Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov: A Romantic Tragedy

by Kenneth Rayman on November 1, 2017


My fascination with the Romanovs began by hearing of the mystery of the disappearance of the royal family. I heard the stories of Anastasia but I was more intrigued by the pictures I saw of Nicholas and Alexandra and their own love story. To be fair, the pictures shown were usually their younger selves, so I equated it with young love cut short. I had heard the name Rasputin but he was just a character in a story that revolved around the two young lovers. To me though, Rasputin played a big part in the disappearance because I couldn’t comprehend Rasputin’s mystique; Stalin and Lenin were just names that appeared after it. Naive, but, for a child, the story book tale was a draw. A chance purchase at an old bookstore gave me the opportunity to find out more. The book was a translated collection of the letters between the members of the family as well as government officials.

The letters and diaries started the romantic tragedy with Nicholas courting Alexandra and her repeated refusal because of her devout Lutheranism. She was unwilling to leave her faith as dictated by Russian Orthodoxy should she marry the heir to the throne. Nicholas, at the same time, felt the pressure of religion since he felt destined to suffer being born on the Orthodox name day of Job the Long-Suffering, thus any misfortune was seen privately as fate. His reign even began with a stampede at his coronation festivities, killing over a thousand, after rumors spread that there weren’t enough gifts for the attendees. Sadly, court ritual masked the newly crowned tsar’s grief as the populous saw the royal court celebrating the coronation as if ignoring the stampede. Privately though, in the letters and diaries both Nicholas and Alexandra were only in attendance when it was an absolute necessity for them to be in the room with the court. They spent the evening otherwise in their private apartment praying and receiving reports on the tragedy and would later donate money to the victims.

The most personally perceived fate was the lack of a son to continue the Romanov ruling line. Nicholas was noticeably concerned after his third daughter was born, as each childbirth was having an ill effect on Alexandra’s health. Maria, herself, would feel the pressure, growing up, of having not been “wanted,” in favor of a boy. Nicholas and Alexandra were obsessed with having a son and when a pair of family members, who were black sheep among the rest of the family, introduced them to a holy man that seemed to have the gift of foresight, they welcomed him in and hung by his every word. History would have you believe that it was Rasputin, but the figure of Phillip has been lost to the normal narrative. Nicholas’s mother and closest relatives were deeply suspicious of Phillip, his access to the couple and the children, and his late-night visits to the palace. The family’s efforts to discredit him, though, worked and he was forced to leave the palace. Phillip foretold his return as a holy man from Siberia so when Rasputin came to St. Petersburg it was believed, by Nicholas and Alexandra, that Phillip’s prediction had come true. Thus, even before Rasputin supposedly healed the heir for the first time, Rasputin was viewed as the return of their original spiritual advisor; the healing of Alexei simply confirmed the predictions.

When the Romanovs were overthrown, the family that wasn’t aboard or managed to escape were arrested and executed. The most tragic occurrence beside the execution in Ekaterinburg involved Grand Duchess Elizabeth “Ella” Feodorovna, who by the time of the revolution had left the royal court altogether and devoted herself to an Orthodox convent. Ella was removed from the convent and, like the family in Ekaterinburg, brutally executed. Ella and several others were taken to the forest and thrown down a mine shaft. It was believed the fall alone would kill them but just as the soldiers were about to leave, religious hymns were heard from the shaft’s opening. The soldiers threw grenades in two different times, yet the singing continued. The opening was then stuffed with kindling and set on fire to suffocate them.

At Ekaterinburg, the family were executed with their family physician, valet, and maid. The tsar was shot first, at point blank range, after charges were read and died instantly. Poor foresight caused the small room to quickly fill with smoke from gunfire as the panicked family ran around trying to escape. The bullets ricocheted off their clothing because the daughters had sewn the family jewels in their corsets to keep them from being stolen. Descriptions, taken from soldier accounts. of the detail in the killings sickened me with mental imagery such as of Olga and Tatiana falling on top of one another as they ran around, then “Tatiana screaming as her sister’s head became a grey and red mist and sprayed her face,” with another tale of a daughter sitting up and screaming as she was being loaded in the back of a truck and being shot in the back of the head.

The desecration of their bodies was another botch by the soldiers wanting to keep the assassination secret. To bury them in an unmarked remote grave, though, meant to transport them in the dark of night and try not to arise suspicion as they walked deep into the forest outside the city. Timing became an issue as transport took longer than they anticipated and risked them being discovered in the dawn of morning. To dispose of the bodies, two of the children were thrown on a fire pit but the soldiers didn’t understand the length of time it would take for a body to cremate. After separating the two that they tried burning in one grave, the rest were buried in a mass grave and acid was dumped in the pit to erode their bodies.

This knowledge made the last ten minutes of the Russian film, “Romanovs: An Imperial Family” extremely hard to watch though the gruesome detail was lessened to a degree. When visiting the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the despair seemed surreal as I saw their sarcophagus. While recognizing that the Romanovs through a collective history were not the best of rulers, the way in which innocent children and loving parents (themselves burdened by the unwanted responsibility of rule) met their violent end was hard to imagine. I had reached the pinnacle of my research seeing the sarcophagus and the romantic tragedy had come to an end; but my love of Russia, it’s history, culture, and the Romanovs were renewed and my connection to it grew even stronger.

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