Two Boys in a Time of Troubles
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Two teenaged boys, both fragile, innocent and ailing, open and close the story of the dynasty. Both were heirs to a political family destined to rule Russia as autocrats, both raised in times of revolution, war and slaughter. Both were chosen by others for a sacred but daunting role that they were not suited to perform. Separated by 305 years, they played out their destinies in extraordinary and terrible scenarios that took place far from Moscow in edifices named Ipatiev.
Their weak shoulders were selected to bear the terrible burden of ruling
At 1.30 a.m. on 17 July 1918, in the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, in the Urals, 800 miles east of Moscow, Alexei, aged thirteen, a sufferer from haemophilia, son of the former Tsar Nicholas II, was awakened with his parents, four sisters, three family retainers and three dogs, and told that the family must urgently prepare to move to a safer place.
At night on 13 March 1613, in the Ipatiev Monastery outside the half-ruined little town of Kostroma on the Volga River 200 miles northeast of Moscow, Michael Romanov, aged sixteen, a sufferer from weak legs and a tic in his eye, the only one of his parents’ five sons to survive, was awakened with his mother to be told that a delegation had arrived. He must prepare urgently to return with them to the capital.
Both boys were startled by the exceptional occasion that they would now confront. Their own parents had sought the paramount prize of the crown on their behalf – yet hoped to protect them from its perils. But they could not be protected because their family had, for better or worse, enrolled in the cruel game of hereditary power in Russia, and their weak shoulders were selected to bear the terrible burden of ruling. But for all the parallels between these transcendent moments in the lives of Alexei and Michael, they were, as we shall see, travelling in very different directions. One was the beginning and one was the end.
Alexei, a prisoner of the Bolsheviks, in a Russia shattered by savage civil war and foreign invasion, got dressed with his parents and sisters. Their clothes were woven with the famous jewels of the dynasty, secreted for a future escape into a new freedom. The boy and his father, the ex-tsar Nicholas II, both donned plain military shirts, breeches and peaked caps. Ex-tsarina Alexandra and her teenaged daughters all wore white blouses and black skirts, no jackets or hats. They were told to bring little with them, but they naturally tried to collect pillows, purses and keepsakes, unsure if they would return or where they were going. The parents knew they themselves were unlikely to emerge from this trauma with their lives, but even in that flint-hearted age, it would surely be unthinkable to harm innocent children. For now, befuddled by sleep, exhausted by living in despair and uncertainty, they suspected nothing.
Michael Romanov and his mother, the Nun Martha, had recently been prisoners but were now almost fugitives, lying low, seeking sanctuary in a monastery amid a land also shattered by civil war and foreign invasion, not unlike the Russia of 1918. They too were accustomed to living in mortal danger. They were right to be afraid for the boy was being hunted by death squads.
In her mid-fifties, the Nun Martha, the boy’s mother, had suffered much in the brutal reversals of this, the Time of Troubles, which had seen their family fall from splendour and power to prison and death and back: the boy’s father, Filaret, was even now in Polish captivity; several uncles had been murdered. Michael was scarcely literate, decidedly unmasterful and chronically sick. He and his mother presumably just hoped to survive until his father returned. But would he ever return?
Mother and son, torn between dread and anticipation, told the delegation of grandees from Moscow to meet the boy outside the Ipatiev in the morning, unsure what the dawn would bring.
The guards in the Ipatiev House of Ekaterinburg watched as the Romanovs came down the stairs, crossing themselves as they passed a stuffed female bear with two cubs on the landing. Nicholas carried his ailing son.
One can almost hear the magnificent anger of the mother and the sobbing confusion of the boy
The commandant, a Bolshevik commissar named Yakov Yurovsky, led the family outside, across a courtyard and down into a basement, lit by a single electric bulb. Alexandra asked for a chair and Yurovsky had two brought for the two weakest members of the family: the ex-tsarina and Alexei. She sat on one chair and Nicholas set his son on the other. Then he stood in front of him. The four grand duchesses, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – whose collective nickname was the acronym OTMA – stood behind Alexandra. Yurovsky hurried out of the room. There were many arrangements to make. For days, coded telegrams had clicked between Ekaterinburg and Moscow on the future of the imperial family as anti-Bolshevik forces, known as the Whites, advanced on Ekaterinburg. Time was running out. A death squad waited in the neighbouring room, some of its members drunk, all heavily armed. The family, serene and quiet, were still tousled and bemused with sleep, perhaps hoping that somehow during this rushed perambulation they would fall into the hands of the rescuing Whites who were so close. They sat facing the door calmly and expectantly as if they were waiting for a group photograph to be taken.
At dawn on 14 March, Michael, dressed in formal fur-lined robes and sable-trimmed hat, accompanied by his mother, emerged to watch a procession, led by Muscovite potentates, known as boyars, and Orthodox bishops, known as metropolitans. It was freezing cold. The delegates approached. The boyars wore kaftans and furs; the metropolitan bore the Miraculous Icon of the Dormition Cathedral, which Michael would have immediately recognized from the Kremlin where he had recently been a prisoner. As an additional persuasion, they held aloft the Fyodorov Mother of God, the Romanovs’ revered icon, the family’s protectress.
When they reached Michael and his mother, they bowed low, and their astonishing news was delivered in their first words to him. ‘Sovereign Lord, Lord of Vladimir and Moscow, and Tsar and Grand Prince of All Russia,’ said their leader Metropolitan Feodorit of Riazan. ‘Muscovy couldn’t survive without a sovereign . . . and Muscovy was in ruins,’ so an Assembly of the Land had chosen him to be their sovereign who would ‘shine for the Russian Tsardom like the sun’, and they asked him to ‘show them his favour and not disdain to accept their entreaties’ and ‘deign to come to Moscow as quickly as possible’. Michael and his mother were not pleased. ‘They told us’, reported the delegates, ‘with great fury and crying that He did not wish to be Sovereign and She wouldn’t bless him to be Sovereign either and they walked off into the church.’ One can almost hear the magnificent anger of the mother and the sobbing confusion of the boy. In 1613, the crown of Russia was not a tempting proposition.
At 2.15 a.m., Alexei and family were still waiting in sleepy silence when Comrade Yurovsky and ten armed myrmidons entered the ever more crowded room. One of them noticed Alexei, ‘sickly and waxy’, staring ‘with wide curious eyes’. Yurovsky ordered Alexei and the family to stand and, turning to Nicholas, declared: ‘In view of the fact that your relatives continue their offensive against Soviet Russia, the Presidium of the Urals Regional Council has decided to sentence you to death.’
‘Lord oh my God!’ said the ex-tsar. ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ One of the girls cried out, ‘Oh my Lord, no!’ Nicholas turned back: ‘I can’t understand you. Read it again, please.’
The Moscow magnates were not discouraged by Michael’s refusal. The Assembly had written out the specific answers that the delegates were to give to each of Michael’s objections. After much praying, the grandees ‘almost begged’ Michael. They ‘kissed the Cross and humbly asked’ the boy they called ‘our Sovereign’ if he would be the tsar. The Romanovs were wounded after years of persecution and humiliation. They were lucky to be alive. Michael again ‘refused with a plaintive cry and rage’.
Yurovsky read out the death sentence again and now Alexei and the others crossed themselves while Nicholas kept saying, ‘What? What?’
‘THIS!’ shouted Yurovsky. He fired at the ex-tsar. The execution squad raised their guns, levelled them at the family and fired wildly in a deafening pandemonium of shots, ‘women’s screams and moans’, shouted orders of Yurovsky, panic and smoke. ‘No one could hear anything,’ recalled Yurovsky. But as the shots slowed, they realized that Tsarevich Alexei and the women were almost untouched. Wide-eyed, terrified, stunned and still seated on his chair, Alexei stared out at them through the smoke of gunpowder and plaster dust that almost extinguished the light amid a diabolic scene of upturned chairs, waving legs, blood and ‘moans, screams, low sobs . . .’.
In Kostroma, after six hours of argument, the grandees knelt and wept and pleaded that, if Michael didn’t accept the crown, God would visit utter ruin on Russia. Finally Michael agreed, kissing the Cross, and accepted the steel-tipped staff of tsardom. The grandees crossed themselves and rushed to prostrate themselves and kiss the feet of their new tsar. A ruined capital, a shattered kingdom, a desperate people awaited him at the end of the dangerous road to Moscow.