Execution of the Romanov family

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The Romanovs. From left to right: Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana. Pictured at Livadia Palace in 1913.
Location of the main events in the last days of the Romanov family, who were held at Tobolsk before being transported to Ekaterinburg, where they were killed.

The Russian Imperial Romanov family (Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei) and all those who chose to accompany them into exile – notably Eugene Botkin, Anna Demidova, Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitonov – were shot in Yekaterinburg on 17 July 1918.[1] The Tsar and his family were killed by Bolshevik troops led by Yakov Yurovsky under the orders of the Ural Regional Soviet. Their bodies were then mutilated and buried in a field called Porosenkov Log in the Koptyaki forest.[2]

Despite being informed that "the entire family suffered the same fate as its head",[3] the Bolsheviks only announced Nicholas's death,[4][5] with the official press release that "Nicholas Romanov's wife and son have been sent to a secure place."[3] For over four years, as late as April 1922,[6] the Soviets continuously denied that the entire Romanov family was dead.[7] The emergence of Romanov impostors drew media attention away from Soviet Russia,[7] and all discussion regarding the fate of the family was suppressed by Josef Stalin from 1938.[8]

The burial site was discovered in 1979 by an amateur sleuth,[9] but the remains were not made public until 1989, during the perestroika period.[10] However, the remains were disinterred by Soviet officials in a hasty exhumation that wrecked the site, destroying evidence in the process.[10] The identity of the remains was confirmed by forensic and DNA investigation. They were buried in 1998, 80 years after they were murdered, in a funeral that was not attended by key members of the Russian Orthodox Church, who disputed the authenticity of the remains.[11] A second, smaller grave containing the remains of two Romanov children missing from the larger grave was discovered by amateur archeologists in 2007.[9] However, their remains are kept in a state repository pending further DNA tests.[12] No murder case against the perpetrators was ever brought forward, on the basis that those who committed the crime are dead.[12]

Some historians attribute the order to the government in Moscow, specifically Yakov Sverdlov and Vladimir Lenin, who wished to prevent the rescue of the Imperial Family by the approaching Czechoslovak Legion (fighting with the White Army against Bolsheviks) during the ongoing Russian Civil War.[13][14] This is supported by a passage in Leon Trotsky's diary.[15] A recent investigation led by Vladimir Solovyov concluded that, despite the opening of state archives in the post-Soviet years, there is yet no written document found that indicates that either Lenin or Sverdlov instigated the orders; however, they did endorse the executions after they occurred.[16][17][18][19] Lenin had close control over the Romanovs although he ensured his name was not associated with their fate in any official documents.[20]

Background[edit]

On 22 March 1917, Nicholas, no longer a monarch and addressed with contempt by the sentries as "Nicholas Romanov", was reunited with his family at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. He was placed under house arrest with his family by the Provisional Government, surrounded by guards and confined to their quarters.[21]

In August 1917, Alexander Kerensky's provisional government evacuated the Romanovs to Tobolsk, allegedly to protect them from the rising tide of revolution. There they lived in the former governor's mansion in considerable comfort. After the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, the conditions of their imprisonment grew stricter, and talk of putting Nicholas on trial grew more frequent. Nicholas was forbidden to wear epaulettes, and the sentries scrawled lewd drawings on the fence to offend his daughters. On 1 March 1918, the family was placed on soldier's rations, which meant parting with 10 devoted servants and giving up butter and coffee.[22]

As the Bolsheviks gathered strength, the government in April moved Nicholas, Alexandra, and their daughter Maria to Yekaterinburg under the direction of Vasily Yakovlev. Alexei was too ill to accompany his parents and remained with his sisters Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia, not leaving Tobolsk until May 1918. The family was imprisoned with a few remaining retainers in Yekaterinburg's Ipatiev House, which was designated The House of Special Purpose (Russian: Дом Особого Назначения).

The Romanovs were being held by the Red Army in Yekaterinburg, since Bolsheviks initially wanted to put them on trial. As the civil war continued and the White Army (a loose alliance of anti-Communist forces) was threatening to capture the city, the fear was that the Romanovs would fall into White hands. This was unacceptable to the Bolsheviks for two reasons: first, the tsar or any of his family members could provide a beacon to rally support to the White cause; second, the tsar, or any of his family members if the tsar were dead, would be considered the legitimate ruler of Russia by the other European nations. This would have meant the ability to negotiate for greater foreign intervention on behalf of the Whites. Soon after the family was executed, the city fell to the White Army.

In mid-July 1918, forces of the Czechoslovak Legion were closing on Yekaterinburg, to protect the Trans-Siberian Railway, of which they had control. According to historian David Bullock, the Bolsheviks falsely believed that the Czechoslovaks were on a mission to rescue the family, panicked and executed their wards. The Legions arrived less than a week later and on 25 July captured the city.[23]

During the imperial family's imprisonment in late June, Pyotr Voykov and Alexandre Beloborodov directed the smuggling of letters written in French to the Ipatiev House claiming to be a monarchist officer seeking to rescue them, composed at the behest of the Cheka.[24] These fabricated letters, along with the Romanov responses to them (written either on blank spaces or on the envelope),[25] provided the Central Executive Committee in Moscow with further justification to 'liquidate' the imperial family.[26] Yurovsky later observed that by responding to the faked letters, Nicholas "had fallen into a hasty plan by us to trap him".[27]

The Ural Regional Soviet agreed in a meeting on 29 June that the Romanov family should be liquidated. Goloshchyokin arrived in Moscow on 3 July with a message insisting on the Tsar's execution.[28] Only seven of the 23 members of the Central Executive Committee were in attendance, three of whom were Lenin, Sverdlov and Felix Dzerzhinsky.[29] It was agreed that the presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet should organize the practical details for the family's execution and decide the precise day on which it would take place when the military situation dictated it, contacting Moscow for final approval.[30] The killing of the Tsar's family was also discussed but had to be kept a state secret to avoid any political setback. As Trotsky would later explain, "The Tsar's family was a victim of the principle that form the very axis of monarchy: dynastic inheritance", for which their deaths were a necessity.[31] The commandant of the Ipatiev House was replaced by Yakov Yurovsky on 4 July.[32] Goloshchyokin reported back to Ekaterinburg on 12 July with a summary of his discussion about the Romanovs with Moscow,[29] along with instructions that nothing relating to their deaths should be communicated to Lenin.[33]

Execution[edit]

From left to right: Grand Duchesses Maria, Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia in captivity at Tsarskoe Selo in the spring of 1917. One of the last known photographs of Tsar Nicholas II's daughters.

Around midnight, Yakov Yurovsky, the commandant of The House of Special Purpose, ordered the Romanovs' physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, to awaken the sleeping family and ask them to put on their clothes, under the pretext that the family would be moved to a safe location due to impending chaos in Yekaterinburg.[34] The Romanovs were then ordered into a 6 m × 5 m (20 ft × 16 ft) semi-basement room. Nicholas asked if Yurovsky could bring two chairs, on which Tsarevich Alexei and Alexandra sat.[35]

The prisoners were told to wait in the cellar room while the truck that would transport them was being brought to the House. A few minutes later, an execution squad of secret police was brought in and Yurovsky read aloud the order given him by the Ural Executive Committee:

Nicholas, facing his family, turned and said "What? What?"[37] Yurovsky quickly repeated the order and the weapons were raised. The Empress and Grand Duchess Olga, according to a guard's reminiscence, had tried to cross themselves, but failed amid the shooting. Yurovsky reportedly raised his gun at Nicholas's torso and fired; Nicholas fell dead. Yurovsky then shot Alexei. The other executioners then began shooting chaotically until all the intended victims had fallen. Several more shots were fired and the doors opened to scatter the smoke.[37] There were some survivors, so Peter Ermakov stabbed them with bayonets because the shots could be heard outside.[37] The last to die were Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria, who were carrying a few pounds (over 1.3 kilograms) of diamonds sewn into their clothing, which had given them a degree of protection from the firing.[38] However, they were speared with bayonets as well. Olga sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Maria and Anastasia were said to have crouched up against a wall covering their heads in terror until they were shot down. Yurovsky himself killed Tatiana and Alexei. Tatiana died from a single bullet through the back of her head.[39] Alexei received two bullets to the head, right behind the ear after the executioners realized he had not been killed by the first shot.[40] Anna Demidova, Alexandra's maid, survived the initial onslaught but was quickly stabbed to death against the back wall while trying to defend herself with a small pillow which she had carried that was filled with precious gems and jewels.[41]

While the bodies were being placed on stretchers, one of the girls, possibly Anastasia, cried out and covered her face with her arm.[42] Ermakov grabbed Alexander Strekotin's rifle and bayoneted her in the chest,[42] but when it failed to penetrate he pulled out his revolver and shot her in the head.[43][44] Some of Pavel Medvedev's stretcher bearers began frisking the bodies for valuables. Yurovsky saw this and demanded that they surrendered any looted items or be shot. The attempted looting, coupled with Ermakov's tardiness, convinced Yurovsky to oversee the burial himself.[44]

Burial[edit]

The second burial site on the Koptyaki Road in 1919, covered with boles and railroad ties to disguise it
In the hasty disposal of the bodies, several jewels like these topazes were overlooked by Yurovsky's men and eventually recovered by White investigator Nikolai Sokolov in 1919

The bodies of the Romanovs and their servants were loaded onto a Fiat truck equipped with a 60 HP engine,[44] with a cargo area 6 × 10 feet in size.[42] Heavily laden, the vehicle struggled for nine miles on boggy road to reach the Koptyaki forest. Yurovsky was furious when he discovered that the drunkard Ermakov had brought only one shovel for the burial.[45] About half a mile further on, near crossing no. 185 on the line serving the Verkh-Isetsk works, 25 men working for Ermakov were waiting with horses and light carts. These men were all intoxicated and they were angered when they found out that the imperial family was dead. They were expecting to be part of the lynch mob,[46] and were hoping to "have some fun" with the women before killing them.[47] Yurovsky maintained control of the situation with great difficulty, eventually getting Ermakov's men to shift some of the bodies from the truck onto the carts.[46] A few of Ermakov's men frisked the bodies for diamonds, two of them groping through Alexandra's skirt.[47][46] Yurovsky ordered them at gunpoint to back off, dismissing the two who had groped the tsarina and any others he had caught looting.[47]

The truck was bogged down in an area of marshy ground near the Gorno-Uralsk railway line, during which all the bodies were unloaded onto carts and taken to the burial site.[46] The sun was up by the time the carts came within sight of the mineshaft. Yurovsky's men first gobbled on hardboiled eggs supplied by the local nuns (food that was meant for the imperial family), while the remainder of Ermakov's men were ordered back to the city as Yurovsky did not trust them and was displeased with their drunkenness.[48]

The bodies were stripped of their clothing and valuables by Yurovsky's men, the former piled up and burned while Yurovsky took inventory of their jewellery. They were then lowered into the shallow pit and sprinkled with sulphuric acid. The muddy water barely submerged the corpses as Yurovsky had hoped. He unsuccessfully tried to collapse the mine with hand grenades, after which his men covered it with loose earth and branches.[49] Yurovsky left his men to guard the site while he returned to Ekaterinburg with a bag filled with 18lb of looted diamonds, to report back to Alexandre Beloborodov and Goloshchyokin of the Ural Regional Soviet. It was decided that the pit was too shallow.[50] Yurovsky was told of some deeper copper mines west of Ekaterinburg.[33] He inspected the site on the evening of 17 July and reported back to the Cheka at the Amerikanskaya Hotel. He ordered additional trucks to be sent out to Koptyaki whilst assigning Pyotr Voykov to obtain barrels of petrol, kerosene and sulphuric acid, and plenty of dry firewood. Yurovsky also seized several horse-drawn carts to be used in the removal of the bodies to the new site. [51]

Yurovsky and Goloshchyokin, along with several Cheka agents, returned to the mineshaft at about 4:00am on the morning of 18 July. The naked bodies were hauled out one by one using ropes and piled onto carts.[50] Yurovsky, worried that he may not have enough time to take the bodies to the deeper mine, instructed his men to dig another burial pit then and there, but the ground was too hard. He returned to the Amerikanskaya Hotel to confer with the Cheka. He seized a single lightweight truck, which he had loaded with blocks of concrete with which the bodies would be weighted before being submerged in the new mineshaft. Yurovsky also acquired a second, heavier truck which would take a detachment of Cheka agents to help move the bodies. By the time he returned to the forest, it was 10:00pm on 18 July. The bodies were again loaded onto the Fiat truck, which had been extricated from the mud.[52]

During transportation to the deeper copper mines on the early morning of 19 July , the Fiat truck carrying the bodies got stuck again in mud near Porosenkov Log (Pig's Meadow). At this point, Yurovsky decided to bury them under the road where the truck had stalled. His men dug a grave that was 6 × 8 feet in size and barely 60 centimetres (2 ft) deep.[53] Alexei Trupp's body was tossed in first, followed by the Tsar's and then the rest. They were again doused in sulphuric acid, their faces smashed with rifle butts and finally covered with quicklime. Wooden rail ties were placed over the grave to disguise it, with the Fiat truck being driven back and forth over the ties to press them into the earth. The burial was finally completed at 6:00am on 19 July [53]

Yurovsky separated the Tsarevich Alexei and one of his sisters, either Maria or Anastasia, to be buried about 15 metres (50 ft) away, in an attempt to confuse anyone who might discover the mass grave with only nine bodies. Alexei and his sister were partially burned and their charred bones dismembered using spades and tossed into a smaller pit.[53] Only 44 partial bone fragments from both corpses remained, which were not found until August 2007.[54]

Executioners[edit]

Ivan Plotnikov, history professor at the Maksim Gorky Ural State University, has established that the executioners were: Yakov Yurovsky, Grigory P. Nikulin, M. A. Medvedev (Kudrin), Peter Ermakov, Stepan Vaganov, A. G. Kabanov, Pavel Medvedev, V. N. Netrebin, and Y. M. Tselms. Filipp Goloshchyokin, a close associate of Yakov Sverdlov, being a military commissar of the Uralispolkom in Yekaterinburg, however did not actually participate, and two or three guards refused to take part.[55] Pyotr Voykov was given the specific task of arranging for the disposal of their remains, obtaining 570 litres (150 gal) of gasoline and 180 kilograms (400 lbs) of sulphuric acid, the latter from the Yekaterinburg pharmacy. After the killings, he was to declare that "The world will never know what we did with them." Voykov served as Soviet ambassador to Poland in 1924, where he was assassinated by a Russian monarchist in July 1927.[56]

The men who were directly complicit in the murder of the imperial family largely survived in the immediate months after the murders, partly due to the civil war.[56] Stepan Vaganov, Ermakov's close associate,[57] was attacked and killed by peasants in late 1918 for his participation in local acts of brutal repression by the Cheka. Pavel Medvedev, head of the Ipatiev House guard and one of the key figures in the murders,[58] was captured by the White Army in Perm in February 1919. He denied taking part in the murders during his interrogation, and died in prison of typhus.[56] Alexandre Beloborodov (president of the Ural Regional Soviet),[29] Boris Didkovsky (Beloborodov's deputy) and Filipp Goloshchyokin were all killed in 1938 during the Great Purge, the latter consigned to an unmarked grave.[59] Ermakov survived the civil war unscathed. However, unlike the other killers, he received no awards or advancements, for which he grew bitter and went on to inflate his role in the murders as well as the revolution itself.[59] Communist sympathizers annually pay tribute to his gravestone on the anniversary of the murders, though on a few occasions it was also vandalized.[60]

Three days after the murders, Yurovsky personally reported to Lenin on the events of that night and was rewarded with an appointment to the Moscow City Cheka. He held a succession of key economic and party posts, dying in the comfort of the Kremlin Hospital in 1938 aged 60. Prior to his death, he donated the guns he used in the murders to the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow,[25] and left behind three valuable, though contradictory, accounts of the event. Yurovsky never expressed regret or remorse over the killings, but instead reminisced on his revolutionary career and how "the storm of October" had "turned its brightest side" towards him, making him "the happiest of mortals".[61]

Lenin saw the House of Romanov as "monarchist filth, a 300-year disgrace",[31] and referred to Nicholas II in conversation and in his writings as "the most evil enemy of the Russian people, a bloody executioner, an Asiatic gendarme" and "a crowned robber."[62] The written record taking the chain of command and the ultimate responsibility for the fate of the Romanovs back to Lenin was, from the beginning, either never made or carefully concealed.[31] Lenin operated with extreme caution, his favoured method being to issue instructions in coded telegrams, insisting that the original and even the telegraph ribbon on which it was sent be destroyed. Uncovered documents in Archive No. 2 (Lenin), Archive No. 86 (Sverdlov) as well as the archives of the Council of People's Commissars and the Central Executive Committee reveal that a host of party 'errand boys' were regularly designated to relay his instructions, either by confidential notes or anonymous directives made in the collective name of the Sovnarkom.[20] In all such decisions Lenin regularly insisted that no written evidence be preserved. The 55 volumes of Lenin's Collected Works as well as the memoirs of those who directly took part in the murders were scrupulously censored, emphasising the roles of Sverdlov and Goloshchyokin.

Lenin was, however, aware of Vasily Yakovlev's decision to take Nicholas, Alexandra and Maria further on to Omsk instead of Ekaterinburg in April 1918, having become worried about the extremely threatening behaviour of the Ural Soviets in Tobolsk and along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Biographical Chronicle of Lenin's political life confirms that first Lenin (between 1800 and 1900) and then Lenin and Sverdlov together (between 2130 and 2350) had direct telegraph contact with the Ural Soviets about Yakovlev's change of route. Despite Yakovlev's request to take the family further away to the more remote Simsky Gorny District in Ufa province (where they could hide in the mountains), warning that "the baggage" would be destroyed if given to the Ural Soviets, Lenin and Sverdlov were adamant that they be brought to Ekaterinburg.[63] The task of Soviet historiography was to protect Lenin's reputation at all costs and thus ensure that no discredit was brought on him. In this respect, responsibility for the 'liquidation' of the Romanovs went to the Ural Regional Soviet and Ekaterinburg Cheka.[20]

Aftermath[edit]

The Church on the Blood, built on the spot of Ipatyev House

Early next morning, when rumours spread in Yekaterinburg about the disposal site, Yurovsky removed the bodies and hid them elsewhere (56°56′32″N 60°28′24″E / 56.942222°N 60.473333°E / 56.942222; 60.473333). When the vehicle carrying the bodies broke down on the way to the next chosen site, Yurovsky made new arrangements, and buried most of the acid-covered bodies in a pit sealed and concealed with rubble, covered over with railroad ties and then earth (56°54′41″N 60°29′44″E / 56.9113628°N 60.4954326°E / 56.9113628; 60.4954326) on Koptyaki Road, a cart track (subsequently abandoned) 19 kilometres (12 mi) north of Yekaterinburg.

On the afternoon of 19 July, Filipp Goloshchyokin announced at the Opera House on Glavny Prospekt that "Nicholas the bloody" had been shot and his family taken to another place.[64] Sverdlov granted permission for the local paper in Ekaterinburg to publish the "Execution of Nicholas, the Bloody Crowned Murderer – Shot without Bourgeois Formalities but in Accordance with our new democratic principles",[65] along with the coda that "the wife and son of Nicholas Romanov have been sent to a safe place".[66] An official announcement appeared in the national press, two days later. It reported that the monarch had been executed on the order of Uralispolkom under pressure posed by the approach of the Czechoslovaks.[67] Although official Soviet accounts place the responsibility for the decision with the Uralispolkom, an entry in Leon Trotsky's diary reportedly suggested that the order had been given by Lenin himself. Trotsky wrote:

My next visit to Moscow took place after the fall of Yekaterinburg. Talking to Sverdlov I asked in passing, "Oh yes and where is the Tsar?" "It's all over," he answered. "He has been shot." "And where is his family?" "And the family with him." "All of them?" I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. "All of them," replied Yakov Sverdlov. "What about it?" He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply. "And who made the decision?" I asked. "We decided it here. Ilyich [Lenin] believed that we shouldn't leave the Whites a live banner to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances."[15]

However, as of 2011 there has been no conclusive evidence that either Lenin or Sverdlov gave the order.[16] V.N. Solovyov, the leader of the Investigative Committee of Russia's 1993 investigation on the shooting of the Romanov family,[17] has concluded that there is no reliable document that indicates that either Lenin or Sverdlov were responsible.[18][19] He declared:

According to the presumption of innocence, no one can be held criminally liable without guilt being proven. In the criminal case, an unprecedented search for archival sources taking all available materials into account was conducted by authoritative experts, such as Sergey Mironenko, the director of the largest archive in the country, the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The study involved the main experts on the subject – historians and archivists. And I can confidently say that today there is no reliable document that would prove the initiative of Lenin and Sverdlov.

— V.N. Solovyov[18]

In 1993, the report of Yakov Yurovsky from 1922 was published. According to the report, units of the Czechoslovak Legion were approaching Yekaterinburg. On 17 July 1918, Yakov and other Bolshevik jailers, fearing that the Legion would free Nicholas after conquering the town, executed him and his family. The next day, Yakov departed for Moscow with a report to Sverdlov. As soon as the Czechoslovaks seized Ekaterinburg, his apartment was pillaged.[68]

Tsar family expertise skulls 4.jpg
Tsar family expertise skulls 4a.jpg
Skull of Skeleton №4 (Nikolai Romanov)

Over the years, a number of people claimed to be survivors of the ill-fated family. In May 1979, the remains of most of the family and their retainers were found by amateur enthusiasts, who kept the discovery secret until the collapse of Communism.[69] In July 1991, the bodies of five family members (the Tsar, Tsarina, and three of their daughters) were exhumed.[70] After forensic examination[71] and DNA identification,[72] the bodies were laid to rest with state honors in the St. Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, where most other Russian monarchs since Peter the Great lie.[11] President Boris Yeltsin and his wife attended the funeral along with Romanov relations, including Prince Michael of Kent. The remaining two bodies of Tsesarevich Alexei and one of his sisters were discovered in 2007.[73][74]

On 15 August 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church announced the canonization of the family for their "humbleness, patience and meekness".[75] However, reflecting the intense debate preceding the issue, the bishops did not proclaim the Romanovs as martyrs, but passion bearers instead (see Romanov sainthood).[75] On 1 October 2008, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that Nicholas II and his family were victims of political repression and rehabilitated them.[76][77]

On Thursday, 26 August 2010, a Russian court ordered prosecutors to reopen an investigation into the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, although the Bolsheviks believed to have shot them in 1918 had died long before. The Russian Prosecutor General's main investigative unit said it had formally closed a criminal investigation into the killing of Nicholas because too much time had elapsed since the crime and because those responsible had died. However, Moscow’s Basmanny Court ordered the re-opening of the case, saying that a Supreme Court ruling blaming the state for the killings made the deaths of the actual gunmen irrelevant, according to a lawyer for the Tsar’s relatives and local news agencies.[78]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  3. ^ a b Wendy Slater, p.153
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Further reading[edit]

  • Helen Rappaport. The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. St. Martin's Griffin, 2010. ISBN 978-0312603472
  • Robert K. Massie (2012). The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. Random House. pp. 3–24. 
  • Shay McNeal. The Secret Plot to Save the Tsar: New Truths Behind the Romanov Mystery. HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN 0-06-051755-7, ISBN 978-0-06-051755-7
  • Radzinsky, Edvard. The last Tsar: the life and death of Nicholas II (Random House, 2011)
  • Slater, Wendy. The Many Deaths of Tsar Nicholas II: Relics, Remains and the Romanovs (Routledge, 2007)
  • Tames, R (1972) Last of the Tsars, Pan Books, ISBN 0330029029
  • Candace Fleming "The Family Romanov, Murder, Rebellion & the fall of Imperial Russia"

External links[edit]