By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Candace Fleming
Narrated by: Kimberly Farr and Others
Candace Fleming offers an intimate look at the life and death of the last royal family of the Czarist empire. The intimacy of the profile is reinforced by personal letters, contemporary literature, and historical accounts of the 1917 Russian revolution. Fleming reaches back to the beginning of Czar Nicholas’s reign 23 years earlier and ends with the family’s slaughter in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg, Russia. East of Moscow and southeast of St. Petersburg.
The ignominious death of the last Czarist family is confirmed by DNA analysis of the remains of the family in 1992. Two of the children are missing in the first discovered grave site; e.g. the son Alexei and a daughter thought initially to be Marie, but later found to be Anastasia. The mystery of the two missing children is solved when a nearby grave is found in 2007. Through further DNA analysis, Alexei’s and Anastasia’s remains are confirmed.
The entire Romanov family is captured and placed under house arrest by the Red Guard, a rag-tag military force, made of workers, peasants, Cossacks, and former soldiers. This unconventional troop is under the influence of Bolshevik revolutionaries; recruited at Vladimir Lenin’s direction. This rag-tag troop is eventually replaced by war hardened soldiers commanded by Yakov Mikhailovich Yurosky.
Fleming notes that Yurosky’s family had been victims of Nicholas II’s feckless reign. Undocumented orders are given to Yurosky to murder the royal family and their servants. Fleming suggests the impetus for Yurosky’s orders is the approaching White Guard (an anti-communist force opposing Lenin’s Bolsheviks). No written record is discovered showing Lenin or any particular Bolshevik leader directs the murders. However, Lenin approves of the murders after the fact.
Fleming describes the preparation of a basement room in the Ipatiev House for the murders. All furniture is removed from the basement room. The family and their servants are awakened in the middle of the night, taken to the basement, and shot like horses in a slaughter-house. The first shot, fired by Yurosky, kills the Czar. Soldiers empty their rifles on the remaining family and servants. The children are wearing clothes that are secretly lined with jewelry. Their clothes act like bullet proof vests. Shots ricochet around the room and the children are shot again to end their lives. A truck is waiting outside the house. The bodies are thrown into the truck and taken to a dense forest nearby, where they are buried.
Days later the White Guard arrives. They find the house in anticipation of a rescue of the Czar’s family but find the house empty. They search each room and find evidence that the royal family had been there. They finally reach the basement. It is clean but blood stains can still be seen on baseboards and the floor.
Fleming describes the 300 year (1613-1917) Romanov family as privileged, rich, and powerful. Privilege, power, and wealth diminishes in equal measure as Czar Nicholas II inherits the throne.
Nicholas II’s father is characterized as a bull of a man who brooks no disagreement from either his family or the Russian people. At 6’ 3”, Alexander III dwarfs his son who is 5’ 7”. In complete contrast to Alexander, Nicholas is characterized by Fleming as effete and non-confrontational. He both reveres and fears his father.
When the Russian poor challenge Alexander, after Nicholas’s grandfather’s more accommodating rule, Alexander III reacts to revolts with bullets and blood; i.e. any resistance to autocracy is crushed by Alexander III. When Alexander dies, Nicholas attempts to emulate his father’s autocratic rule but carries none of his father’s confrontational leadership style or toughness. Nicholas rarely acts as a leader and only commends, rather than commands, surrogate actions. When his ministers shoot unarmed civilians on their own volition, Nicholas commends them for their promptness in defending the throne.
Fleming gives the example of the 1905 Russian revolution when the poor attempt to meet with the Czar but are repelled by the Czar’s guard. Many peasants are murdered. The peasant’s intent is to meet to discuss what can be done to raise wages and improve their lives. The Czar is 15 miles away when they arrive. He chooses to commend his minister for a violent response without considering the legitimacy of the peasants demands. Nicholas only cheers other’s actions that protect his rule. Nicholas never directs actions of subordinates; he never leads.
Nicholas’s lack of leadership is compounded by a marriage to Alexandra Feodorovna. Alexandra becomes Nicholas’s enabler. She supports his style of non-decision decision-making. Alexandra is a devout mystic that believes all things that happen are by the grace of God. When something goes wrong, it is the will of God.
Fleming notes that the Czar and Alexandra are anxious to have a boy child to ensure succession to the throne. They have four girls before Alexi is born. The birth of Alexi is attributed to a mystic, before Rasputin, that convinces Maria she will have a boy child. When Alexi is born, Maria’s belief in messenger’s from God becomes unshakable. Sadly, Alexi is found to have hemophilia which causes him to bleed; even when only slightly injured.
The die is cast. Not only does Nicholas rely on his wife’s counsel but Alexandra’s belief in mysticism opens the door to one who says he is God’s messenger. Such a one comes to the aid of Alexandra when her son suffers from a fall. Grigori Rasputin arrives to comfort the boy and assure Alexandra that he will not die. Alexandra’s son recovers and Rasputin becomes a confidant (a close friend) of the royal family. Rasputin and the support he receives from the royal family tarnish the god-like image of the Romanov’s. Rasputin’s libertine ways scandalize the royal family.
As WWI begins, the fall of the Romanov’s is assured. When Russia most needs a strong decisive leader, they have an inept and weak Czar. The support of the people diminishes with the progress of the war. The Czar’s leadership vacuum is filled by Vladimir Lenin and his mythic communist philosophy of power to the people. With promises to peasants and workmen that live under the thumb of an aristocratic totalitarian system, Lenin justifies another kind of totalitarian system.
Fleming implies that Lenin may soften terrorist communism if he had lives, but Joseph Stalin takes the reins after Lenin’s death. The rest is a history. Stalin is the leading mass murderer of the twentieth century. Deaths from war, labor camps, purges, and imprisonments exceed the horrific statistics of Hitler’s German Reich. Stalin’s repression and brutality and the myths of communist collectivism eventually lead to the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
Fleming offers an interesting and intimate view of the last Czar’s family. It is not laudatory but one comes away from the story feeling that the death of Nicholas and his family, like Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, were the result of changing times; not their ineffective, injudicious rule. They deserved to be dethroned but not murdered.
Money, power, and prestige corrupts all human beings–rich, poor, religious, or secular. Democratic regulation; not autocracy, social justice; not vigilantism, peace; not war are the needs of society.