What happened to the Romanovs?

Beinecke library: Romanov Family Album 2, Page 16, Image no. 4

The House of Romanov ruled Russia from 1613 until 1917, when Nicholas II abdicated the throne. But what actually happened to the royal family? Tune in as Katie and Sarah get to the bottom of the mysterious demise of the Romanovs in this episode.

Beinecke library: Romanov Family Album 2, Page 16, Image no. 4


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And today we are granting listener requests fairy godmother style. We've had a lot of requests for this particular subject, but here is a sample e-mail from Lauren of Summerville, South Carolina who said that she'd listened to our podcast on Rasputin, "But I've learned of the youngest Romanov daughter, Anastasia and the mystery that surrounds her. In 1917 when her family was murdered by the Bolsheviks they never found Anastasia's body. Did she die or was she actually Anna Anderson, a German woman who claimed to be Anastasia for her whole life since the murder?"

Sarah Dowdy: So Candice and Josh did a podcast on Rasputin; how did Rasputin really die? But Lauren's right: that doesn't solve all of the mysteries of the Romanov family.

Katie Lambert: So first, let's get ourselves a cast of characters. So the family in question, the Romanovs ruled the Russian empire from 1613 to 1917, but the guy we're talking about is Nicholas II who succeeded Alexander III in 1894. And he also married his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, the same year.

Sarah Dowdy: Together they have five kids: Alexey, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia who is perhaps the most famous today. Alexey's the baby and he's the only son and he's the heir, but he's a hemophiliac which is something that he inherited from his ancestress, Queen Victoria. So he's not the best heir you could ask for.

Katie Lambert: But the family is happy with their lot. When Olga was born the Czar supposedly said, "I'm glad the child is a girl. Had it been a boy, he would have belonged to the people; being a girl she belongs to us" which reminded us a lot of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII.

Sarah Dowdy: It may be an hypocriful quote too. It's the kind of thing -

Katie Lambert: Well, more than likely, but it's the kind of thing that's fun to say.

Sarah Dowdy: Definitely.

Katie Lambert: They were a pretty happy family all-in-all, but as rulers, not so much. And this book, History's Monsters by Simon Sebag Montefiore, he called them inept, cruel, rigid and obtuse reactionaries, which ouch.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, most people agree that Nicholas just wasn't very well suited to his position. He's a timid man which means that he's easily manipulated and taken advantage of. And Alexandra actually has a lot of power over him and he has favorites in court who have a lot of power over him. So this makes people uncomfortable.

Katie Lambert: And he was really out of touch with his own people. He believed in divine right. He had God given power so he did what he wanted because he had God's blessing. And he listened to who he wanted, even if it wasn't maybe the best people; it wasn't the advisors.

Sarah Dowdy: The best advice, yeah.

Katie Lambert: Right. So he decided that anyone who disagreed with him was an enemy with a capitol E. And this does not breed happiness among his subjects.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. Needless to say, Nicholas is very unpopular and his international relations are a mess. And this all brings us to the Russian Revolution of 1905 which kind of gets this story started.

Katie Lambert: So in January, 1905 the workers of St. Petersburg, which at the time was Petrograd, marched to the Winter Palace with demands for Nicholas. They said that they were still loyal to the Czar, but that they wanted to elect a legislative assembly.

Sarah Dowdy: So even these fairly moderate demands are not met well. And the Czar's troops fire on them, kill 130 and its called Bloody Sunday and it ignites outrage in the Russian people.

Katie Lambert: By October, 1905 there is a general strike. The cities are shutting down because they have no workers and Nicholas okay's a legislative assembly. But don't think that the monarchy is giving up that easily. On their side, they have the Black Hundreds who are counter-revolutionaries and Czarists who had access to a lot of arms. They were made mostly of the wealthier class and some clergy men.

Sarah Dowdy: And they go after students and left-wingers and have bloody pogroms against the Jews. And they're really not fond of Ukrainians either. So this repressive regime is just getting worse almost.

Katie Lambert: But the revolutionaries are just as violent. There's a military mutiny and several political assassinations. So you could sum up this whole period with the phrase "violent unrest." And this continues for a long time. But with that, we'd like to explain I guess why the Romanovs are so interesting. It's not because they're just part of these revolutions.

Sarah Dowdy: It's kind of out of touch for standing against the revolution.

Katie Lambert: No, it's because they're weird.

Sarah Dowdy: They're really weird. They're kind of a freaky family.

Katie Lambert: Alexandra and Nicholas actually had a pretty happy marriage, but everyone else thought they were really bizarre. The Russians hated Alexandra because of her Germanness. Not only was she a German; she also was a hottie cold kind of person, or at least that's how the people thought of her and -

Sarah Dowdy: She epitomized what Russians didn't like in Germans.

Katie Lambert: About Germans and the first World War didn't' help. She was accused of being a spy. And perhaps unsurprisingly because they people didn't like her, she didn't really like them back and didn't make much of an effort.

Sarah Dowdy: So the fact that their only son and heir has hemophilia doesn't really endear Alexandra to her people either. The Russians want a good, strapping, healthy heir and she has this invalid who she absolutely obsesses over and she's of course blamed for it. And Alexandra: whatever you say about her, she does kind of have a right to obsess over this disorder. It's very serious and at the time, it was incurable. It's a bleeding disorder where your blood doesn't clot. And some variations can be mild, but in the most serious cases, you bleed internally and into your joints. And it's extremely painful.

Katie Lambert: So her worries weren't unfounded. This was a really serious thing for her son, but they kept his illness a secret which probably made things seem very mysterious and very odd to the outside world.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, people would just wonder what was going on and also why this child was being coddled so much.

Katie Lambert: So they were always looking for ways to cure him and when medicine failed him, the mystic Rasputin entered their lives who supposedly could heal little Alexey. And we won't go into this story too much because of the other podcast, but Rasputin had a lot of power over the Romanovs and was a very strange and possibly evil man. He was murdered in 1916 after several attempts to kill him, but he wouldn't die, much like a cartoon character.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, he keeps having that anvil fall on his head and surviving. So just to add to this rather damning case against the Czar and his wife, people also think Nicholas II was impotent and Alexandra was a lesbian and she had had sex with Rasputin to get her children. So there's just so much wrapped up around this couple.

Katie Lambert: And also that all the daughters were having sex with Rasputin. And people had no idea again what was really going on in that palace, but as far as outward appearances go, they thought something was entirely out of whack. So again, behind all of this the revolutions are still happening. The Revolution of 1905 did not end in 1905 and neither did that unrest.

Sarah Dowdy: Just the players change.

Kat ie Lambert: Exactly. So then we have the Russian Revolution of 1917. And the government is very corrupt. Everyone hates the Czar. At this point, he's blamed for all the things he's done and the things he hasn't done. And it's also become very clear during the war that while the rest of Europe has been modernizing, Russia has not.

Sarah Dowdy: That's something that we talked about a little in our Crimean War episode. They were realizing that even then.

Katie Lambert: It's especially clear to the army which is falling apart during warfare. There's also a food shortage which is when the rioting started. And in this climate, Nicholas abdicated in March. His brother wouldn't take the thrown. I wouldn't either if I'd been his brother. And the Romanovs are done. They have fallen completely out of power in the Russian empire.

Sarah Dowdy: So there's a power grab that happens and to really simplify something that's quite complicated, the Bolsheviks and the left socialist revolutionaries are the winners. And the Bolsheviks promise peace, land and bread which sounds like a pretty good deal. You can understand -

Katie Lambert: You can't argue with that, no.

Sarah Dowdy: - how people would get behind that.

Katie Lambert: No. So back to our family: Nicholas of course abdicated after the February revolution which was part one of the Revolution of 1917. So now what? The families' on house arrest for five months in Alexander Palace, but in August, 1917 they're sent to Tobolsk, Siberia.

Sarah Dowdy: And the Bolsheviks have a fateful decision to make at this point: exile the royal family or kill them, kill the Czar. And the family is a symbol. And because symbols are so important you can see why this would be such a momentous decision. If you exile the family, they can always come back. You could have grandchildren come back. It can go on for centuries.

Katie Lambert: So in April, 1918 they're still wavering on what to do and they summon Nicholas away. Alexandra and Maria go with him to Ekaterinburg and the Urals. And the rest of the family doesn't join until May because Alexey was too sick to go before. And this is a big change to the royal family. There's not a lot of food; they're dressed in rags. They're not treated well; they're imprisoned in this house and don't have a lot to do. They spend a lot of time reading the bible.

Sarah Dowdy: And in July, 1918 a man named Yakav Sverdlov signs off on the killing of the Romanov family. And at 2:00 in the morning, a group of men come for the Romanovs and the family along with a few of their servants who'd remained loyal to them and their doctor are taken into a small room and shot to death. And according to Robert Massie's The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, those who don't die in the first round of shots, which was the girls, are then bayoneted. Alexey is shot in the ear. Anastasias maid is bayoneted 30 times after she survives the gunshots and tries to escape. And the family's also disfigured. They are hit in the face with rifle butts and Anastasia's dog is even killed, o just this really violent assassination of the family.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, you have to picture this group, I think, what 12 executioners and then this family of nine in this teeny tiny room and all the blood. So the bloody, disfigured bodies were brought to a place called the Four Brothers, which was north of Ekaterinburg and a place of swamps and peat bogs and mines. And when the bodies were stripped, the men found that the Romanov daughters had diamonds sewn into their corsets, which explained why the bullets weren't killing them. The jewels were deflecting them.

Sarah Dowdy: Which his something I remember learning about when I was a kid and just being fascinated by this story.

Katie Lambert: Always keep diamonds in your clothes, Sarah; always.

Sarah Dowdy: It's the original Kevlar.

Katie Lambert: They were also wearing amulets with Rasputin's picture on them. Again, this is all according to Massie's book. And the bodies were thrown down a mine shaft with grenades thrown after them.

Sarah Dowdy: And by July 18th it was announced at a meeting where Lennon was present that Nicholas had been executed, but that Alexandra and the children were safe, but this turns out to be a lie because Lennon knew about the executions before they happened; knew about the executions of the whole family.

Katie Lambert: Yes. This was kept up for a long time, that Lennon had no idea what was going on, but it was all signed off on long before.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: So on the 20th, the papers announced the death of Nicholas, but again, his family was reported to be alive. It wasn't until much later that the world found out that they were dead.

Sarah Dowdy: So about a week after the executions the counter-revolutionaries, the Whites capture Ekaterinburg and obviously search for the Romanovs, can't find them, but they do find their blood. And by January, 1919 a real search has been launched at Four Brothers by the Whites.

Katie Lambert: And they find little bits of jewelry, buckles, a glasses case, a finger, but bodies. So where are they? And around this same time or shortly thereafter there start to be rumors that some of the royal family has escaped. A woman named Anna Anderson claims that she is Anastasia and she made it out alive. And there are several other Anastasia imposters that pop up over the years.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, Anastasia somehow becomes the central figure of this story.

Katie Lambert: But back to our question of the bodies, word got out about where they'd been buried after they'd been buried. So one of the executioners went and moved them and they remained a secret for a very long time until someone found that same man's diary much later and pieced together where they might be. In 1991, nine bodies were discovered in the area. They were assumed to be Nicholas, Alexandra, three of the kids, their doctor and three servants which leaves us with two kids unaccounted for who were assumed to be Alexey and Anastasia. And in 1998, it was confirmed with DNA evidence that those were the Romanovs.

Sarah Dowdy: And so the Romanov bones were buried in St. Petersburg and there was a lot of controversy about this, about the burial. The church objected to it because it didn't recognize that these were the Romanov's remains. And their names weren't said during the service and a lot of people didn't buy the story that these were the Romanov bones. And in 2004, another study came out. In this group, also using DNA evidence, said that there was no way that these bodies could be the Romanov bones.

Katie Lambert: Right. They thought the DNA evidence had been contaminated and so you couldn't say with any certainty that that's who they were.

Sarah Dowdy: So we have our story debunked just a little over a decade later.

Katie Lambert: And in 2007, two more bodies were found and these were positively identified as Alexey and one of the girls. The people who did this study said it was virtually irrefutable evidence that that's who they were.

Sarah Dowdy: And all these bodies by the way, are found around the Four Brothers area.

Katie Lambert: As a result of these studies, we basically have three camps. So the first one: all the Romanovs were killed and we found all of their remains.

Sarah Dowdy: So the 1991 bodies, the real deal and the 2007 bodies, the real deal.

Katie Lambert: Everything's completely buttoned up. The second camp: all the Romanovs were killed, but we need more studies to find out if what we have is the real deal.

Sarah Dowdy: And maybe we have some of the real bodies and we don't have others.

Katie Lambert: Yes. I'm in the second camp for the record. And the third camp was that some of the Romanovs escaped and went on to live lives elsewhere, but the woman we mentioned before, Anna Anderson who's the most famous Anastasia impostor really was an impostor. Mitochondrial DNA tests were done after her death and it doesn't match at all the Romanovs.

Sarah Dowdy: In 1977, the Ipatiev House where the Romanovs spent their last days was demolished with a wrecking ball and Yeltsin actually did it under Brezhnev's orders because it was still a place of pilgrimage. It was still a place where people went to I guess celebrat e the -

Katie Lambert: In 2000, the Romanovs were named holy passion bearers by the Russian Orthodox Church and it's kind of like being martyrs, but martyrs are people who die for their faith whereas passion bearers are people who still show great faith in the face of death.

Sarah Dowdy: But our sort of interesting concluding point here: the big about face is that in 2008, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the Romanovs were victims of political repression. Before that, I think people were focusing on the murders as just a random act; not a government directed act. So it was a big step to -

Katie Lambert: To take responsibility.

Sarah Dowdy: Exactly.

Katie Lambert: Right. And in 1999, a distant descendent of the Romanovs, I think he was an ancestor of Nicholas I actually, told Newsweek - here's a pretty long quote for you - "There was a certain logic to the murders from the Bolshevik point of view. Reactions of the revolution were still strong. They were being attacked from all sides, so destroying the Czar, a symbolic figure head, committed all those who participated in the revolution to an irreversible course. It's terrible to say it, but I understand their logic. It would have been too dangerous to leave the Czar alive. But how they did it was a different matter. They murdered the family with the utmost barbarity. Then tried to cover up the fate of the family and tried to pretend it was a local decision. It set the tone for future secretive state terror." And that's the final word on the Romanovs, but if you have some ideas on what you think happened to them e-mail us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com. And if you'd like to learn more about their creepy mystic, you should check out our article, "How Did Rasputin Really Die?" But that brings us to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdy: So we have another comment for you on our Satchel Paige episode. This is from Brian in New York and it was left on one of the blogs. He wrote after we said that Satchel reportedly pitched at up to 105 miles per hour. He wrote, "105 miles per hour? The highest recorded speed in recent history is 104.8 and that's in an era where pitchers take much better care of their arms. And even that one is widely acknowledged to be inflated as it's 1.8 miles per hour higher than any other recorded pitch. The highest number I could find for Paige is 1.03 which is probably at or just beyond his actual one pitch in a lifetime top speed at which, given the circumstances under which he was playing, is certainly so stupefyingly impressive that it doesn't need embellishment. I wouldn't believe it if someone told me Paul Bunyan threw 1.05." So we thought that was pretty funny.

Katie Lambert: So thank you for the clarification, Brian. If anyone else has anything to say about it, feel free to e-mail us. We're also on Twitter if you'd like to follow us at Missed in History. And again, you should check out our Rasputin article on our homepage at www.howstuffworks.com.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com and be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History blog on the howstuffworks.com homepage.

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Topics in this Podcast: siblings, royalty, sad royal childhoods, The Romanovs, Queen Victoria, Rasputin, history mysteries, warfare, 19th century, Russian history