The tragedy and shame of the execution of the Romanovs, which lay hidden for so many years, will be officially commemorated in the Russian Orthodox Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg on 17 July, the 90th anniversary. The author has walked through the nearby forest to the site of seven simple wooden shrines, which cover the original burial sites, and has written a moving and factual account of the family's last days.
Earlier accounts of the end of the imperial dynasty have been dictated largely by the political events of the Revolution. Helen Rappaport, a Russian specialist and author of No Place for Ladies, a revisionist account of Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, displays impeccable timing, as American scientists announced in May that their DNA tests on human remains uncovered last year near Ekaterinburg prove conclusively that the whole of the Russian Imperial family died that hot July night in the bloodbath in the cellar of the Ipatiev House: "the House of Special Purpose". There had been no escape for the little haemophiliac Crown Prince Alexis, nor for his elder sisters Maria or Anastasia, from the hail of pistol shots and bayonet thrusts – much as fond and hopelessly deluded monarchists then – and more recently – fervently believed.
We now know that the bodies of Tsar Nicholas II, his much-maligned wife, the Tsaritsa Alexandra, their son and four daughters, along with four faithful body servants, were stripped, doused in sulphuric acid to obliterate identifying marks and thrown down a shallow disused mineshaft, only to be subsequently disinterred and burnt on a funeral pyre. One of their murderers said later: "The world will never know what we did with them", but the unearthing of a cache of human bones in 1991 proved him wrong.
The following year I covered the London press conference when the bones were displayed as part of the DNA testing to establish the fate of the family once and for all. The shattered skulls, bathed in a cold, impersonal spotlight, seemed to utter a frozen cry for recognition as the scientists made the case for their authenticity. Now Helen Rappaport has brought her subjects back to life with a sombre intensity, focusing on the last fortnight of their verifiable existence in their claustrophobic mansion prison, and drawing on the testimony of witnesses, including the arch-executioner, Yacov Yurovsky and members of his death squad .
The book is essentially a compassionate account of a close-knit, deeply devout and surprisingly ordinary family caught up in quite extraordinary circumstances. The atmosphere of dark menace that permeated the House of Special Purpose is very well captured as their Bolshevik captors gradually closed down their links with the outside world; sealing and whitewashing the windows and erecting a second perimeter fence (the Tsar's legs had been spotted as he enjoyed his daughters' swing in the small garden).
Rescue attempts were a real possibility. On the family's arrival in Ekaterinburg in May 1918, royalist supporters had managed to smuggle notes into the house, holding out hope of escape. However, as Rappaport proves, the Ural Soviet leadership, who were determined to settle accounts with 'Bloody Nicholas', decided to use this clandestine mail service for their own sinister ends. They inserted a note into a bottle of cream, part of the limited dairy goods delivery allowed from the local convent, telling the family to prepare for rescue – they should cut hair and beards and wait by a suddenly mysteriously opened window for a whistled signal. It never came, and the Bolsheviks had their "justification" for liquidating the Imperial family, an act which Rappaport shows here had Lenin's approval – although his efforts at a cover-up overlooked a telegraph tape in which his close associate Sverdlov gave the go-ahead to the Ekaterinburg comrades.
At this point, Rappaport allows the diaries and letters of the Tsaritsa and her daughters to set the final scene. Their humiliation is complete; abandoned by their royal relatives in Britain and Germany, forced to eat soldiers' rations, with the grand duchess's daughters serving as laundry maids, the family takes solace in prayer, games of bezique and reading from the Old Testament.
The author effectively describes the psychological game which their jailer, Yurovsky, played with his victims in this final fortnight, deliberately preserving a chilling normalcy in the daily routine. This extended to granting them a service with a priest that effectively constituted their "last rites" (he later noted that the thin, haggard Tsar and his family failed to sing the responses in the prayers for the dead) and to allowing the nuns at the local convent to make their normal delivery – though increasing the egg ration to 50. Next day, the hard-boiled eggs made a picnic for the murder squad as they disposed of their victims in that forest glade, now marked by sweetly scented white arum lilies. I found this book a deeply touching anniversary tribute.
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