Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Death of the Romanovs

One hundred years ago today the Russian imperial Romanov family and its attendants, all under house arrest at Ekaterinburg 1,000 km east of Moscow, were were shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death, as ordered by the new ruling Bolshevik party, headed by Vladimir Lenin. Among the murdered were Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsaritsa Alexandra and their five children. Both the Tsar and the Tsarina kept diaries - see Hope remains above all for extracts from the Tsar’s (dull) diaries - but to mark this anniversary I have chosen the very last (and also very dull) diary entries penned by the Tsaritsa - Alexandra Feodorovna - as found in The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra.

Alix Viktoria Helene Luise Beatrix was born in 1872, the sixth child (of seven) born to Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine (part of the German Empire), and his first wife Princess Alice of the UK, the second daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert. Her early life is said to have been carefree and happy, but when six years old she, and other members of the family, fell ill with diphtheria. Her mother and one sister died leaving Alix reserved and withdrawn. She and her siblings grew close to their British cousins, spending holidays with Queen Victoria. The British queen intended Alix to marry her grandson Prince Albert Victor, who was second in line to the British throne, but Alix had fallen in love, years earlier, with Grand Duke Nicholas, heir to the throne of Russia. Despite many obstacles, the two eventually married in 1894, and, on
 being accepted into the Russian Orthodox Church, Alix took the name Alexandra Feodorovna, and she became the Russian Tsaritsa and Empress.

There is a substantial literature on the Tsar and Tsarina, and much information online, not least at the extensive Alexander Palace Time Machine. See Hope remains above all for further biography links. Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the murder of the Romanov family. It explains how the Bolsheviks revealed the death of Nicholas II but kept secret the other murders, and how it was only in 1979 that the bodies were discovered. It would be another 10 years, in the glasnost period, before the full details of that night - 16-17 July 1918 - were revealed to the West.

After Alexandra’s death, hundreds of letters she wrote to her husband were found at Ekaterinburg. These have been much employed by historians to help explain the unfolding of events prior to the  Russian Revolution. But, like her husband, Alexandra also seems to have kept diaries all her life. With the demise of the Soviet state, several of these, long hidden in the Moscow archives, came to light, including for the years 1887-1892, 1894 and 1916-1918. They are mostly written in English, though her native language was German (and she spoke fluent Russian). Only one of these, however, has been published in English (others have been translated into Russian and/or Dutch - see a discussion at the Alexander Palace Forum ), notably The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra, as edited by Vladimir A. Zozlov and Vladimir M. KhrustalĂ«v (Yale University Press 1997).

According to Yale University Press: ‘The 1918 Diary takes us into [the Tsarista’s] private world, revealing the care she lavished on her children during this period of revolutionary turmoil, how she felt toward her husband, Tsar Nicholas, and what she imagined about the profound struggle - between past and present, old and new worlds, the sacred and the profane - then occurring over the destiny of Russia. The diary reveals that even in her most intimate reflections, she remained the representative of a great system of belief that had prevailed for hundreds of years in Russia and that she and Nicholas hoped to perpetuate. We see in painful detail the tragic daily confrontation between this system of belief and the reality of the modern world that had, in every sense, broken free of her and Nicholas’s control.’

Robert K. Massie, a US historian and biographer, provides an informative introduction to the Last Diary: ‘Its cryptic, unemotional style stands in sharp contrast to the tumultuous style of her letters. Here she is creating, for herself alone, a simple record of the highlights of each day: the weather and temperature; family illnesses and health; meals; periods and subjects of study; visitors (welcome and unwelcome); books read; games played. Her religious faith is evident. On the diary’s first page, she displays her effort to master the numerical system of Old Church Slavonic (different from everyday Russian, which uses Arabic numerals). Through the diary, she records saint’s days, feast days, and other religious holidays. Every religious service held by the family in Tobolsk and Ekaterinburg is set down. Usually, her feelings about an event break through only in a highly abbreviated form. Nevertheless, despite its style and brevity, the diary is filled with poignancy and drama. Alexandra does not know what is going to happen; the modern reader does. Fleshed out by our knowledge from other sources, this diary gives a clear picture of these grim weeks and tells us much about the character of this much-criticized, reclusive, and melancholy woman.’

The book also contains a short essay by Jonathan Brent (then editorial director at Yale University Press) on the diary itself in which he explains its rather pedantic form, its preoccupation with numbers and the use of coded language. He writes: ‘Alexandra’s diary brings the inexorable, predetermined succession of days, anniversaries, hours, and minutes - numbers following one another seemingly without end - into relation with the daily, unpredictable contingencies of the weather, her children’s temperatures, and the chaotic events of the Revolution. We see the empress presiding over a world within a world, which is given simple form in her daily observations.’ And, a little further on he says: ‘Although Alexandra’s incessant jottings of time, place, weather, holidays, and anniversaries may seem, at first glance, of little or no importance, they are, upon reflection, what give this little book unique significance as a text. The diary records not only the empress’s own day-by-day descent into the maelstrom of revolution and the modern world, but principally her symbolic accommodation of the new and her resistance to the destruction of a traditional order of thought, action, and belief.’

Here are the last seven entries in the Tsarista’s last diary (though I have left out the temperature and time notes that accompany each entry in the published work).

10 July 1918
‘Sunny morning.

Went out in the afternoon with the others, ideal weather; very strong back & leg ache fr. kidneys probably.

2 day the others have no meat & live upon Kharitonov’s Tobolsk remaining meagre provisions.

Took a bath.

bezique. They still find excuses not to bring Vladimir Nikolaevich’

11 July 1918
‘The Ox Command, insisted to see us all at 10, but kept us waiting 20 m. as was breakfasting &c eating cheese

wont permit us to have any more any cream. Workmen turned up outside & began putting up iron railings before our only open window. Always fright of our climbing out no doubt or getting into contact with the sentry. Strong pains continue. Greyish weather.

Brought me for 6 days, but so little only suffices for putting in the soup.

The Bull very rude to Kharitonov.

Remained in bed all day. Lunched only, as they brought the meat so late. Anastasia read to me whilst the others went out. Lovely weather.’

12 July 1918
‘Bright sunshine - in the afternoon then were severel showers 6c short thunderstorms.

The others went out twice, Maria remained with me, I spent the day on my bed & got into it again at 9:30. Lovely evening. Every day one of the girls reads to me Spir. Readings, i.e. Complete Yearly Cycle of Brief Homilies for Each Day of the Year (Grig. Diachenko).

Constantly hear artillery passing, infantry & twice cavalry during the course of this week. Also troops marching with music - twice it seems to have been the Austrian prisoners who are marching against the Chechs (also our former prisoners) who are with the troops coming through Siberia & not far fr. here now. Wounded daily arrive to the town.’

13 July 1918
‘Beautiful morning. I spent the day as yesterday lying on the bed, as back aches when move about.

Others went out twice. Anastasia remained with me in the afternoon. One says Nagorny & Sednyov have been sent out of this government, instead of giving them back to us.

At 6:30 Baby had his first bath since Tobolsk. He managed to get in & out alone, climbs also alone in & out of bed, but can only stand on one foot as yet. 9:45 I went to bed again.

Rained in the night.

Heard three revolver shots in the night.

14 July 1918
‘Beautiful summers morning. Scarcely slept because of back & legs. Had the joy of an obednitsa - the young Priest for the 2nd time.

The others walked - Olga with me. Spend the day on the bed again Tatiana stayed with me in the afternoon.

Spir. Readings, Book of the Prophet Hosea, ch. 4-14, Pr. Joel 1- the end.

tea - tatted all day & laid patiences. Played a little bezique in the eveing, they put my long straw couch in the big room so it was less tiring for me.

Took a bath & went to bed.’

15 July 1918
‘Greyish morning. Later sunshine. Lunched on the couch in the big room, as women came to clean the floors, then lay on my bed again & read with Maria J. Sirach 26-31. They went out twice as usual. In the morning Tatiana read to me Spir. Readings. Still no Vladimir Nikolaevich - at 6:30 Baby had his second bath - Bezique. Went to bed 10:15.

of warmth at 10:30 evening.

Heard the report of an artillery shot in the night & several revolver shots.’

16 July 1918
‘Grey morning, later lovely sunshine. Baby has a slight cold. All went out 1/2 hour in the morning, Olga & I arranged our medicines. Tatiana read Spir. Readings. They went out. Tatiana stayed with me Sc we read: Bk. of the Pr. Amos and Pr. Obadiah. Tatted. Every moring the Command, comes to our rooms, at last after a week brought eggs again for Baby.


Suddenly Lyonka Sednyov was fetched to go & see his Uncle & flew off - wonder whether its true & we shall see the boy back again!

Played bezique with Nicholas.

to bed. 15 degrees.’

No comments: