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Lessons of Russian history: The last days of the last Tsar (Part IV)

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Submitted by Olivia Kroth

In May 1918, Nicholas II and his family had only two more months to live. In this perilous condition as a prisoner of the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg, the last Tsar continued with his habit of reading books. Until a few days before his death, he kept noting daily events in his personal diary, which was translated into French and commented by the editor, Jean-Christophe Buisson. The last Tsar’s «Journal intime» was published by Editions Perrin in Paris, 2020.

08.05./21.05.1918: «I read the fourth part of Lev Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, which I did not know yet» (Journal intime, p. 210). What did he learn from it? He made no further comments, drew no comparison between the Patriotic War of 1812 and World War I (1914-1918).

Tsar Alexander I had Field Marshall Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov (1745-1813), who drove Napoleon’s army out of the Russian Empire. Unfortunately, there was no equal personality helping Tsar Nicholas II to drive the enemies out. Alexander I was able to put Napoleon in his place, whom he considered to be a despicable ‘parvenu’.

Due to Field Marshall Kutuzov’s clever tactics and the grim, long winter in Russia, Napoleon lost nearly his entire army and had to retreat. He had set out with about 400.000 men to conquer the Russian Empire. Barely 40.000 of his men returned to France, with frozen limbs and tattered uniforms.

War and Peace (Война и мир) is a literary work mixed with chapters on history and philosophy, published in 1869. It is regarded as one of Lev Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements and has remained an internationally praised classic of world literature, until today.

The novel chronicles the French invasion and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society through the stories of five Russian aristocratic families. The fourth part of this gigantic work, which the last Tsar was reading during his imprisonment in Yekaterinburg, deals with Napoleon’s final defeat and painful retreat from Russian soil.

In contrast to Tsar Alexander I, Nicholas II was not able to defeat the invaders of Russia. When «Willy», Kaiser Wilhelm II, after many telegramme exchanges with «Nicky», Tsar Nicholas II, declared war to the Russian Empire, on the 1st of August 1914, «Nicky» was devastated and lamented about his German cousin’s betrayal.

Reading seems to have been a sort of escape for the prisoner in Yekaterinburg. After finishing Lev Tolstoy’s novel, he began reading another famous Russian author’s works. 

13.05./26.05.1918: «I began to read the works of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, which I found in the library of the house» (Journal intime, p. 213). 14.05./27.05.1918: «It was a mild day. I read a lot» (Journal intime, p. 213).

Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin (Михаил Евграфович Салтыков-Щедрин; 1826–1889) was a Russian writer and satirist of the 19th century. In his works he mastered both stark realism and satirical grotesque, merged with fantasy.

His novel «The Gentlemen Golovlyov» (Господа Головлёвы) was written in the course of five years. It became one of the major works of Russian Realism. Published in 1880, it depicts a family of country gentry. This novel is a merciless satire of Russian society under the Tsars.

According to D. S. Mirsky, it is «the gloomiest book in all Russian literature. This one book places the author in the very front line of Russian realistic novelists and secures him a permanent place among the national classics».

According to his biographer Maria Goryachkina, the author managed to compile the satirical encyclopedia of contemporary Russian life, targeting first serfdom with its degrading effect upon society, then, after its abolition, exposing corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, opportunistic tendencies in the intelligentsia, greed and amorality of those in power, but also the apathy, meekness and social immobility of the common people in the Russian Empire.

In between his reading sessions, Nicholas II complained about the strict prison regime in the house of Ipatiev. 20.05./02.06.1918: «It is intolerable to be imprisoned in such a way. We cannot even go outside into the garden to take a breath of fresh air» (Journal intime, p. 215).

28.05./10.06.1918: «In the hangar, where they have locked away all the trunks with our belongings, they open them at any given moment to take out various objects. They do not explain to us, why they need them. All of this makes us think that we will never see our possessions again. It is awful!» (Journal intime, p. 217). 

In fact, he was right. After his death, all the trunks in the hangar were sealed and sent to the Moscow Soviet.

09.06./22.06.1918: «We have been given permission to walk outside for 90 minutes. Today, while we were having tea, six men from the local Soviet came to look at our windows. Several times already, various people arrived to check the windows. This happened, while we were present. They did not speak a single word with us» (Journal intime, p. 220). 

10.06./23.06.1918: «Today, we heard that our visitors yesterday were commissars from Petrograd» (Journal inime, p. 220).

Since the beginning of July 1918, Yakov Yurovsky was reponsible for the surveillance of the Tsar’s family and employees. 

25.06./08.07.1918: «Our lives have not changed at all with Yurovsky’s arrival. We have new Latvian guards in the house but those outside are still the same as before. Half of them are soldiers, the other half workers» (Journal intime, p. 233).

28.06./11.07.1918: «This morning, three workers came and barred our windows from outside with iron bars. All of this happened without Yurovsky giving us a warning» (Journal intime, p. 223). 

The last Tsar’s personal diary ends with a short note aboute his hemophile son Alexis, who did not feel well. A few days later, the Romanov family was executed in the house of Ipatiev, at night.

At the end of June 1918, Vladimir Lenin had decided at the 5th Soviet Congress in Moscow that all of the Romanovs had to be eliminated. He did not want to run the risk that Nicholas II could be liberated or flee abroad to agitate against the new Soviet Government from outside.

Probably Vladimir Lenin also had a personal, private reason for this harsh decision. His brother Alexander Ulyanov was hanged on the order of Tsar Alexander III, the last Tsar’s father, in 1887. Vladimir Lenin’s brother had been a member of a revolutionary group trying to kill Alexander III but the attempt had failed. 

It is a mistake to believe that the October Revolution of 1917 came out of the blue. The revolutionary fire had been simmering in Russia, since the middle of the 19th century.

Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov (Александр Ильич Ульянов; 1866 –1887) was born in Nizhny Novgorod, the second child and eldest son of schoolteachers Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov and Maria Alexandrovna Ulyanova. He graduated with honours from the College of Simbirsk, in 1883, and later attended the Saint Petersburg State University, where he majored in Natural Sciences and earned a degree in zoology.

While at university, he participated in underground meetings, often handing out pamphlets and making speeches to students and workers. In 1886, he became a member of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) Party. He was one of the authors of the party’s programme. Acknowledging the working class as the «nucleus of the party», this programme affirmed the revolutionaries’ initiative of abolishing autocracy.

Alexander Ulyanov was arrested, after the plan to assassinate Tsar Alexander III had failed. During his trial in court, he gave a political speech. Alexander’s mother Maria Alexandrovna wrote a petition to the Tsar, asking for clemency, and received permission to visit her son in prison. She urged him to ask for clemency himself. So Alexander Ulyanov wrote a letter to the Tsar:

«I am fully aware that the nature of the deed I have committed and my attitude towards it do not give me either the right or the moral basis to apply to Your Majesty with a request for indulgence in the form of alleviating my lot.

But I have a mother whose health has deteriorated greatly, in recent days, and the execution of my death sentence will put her life in the most serious danger. In the name of my mother and my younger brothers and sisters, who, having no father, find their only support in her, I have decided to ask Your Majesty to replace my death penalty with some other punishment.

This indulgence will restore the strength and health of my mother and return her to the family for which her life is so precious, and save me from the painful consciousness that I will be the cause of the death of my mother and the misfortune of my entire family.»

However, clemency was not granted. On the 8th of May 1887, Alexander Ulyanov was hanged at Shlisselburg and buried in a mass grave behind the wall of the Oreshek fortress, on the shore of Lake Ladoga in the Leningrad Region.

Alexander’s execution drove his younger brother Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Vladimir Lenin) to pursue the Russian revolutionary struggle even more fervently. He finally succeeded to eradicate the Romanov reigning clique and to abolish tsardom in Russia, once and for all, in order to give his home country a new economic, political and social direction.

Although Alexander Ulyanov’s attempt to free Russia had not been successful, his memory lived on in the hearts and minds of the Soviet people, in the 20th century. Streets were named after him in Saint Petersburg, Tver and Donetsk. A USSR postage stamp of the Ulyanov family was issued, in 1962.

In 1965, the film «A Mother’s Heart» was filmed, directed by Mark Donskoy. It told about the execution of Alexander Ulyanov and how his mother Maria Alexandrovna experienced this event. In 1970, the ship «Alexander Ulyanov» was launched from the docks of the shipyard in Rostock, German Democratic Republic. In 1972, the minor planet (2112) Ulyanov received his name.

The French editor of the last Tsar’s diary, Jean-Christophe Buisson, gives further details of the Romanov execution in Yekaterinburg:

«On the 16th of July 1918, while the Romanov family dined, Yakov Yurovsky and his Chekhists counted the revolvers they were going to use. All in all, they had 12 revolvers of the type Browning, Mauser and Nagan. At 22:30, the last Tsar and his family went to bed. Less than two hours later, they were woken up by Jakov Yurovsky who told them to get dressed and go downstairs. He led them ito a windowless room of the basement with a size of 30 square metres» (Journal intime, p. 249).

Nicholas II asked for chairs. The Chekhists brought three chairs. The Tsar, his wife and Alexis sat down, the girls remained standing. The family was accompanied by their doctor, cook, maid, valet and pet dog. The maid brought two cushions for the Tsar’s wife Alexandra. Later, the Chekists found out that her most precious jewels had been sewn into them.

At three o’clock in the morning, Yakov Yurovsky entered the basement again with ten of his men. He told the last Tsar: «Nicholas Alexandrovich, your friends wanted to liberate you but they failed. Now we are obliged to kill you.» 

The entire Romanov family and their attendants were shot. In this way, the reign of the Romanov dynasty ended, and a new epoch of Russian history began.

To be continued: “The last days of the last Tsar” (Part V) will be published in July 2022.

Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia. Her blog:


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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Beldar Conehead
Beldar Conehead
May 8, 2022

Savagery seems part and parcel of the chosen.

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