christ. The image of them waiting for their assassins has come to stand as an icon for families who stay together through adversity and suffering and prepare to face death with humility and reconciliation.

Robert Massie's biography "Nicholas and Alexandra" came out in 1967 and gave rise to one of the last old-fashioned feature films intended for all-night showing with a pause at the theatres in 1971. Since then, countless biographies have been published on the family, both about their political role and the magnificent and lifelong love story of Nicholas and Alexandra, who is considered one of the happiest in the royal annals and even one of history's "classic" love couples. But the opening of the Russian archives and the internet made a lot of new material available, not least photographs. The members of the last Imperial family constantly photographed each other, in all conceivable situations, from nude baths in the Gulf of Finland to the most magnificent state ceremonies of the Russian empire. Of course, most of these photos were never intended to be made public - but now they are (you can just start browsing on Google, Pinterest, YouTube or Flickr, using Nicholas and Alexandra, OTMA, Alexey, Romanovs, Alexanderpalace). And the chance is that you will be mesmerised just the way countless others have been. Not only were all the members of the family outstandingly beautiful, each in his or her specific way, dressed in exquisite Belle Epoque finery, they really had the ability to "go through" the lens in the way international royalty had to wait for a certain young lady to relive as a bride in 1981. The recreations of their lives now abounds on websites, blogs, and photographic reconstructions of their lives. The four sisters used the first letter of their names to create a common signature, OTMA, which is now the title of a widely played theatrical play. The whole Russian revolution was recreated through excerpts from letters and speeches and historically accurate Twitter feeds from all its main protagonists, from the members of the imperial household to the revolutionaries under the hashtags Romanov100 or Russia_1917. A new book including reconstructed images is planned for early 2019 to showcase the spiritual impact of the family, Royal Martyrs

Through their camera shots, the family has also come to serve as photographic icons for all the millions that fell victim to the communist revolutions and perished in civil wars of the 20th century, in a way similar to that of Anne Frank's diary and portrait, which made her the icon of the victims of the Holocaust. After a more and more desolate reign (for which they were tragically unprepared and too young, just as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had been), lost wars and a harsh historical verdict, the last Imperial family of Russia, a hundred years after their deaths, have come to have a deep spiritual meaning to countless people, this time not as princes but as a family. Their group photos embody the hope of family, love and faith before evil and suffering without any possibility of a humanely happy ending. 

The Romanovs' home albums now form a work of art that stands on its own in relation to their political and religious significance. The girls in their white dresses, the loving parents and the boy in the sailor suit.  The summer at the sea, the snow mountains of winter, the palace interiors. Olga in love at the outbreak of war, growing into an ascetic and pensative young woman, Tatiana the responsible, tall with her hair in an up-do, the warm-hearted and loving Maria, and the always funny Anastasia doing pranks before the camera, sometimes with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth at a very young age. The hemophiliac boy who dreamt of being a soldier, with the look of someone who has been ill and in constant pain for most of his life, often to the point that he had to be carried by a sailor or his parents. The emperor looking uncomfortable, even nervous, in public but oh so proud of his family (and of his well-toned body while swimming naked). Alexandra's youthful beauty, sad gaze and, finally, prematurely aged face as she lived with the constant risk of her son dying from any trivial bleeding (as she had seen her uncle, her brother and so many other relatives do). She really looks five - or sometimes even ten - years older for each year passing in the last decade of her life, and her visible suffering will stay longer with the viewer than any of her outward splendor. In all, it forms a touching image of life's different phases and aspects.


Nicholas, his wife Alexandra (Alix of Hesse) and mother Marie (Dagmar of Denmark) were the most prominent members of the Romanov family and closely related to ruling families on all sides; through his mother, a daughter of the Danish King Christian IX, Nicholas was a first cousin of the Kings of Britain, Greece, Denmark and Norway, and of a number of German princes, while Alexandra was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and thus first cousin of the German Emperor and the King of Britain, the Queens of Norway and Spain and the Crown Princess of Sweden. None of their royal relatives tried especially hard to save them during their last year. The one Head-of-state who really tried was the unrelated King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who may have had some special sympathy as a father of haemophiliac sons. Members of Alexandra's close family came to prominence during the 20th century, when her niece, Lady Louise Mountbatten, married the widowed Crown-Prince Gustaf Adolf of Sweden in 1923 and became a much-loved Queen of Sweden from 1950 to her death in 1965. Her brother, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was a British Admiral of the Fleet and was assassinated by the IRA in 1979. And, of course, Alexandra's grand-niece, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, later Philip Mountbatten, married the future Queen Elizabeth, whose own great-grandmother, Queen Alexandra of the UK, had been the sister of Nicholas' mother, Dagmar of Denmark, the Dowager Empress Marie of Russia.

DNA studies have accounted for all members of the last Imperial family, meaning that no-one survived the massacre of July 17, 1918, and that all "survivors" who have claimed to be Anastasia, Alexey or any of the other Russian Royals, have been impostors.

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