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 book. 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 and 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, they would be facing a firing squad.
Nicholas was never regarded as a likely king. He was shy, gentle in nature, indecisive and fearful of controversy. But it was his devotion to his family that made him make many fateful mistakes during his reign. By far, the worst mistake was ignoring his unpopular wife’s obsession with Grigori Rasputin, the charismatic 'holy man'she believed could save her haemophiliac son Alexei from bleeding to death.
It was this fatal mistake, made for the love of his family, that caused him to turn a blind eye to the social unrest in his country during a time of escalating political turmoil. Nicholas believed he had no option but to abdicate 'for the good of Russia'and 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. Eventually, this was regarded as too much of a privilege for the royal family and a house in Ekaterinburg was prepared for their arrival.
Stepping off the train in Ekaterinburg after a bone-rattling five-day journey, an exhausted Nicholas and Alexandra, together with their daughters and son, were received into the hands of local soviets, along with their doctor, maid, valet and footman. Their new home would ominously be referred to by a Bolshevik euphemism, dom osobogo znachenie- The House of Special Purpose - and as they passed through the gate, they looked backwards over their shoulders to the outside world for the last time. It was Passion Week and the Easter bells of the Orthodox Church rang out merrily across the city. As the gates to his new prison 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. It would be a far cry from the sumptuous winter and summer palaces, banqueting halls and glorious gardens the Imperial Family had previously enjoyed, but gradually, they settled into 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, lavender salts and the many potions on which she was reliant. Plagued by migraines, heart palpitations, insomnia and sciatica, she was hopelessly addicted to a whole range of drugs including morphine and cocaine for menstrual pain. It has been speculated that Nicholas, too, was cushioned from the reality of losing his throne by 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. Gone were the white dresses and pretty hats that 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. Now they were not allowed visitors, they were to talk no language other than Russian (Alexandra liked to speak to her children in English) and they were not allowed to go outside the building except during a predetermined hour. Spirited and bored, the Romanov girls, aged between 17 and 22, ignored warnings not to peek out of an unsecured top-floor window until a sentry fired a warning shot at Anastasia's head.
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 bedside. 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 1918, 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. The family had learnt to be stoical, but their awful fate loomed.
Beyond the walls, civil war raged and the mood was growing increasingly ugly. The ranks of the White Army, which opposed the Bolsheviks, were rapidly gaining ground on Ekaterinburg. Food in the city was rationed and typhus and cholera had taken a grip. 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. Inside the House of Special Purpose, as the weather grew hot, the Romanovs settled into a state of restless boredom and an air of unreality reigned.
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.
Tuesday, July 16th began uneventfully for the Romanovs in their five rooms. 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 Nicky reacted. He called out an incredulous “What? What?”before he was shot point blank in the chest. As his body crumbled to the ground, the rest of the men started firing. An ashen-faced Alexei, 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 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 unmarked graves.
King George V was watching the balloon-training wing of the RAF on the day his cousin Tsar Nicholas and his family were assassinated. He was to hear of his cousin’s murder three days later when the Bolsheviks announced it.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s downfall would come three months later in October when he took his family from the Berlin army headquarters to Spa. To everyone in Berlin, it looked like Wilhelm was running away. Up to that point, he had accepted the fact that he would most likely have to give up the imperial crown, but he still hoped to retain the Prussian kingship. On 9thNovember that hope became a distant dream. He and his family were driven quietly to the Dutch border and unceremoniously told to leave. He would spend the rest of his life in exile in Holland.
Wilhelm was not the only one who had been forced to abdicate. Elsewhere in Europe, the kings of Greece, Bulgaria and Austria, had been deposed and the ruling dukes of Coburg and Hesse had been forced to abdicate as well. The Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz committed suicide by shooting himself.
When the crowds came to Buckingham Palace on Armistice Day, November 11th1919 to mark the end of hostilities on the Western Front, their cheers were deafening. George was the only monarch still standing on his balcony. But it had come at a huge price.