Modern history

CHAPTER 20
 
 SEVENTY-EIGHT DAYS

For seventy-eight days, the tsar, his family, and members of their household were confined in a part of the upper, main floor of the Ipatiev House. Nicholas and Alexandra had the front corner bedroom, furnished with pale yellow wallpaper, two beds, a couch, two tables, a lamp, a bookcase, and a single armoire, which held all of their clothing. Their four daughters and thirteen-year-old son shared another room with wallpaper of pink and green flowers (eventually, Alexis’s bed was moved into his parents’ room). The maid, Anna Demidova, had a small room in the back of the house. Dr. Botkin slept in the salon, Trupp and Kharitonov were in the hallway. Two or three armed guards were always present on the main floor with the family, and, to get to the washroom and toilet, the captives had to walk past these men. A wooden fence or palisade, fourteen feet high, masked the house and its windows from the street. Looking out from their rooms, the prisoners could see only the tops of the trees.

The family settled into a monotonous routine. They rose at nine o’clock and at ten had black bread and tea. Every morning and evening they said prayers and read from the Gospel together. Lunch was at one, dinner between four and five, tea at seven, supper at nine. Usually, Nicholas read aloud to the family after tea and in the evening; in the days just after their arrival in Ekaterinburg, he read from the Book of Job. Those who wished were permitted to walk outside twice a day, thirty minutes in the morning, thirty minutes in the afternoon.

Siberia was still in early spring. When Nicholas, Alexandra, and Maria, who traveled from Tobolsk ahead of the others, arrived in Ekaterinburg, Alexandra was happy that the long winter seemed over. “Weather was glorious, so warm and sunny,” she wrote on April 30, the day they entered the Ipatiev House. Thereafter, most days were pleasant: “Beautiful, warm, sunny, but windy … glorious bright sunshine … sunshine and changing clouds … beautiful warm morning … sat in the garden, warm wind.… Fine, bright morning.” On May 25, however, she reported that it was “snowing hard” and the next day that “everything [was] covered by snow.”

After May 15, it was not easy for them to see the sun, clouds, or snow from inside the house. “An old man painted all the windows white from outside,” Alexandra wrote that day in her diary, “so only at the top can see a bit of sky and it looks [from inside] as though there were a thick fog.” The following day another man painted over the outside thermometer so that they were unable to read the temperature. Four days later the commander of the guards “scratched off the paint covering the thermometer; so now can see again the degrees,” the empress wrote.

On May 23, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, Alexis, and the sailor Nagorny (who for five years had carried the tsarevich when he could not walk) arrived from Tobolsk. “Such joy to have them again,” Alexandra wrote. That night, there were not enough beds, and the four grand duchesses slept on cloaks and cushions on the floor. The family’s joy at being reunited was quickly shadowed by the illness of the tsarevich. “Baby woke up every hour from pain in his knee, slipped and hurt it when getting into bed,” the empress wrote. “Cannot walk yet. One carries him. [He has] lost fourteen pounds since his illness.”

PLAN OF THE MAIN FLOOR OF THE IPATIEV HOUSE

Room XIII: bedroom occupied by Nicholas, Alexandra, and Alexis; room X: bedroom occupied by Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia; room XI: bedroom occupied by Demidova; room VIII: salon occupied by Dr. Botkin; room XII: hallway occupied by Kharitonov and Trupp; room IX; dining room; room XIV: kitchen; room III: bathroom; room IV: toilet; room VI: occupied by guards.

From that day to the end, Alexis’s illness dominated his mother’s thoughts:

May 24: Baby and I had meals in our bedroom; his pains varied.… Vladimir Nicholaevich [the tsarevich’s physician, Dr. Derevenko, who was allowed to live in the town and make occasional visits to his patient] came to see Baby and change his compresses.… Baby slept in the room with Nagorny.… Baby had a bad night again.…

May 25: Swelling a wee bit less but pains off and on very strong.

May 27: Baby had again not a good night. Eugene Sergeivich [Dr. Botkin] sat up part of the night [with him] so as to let Nagorny sleep. On the whole better, though very strong pains. At 6:30 Sednev [a cook] and Nagorny were taken off; don’t know the reason.* … [Dr. Botkin] spent the night with Baby.

May 28: Baby slept on the whole well, though woke up every hour—pains less strong. I asked when Nagorny will be let in again as don’t know how we shall get on without him.… Baby suffered very much for a while. After supper, Baby was carried to his room. Pains stronger.

May 30: Baby had a better night, spent the day in our room. Very rarely in pain. [Dr. Derevenko] found swelling in the knee one centimeter less. Before dinner, pains became stronger, took him to his room.

June 2: Baby slept some time—played cards with him.… After supper he was carried back to his room by Trupp and Kharitonov.

June 4: Knee much less swollen. He may be carried out[doors] tomorrow.

June 5: Glorious morning. Baby did not sleep well, leg ached because … [Dr. Derevenko] took it yesterday out of plaster of Paris cast which held the knee firm.… [Dr. Botkin] carried him out and put him in my wheelchair and Tatiana and I sat out with him in the sun. Went back to bed as leg ached from dressing and carrying about. 6:00 P.M. [Dr. Derevenko] came and made him again a plaster of Paris cast as knee more swollen and hurts again so.

Thereafter, as the bleeding stopped and the fluids in Alexis’s knee were reabsorbed, his pain subsided and his leg began to straighten. When the weather was good, he was carried outdoors to sit in the sun. “Sat with Baby, Olga, and Anastasia before the house,” Alexandra wrote. “Went out with Baby, Tatiana, and Marie … wheeled Baby into the garden and we all sat there for an hour. Very hot, nice lilac bushes and small honeysuckle.”

Most of the time, Alexandra, like Alexis, was immobilized. Unable to walk because of sciatica, she lay in her bed or sat in her wheelchair in the pale yellow bedroom. Confronted by the white-painted windows, she embroidered, drew, or read her Bible, her prayer books, or the Life of Saint Serafim of Sarov. On May 28 she recorded that “I cut Nicholas’s hair for the first time,” and on June 20, “Cut N’s hair again.” Alexandra was cared for by her daughters: “Marie read to me after tea.… Marie washed my hair.… Tatiana read to me.… Anastasia read to me.… the others went out, Olga stayed with me.” The empress suffered from recurring migraines: “I remained in bed as feeling very giddy and eyes ache so.… Lay with eyes shut as head continued to ache.… Remained the whole day with shut eyes, head got worse towards evening.”

The strain on Nicholas was that of an outdoor animal caged. Unable to go out when he wished, he paced his room, back and forth, back and forth. One warm evening in June, he wrote in his diary, “It was unbearable to sit that way, locked up, and not be in a position to go out into the garden when you wanted and spend a fine evening outside.” He was tired, and the pouches deepened under his eyes. “The tedium,” he wrote, “is incredible.” Suffering from hemorrhoids, he went to bed for three days, “since it is more convenient to apply compresses.” Alexandra and Alexis sat by his bed for lunch, tea, and supper. After two days and nights, he sat up, and the next morning got up and went outside. “The green is very fine and lush,” he wrote.

Immersed in tedium, isolated from the world outside, unaware even of events like Nagorny’s death, the prisoners found variety mainly in the ups and downs of illnesses and the capriciousness of the weather. Birthdays were scarcely noticed, although four occurred while the family was in the Ipatiev House: On May 19, Nicholas was fifty; on June 6, Alexandra was forty-six; on June 18, Nicholas recorded, “dear Anastasia has turned seventeen”; on June 27, “Our dear Marie has turned nineteen.” Occasionally there were breaks in their routine. Early in May a package arrived. “Received chocolate and coffee from Ella [her sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth],” Alexandra noted. “She has been sent from Moscow and is at Perm.” The following morning the empress wrote: “Great treat, a cup of coffee.” Sometimes the electricky failed. “Supper, 3 candles in glasses; cards by light of one candle,” she wrote. On June 4 she noted that the new ruler of Russia had exercised his power even over the clock: “Lenin gave the order that the clocks have to be put two hours ahead (economy of electricity) so at ten they told us it is twelve.”

As the days passed, the captives, from emperor to cook, merged into an extended family. Botkin, an old friend rather than a servant, frequently sat with Nicholas and his wife after supper to talk and play cards. During the day when Alexandra and Alexis could not leave the house, Botkin remained inside with them for card games. After Nagorny was removed, Botkin sometimes slept in the room with the tsarevich, and he shared with Nicholas, Trupp, and Kharitonov the task of carrying Alexis out of doors. On June 23 Botkin himself became violently ill with colic, requiring an injection of morphine. He remained sick for five days; when he was able to sit up in an armchair, Alexandra sat with him. Sednev, the cook, became ill, and Alexandra kept watch over his temperature and progress.

The four grand duchesses, now young women, did what they could. Tatiana and Marie read to and played bridge with their mother. Tatiana also played cards with Alexis and, during the peak of his illness, slept near him at night. Olga, closest to Nicholas, walked beside her father twice a day. All four helped Demidova darn stockings and linen. At the end of June, Kharitonov, the cook, proposed that the five children help him make bread. “The girls kneaded the dough for the bread,” recorded Alexandra. “The children continued rolling and making bread and now it is baking.… Lunched: excellent bread.… The children help every day in the kitchen.”

In June summer and heat were upon them. This was a season of storms with thunder and lightning, sheets of rain, and then, quickly, bright sunshine and more heat. On June 6 Alexandra noted, “Very hot, awfully stuffy in rooms.” Heat from the kitchen made things worse: “Kharitonov has to cook our food now,” she wrote on June 18. “Very hot, stuffy as no windows open and smells strong of kitchen everywhere.” On June 21, she reported, “Out in the garden, fearfully hot, sat under the bushes. They have given us … half an hour more for being out. Heat, airlessness in the rooms intense.”

Closed windows made the heat stifling. In order to keep the prisoners from escaping or signaling to the outside, all of the white-painted, double windows in the family rooms were kept shut by order of the Ural Soviet. Nicholas set himself to overturn this decree. “Today at tea, six men walked in, probably from the Regional Soviet, to see which windows to open,” he wrote in his diary on June 22. “The resolution of this issue has gone on for nearly two weeks! Often various men have come and silently in our presence examined the windows.” On this issue the tsar triumphed. “Two of the soldiers came and took out one window in our room,” Alexandra wrote on June 23. “Such joy, delicious air at last and one window no longer whitewashed.” “The fragrance from all the town’s gardens is amazing,” wrote Nicholas.

In the sunlight, Alexis sat quietly while the tsar and his daughters walked under the eyes of the guards. In time impressions of the family began to change. “I have still an impression of them that will always remain in my soul,” said Anatoly Yakimov, a member of the guard who was captured by the Whites.

The tsar was no longer young, his beard was getting grey.… [He wore] a soldier’s shirt with an officer’s belt fastened by a buckle around his waist.… The buckle was yellow … the shirt was khaki color, the same color as his trousers and his old worn-out boots. His eyes were kind and … I got the impression that he was a kind, simple, frank and talkative person. Sometimes, I felt he was going to speak to me. He looked as if he would like to talk to us.

The tsaritsa was not a bit like him. She was severe looking and she had the appearance and manners of a haughty, grave woman. Sometimes we used to discuss them amongst ourselves and we decided that she was different and looked exactly like a tsaritsa. She seemed older than the tsar. Grey hair was plainly visible on her temples and her face was not the face of a young woman.…

All my evil thoughts about the tsar disappeared after I had stayed a certain time amongst the guards. After I had seen them several times, I began to feel entirely different towards them; I began to pity them. I pitied them as human beings. I am telling you the entire truth. You may or may not believe me, but I kept saying to myself, “Let them escape … do something to let them escape.”

On July 4, a “lovely morning, nice air, not too hot,” a man whom Nicholas called “the dark gentleman” appeared and took control of the Ipatiev House. This man, who had black eyes, black hair, and a black beard, and who wore a black leather jacket, was the Chekist Commander, Yakov Yurovsky. Ironically, that same day Alexandra recorded that Alexis was getting better: “Baby eats well and is getting heavy for the others to carry. He moves his leg more easily. Cruel they won’t give us Nagorny back again.”

Yurovsky’s arrival heralded minor improvements in the prisoners’ situation. The new guards he brought were better disciplined; petty harassment of the young grand duchesses on their way to the toilet ceased. Alexandra’s diary entry for July 13 ended with an optimistic note about Alexis: “Beautiful morning. I spent the day as yesterday lying on the bed, as back ached when move about. Others went out twice. Anastasia remained with me in the afternoon. One says Nagorny … has been sent out of the … [region] instead of giving … [him] back to us. At 6:30, Baby had his first bath since Tobolsk. He managed to get in and out alone, climbs also in and out of bed, but can only stand on one foot as yet.”

On Sunday, July 14, Alexandra recorded “the joy of a vespers—the young priest for the second time.” Father Storozhev had come before, in May, and Yurovsky had agreed that he could come again. The priest found the family waiting together: Alexis sitting in his mother’s wheelchair; Alexandra, wearing a lilac dress, sitting beside him; Nicholas, in khaki field shirt, trousers, and boots, standing with his daughters, who were dressed in white blouses and dark skirts. When the service began, Nicholas fell on his knees.

A poem, dedicated to Olga and Tatiana, had been sent to Tobolsk by a friend of Alexandra, In the Ipatiev House, Olga copied it in her own hand and inserted it into one of her books. It was found there by the Whites:

Give patience, Lord, to us Thy children

In these dark, stormy days to bear

The persecution of our people,

The tortures falling to our share.

Give strength, Just God, to us who need it,

The persecutors to forgive,

Our heavy, painful cross to carry

And Thy great meekness to achieve.

When we are plundered and insulted

In days of mutinous unrest

We turn for help to Thee, Christ-Savior,

That we may stand the bitter test.

Lord of the world, God of Creation,

Give us Thy blessing through our prayer

Give peace of heart to us, O Master,

This hour of utmost dread to bear.

And on the threshold of the grave

Breathe power divine into our clay

That we, Thy children, may find strength

In meekness for our foes to pray.

On Tuesday, July 16, after a gray morning, the sun came out. The family gathered, prayed together, and had tea. Yurovsky arrived to make his inspection and, as a special treat, brought fresh eggs and milk. Alexis had a slight cold. Nicholas, Olga, Marie, and Anastasia went out for half an hour in the morning while Tatiana stayed behind to read to her mother from the prophets Amos and Obadiah. At four in the afternoon, Nicholas and his four daughters walked again in the garden. At eight the family had supper, prayed, and then separated; Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia went to their room; Alexis went to his bed in his parents’ room. Alexandra stayed up to play bezique with Nicholas. At 10:30 she made an entry in her diary. It was cool, she wrote: “15 degrees” (58 degrees F). Then she turned out the light, lay down next to her husband, and went to sleep.

* Four days later Sednev and Nagorny were shot. The family never knew.

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