Ninety-five years ago in the remote village of Yekaterinburg, which straddles the Urals between Europe and Asia, one of the most heinous crimes in modern history occurred. In a small basement cellar in the house formerly belonging to a local Russian merchant by the name of Ipatiev, a family and four of their loyal friends were murdered.
Early in the hours of July 17, 1918, local Soviet commanders acting under direct orders from Lenin and the senior Bolshevik leaders brutally executed Russian Emperor Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and their 5 children, the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaievich and the Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, Tatiana and Anastasia. The four loyal servants who had stayed with the Imperial Family til the end shared their fate.
These summary executions, conducted in secret, were not a sudden, spontaneous attack by unrestrained, unprovoked communist citizens who simply despised the Tsar; the murders of the Imperial Family could only be carried out on Lenin’s express orders as an urgent act of utmost political expediency to save the Communist revolution. By mid-July, the pro-Tsarist White Russian army was only days from Yekaterinburg, and Lenin knew that were the Imperial Family to be freed from their jailers, their appeal to millions of Russians could not be underestimated.
Regardless of whether or not Nicholas II would or could have re-assumed the imperial throne, which in 1917 he had abdicated on behalf of not only himself but also his hemophiliac son, the reality is that, in Lenin’s view, the Russian Revolution could not be secure so long as the former Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias lived. Thus, rather than permitting the Emperor and his family to live quietly as private citizens, as the French republicans (initially) did to King Louis XVI in 1791, and the Chinese republicans did to the last Qing boy-emperor Pu Yi in 1911, the Bolshevik leaders resolved that the Emperor, and his entire family, must die as “enemies of the people”.
So it came to be that, without any trial, public or private, nor the liberty to appeal the sentence, the quiet, pious, and unfailingly kind man who had reigned as the last Tsar of Russia was shot in cold blood along with his wife, a beloved granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, and their four beautiful daughters and tragically ill only son.
The soldiers enlisted to do the deed performed their task with barbarous inefficiency; only the Emperor died immediately when the bullets struck him, while (according to most of the accounts provided by the assassins) the Tsarevich died very soon after. The poor Empress and her daughters, who carried many kilos of precious jewels sewn into their clothing and thus did not perish immediately from the hail of bullets, were bayoneted and shot at point-blank range. The last to die was the maid, Anna Demnova, who apparently survived the hail of bullets as she had fainted. Returning to consciousness, the shocked woman exclaimed aloud “I’m alive! God has saved me!”, drawing the notice of the assassins, who promptly turned on her. By most accounts, she attempted in vain to defend herself using a small pillow.
Remarkably, this spot today is a place of pilgrimage, the old Ipatiev house having been torn down on then local Communist Party leader Boris Yeltsin’s orders in 1977. Today, a beautiful cathedral to their memory stands on the spot where this entire family was massacred along with their most loyal friends who refused to desert them.
In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church in exile (ROCOR) glorified (canonized) the murdered Imperial Family and their servants as New Martyrs and “passion-bearers” who went to their deaths with great courage and who lived exemplary lives of service and fidelity to the Orthodox Christian faith.
Ten years later, following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church undertook a period of detailed inquiry into the lives of the Imperial Family to discern whether or not they should truly be considered Saints by the universal Russian Church. After nine years of careful review, in 2000 the synod of bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate at last approved the glorification of the Imperial Family and their servants as New Martyrs alongside St Elizabeth the Grand Duchess, Empress Alexandra’s sister, and her attendant nun Varvara (Barbara), who both the Church Abroad and the Church in Russia already universally recognized as Saints. My godmother was present at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow for the glorious services of commemoration and thanksgiving.
For the past two decades, the Russian Orthodox Church has presided over an extraordinary process of rebuilding and revitalization which continues to this day. Embodying the resurrection of faith across Russian society in the wake of the fall of communism are two glorious buildings: the rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral, the mother church of Moscow and seat of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the magnificent memorial cathedral in Yekaterinburg raised to the honor of God and His thousands of New Martyrs who died under the Soviet regime. This cathedral, formally dedicated to all saints but most commonly known as the “Cathedral on the Blood”, stands as a testimony to those who died on that very spot in July 1918, in the dark cellar of that fateful merchant house in rural Yekaterinburg. Above all, both cathedrals stand today as a visible sign of Orthodoxy’s triumphant endurance against the forces of Marxist-Leninism.
The Imperial Family always fascinated me growing up, and I read anything I could find on Russian history, art history books on St Petersburg and Moscow, and the First World War. Upon becoming Orthodox, my godmother, who has also had a lifelong interest in Russia, shared with me many fascinating, beautiful stories about the Imperial Family, which she in turn read over the years and heard from Russian friends, as well as one of her mentoring professors in college (who would share these precious stories with her students). My godmother found out many years later that this favorite Russian professor of hers had been at the Imperial Court.
I am deeply blessed to have this invaluable window into history from my godmother’s stories. In a way, I feel as though I have intimately come to know the Imperial Family, these holy passion-bearers, for the truly kind, pious, and extraordinary individuals they were in their earthly life. As laudable Saints in the eternal Church which lives in the heavenly realm, these royal New Martyrs intercede on behalf of all the faithful today who ask their prayers to God. Holy Passion-bearers and Imperial Martyrs, pray to God for us!