By Chet Yarbrough
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
Written by: Candace Fleming
Narrated by: Kimberly Farr and Others
Candace Fleming offers an intimate look at the life and death of the last royal family of the Czarist empire. The intimacy of the profile is reinforced by personal letters, contemporary literature, and historical accounts of the 1917 Russian revolution. Fleming reaches back to the beginning of Czar Nicholas’s reign 23 years earlier and ends with the families slaughter in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg, Russia. East of Moscow and southeast of St. Petersburg.
The ignominious death of the last Czarist family is confirmed by DNA analysis of the remains of the family in 1992. Two of the children are missing in the first discovered grave site; e.g. the son Alexei and a daughter thought initially to be Marie, but later found to be Anastasia. The mystery of the two missing children is solved when a nearby grave is found in 2007. Through further DNA analysis, Alexei’s and Anastasia’s remains are confirmed.
The entire Romanov family is guarded by the Red Guard, a rag tag military force, made of workers, peasants, Cossacks, and former soldiers. This unconventional troop is under the influence of Bolshevik revolutionaries; recruited at Vladimir Lenin’s direction. This rag tag troop is replaced later by war hardened soldiers commanded by Yakov Mikhailovich Yurosky.
Fleming notes that Yurosky’s family had been victims of Nicholas II’s feckless reign. Undocumented orders are given to Yurosky to murder the royal family and their servants. Fleming suggests the impetus for Yurosky’s orders is the White Guard (an anti-communist force opposing Lenin’s Bolsheviks) nearing Yekaterinburg. No written record is discovered showing Lenin or any particular Bolshevik leader directed the murders. However, Lenin approves of the murders after the fact.
Fleming describes the preparation of a basement room in the Ipatiev House for the murders. All furniture is removed. The family and their servants are awakened in the middle of the night, taken to the basement, and shot like horses in a slaughter-house.
The first shot, fired by Yurosky, kills the Czar. Soldiers empty their rifles on the remaining family and servants. The children are wearing clothes that are secretly lined with jewelry which initially act like bullet proof vests. Shots ricochet around the room and the children must be shot again to end their lives. A truck is waiting outside the house. The bodies are thrown into the truck and taken to a dense forest where they are buried.
Days later the White Guard arrives. They find the house in anticipation of a rescue but find the house empty. They search each room and find evidence of the royal family and finally reach the basement. It has been cleaned but blood stains can still be seen on the baseboards and floor.
Fleming describes the 300 year (1613-1917) Romanov family as privileged, rich, and powerful. Privilege, wealth, and power diminishes in equal measure as Czar Nicholas II inherits the throne. Nicholas II’s father is characterized as a bull of a man who brooks no disagreement from either his family or the Russian people. At 6’ 3”, Alexander III dwarfs his son who is 5’ 7”.
In complete contrast to Alexander, Nicholas is characterized by Fleming as effete and non-confrontational. He both reveres and fears his father. When the Russian poor challenge Alexander, after Nicholas’s grandfather’s more accommodating rule, Alexander III reacts to revolts with bullets and blood; i.e. any resistance to autocracy is crushed by Alexander III.
When Alexander dies, Nicholas attempts to emulate his father’s autocratic rule but carries none of his father’s physical or mental toughness. Nicholas rarely acts as a leader and only commends surrogate actions taken by subordinates. When his ministers shoot unarmed civilians on their own volition, Nicholas commends them for their prompt action in defending the throne.
Fleming gives the example of the 1905 Russian revolution when the poor attempt to meet with the Czar but are repelled by the Czar’s guard. Many peasants are murdered. The peasant’s intent is only to meet to discuss what can be done to raise wages and improve their lives. The Czar chooses to commend his guard for their violent response without considering the legitimacy of the peasants demands. Nicholas only cheers other’s actions that protect his rule. Nicholas never directs actions of subordinates; he never leads.
Nicholas’s lack of leadership is compounded by a marriage to Maria Feodorovna. Maria becomes Nicholas’s enabler. She supports his style of non-decision decision-making. Maria is a devout mystic that believes all things that happen are by the grace of God. When something goes wrong, it is the will of God. Not only does Nicholas rely on his wife’s counsel but Maria’s belief in mysticism opens the door to one who says he is God’s messenger. Such a one comes to the aid of Maria. His name is Grigori Rasputin.
Fleming notes that the Czar and Maria are anxious to have a boy child to ensure succession to the throne. They have four girls before Alexi is born. The birth of Alexi is attributed to a mystic, before Rasputin, that convinces Maria she will have a boy child. When Alexi is born, Maria’s belief in messenger’s from God becomes unshakable. Sadly, Alexi is found to have hemophilia.
The die is cast. Rasputin and the support he receives from the royal family tarnish the god-like image of the Romanovs.
As WWI begins, the fall of the Romanovs is assured. When Russia most needed a strong decisive leader, they had an inept and weak Czar. The support of the people diminished with the progress of the war. The leadership vacuum is filled by Vladimir Lenin and a mythic communist philosophy of power to the people. With promises to peasants and workmen that live under the thumb of an aristocratic totalitarian system, Lenin justifies another kind of totalitarian system. Fleming implies that Lenin may have softened terrorist communism if he had lived but Stalin took the reins after Lenin’s death. The rest is a history of the worst mass murderer of the twentieth century.
Fleming offers an interesting and intimate view of the last Czar’s family. It is not laudatory but one comes away from the story feeling that the death of Nicholas and his family, like Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, were the result of changing times; not their ineffective, injudicious rule. They deserved to be dethroned but not murdered. Money, power, and prestige corrupts all human beings–rich, poor, religious, and secular. Democratic regulation, not violence; social justice, not vigilantism; peace, not war are the needs of humankind.