The secrets of Ekaterinberg

Who killed the Tsar and his family? Richard Pipes argues that the final order came from Lenin himself; The Fall of the Romanovs by Mark D. Steinberg and Vladimir M. Khrustalev, Yale, pounds 18.50
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The fate of Russia's Imperial Family - not so much in life as in decline and death - has become a veritable industry. In the past several years, half a dozen books have appeared in English dealing with the last days of the Romanovs; there are even more of them in Russian. Not that much new evidence has come to light to illuminate this tragic tale. Most of the accounts reiterate the same information and add little to the report of N.A. Sokolov, the Russian jurist who in 1918-19 investigated the murder on the spot and in 1924 published a scrupulous summary of his findings.

The only major contributions to the history of the assassination of Nicholas II, his family and servants were made by Trotsky in 1925 and the Russian writer Edward Radzinskii in 1989. In his 1935 diary, Trotsky recalled asking Iakov Sverdlov in the summer of 1918 what had happened to the Imperial family. Sverdlov, Lenin's right-hand man, told him that they had all been shot and that the execution had been carried out on Lenin's personal orders. Radzinskii discovered and published the recollections of Iakov Yurovsky, the Chekist who headed the execution squad and who personally killed the ex-tsar.

The grisly story is known virtually to the smallest detail: Nicholas, his wife and five children, along with the family doctor and three servants, were executed in gangster fashion on the night of July 16-17 and their remains, partly destroyed by fire and sulphuric acid, buried in a secret grave (which has since been located). Yet so morbid is the fascination of the public with the assassination of prominent historic figures that there exists an insatiable market for books which retell the story and raise questions about the established version. Some people doubt whether Lenin actually gave the order for the massacre or whether it was not more plausibly carried out on the initiative of the Soviet of Ekaterinburg, the city where it occurred. Others believe that the only person killed was Nicholas and that the remaining members of the family were spared, as the official Bolshevik communique of the event claimed.

The authors of The Fall of the Romanovs have the benefit of previous scholarship as well as unrestricted access to Soviet archives. The heart of their book consists of 160 documents, most of them from the State Archive of the Russian Federation. They cover the period from February 1917, when the monarchy collapsed, until July 1918. Each batch of documents is preceded by extensive commentaries designed to provide their historical setting.

Do they tell us much that is new? Not really. The bulk of the documents in this collection has been published previously. The new evidence consists mainly of exchanges between Moscow and the government agent charged with escorting the Romanovs from Tobolsk, their original place of confinement. They prove conclusively that the Imperial Family was removed from Tobolsk to be brought not to Moscow, as previously believed, but to Ekaterinburg. Some of the actions of their escort, Yakovlev Miachin, are somewhat clearer in the context of these documents but his handling of the Imperial family (referred to in communications with the Kremlin as "the baggage") still remains obscure.

It is regrettable that the authors chose not to indicate previous publications of their documents. Thus the reader is not informed that the extensive excerpts of the diaries of Empress Alexandra which they publish in full were first made public by the American journalist, Isaac Don Levine, in the Chicago Daily News 75 years ago. Nor is credit given to Eduard Radzinskii for discovering and publishing Yurovsky's recollections, which are here reproduced once again. The same holds true of the spurious letters sent to the imperial family in their prison by an alleged monarchist prepared to abduct them, but in fact written by the local Cheka. Such omissions create the wrong impression that these and many other documents in the volume are made public for the first time.

The narrative, especially that part credited to Professor Steinberg, is crisply written and lucid but it does not reveal profound knowledge of the era. Suffice it to say that it incorrectly attributes to General Kornilov, whose quarrel with Kerensky in August 1917 fatally weakened the Provisional Government, the demand "that all civil and military authority be placed in his hands". In reality, this was a proposal made to Kerensky by a bumbling meddler, V. Lvov, who pretended to be an emissary from Kornilov. The descriptions of the February Revolution and October coup follow rather conventional class war scenarios, devoting little attention to the political conflicts.

The most unconvincing aspect of the narrative is the way in which it raises doubts about Lenin's role in the murder of the Imperial family. Indeed, no written order from Lenin mandating the execution of the ex- tsar has been found (although a low-level Soviet functionary claimed to have carried such an order to the telegraph office). But this no more proves his uninvolvement than the absence of a written instruction from Hitler to kill all the Jews, on which Nazi apologists rely, absolves him of ultimate responsibility for the Holocaust.

Lenin was exceedingly careful not to associate his name with acts of Communist terror. He preferred to attribute them to others, usually either government officials or local soviets, partly to absolve himself from blame, partly to remove the onus for these barbarities from the Party. Anyone familiar with the way the Soviet regime functioned during his lifetime realizes that nothing of importance was done in Soviet Russia without Lenin's personal approval. He would one day order 100 peasants in the province of Penza be hanged publicly to frighten others into surrendering their grain. At another time, he would command that all the Cossacks of a town in the Urals be "exterminated" if they set fire to the oil wells. (Both these instructions were issued in secret and made available only recently). It is simply inconceivable, even if we did not have Trotsky's testimony to this effect, that the Ekaterinburg soviet would on its own initiative undertake an act that was bound to have the most ominous domestic and international repercussions. For the fate of the Empress and her daughters was fraught with diplomatic dangers since Berlin, on which the Bolsheviks then heavily depended both militarily and financially, regarded them as German nationals. To impute even tentatively the decision to local authorities is particularly eccentric given that we have Yurovsky's own word (which the authors cite) that Ekaterinburg received on July 16 an order from Perm, the administrative centre of the Urals, "to exterminate the R-ovs".

Lenin more than once attributed to local soviet authorities actions which he thought politically dangerous. He resorted to a strikingly similar stratagem in ordering the execution in Irkutsk in February 1920 of Admiral Kolchak whom he wanted out of the way but feared formally condemning to death because the White leader had influential sympathizers in Britain with whom Soviet Russia was about to open commercial negotiations.

Perhaps the time has come to proclaim a moratorium on this subject until - if ever - genuinely new sources come to light.

Richard Pipes is Baird Professor of History at Harvard

Comments