When Nicholas Romanov was crowned czar of Russia in 1894, he seemed bewildered. “What is going to happen to me…to all Russia?” he asked an advisor when he assumed the throne. “I am not prepared to be Czar. I never even wanted to become one.”
Twenty-four years later, he seemed just as bewildered as a group of armed thugs, members of the Bolshevik secret police, moved in to assassinate him. Though he had been deposed months earlier, his crown and his name stolen from him and his family imprisoned, he did not expect to be murdered.
But unlike Czar Nicholas, historians have pieced together the exact reasons why the Romanov family was brutally assassinated and the context that led to their downfall.
Russians turn against Nicholas II after a series of unpopular decisions
The roots of the Romanov family’s murder can be found in the earliest days of Nicholas’ reign. The eldest son of Emperor Alexander III, Nicholas was his father’s designated heir. But Alexander did not adequately prepare his son to rule a Russia that was wracked with political turmoil. A strict autocrat, Alexander believed that a czar had to rule with an iron fist. He forbade anyone within the Russian Empire to speak non-Russian languages (even those in places like Poland), cracked down on the freedom of the press, and weakened his people’s political institutions.
As a result, Nicholas inherited a restless Russia. A few days after his coronation in 1896, nearly 1,400 of his subjects died during a huge stampede. They had gathered on a large field in Moscow to receive coronation gifts and souvenirs, but the day ended in tragedy. It was a disturbing beginning to Nicholas’ reign, and his bungled response earned him the nickname “Nicholas the Bloody.”
Throughout his reign, Nicholas faced growing discontent from his subjects. He fought a war the people weren’t behind. His government massacred nearly 100 unarmed protesters during a peaceful assembly in 1905. And he struggled to maintain a civil relationship with the Duma, the representative branch of the Russian government.
World War I catastrophes and Rasputin’s reputation erode Nicholas’ public support
Nicholas’ son, the crown prince, Alexei, was born with hemophilia. But the family kept his disease, which would cause him to bleed to death from a slight cut, a secret. Empress Alexandra, his wife, became increasingly under the thrall of Grigori Rasputin, a mystic whom she believed had saved Alexei’s life. Rasputin’s growing influence within the family caused suspicion among the public, who resented his power.
Then, in 1914, Russia was drawn into World War I but was unprepared for the scale and magnitude of the fighting. Nicholas’ subjects were horrified by the number of casualties the country sustained. Russia had the largest number of deaths in the war—over 1.8 million military deaths, and about 1.5 million civilian deaths.
The war eroded whatever semblance of control Nicholas still had over the country. Without men at home to farm, the food system collapsed, the transportation system fell apart, and the people began to riot. At first, Nicholas refused to abdicate, but in March 1917, he stepped down.
During the October Revolution, Bolsheviks imprison the imperial family in a remote house
In November 1917, Bolshevik revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin took over the government. Nicholas tried to convince the British and then the French to give him asylum—after all, his wife was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. But both countries refused, and the Romanovs found themselves in the hands of the newly formed revolutionary government.
The Romanovs' new life was dramatically different from the regal, opulent life they had lived in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Both Nicholas and Empress Alexandra were in denial and refused to give up hope that they’d be saved. Instead, they were shuffled from house to house. Finally, they were imprisoned in a home that the Bolsheviks called “the house of special purpose.”
The family that had once lived in a regal home now camped out in the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, a house with no bed linens, lots of dust, and not enough plates or silverware. Soldiers hassled them, drawing lewd images on the walls of the bathroom and covering them with obscene poems about Alexandra.
After months of plotting, the Romanov family is assassinated by their Bolshevik captors
Finally, late at night on July 17, 1918, the Romanov family was awoken and told to get ready for another move. Still hoping to escape, the women packed up their things and put on clothing into which they had sewn precious jewelry, religious icons and a large amount of money. Then, unexpectedly, their captors turned on them, attacking them first with bullets, then with the butts of guns, bayonets and even their own heels and fists. All seven of the Romanovs—and the last gasp of the Russian monarchy—were dead.
What may have looked like an impromptu murder was in fact a carefully planned act of violence. For days, the Romanovs’ Bolshevik captors had been preparing the house for the murder, including stocking up on benzene with which to burn the corpses and sulfuric acid with which to maim them beyond recognition.
Yakov Yurovsky, who had coordinated and led the killings, was personally recognized by Lenin, the head of the Bolsheviks, for the murders. But while the country was informed of the Czar’s assassination, the public was left in the dark about the rest of the family’s gruesome fate—and the location of their bodies—until the fall of the Soviet Union.
Lenin, Yurovsky, and the revolutionaries all saw Nicholas and the monarchy he stood for as a cancer that made it impossible for the working class to rise. But ironically, the assassinations they orchestrated to murder the monarchy for good had consequences for their cause. News that Nicholas had been assassinated almost completely overshadowed the political victories Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries had achieved, and pushed the Russian Revolution off the front page of newspapers. And, ironically, the deaths of Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children made many Russians yearn for the monarchy.
Even today, there is a contingent of Russian society that wants to restore the monarchy, including an oligarch who funds a school designed to prepare rich Russians for a future monarchy. Nicholas may not have known how to rule Russia, but the monarchy he felt so ambivalent about has maintained some of its pull even 100 years after his murder.