Modern history


Peter the Great, tall, visionary, and impatient, founded two of the preeminent cities of modern Russia. One was St. Petersburg, which he named after his patron saint; its purpose was to give Russia access to the sea. The other was Ekaterinburg, named after his wife, Ekaterina (Catherine), who became his successor and Russia’s first sovereign empress. This town in the Urals, just thirty miles east of the border between Europe and Asia, was constructed because of the region’s immense mineral wealth. The first ore brought out of the ground was iron; in the eighteenth century, four fifths of the iron produced in Russia was mined and smelted here. Later, the earth also yielded coal, gold, silver, and other metals in such profusion that the town became rich, famous, and proud.

In the 1990s, the city of 1.4 million is one of the preeminent industrial centers of modern Russia. The massive, belching defense factories that long epitomized Soviet power are being converted to production of civilian goods. Heavy machinery, electrical equipment, metallurgical and chemical plants encircle the city. Civic pride continues strong. In June 1991, 91 percent of the city’s voters cast ballots for their native son, Boris Yeltsin. At the time of the August 1991 coup, Sverdlovsk was chosen as the alternative headquarters of the Russian government should the president be forced to leave Moscow. On September 4, 1991, the city changed its name from Sverdlovsk back to Ekaterinburg.

Unhappily, all these good things—wealth, fame, civic pride—continue to be shadowed by a single grim event. During this same momentous summer of 1991, the exhumation of the Romanovs occurred. When this happened and the world turned to look, the city was forced to confront the fact that it is and always will be famous throughout the world not for its minerals or its industry but for what happened there on the night of July 16–17, 1918.

People in Ekaterinburg developed a variety of reactions to this most famous event in their city’s history. Some were defensive: “Sure, we knew this story, but why publicize it?” said the city’s last Communist Party chief. “Don’t people have more important things to think about?” Others are curious, uneasy, anxious to understand and to come to terms. “As someone raised in an environment of hostility to the monarchy, I was taught that the shooting of Nicholas II was the people’s revenge for years of oppression,” recalled the chief architect of the city government. “But reprisals against the children? This I could never understand.” A twenty-seven-year-old computer assembler brought his four-year-old son to the site of the Ipatiev House. “I had no idea what happened here,” he said. “I only learned the truth a few years ago. Now I bring my son here and tell him about our history. It’s good we’re finally learning the truth about these things. The killing of the tsar was a great tragedy for our country, and we should know all the details.” “We must remember,” a metallurgist agreed. “We must not allow a barbarian act like this to happen again.”

Recently, it has become a tradition for newly married couples to visit the tall white cross erected on the site of the bulldozed Ipatiev House. They kneel, leave flowers, and are photographed. “We wanted our picture taken in front of the cross,” said a newly married twenty-five-year-old gold miner. “We hope for good luck, but we also came because it makes us feel more Russian. It’s part of the revival of real Russia that is taking place today.” Another group of visitors, most of them older, look to the cross for something more than luck; they are sick, believe in miracles, and hope to be healed. “They say this is a holy place,” said Lilya Subbotina, a fifty-two-year-old elementary school teacher whose headaches and high blood pressure have not responded to medical treatments. “I’ve heard about people who came here with sickness and went away completely healed. I’m hoping that happens to me too.” Drawn by these stories, afflicted people walk up to the cross, lean over the flowers, and reverently press one hand against it. “When you touch the cross, you feel an explosion of positive energy,” said a fifty-nine-year-old pilgrim from Vladivostok who traveled three thousand miles hoping to halt a progressive weakness in his legs. “After three days in this sacred place, my legs are strong again. God blessed this cross because our tsar was murdered here.”

The Russian Orthodox Church, crippled by seventy-five years of compromise with an atheistic state, is still struggling to find a way to deal with the execution of the Romanovs. If the family died as martyrs, then they must be canonized as saints—as, in fact, they were in 1981 by the Orthodox Church Abroad. Even if Nicholas and his family are not deemed to merit martyrdom and canonization and are considered simply victims of political assassination, the church would seem to be obliged to take some notice of their violent deaths. (The Russian Orthodox Church did not consider the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg a martyrdom, but nevertheless it constructed the Cathedral of the Blood on the assassination site to perpetuate Alexander’s memory.)

Even before the exhumation of the skeletons in Ekaterinburg, the local archbishop wished to construct a memorial church on the site of the Ipatiev House. “This is the place where the suffering of the Russian people began,” said Archbishop Melkhisedek. The church, he explained, would be called the Cathedral on Spilled Blood and “would symbolize society’s penance and cleansing of the lawlessness and wholesale repressions inflicted during the years of Bolshevism.” A competition to design the church was announced in 1990, and architects from everywhere in Russia were invited to submit drawings. In October 1992, Konstantin Yefremov, a Siberian architect, won the contest with a design for a tall white stone-and-glass church combining old Russian and modern design, a bell tower, and, nearby, a hotel for pilgrims and tourists. Unfortunately, there was no money available to the archbishop from his own diocese, or from the city of Ekaterinburg, or from the patriarch who is the religious chief of the Orthodox Church in Moscow, or from the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. In April 1995, two and a half years after a design was chosen, the memorial cathedral remains only a drawing.

In another sense, however, money has been much on the minds of some citizens of Ekaterinburg. From the time the bones were exhumed, hope stirred in the city that they might prove a bonanza. “We think these remains will be very valuable,” said a local police official. “There is talk of a reward. At least, people think they will have some value for tourists.” In a curious but not uncommon mingling of Communist and capitalistic perspectives, a college student said, “Today we take pride in the fact that the tsar was killed in our city. We hope something good will come out of this tragedy.”

A disagreeable manifestation of Ekaterinburg huckstering of the Imperial remains took place at the time of the scientific conference in July 1992. The conference organizers first attempted to charge foreign journalists a thousand dollars apiece for “accreditation” to the press briefing after the conference. The foreign reporters refused and, after a brief standoff, were admitted anyhow. Next, the reporters were asked to pay ten thousand dollars apiece to see and photograph the bones. Some paid, but far less than the demanded sum. Behind this commercial enterprise was a Swiss-Soviet firm called Interural, commissioned by the Ekaterinburg authorities to handle publishing and picture rights to the remains. Its motive, Interural told the London Sunday Times, was a noble one. “We are doing it out of love,” said Vladimir Agentov, a director of the company, explaining that the profits would be used to help build the church on the site of the Ipatiev House. “We had a proposal from an American newspaper,” Agentov said, “whereby they would buy the copyright in everything connected with the remains and then give us a share in the syndication rights. How much do you think that might be worth?”

The key to all of these civic hopes lies in Ekaterinburg somehow keeping the remains permanently in the city. Historical precedent would call for them to be entombed in St. Petersburg in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, the traditional resting place of the Romanov tsars. Nevertheless, early in 1995, Ekaterinburg still hoped that precedent could be overturned. This attitude troubled and sometimes outraged other Russians. “Today, as before [their death], Ekaterinburg doesn’t want to give up the Romanovs,” said Edvard Radzinsky, the Russian playwright and author of The Last Tsar. “In Ekaterinburg, they have a crazy dream, to create the Romanov grave as part of a tourist complex. It is fantastic, terrible, awful. The Romanovs, who were executed by Ekaterinburg people, would have to lie in the same ground and make profits for Ekaterinburg people.”

Nicholas II, painted by Serov.

Empress Alexandra.

Tsarevich Alexis.

Grand Duchess Olga.

Grand Duchess Tatiana.

Grand Duchess Marie.

Grand Duchess Anastasia.

The Ipatiev House. Nicholas, Alexandra, and Alexis occupied the main-floor corner room, with two windows facing the front and two windows on the side. The four daughters were next to them in the side room, with a single window. The cellar room where the prisoners were massacred is directly below the daughters’ room, behind the small central window on the side of the house.

The Ipatiev House surrounded by a palisade and guards, 1918.

The Ipatiev House being demolished, July 27, 1977.

The Ipatiev House cellar room, with wallpaper and plaster destroyed by the fusillade of bullets.

Dr. Eugene Botkin, who died with the family.

Yakov Yurovsky, “the dark man,” who was the chief executioner.

Nicholas Sokolov, the White investigator.

The grave from which the remains of nine bodies were exhumed, July 11–13, 1991:

Body No. 1: Demidova

Body No. 6: Maples believes

Body No. 2: Botkin

this is Tatiana; Abramov

Body No. 3: Olga

thinks it is Anastasia

Body No. 4: Nicholas

Body No. 7: Alexandra

Body No. 5: Maples believes

Body No. 8: Kharitonov

this is Marie; Abramov

Body No. 9: Trupp

believes it is Tatiana


Three additional skulls were found in the wooden box into which Avdonin and Ryabov had placed them in 1980.

Alexander Avdonin.

Dr. Sergei Abramov.

Abramov’s superimposition technique: a picture of Nicholas II superimposed on the skull of Nicholas II.

Nikolai Nevolin (left) and Dr. William Maples in Ekaterinburg.

Dr. Mary-Claire King.

Dr. Peter Gill.

Dr. Pavel Ivanov.

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