Ekaterinburg, Russia: July 1918
Extract from the journal of Empress Lydia Romanov
There were dozens of letters; we leaped upon them like famished dogs at a scrap bowl. My husband, laughing—or perhaps crying, insisted we restrain ourselves and sort the correspondence by chronological order.
The writings from our loved ones, having somehow all caught up with this moment on this day, spanned the sixteen months that we had been under arrest. We read of the last throes of the Duma, that unfortunate body my husband granted when a choice for a constitution or a dictatorship was forced upon him. And while I had pressed toward the latter—fearing our heritage would be lost in a new order of so-called liberalism—the tsar had nevertheless elected the softer option. Yet here, now, we see the Duma’s failure, its dictums so many wasted words, a concession my husband therefore granted needlessly. We read that the Bolsheviks have taken almost complete control since October, and what little remains of the provinces yet to be gathered are beleaguered by dispute between the White Armies and socialists.
Those caught between must be as weary of it all as are we . . . the once great imperial family.
Some of our supporters have enjoyed a more merciful fate than us; this we know from a letter narrated over and over by Olga from her beloved Grandmother, who has taken refuge in Paris, and is at this moment describing its heart and soul in graphic prose through the smiling lips of my daughter. Hush! I insist, so that I might finish this one from my dear cousin in Germany.
Between the lines we are educated in the ways of the new world, and it terrifies me to wonder what may be our own fate, since we are called the nation’s enemy, the peoples’ oppressor. I can only lose myself in the flowing words, as do we all around this breakfast table, and hope of better days when our destiny has been settled by the ruling proletariat. And when, pray God, we may be afforded our long-promised train to freedom and retirement.
King George may have turned his back on us, but Paris sounds wonderful.
We were allowed a nap after breakfast. Ensconced around the snug fireplace of the room, the spent dishes untouched on the table, none of us had any difficulty in escaping the fears of our uncertain futures, for we had all been exhausted by worry for too long.
My mind and its peculiar spiritual guide delivered me a dream—or so I took it to be at the time. So many centuries later I would look back upon that dream, and understand it to be not a dream but rather an augury. What my sleeping mind was showing me was the future that my living consciousness would never be able to witness. It were as though I had borrowed the Lord’s eyes for just a short while, so that I might see the why and the wherefore on which foundation this “time of troubles” was built.
What I saw behind my exhausted eyelids was a confusion of images—yet together, as a whole, those images painted a fully comprehensible portrait of our homeland, Russia. I ‘saw’ its future, its folly, and indeed the very mistakes my family had made in the governing of it, which had left us all here so vulnerable today.
I saw it all.
To the vulgar end.
So of course my eyes were full of grief, and hate. And any apologies for the mistakes we made during our ruling years were muted by the inexcusable events which followed this vision of mine.
But first, the vision . . .
. . . Euphoric chaos swept Russia when the revolution found its peak. It was heightened by conflict between the moderate reformists and those radicals who, by their ruthless tactic, pushed the waters of change indisputably on to the sands of conservatism. Democracy could not have held without such fanatical polity.
The Prikazy, Russia’s office of centralisation, was torn apart at the ruthless hands of Vladimir Ulyanov, whose pseudonym had grown throughout the past five years as a whispered threat to the royalty, to become a dagger at its throat. ‘Lenin’ (the dagger) would concede nothing when the day of the inevitable coup arrived, having seen “comrades” taken, tortured, their souls dispatched to a god few could trust with their stomachs malnutritioned; having been denied the freedom of speech, with opinion articulated only in closet murmurs; the underdog having languished in impotence for so many generations that, Lenin knew, reached far back to the reign of Ivan The Terrible.
The interim power which acceded the tsar’s abdication was, for Lenin, a necessary evil, tolerable only until his own position could be ratified. The liberals may have coveted a westernised constitution—but Lenin insisted on regimented leadership, one party with absolute control. The provisional government was weak, he claimed, tainted still by the tsar’s influence. The Russia that Vladimir Ulyanov meant to give his children’s children would be a Russia which only unequivocal remodeling would make habitable.
My momentary vision gave me his Bolshevik perspective:
…Nicholas Romanov had humiliated his people in a pointless war with Japan, and having learnt nought from that futility sent millions more to their deaths in the ruined homelands of the west: another fight, another bloody fight as reasonless as all the others once campaigned for the tsarist ego. But this war with Germany was clearly the worst folly, a genocide in the coming. The Orthodoxy wept and blessed the fallen, alongside the waiting sacrificial. The Duma declared it a war of attrition, doomed (but legislated ‘in camera’). The chancery turned mistrustful and untrustworthy. And my family’s determination to uphold a sovereign head of State which had sustained since 1613 (even if it must be undermined by political reallocation), was, because of its imperative and this last great mismanagement, our ultimate downfall.
The castes, once divided, were now being united across all the states. Only a few diehards resisted—thank God for them, as they provided the distraction which had saved us this long. The promise from the Social Democrats was industrialisation, on a scale far above anything we had envisaged; and the means of such was to come from the appropriation of the military’s funding, whose purpose was invalidated now in the face of the mad Kaiser, with our generals as mutinous at the last as any Bolshevik militant, urged by Lenin to desertion and surrender. The February Revolution was born in the hearts of embittered families, honed on the many demonstrations and labour strikes. It came as much of a surprise to Lenin as it did to us. But he would make it his own revolution before too long.
The democrats pledged unconditional freedom, but the extremists only scorned their insipidity, promising immense resources. And thus with our abdication came their moral justification. (Yet I would come to see, in my New World of five-thousand years hence, that a century on that pledge never materialised. There was—after all—no promised land for the Russian peasant.)
So the chaos gave way finally to the relentless movement. The Bolsheviks took my nation. And the man who had served as both gaoler and, strangely, at times provider, must have received his orders from whomever had finally attained the post of supremacy in Moscow’s new municipal council.
I think I understand the ambiguity of our gaoler’s smile that morning.
Because I think, above all else, it was the look of a man clear in his direction at last. Perhaps (I can never know for sure) he was unsettled by the duty he must perform, but at least relieved to know what that duty should be after so long a period of uncertainty.
We awoke from our breakfast nap—our stomachs full and contented with the delicious fare, out hearts brimmed with comforting words from sorely missed loved ones.
They took us from the breakfast room, bemused by our excitable chatter, and led us across the passage to that white door which was never opened.
“Your secret room?” little Alexei enquired of the gaoler. The boy smiled from the safe place in the crook of Nicholas’s arms.
“Yes,” the man said, “though its mystery is much a figment of your youthful imagination. You will see how . . . ”
A heavy brass key turned in the lock. The man pushed back the door on its rusted hinge, and bade us enter.
“ . . . it is no more than a place free of distraction, so that its inhabitants may reflect on,” he shrugged, “the conscience and its accusations.”
A blade of cold fear knifed me.
We entered a room of . . . of nothing. The walls were plain, cold and soulless.
That was the most frightening of it. It was too horribly clean to be a home of any sorts. A small couch faced us. Nicholas and I sat side by side. Alexei nestled on his father’s lap. At either arm of the seat stood our physician, Botkin, and the maidservant, Demidora. They stood as if they could protect us from harm by their very presence. Behind us the four girls took places, their honest adolescent bodies straight-backed and their heads held as correctly as had been trained by tutors.
Then I saw the camera.
“There will be two photographs,” was the clinical reply. “We play here a part in history.”
“Then we are to be liberated at last, thank God!” my husband exclaimed. Enlightenment seemed to rearrange his features. “So, your plates will show the once great tsardom, as it is now reduced to impoverishment, a propaganda for the children of the new powers, I suppose.” Nicholas laughed, but it sounded hollow in the stark room, or in his angry mouth. “And the schoolhouse lesson will be passed down through generations of soviets—‘This family portrait is all that remains of the bourgeoisie, a dictatorial era in our heritage. See what happens when a Marxist prophecy runs its natural course, children!’—Hah, well go ahead with my blessing, man. Make your historical boast.”
The gaoler shook his head; he seemed saddened. “Even now, still you are proud, Tsar Nicholas. Yet certain that your actions will be vindicated by the judgement of history! Do not these barren walls prompt the conscience to stir? Do you fail to understand the cruel deprivation of your régime? Listen to your heart, Nicholas, and hear the children of dead revolutionaries swearing vengeance on their parents’ executioner.”
“Take your plates,” Nicholas snapped. “Illustrate for all time my conscience, my heart, which are indeed troubled . . . but only because I have allowed my family to be so compromised. Then fetch us our transportation, as promised, and let us reflect on the sorry decline of this great nation at our leisure, in a warmer climate!”
We held still and the picture was taken. I know that we were immortalised with honour, our heads high and our eyes defiant.
The camera and its clumsy supporting structure were removed to the side of the room. The man and the guards turned to leave.
“You said there were to be two pictures,” I reminded him.
He closed the door.
For what reason I cannot be certain, but none of uttered a word. In the hush of this small white prison, my imagination spun a penny and we waited for its sentence: King George’s Head . . . and we shall hear the whistle of an approaching train, a carriage of less than luxurious appointment, but a vehicle that by its very forward motion is in itself opulent; or Britannia’s Trident . . . and the sentence will be some fate for which we had little preparation, other than a breakfast and some letters.
Perhaps all this was the preparation.
Many minutes drew by. The silence of the children worried me. Their mouths should’ve been chuntering with estimations, with optimistic nonsense, as always.
But I knew that behind me the girls stood as erect as if the camera’s glass still faced us. My husband breathed fitfully, and Alexei wrapped his arms around his papa’s neck and lengthened his splintered leg across his thigh. I noted a strangeness in the way my son studied me. And I couldn’t look back at him, for I was unable to comprehend what his eyes were saying.
It was July, yet true summer could never touch this miserable outpost. Rain blew against the window pane, dirt within it, describing patterned curves around the glass. A wind fluted inside a chimney vent.
We were like sculptures there, on and around the couch. Waiting for the penny to drop.
“I meant to kill myself on the stairs,” Alexei burst out, “so that you would not fear for me, whatever our fate.”
His father held him tightly.
Marie said, “Silly boy, when we have always gone to such lengths to keep you safe.”
“I’m sorry. I was angry. When the soldier beat Father I only wanted to punish them all, make them guilty.”
“They will be guilty enough,” Anastasia said gently, “without our assistance.”
“When we go to the new place, shall there be a cure for my bleeding, Mamma?”
I didn’t know. I couldn’t know what exile might yet be offered us. There is little guilt more pointed than when you are ignorant in the face of your child’s questions.
I wished Gregori were with us. Though his murder had not troubled my husband, it still hung heavy in my heart. Always he was able to make anodyne of fearful situations, with his mysticism and peculiar confidence. What would Rasputin have done with us today?
Nicholas looked so authoritative sat here in uniform, foolishly proud. My skirts and blouses, the remains of our other life, were still askew. We were all quite pathetic, reduced to this room and at the mercy of so many faceless enemies.
“Who shall win the war, I wonder?” Nicholas pondered aloud.
I smiled at him. “Germany and the world can go to hell. It isn’t our concern, dearest. We have our own fight.” And I could almost believe we would triumph, that our very appearance on that photograph would show our lineage resistant, émigrés in exile only until common sense carried the day.
Still, though, my imaginary penny spun through the air, held in stasis and refusing to fall on the cold sterile floorboards until the gaoler returned.
We withdrew into silence again. Even my thoughts collapsed. There was nothing but the frigid wait.
When the door opened it swung back apathetically. The hinge complained; swollen timber wedged against the jamb.
So they came in slowly, one by one, led by the gaoler. Wrong all over their faces.
Nicholas quickly folded the boy into his chest. I heard the bristle of my daughter’s skirts as they rearranged themselves to a new pose. The maidservant prayed. The physician breathed curses.
I watched as though I were mesmerised, the five men stand in front of the door, shoulder to shoulder, with their hands behind their backs. The gaoler’s eyes were disfocused. He was somebody else’s servant now.
For a moment we only faced each other; the royal family and its successors, locked in silent combat with eyes as weapons and knowledge, secret, the victor’s winning card.
“You couldn’t, surely?” my husband said.
Though they were glazed, a dull light in the gaoler’s eyes offered the excuse of orders passed through an unseen chain of command; that the hand itself was not responsible for the action it must take, only that it was obedient to its superiors. “The call has been received,” he said.
The call? An order he had waited upon so many months?
“All of us?” Nicholas croaked, his pride finished.
“Impossible,” I cried out, employing my anger for a show of courage. “My husband and myself, if needs must, but never the…”
They brought their revolvers up to punish us.
Alexei shouted in hopeless defiance. “Papa, forbid it!” I turned to the child, so many apologies on my lips that my jaw felt heavy with the burden of them. The boy squeezed his eyes tightly closed, buried his face into his father’s neck, and his small hand was flattened against his pale cheek—as if to protect it.
“Not the children,” I begged. “Please don’t . . .”
The roar was sudden and final. It stopped as quickly as it began. And the light in Alexei’s eyes was forever closed by red mist.
my son’s shaking hand flat to the side of his face, the flesh of it ripped so easily, the run of blood coming from the back of his head when bullets punctured the pitiful shield and destroyed him –
it will carry me through eternity.
That view first, of our bodies broken, rags of meat wiped across the antiseptic walls, our spastic convulsions as death claimed us . . . it then became pieced together with my vision, segments of a collage, with lessons in revolution and pictures of heroes in St. Petersburg’s Square—“Leningrad”—a new world, a new fashion, all painted over a mural of my little boy’s violent, criminal end.
These were the apparitions of death, I supposed, as I saw it all in the instant that my last breath punched out of my throat.
They photographed us then.
I know, for I watched from a place I have never understood. No longer a part of my own flesh, but alone, blistered with hate, with fury so intense I can never do it justice in the telling. I saw two of the guards vomit as they mounted the camera on its easel. Yet I felt no revulsion for the grotesque decoration that our remains made of the clean room. I was too removed.
“So there can be no denial,” the gaoler said, his voice sickly. He removed the plate. “The tsardom is dead. Long live the Party.”
The Party, the revolution, the new world and all its murderous trappings—on all of it I lay a curse: a rich, absolute and eternal hex. For vengeance.
. . . To settle an account against the assassins of my children. That was all that mattered.
I would never die. Never. I hate too deeply for rest.
So now you know.
Know that the only true immortality is a hatred born of a mother’s grief.
Perhaps, then, you might understand.
(copyright Gareth K Stokes 2007)