Ninety-five years ago today, on July 17, 1918, eleven people were massacred in the basement of a house in Ekaterinberg, Russia by members of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. The victims were Nicholas Romanov, the former Tsar of Russia; his wife, Alexandra; their five children, Olga, Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexis; their doctor, Eugene Botkin; cook, Ivan Kharitonov; maid, Anna Demidova; and footman, Alexei Trupp. This act of political violence was just one of the many thousands–and eventually millions–of deaths associated with the Bolshevik Revolution and the conflict it sprang out of, the First World War.
Sadly, what most people know about the Ekaterinberg massacre is not fact, but a fairy tale. In one of history’s most famous cases of impersonation, a woman named Fransizka Schanzkowska, in real life a Polish factory worker, began in the early 1920s to pass herself off as the youngest Romanov daughter, Anastasia, who was 17 at the time of the massacre. Later in life Fransizka called herself “Anna Anderson.” Although Fransizka’s story about how she supposedly escaped the basement bloodbath was not very believable and she didn’t resemble the real Anastasia much at all, somehow she managed to convince many people that she really was Anastasia Romanov, including a few who had been close to the Russian royal family. DNA evidence has since proven beyond all doubt that “Anna Anderson” was Fransizka Schanzkowska and not Anastasia Romanov. Nevertheless, the legend of Anastasia’s escape still manages to entrance people almost 100 years later. Astonishingly, there are still people out there—admittedly, a very few—who not only believe that Fransizka was Anastasia Romanov, but they are surprisingly invested in this belief.
What you don’t often hear is that there were many other people who also pretended to be members of the Romanov family who supposedly escaped, not just Anastasia. In fact Fransizka Schanzkowska herself started out by pretending to be, not Anastasia, but Tatiana, one of the older daughters. There was also a young man who claimed he was Alexis. If you look through history you’ll see this sort of thing happens almost every time a ruler is violently deposed, especially if the ruler is a child (or the ruler who is deposed has children who are also killed). It happened often in Byzantine history; the famous Byzantine civil war of 821, for instance, involved an impostor who pretended to be Constantine VI, who in real life was murdered while still a teenager.
Despite the violence of his end and the negative association the Soviet government cast on Nicholas II after his 1917 abdication, in reality Nicholas Romanov was a very admirable man. He was a very poor ruler–almost everyone agrees on that–but his devotion to his children, love of his wife and steadfast determination to keep his family together, even in the most trying of times, could stand as a pretty good role model for some parents today (the kind of parents who leave their kids to suffocate in hot cars, for instance, which has happened more than once this week). And, if you read the real accounts of the Tsar’s children–instead of the silly make-believe fantasy about the pretenders–they also seemed to be pretty decent people. They were sheltered and pampered, as all royal children are, but had they lived they could have affected history in some interesting ways. From 1917 until the very end of their lives the Romanov family believed and hoped they would eventually get to England–the British royal family was related to them–and if they had done so likely they would have lived quiet but interesting lives there, perhaps advocating quietly for anti-Soviet causes.
Poor Alexis is the saddest of the Ekaterinberg victims. He was 13 at the time of his murder and at that young age had already cheated death numerous times. As many people know, he was a hemophiliac, and in the 1910s this disease had no treatment. Alexis, heir to the Russian throne, spent most of his life in excruciating pain, worst of all in the summer of 1912 when everyone thought he was going to die. It is irony that the disease he was known for did not ultimately kill him, but the Bolsheviks’ bullets did. I can’t imagine what was going through the minds of the executioners as they stood in that terrible cellar room, pointing their weapons at a defenseless, crippled, visibly ill 13-year-old child. War and revolution do terrible things.
We need not endorse any set of political beliefs to feel pity for this family and the horrible way that they died. Today the house in Ekaterinberg is gone, replaced by a church. The remains of the Romanov victims–which were discovered in 1991–are buried there. At least they found some peace in death.