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Lessons of Russian History: The last days of the last Tsar (Part V)

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Lessons of Russian History: The last days of the last Tsar (Part V)

by Olivia Kroth


After the last Tsar, his family and attendants were shot by Yakov Yurovsky and his Chekist helpers in the House of Ipatiev in Yekaterinburg, in the early morning hours on the 17th of July 1918, the question arises why Yakov Yurovsky was so keen on eliminating the last reigning Romanov family. The answer can be found in his ethnic roots and upbringing. 

Yakov Yurovky was of Jewish descent, born as Yankel Khaimovich in the Tomsk Governorate, Siberia. The Russian Jews had suffered from tsarist anti-Semitism and pogroms, for a long time. Probably Yakov Yurovsky, formerly Yankel Khaimovich, did not hate Tsar Nicholas II so much personally, as he hated the institution of tsardom in general and wanted to desroy it completely.

The tsarist pogroms against Jews in the Russian Empire had been planned and carried out by government authorities, supervised by the ochrana, the tsarist secret police. The first large-scale pogrom took place in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1821. 

Other pogroms followed in Kiev and Odessa, from 1881 to 1884. The trigger for this severe persecution of Jews was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, in 1880, for which some people blamed the Jews.

More bloody pogroms followed, from 1903 to 1906. About 2.000 Jews were killed and many more were wounded. The pogrom in Kishinev, Bessarabia, today Moldavia, in 1903, was one of the most brutal pogroms in Russian history. Other towns were affected as well: Kerch, Kiev, Odessa, Simferopol and Yekaterinoslav.

These pogroms led many Russian Jews to reassess the perception of their status within the Russian Empire. A significant Jewish emigration followed but some of the Jews stayed in Russia. Most of those, who did not emigrate, joined the Bolsheviks and later the newly founded Cheka. This was the case for Yankel Khaimovich, aka Yakov Mikhailovich Yurovsky.

Yankel Khaimovich / Yakov Mikhailovich Yurovsky was born in Kainsk, Tomsk Governorate, on the 19th of June 1878. He was the eighth of ten children in a large Jewish working-class family. His father Khaim Yitzakovich was a glazier, his mother Esther Moishewna worked as a seamstress.

Yankel’s grandfather Yitzak was a rabbi in Poltava. Thus Yankel grew up in an Orthodox Jewish environment and attended the synagogue school in Tomsk. From 1890, he worked as a watchmaker’s apprentice in Tobolsk and Tomsk, Siberia. 

In 1904, he married Mane Yankelevoi Kaganer in the local synagogue. He also worked in Feodosia and Yekaterinodar, Crimea, and in Batum, Georgia. All of these cities were part of the Russian Empire. 

In 1905, Yankel Khaimovich joined revolutionary circles in Tomsk. First, he took part in combat units of the Russian General Jewish Labour Bund, generally called «Bund». Later, he became a Bolshevik, following the example of his close friend Yakov Sverdlov, and was engaged in the dissemination of Marxist literature. 

The Bund, was a secular Jewish labour party, initially formed in the Russian Empire, between 1897 and 1920. It advocated far-reaching democracy, national-cultural autonomy for Eastern European Jewry and the creation of a secular education system. It supported the development of culture in the Yiddish language. The Bundists believed that Jews should not be assimilated.

The Bund was an anti-Zionist party and opposed Jewish emigration to Palestine, while actively campaigning against anti-Semitism, as well as defending Jewish civil and cultural rights. The majority faction of the Russian Bund was dissolved, in 1921, and incorporated into the Communist Party. The anthem of the Bund, known as «the oath» («di shvuer» in Yiddish), was written in 1902 by S. Ansky:

«Brothers and sisters in toil and struggle / All who are dispersed far and wide / Come together, the flag is ready / It waves in anger, it is red with blood! / Swear an oath of life and death! / Heaven and earth will hear us, / The light stars will bear witness. / An oath of blood, an oath of tears, / We swear, we swear, we swear! / We swear an endless loyalty to the Bund. / Only it can free the slaves now. / The red flag is high and wide. / It waves in anger, it is red with blood! / Swear an oath of life and death!»

From 1912, Yakov Yurovsky lived in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, where he started a workshop for watch repair and photography. His workshop was at the same time a turnout for the Bolsheviks and a laboratory for the production of passports for them. In 1916, he was called to serve as a paramedic at a local hospital. Here Yakov Yurovsky became an active agitator among the wounded soldiers.

After the February Revolution, he sold his photo workshop and with the proceeds he organized the Bolshevik printing house «Ural Worker». He also became a member of the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, a prominent Bolshevik and one of the main leaders of the revolution in the Ural mountains, cooperating with Yakov Aaron Sverdlov.

In April 1917, Yakov Aaron Sverdlov arrived in Yekarinburg from the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks and began to organize delegates for the All-Russian Conference, which took place on April 24. 

While Vladimir Lenin announced his plan for the October Revolution, Yakov Aaron Sverdlov attracted personnel, preparing an alternative coup in the Urals, in case there was a failure in Saint Petersburg.

Yakov Aaron Mikhailovich Sverdlov (Яков Михайлович Свердлов; 1885 – 1919) was a Bolshevik Party administrator, from 1917 to 1919. Born in Nizhny Novgorod to a Jewish family active in revolutionary politics, he supported Vladimir Lenin.

He was elected chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, in November 1917. He worked to consolidate the new Bolshevik Government and played a major role in authorising the execution of the Romanov family, in July 1918. 

He died, in March 1919, during the Spanish flu at the age of 33 and was buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in Moscow.The city of Yekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk in his honour, in 1924.

Yakov Yurovsky went down in history as the leader of the execution of Nicholas II and his family. On the 4th of July 1918, he became the commandant of the Ipatiev House. By decision of the Ural Council, he led the execution in the night of July 16-17. 

Yakov Yurovsky said that he personally shot Nicholas Romanov with his Mauser. Other participants – Yermakov, Medvedev and some Magyars – shot the rest. In total, they killed 12 people, including the servants and the family doctor.

The destruction of the corpses was entrusted to Pyotr Yermakov, Yakov Yurovsky also participated. They threw the bodies into an abandoned mine of the Urals. A day later, they returned to this mine and began to burn the bodies with acid and fire, trying to destroy any possibility of leaving relics. The Romanovs’ valuables were sealed and sent to Moscow by train.

Yakov Yurovsky later moved to Moscow, where he became a member of the board of the Moscow Cheka, as well as head of the district Cheka. From 1928, he worked as director of the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow. He died from a perforated duodenal ulcer, in 1938.

One of the main helpers to kill the last Tsar’s family was Pyotr Zakharovich Yermakov (Пётр Захарович Ермаков; 1884 – 1952). He first worked as a metal craftsman in the Yekaterinburg region. In 1917, he aligned himself with the Bolshevik faction. 

In the summer of 1917, Pyotr Yermakov took part in the formation of the Red Guard detachments in the Yekaterinburg region. He commanded the 3rd Ural squad, formed by volunteer workers from the 4th District of the Red Army Reserve.

During the encirclement near the city of Troitsk, he received a bullet wound in the stomach. Until the end of April 1918, he was treated in a hospital in the city of Troitsk, afterwards he was transferred to one of the Yekaterinburg hospitals. 

In May 1918, Pyotr Yermakov was appointed military commissar of the 4th district of the Red Army Reserve in Yekaterinburg. In July 1918, he became a direct participant in the execution of Nicholas II and his family.

At the end of July 1918, he retreated from Yekaterinburg along with units of the Red Army towards Perm. In August 1918, he defended the main line of the railway near Kungur, together with his detachment. At the end of 1918,  Pyotr Yermakov’s detachment entered the 30th brigade of the 3rd Army.

In 1919, Pyotr Yermakov was enlisted as commissar of the guard battalion of the 3rd Army. In March 1920, the Revolutionary Military Council sent him to the Western Front. In April 1920, he was enlisted as a military commissar of the 23rd brigade of the 8th division and participated in the battles on the Berezina.

After being wounded, he was enrolled as a commissar of the reserve regiment of the 16th Army, where he stayed until July 1921, then he was appointed military commissar of the 48th brigade of the 16th Army. In 1921-1922, he organized the work of cavalry courses as a commissar. In 1923, he got demobilized from the ranks of the Red Army due to illness.

In April 1923, Pyotr Yermakov was appointed head of the Omsk city police , where he led the liquidation of groups of criminal banditry. Since April 1924, he worked in Yekaterinburg as deputy head of the mining and industrial police. 

From December 1924 to May 1925, he served as head of the administrative department of the Chelyabinsk police department. Since May 1925, he held a similar position in Zlatoust, and from May 1926 to September 1927, in the city of Usolye of the Upper Kama District.

After administrative work in various poisitions, Pyotr Yermakov retired, at the end of 1934. During the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), he served as chairman of the military section of the Molotov district council of Sverdlovsk, which allowed him to check military training and instruction in all organizations of the Molotov region. 

He died from cancer in Sverdlovsk, on the 22nd of May 1952, and was buried at the Ivanovo cemetery. In Soviet times, one of the streets of Sverdlovsk was named after Pyotr Yermakov.

Regarding the Romanovs’ fate, the majority of the population was relieved, when 300 years of Romanov rule finally ended. The people were waking up from a dreadful nightmare, which had lasted too long. 

The Romanov clique had misappropriated natural resources for their personal gains, exploited the human working force, accumulated immense wealth on the backs of the people, shown no respect for other religions except Russian orthodoxy.

In many ways, the years 1917 and 1918 represent a landmark in history. The October Revolution of 1917, the end of the Romanov dynasty, the outcome of World War I brought major changes not only for Russia but for the entire world.

These events and their consequences are so fundamental that they merit further critical studies in the future, regarding their economic, geopolitical, military, philosophical, psychological, religious and social implications and consequences. They will surely keep the human mind busy for a long time.

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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