Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull
This coming Tuesday marks the centennial of the brutal execution of the former Russian imperial family. The former Tsar, his wife and their children were being held in captivity at Yekaterinburg, uncertain as to their ultimate fate. They had hoped to be evacuated to England, but King George V, both the Tsar and the Tsarina’s cousin, refused to grant them asylum.
In March 1917, in the midst of the impending failure of the Russian effort in the first World War, the Tsar had abdicated for himself and his son, the Tsarevich, turning power over to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who the following day went to the Duma, the Russian parliament and said he would rule if requested by the Duma, but only after the writing of a new constitution. I often have thought that any biography of Michael should be entitled, “Tsar for A Day.”
V.I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power in November 1917, overturning the Provisional Government that had ruled since the abdication. They captured the former imperial family and held them in Yekaterinburg, a remote location in eastern Russia where they could not be rescued.
The presiding officer of Lenin’s government was Jacob Sverdlov and in that capacity, fearful of attempts being made to liberate them, he signed the order directing the murder of the former Tsar and his family. The Bolsheviks moved quickly. The family was taken to the basement of the house, along with their household staff, where they were being kept, lined up against a wall, shot and bayoneted. Their bodies were burned and the skeletal remains were dumped in a mineshaft, which then was filled with heavy material designed to make retrieval impossible.
Sverdlov died the following year at the age of 33, probably as a result of the Spanish influenza epidemic and his remains were interred in front of the Kremlin Wall on Red Square. (The “Red” in Red Square does not refer to Red in the communist meaning of the word, but rather to the other meaning of the word in English, namely “beautiful.”) In 1924 the city of Yekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk in his honor.
For the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London in 1953, the Soviet Union sent a representative delegation on board the cruiser, “Sverdlov,” named for the Bolshevik official who had ordered the murder of her cousins. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sverdlovsk was renamed Yekaterinburg and the mineshaft was excavated, leading to the discovery of the remains of the imperial family. The latter were taken to Saint Petersburg and interred in the Peter and Paul Fortress amid the tombs of previous Tsars.
Now a century has passed since that sad day when brutality reigned supreme. For the Russian émigré community that lived abroad, each year the day was a source of profound mourning. I recall my Russian language professor being tearful when he spoke of the event and Russian Orthodox churches having special services. Tsar Nicholas and his wife Tsarina Alexandra are considered saints in Russian Orthodoxy.
At Yekaterinburg the Church on Blood in Honor of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land, a large, traditional-style, gold-domed Russian Orthodox Church, has been constructed over the site of the murders.
The youngest of the four Romanoff daughters was Anastasia. For decades rumors circulated that she had survived the mass murder in the basement at Yekaterinburg and many “False Anastasias” came forth. The most famous of the latter was Anna Manahan, who claimed to be the Grand Duchess.
In 1968, she came to America and married the Virginia historian, Dr. John (Jack) Manahan, who spent the rest of his life trying to prove she was the real Anastasia. He had written on Northern Neck history, specializing in Northumberland County. He liked to travel down to Heathsville from Charlottesville with “False Anastasia” to attend meetings of the Northumberland County Historical Society. On those occasions she usually was attired in pajamas and rarely, if ever, spoke.
After her death in Charlottesville in 1984 and the subsequent retrieval of the remains at Yekaterinburg, DNA testing proved that she was not part of the Romanoff dynasty. Jack Manahan continued to try to prove her legitimacy until his death in 1990. Perhaps her lasting legacy was the inspiration for the 1956 motion picture, “Anastasia” for which Ingrid Bergman won the Oscar for Best Actress.
This Tuesday I shall be thinking of my many Russian émigré friends, most of whom now are dead and their grief that I witnessed over the fate of their former imperial family.