As the light faded, a train halted in the remote railway station of Lyubinskaya on the Trans-Siberian railway line. It was the evening of April 29, 1918, and there was nothing outwardly remarkable about the first-class railway carriage except the presence of a heavily armed guard outside the door. Sitting quietly inside was a family whose faces have been immortalised through pictures in history books. Four pale girls in white lace, their hair tied back with satin ribbons, and a sickly little boy in a sailor suit. Unbeknownst to them, they were making their final journey.
The young and beautiful Grand Duchesses, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, all sat beside their mother, Tsarina Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, while young Alexei lent on his father, the former Tsar, Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov. The engine started, and the train took a decisive direction. At that moment, all lingering hope inside Special Train Number 8 would have evaporated. The train was lumbering not towards a trial in Moscow or foreign exile as they had been led to believe, but to the bleak Urals, specifically Ekaterinburg, the historic hub of Russia's old penal system. In just 78 days - exactly 100 years ago today - they would be facing a firing squad.
So just how did these most aristocratic of aristocrats fall so decisively from glory?
A man of limited political vision and ability, Nicholas was an unlikely king. Even in stature, at 5ft 7in, he was lacking. Fatally, he turned a blind eye to social unrest and his unpopular wife’s obsession with Grigori Rasputin, the charismatic 'holy man' she believed could save her haemophiliac son Alexei from bleeding to death. Faced with escalating political turmoil in 1917, post World War 1, Nicholas believed he had no option but to abdicate 'for the good of Russia'. He did so because he naively believed it would guarantee the safety of his beloved family.
After the abdication, the family were initially placed under house arrest and then transferred to a small rural town, Tobolsk, where they retained a substantial entourage of 39 courtiers and servants. They brought many of their Imperial Palace treasures with them, including leather-bound volumes of photographs and vintage wines from the court cellars. Eventually, the revolutionaries decreed that this was too much of a privilege for the royal family and the luxuries could not be allowed in the emerging communist state. Instead, a house in Ekaterinburg was being prepared. It would be a far cry from the sumptuous winter and summer palaces, banqueting halls and glorious gardens the Imperial Family had previously enjoyed. Ominously, it would be referred to by a Bolshevik euphemism, 'dom osobogo znachenie' - The House of Special Purpose.
Stepping off the train in Ekaterinburg after a bone-rattling five-day journey, an exhausted Nicholas, Alexandra and their daughters were received into the hands of local soviets, along with their doctor, maid, valet and footman. Alexei had been left behind due to an attack of bleeding and would arrive three weeks later. It was Passion Week and the Easter bells of the Orthodox Church rang out merrily across the city as their car drew up to The House of Special Purpose. They looked backwards over their shoulders to the outside world for the last time and then the gates to their new home slammed shut. The Tsar was curtly told: 'Citizen Nicholas Romanov, you may enter.' Hidden behind a high wooden fence, its windows blacked out, the Romanov’s new home would be a gloomy prison consisting of five rooms.
Gradually, the Imperial Family settled in to their new lodgings. The private house, though hardly a palace, was nonetheless regarded as one of the most modern in the city because it possessed a flushing toilet. The family were allowed to keep their bed linen bearing personalised monograms and the Imperial crest, as well as fine porcelain dinner plates bearing the name Nicholas II. Alexandra had also brought supplies of her favourite English eau de cologne by Brocard, as well as cold cream and lavender salts.
These were not the only potions on which Alexandra was reliant. Plagued by migraines, heart palpitations, insomnia and sciatica, she was hopelessly addicted to a whole range of drugs. She had long ago admitted to being 'saturated' with Veronal, a barbiturate. She also took morphine and cocaine for menstrual pain. It has been speculated that Nicholas too was cushioned from reality by narcotics. It was said that his almost childlike indifference to losing the throne was the result of smoking a mixture of hashish and the psychoactive herb henbane administered to him by Rasputin to counter stress and insomnia.
Life in The House of Special Purpose was severely restrictive. They were not allowed visitors, they were to talk no language other than Russian (Alexandra liked to speak to her children in English) nor were they allowed to go outside the building except during a predetermined hour. Spirited and bored, the Romanov girls, aged between 17 and 22, ignored repeated warnings not to peek out of an unsecured top-floor window until a sentry fired a warning shot at Anastasia's head. On that occasion, a laundrywoman witnessed Anastasia sticking her tongue out at the guard. Alexandra complied with this directive not to speak English but she refused point blank to obey an edict to ring a bell every time she went to use the bathroom.
Daily life had become a matter of endurance. The young princesses' clothes were becoming increasingly threadbare. The white dresses and pretty hats they used to wear every summer at their palace in the Crimea, a seaside paradise where the air was thick with the scent of roses and honeysuckle, had long since disappeared. Lively and vivacious, the girls still beguiled their guards with one saying they could not have looked prettier 'even if they had been covered in gold and diamonds'.
The family had one consuming obsession: Alexei's fragile health. Since April, the 13-year-old had been suffering from a recurring haemorrhage in his knee, causing him agonising pain, so a splint was lackadaisically applied. Doctors had already cautioned Nicholas that Alexei would not reach sixteen because of his debilitating illness, but the child half-heartedly rallied nonetheless. Of late, he seemed to be at death's door and the family was exhausted by a relentless round of all-night sessions at his beside. Eventually, the splint was taken off his leg and he could be carried out to the garden. But he would never walk again.
By early July, the daily ritual of life at the House had taken on a numbing predictability. The family rose at eight in the morning and breakfasted on tea and black bread. The days were filled with endless games of cards, patience and the French game bezique, which was a family favourite, while Alexei played with his model ship and tin soldiers. During their hour in the small garden, the girls and their father, the man who had ruled 8.5 million square miles of empire now master of a single room, would walk the 40 paces back and forth in the small, scrappy garden, eager to make the most of their exercise time. Nicholas would watch his children play, his soft blue eyes full of tears while Alexandra took on the look of a broken woman. Each evening after a meagre supper, there were prayers and Bible readings, more games, diary writing, embroidery and sewing. Unbeknownst to their guards, the Romanov women spent long, furtive hours concealing gemstones and pearls into the linings of their dresses to fund the life in exile of which they dreamed.
Beyond the walls, civil war raged. The ranks of the White Army, which opposed the Bolsheviks, had been swelled by Czech deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army. They were rapidly gaining ground on Ekaterinburg. Food in the city was rationed and typhus and cholera had taken a grip.
On the outside, the mood was growing increasingly ugly. Forty-five members of the local Orthodox diocese were murdered, their eyes gouged out, tongues and ears hacked off and their mangled bodies thrown in the river, but inside the House of Special Purpose an air of unreality reigned. The family had learnt to be stoical, but their awful fate loomed.
It was getting hotter and hotter, and the inhabitants of the building had now settled into a state of restless boredom. In America, the Washington Post published rumours that they had already been executed. In Britain, George V had withdrawn his earlier offer of asylum for the family, not knowing that the Romanovs' fate at this point hung in the balance.
At the House of Special Purpose, the guard book recorded the activities as it had for many days: ‘Vse obychno’ - ‘Everything is the same’ - but ominous preparations were under way. A pit was being dug and a doctor was procuring 400lb of sulphuric acid.
Tuesday, July 16 began uneventfully for the Romanovs in their five rooms. Not so for their guards. Outside, they were assembling an armoury of guns in order to carry out their task and ordering 50 eggs from local nuns to ‘help give them strength for the task ahead’. At 3pm, the family walked around the strip of unkempt garden for the last time and after evening prayers, they went to bed.
At 1am, the Romanovs, their four remaining servants and the family doctor were awakened and told that the White Army was approaching and might launch an artillery attack on the house. They were told to go downstairs for their own safety. The Tsar got up immediately and his wife and daughters put on their camisoles sewn full of jewels and pearls, just like they had rehearsed many times for a rescue attempt or sudden flight. At 2.15am on July 17, they were led down to the basement with Anastasia carrying her sister Tatiana's little Pekinese, Jemmy, with her. The Tsar was heard to say to his daughters reassuringly: 'Well, we're going to get out of this place’.
They were ushered into a storeroom, lit by a single naked bulb, to find the windows had been nailed shut. The family and their servants were lined up as if for an official photograph and then left alone for half an hour. Outside, their assassins were downing shots of vodka.
Re-entering the room, a guard read out a statement sentencing the family to death.
It wasn’t until the order came to shoot that Nicholas reacted. He called out an incredulous ‘What? WHAT?’ before he was shot point blank in the chest and as his body crumbled to the ground, the rest of the guards started firing. An ashen-faced Alexie, too crippled to move, survived the first volley of bullets, protected by both his father’s body and jewels sewn into his underwear and cap as did his sisters, protected by 1.3 kilograms of diamonds sewn into the bodices of their dresses. But it was only a temporary reprieve. When the gun smoke and plaster cleared, sobs and whimpers were heard as Alexandra and the children huddled together against a wall covering their heads in terror. It was then the drunken guards realised they’d botched the slaughter.
None of the remaining Romanovs died a quick or painless death. One by one, the guards moved from person to person bayoneting them first then shooting them in the head to prevent identification. What should have been a quick, clean execution had turned into a 20-minute orgy of killing, with only the thick clouds of gunpowder smoke obscuring the full horror of it. Their bodies were then taken fourteen miles away and burnt, dowsed in sulphuric acid and buried in two pits.
For the better part of the 20th century, their bodies lay concealed. In 1979, amateur historians discovered the remains and with the help of DNA testing, the identities were confirmed. Every member of the Romanov family had been murdered.