Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The most infamous crime in Russian history may be the murder of Nicholas II and his large family. It was a savage event. The family—children included—were shot and killed (and not as quickly as one would suppose) in the basement of their captors. There was no trial, and what tribunal could have found children guilty of anything? The bodies were desecrated by being burned and dissolved by acid and then buried unceremoniously in a mineshaft lest admirers could discover their resting place and transform it into a site of martyrdom.

Tsar And Alexis

Leading Bolsheviks such as Trotsky denied directly responsibility for the murders, but seemed to implicitly acknowledge that the executions were both warranted and politically expedient. Trotsky may have hoped for a public trial of the czar in order to demonstrate his culpability and moral bankruptcy to the Russian population as well as world opinion. Certainly such as trial would have been an opportunity for Trotsky to show off his magnificent oratorical and rhetorical skill set.

The bloody murders became—and rightfully so—a rallying point for Russian forces hostile to Bolshevism, both in Russia and abroad. The murders offended British society—in particular the czar’s relatives in the British royal family—and soured relations between the two countries, delaying diplomatic recognition for quite some time. Typically, for Russia anyhow, many conservatives suspected—or hoped—that some of the children somehow survived the slayings. To this day, some authors speculate about one or two of the children who allegedly escaped the family’s fate.

The evidence for this is scant or non-existent. Mark Steinberg and Vladimir Khrustalev’s collection of primary sources related to the royal family’s demise--The Fall of the Romanovs--is worth reading. It gives readers a glimpse into some of the propaganda that surrounded their captivity, and some of the vitriol that made their execution more likely. Moreover, it shows that the murders would not have been possible without Lenin’s consent. The sources also demonstrate real fears on the part of the Bolshevik leadership that White Russian forces were on their way to liberate the royal family, or might have anyway within a matter of days, had the executions not been set into motion.

More than anything, however, the sources shed some light on the personal tragedy unfolding in the life of an ordinary (if privileged) family. As the family worked hard and successfully to maintain its dignity in extraordinary circumstances, and relied on its religious faith and personal fortitude to make the ordeal bearable, its captors tightened their grip as time when on, ultimately sealing off windows, ridiculing family members, and systematically removing petty privileges. It’s hard to reconcile this picture of a father maintaining his composure and acting with some degree of heroism, with the historical portrait of a czar with an almost criminal incapacity for political leadership.

No comments:

Post a Comment