At the end of the “February Revolution”, Nicholas II chose to abdicate on March 15, 1917. He first abdicated in favor of Alexei, but a few hours later changed his mind after advice from doctors that Alexei would not live long enough while separated from his parents, who would be forced into exile. Nicholas thus abdicated on behalf of his son, and drew up a new manifesto naming his brother, Grand Duke Michael, as the next Emperor of all Russias. He issued a statement but it was suppressed by the Provisional Government.
Grand Duke Michael declined to accept the throne until the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic. The abdication of Nicholas II and Michael’s deferment of accepting the throne brought three centuries of the Romanov dynasty’s rule to an end. The fall of Tsarist autocracy brought joy to liberals and socialists in Britain and France. The United States was the first foreign government to recognize the Provisional government. In Russia, the announcement of the Tsar’s abdication was greeted with many emotions, including delight, relief, fear, anger and confusion.
Possibility of exile
Both the Provisional Government and Nicholas wanted the royal family to go into exile following his abdication, with the United Kingdom being the preferred option. The British government reluctantly offered the family asylum on March 19, 1917, although it was suggested that it would be better for the Romanovs to go to a neutral country. News of the offer provoked uproar from the Labour Party and many Liberals, and the British ambassador Sir George Buchanan advised the government that the extreme left would use the ex-Emperor’s presence “as an excuse for rousing public opinion against us”.
The offer of asylum was withdrawn in April following objections by King George V, who, acting on the advice of his secretary Arthur Bigge, 1st Baron Stamfordham, was worried that Nicholas’s presence might provoke an uprising like the previous year’s Easter Rising in Ireland.
The French government declined to accept the Romanovs in view of increasing unrest on the Western Front and on the home front as a result of the ongoing war with Germany. The British ambassador in Paris, Lord Francis Bertie, advised the Foreign Secretary that the Romanovs would be unwelcome in France as the ex-Empress was regarded as pro-German.
Even if an offer of asylum had been forthcoming, there would have been other obstacles to be overcome. The Provisional Government only remained in power through an uneasy alliance with the Petrograd Soviet, an arrangement known as “The Dual Power”. An initial plan to send the royal family to the northern port of Murmansk had to be abandoned when it was realised that the railway workers and the soldiers guarding them were loyal to the Petrograd Soviet, which opposed the escape of the tsar; a later proposal to send the Romanovs to a neutral port in the Baltic Sea via the Duchy of Finland faced similar difficulties
On March 20, 1917, the Provisional Government decreed that the royal family should be held under house arrest in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Nicholas joined the rest of the family there two days later, having traveled from the wartime headquarters at Mogilev. The family had total privacy inside the palace, but walks in the grounds were strictly regulated. Members of their domestic staff were allowed to stay if they wished and culinary standards were maintained.
That summer, the failure of the Kerensky Offensive against Austro-Hungarian and German forces in Galicia led to anti-government rioting in Petrograd, known as the July Days. The government feared that further disturbances in the city could easily reach Tsarskoye Selo and it was decided to move the royal family to a safer location. Alexander Kerensky, who had taken over as prime minister, selected the town of Tobolsk in Western Siberia, since it was remote from any large city and 150 miles (240 km) from the nearest rail station. Some sources state that there was an intention to send the family abroad in the spring of 1918 via Japan, but more recent work suggests that this was just a Bolshevik rumour.
The family left the Alexander Palace late on August 13, reached Tyumen by rail four days later and then by two river ferries finally reached Tobolsk on August 19. There they lived in the former Governor’s Mansion in considerable comfort. In October 1917, however, the Bolsheviks seized power from Kerensky’s Provisional Government; Nicholas followed the events in October with interest but no alarm.
In February 1918, the Council of People’s Commissars (abbreviated to “Sovnarkom”) in Moscow, the new capital, announced that the state subsidy for the family would be drastically reduced, starting on March 1. This meant parting with twelve devoted servants and giving up butter and coffee as luxuries, even though Nicholas added to the funds from his own resources. What kept the family’s spirits up was the belief that help was at hand. The Romanovs believed that various plots were underway to break them out of captivity and smuggle them to safety. The Western Allies lost interest in the fate of the Romanovs after Russia left the war. The German government wanted the monarchy restored in Russia to crush the Bolsheviks and maintain good relations with the Central Powers.
The situation in Tobolsk changed for the worse on March 26, when 250 ill-disciplined Red Guards arrived from the regional capital, Omsk. Not to be outdone, the soviet in Yekaterinburg, the capital of the neighbouring Ural region, sent 400 Red Guards to exert their influence on the town. Disturbances between these rival groups and the lack of funds to pay the guard detachment caused them to send a delegation to Moscow to plead their case. The result was that Sovnarkom appointed their own commissar to take charge of Tobolsk and remove the Romanovs to Yekaterinburg, with the intention of eventually bringing Nicholas to a show trial in Moscow.
The man selected was Vasily Yakovlev, a veteran Bolshevik, Recruiting a body of loyal men en route, Yakovlev arrived in Tobolsk on April 22; he imposed his authority on the competing Red Guards factions, paid-off and demobilized the guard detachment, and placed further restrictions on the Romanovs. The next day, Yakovlev informed Kobylinsky that Nicholas was to be transferred to Yekaterinburg. Alexei was too ill to travel, so Alexandra elected to go with Nicholas along with Maria.
At 3 am on April 23, the three Romanovs, their retinue, and the escort of Yakovlev’s detachment, left Tobolsk in a convoy of nineteen tarantasses (four-wheeled carriages), as the river was still partly frozen which prevented the use of the ferry. After an arduous journey which included two overnight stops, fording rivers, frequent changes of horses and a foiled plot by the Yekaterinburg Red Guards to abduct and kill the prisoners, the party arrived at Tyumen and boarded a requisitioned train.
Yakovlev was able to communicate securely with Moscow by means of a Hughes’ teleprinter and obtained agreement to change their destination to Omsk, where it was thought that the leadership were less likely to harm the Romanovs. Leaving Tyumen early on 28 April, the train left towards Yekaterinburg, but quickly changed direction towards Omsk. This led the Yekaterinburg leaders to believe that Yakovlev was a traitor who was trying to take Nicholas to exile by way of Vladivostok; telegraph messages were sent, two thousand armed men were mobilized and a train was dispatched to arrest Yakovlev and the Romanovs. The Romanovs’ train was halted at Omsk station and after a frantic exchange of cables with Moscow, it was agreed that they should go to Yekaterinburg in return for a guarantee of safety for the royal family; they finally arrived there on the morning of April 30.
They were imprisoned in the two-story Ipatiev House, the home of the military engineer Nikolay Nikolayevich Ipatiev, which ominously became referred to as the “house of special purpose”. Here the Romanovs were kept under even stricter conditions; their retinue was further reduced and their possessions were searched. The remaining Romanovs left Tobolsk by river steamer on May 20. and arrived in Yekaterinburg three days later. By the first weeks of June, the Bolsheviks were becoming alarmed by the Revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion, whose forces were approaching the city from the east. This prompted a wave of executions and murders of those in the region who were believed to be counter-revolutionaries, including Grand Duke Michael, who was murdered in Perm on 13 June.
Although the Bolshevik leadership in Moscow still intended to bring Nicholas to trial, as the military situation deteriorated, Leon Trotsky and Yakov Sverdlov began to publicly equivocate about the possible fate of the former Emperor. On July 16, the Yekaterinburg leadership informed Yurovsky that it had been decided to execute the Romanovs as soon as approval arrived from Moscow, because the Czechs were expected to reach the city imminently. A coded telegram arrived in Moscow from Yekaterinburg that evening; after Lenin and Sverdlov had conferred a reply was sent, although no trace of that document has ever been found. In the meantime, Yurovsky had organized his firing squad and they waited through the night at the Ipatiev House for the signal to act.
There are several accounts of what happened and historians have not agreed on a solid, confirmed scope of events. According to the account of Bolshevik officer Yakov Yurovsky (the chief executioner), in the early hours of July 17, 1918, the royal family was awakened around 2:00 am, got dressed, and were led down into a half-basement room at the back of the Ipatiev house. The pretext for this move was the family’s safety, i.e. that anti-Bolshevik forces were approaching Yekaterinburg, and the house might be fired upon.
Present with Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were their doctor and three of their servants, who had voluntarily chosen to remain with the family: the Emperor’s personal physician Eugene Botkin, his wife’s maid Anna Demidova, and the family’s chef, Ivan Kharitonov, and footman, Alexei Trupp. A firing squad had been assembled and was waiting in an adjoining room, composed of seven Communist soldiers from Central Europe, and three local Bolsheviks, all under the command of Yurovsky.
Nicholas was carrying his son. When the family arrived in the basement, the former Emperor asked if chairs could be brought in for his wife and son to sit on. Yurovsky ordered two chairs brought in, and when the Empress and the heir were seated, the executioners filed into the room. Yurovsky announced to them that the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies had decided to execute them.
A stunned Nicholas asked, “What? What did you say?” and turned toward his family. Yurovsky quickly repeated the order and Nicholas said, according to Peter Ermakov, “You know not what you do.”
The executioners drew handguns and began shooting; Nicholas was the first to die. Yurovsky took credit afterwards for firing the first shot that killed the Emperor, but his protege – Grigory Nikulin – said years later that Mikhail Medvedev had fired the shot that killed Nicholas. “He fired the first shot. He killed the Emperor” he said in 1964 in a tape-recorded statement for the radio. Nicholas was shot several times in the chest (sometimes erroneously said to have been shot in his head, but his skull bore no bullet wounds when it was discovered in 1991).
Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Maria survived the first hail of bullets; the sisters were wearing over 1.3 kilograms of diamonds and precious gems sewn into their clothing, which provided some initial protection from the bullets and bayonets. They were then stabbed with bayonets and finally shot at close range in their heads.
An announcement from the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government emphasized that conspiracies had been exposed to free the ex-Emperor that counter-revolutionary forces were pressing in on Soviet Russian territory, and that the ex-tsar was guilty of unforgivable crimes against the nation.
In view of the enemy’s proximity to Yekaterinburg and the exposure by the Cheka of a serious White Guard plot with the goal of abducting the former Emperor and his family. In light of the approach of counterrevolutionary bands toward the Red capital of the Urals and the possibility of the crowned executioner escaping trial by the people (a plot among the White Guards to try to abduct him and his family was exposed and the compromising documents will be published), the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet, fulfilling the will of the Revolution, resolved to shoot the former Nicholas, Nikolai Romanov, who is guilty of countless, bloody, violent acts against the Russian people.
The bodies were driven to nearby woodland, searched and burned. The remains were soaked in acid and finally thrown down a disused mineshaft. On the following day, other members of the Romanov family including Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the empress’s sister, who were being held in a school at Alapayevsk, were taken to another mine shaft and thrown in alive, except for Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich who was shot when he tried to resist.