Photographic montage of St. Emperor Nicholas II

Courtesy of Nigel Fowler Sutton’s superb YouTube channel. Here Mr Sutton presents photographs of the Tsar from infancy to his final days of confinement and ultimate death.

Tsar Nicholas II was the last Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias. Born on 18 May 1868 he came to the throne on 1 November 1894 following the untimely death of his father Tsar Alexander III. He ruled the vast empire of Russia until his abdication on 15 March 1917. Together with his family, he spent the next year in captivity, subject to great deprivation, ridicule, and harassment by his Bolshevik jailers. During the night of the 16/17 July 1918 he was murdered at the Ipatiev House in rural Ekaterinburg with his wife Empress Alexandra, his son the Tsarevich Alexey, his four daughters, the family doctor, his valet, the lady-waiting to the Empress and the family cook.

In 1981 the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) glorified the late Imperial Family as Royal New Martyrs of the Orthodox Church. The new martyrs also include St. Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanova, sister to Empress Alexandra and aunt-by-marriage to Nicholas II. In 2000, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Alexey II, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church followed suit, glorifying them as passion-bearers, or those who meet earthly death with Christian dignity and fortitude.

Profound examples of holiness: the Royal Martyrs in their own words and through the words of those who knew them

In 1905, twelve years before Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication and three years from his own repose, St John of Kronstast, who had served as confessor to Nicholas II’s father Emperor Alexander III (r. 1881-94, d. 1894), spoke these prophetic words:

“We have a Tsar of righteous and pious life. God has sent a heavy cross of sufferings to him as to His chosen one and beloved child, as the seer of the destinies of God said: ‘Whom I love, those I reproach and punish’ (Rev. 3.19). If there is no repentance in the Russian people, the end of the world is near. God will remove from it the pious Tsar and send a whip in the person of impure, cruel, self-called rulers, who will drench the whole land in blood and tears.”

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Nicholas himself made a similar observation about his fate when speaking to his Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. In his diary, Stolypin noted with some degree of incredulity that Nicholas spoke these words without any hint of alarm or distress. This must have taken place sometime before the latter’s 1911 assassination at the Kiev Opera House in the presence of the Emperor and his eldest daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana. Immediately after the assassin, Dmitri Bogrov, shot him twice, causing panic to erupt among those around him, Stolypin calmly rose from his chair, removed his gloves and unbuttoned his jacket, exposing a blood-soaked waistcoat. He sank into his chair and loudly exclaimed “I am happy to die for the Tsar” before motioning to Nicholas in his imperial box to withdraw to safety. Nicholas remained in his position, and in one final gesture Stolypin bowed to his sovereign, blessing him with a sign of the cross and saying “May God save him!”. Bogrov then attempted to stab Stolypin, but tripped and was subsequently caught and hanged.

“I have a premonition. I have the certainty that I am destined for terrible trials, but I will not receive a reward for them in this world… Perhaps there must be a victim in expiation in order to save Russia. I will be this victim. May God’s will be done!”

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Nicholas II smiling in a signed photo taken in 1898, his fourth year on the throne.

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A signed portrait of the Empress from 1899, five years into her reign with Nicholas II.

According to Anna A. Vyrubova, the Empress’ closest confidante, best friend and lady-in-waiting, in Her Majesty’s Lady-in-Waiting, p. 171 (reprinted in Orthodox Word, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, Ca.,  Vol. 34, No.5 (202) Sept-Oct, 1998,p. 215), a Russian holy woman by the name of Maria blessed the Empress in December 1916 when she visited her cell and foretold her eventual martyrdom:

“In December of 1916, Her Majesty traveled from an emotional rest to Novgorod for a day, with two Grand Duchesses and a small suite.  She visited field hospitals and monasteries and attended the Liturgy at the St. Sophia Cathedral. Before her departure the Tsaritsa visited the Yurievsky and Desyatina Monasteries.”

“In the latter she visited Eldress Maria Mikhailovna in her tiny cell, where the aged woman had lain for many years in heavy chains (this was self inflicted – Editor’s notes) on an iron bed.  When the Tsaritsa entered, the Eldress held her withered hand out to her and said, ‘Here comes the martyr, Tsaritsa Alexandra!’  She embraced her and blessed her.  In a few days the Eldress reposed.”

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In 1917, the venerable St. Metropolitan Makary (Макарий) Nevsky of Moscow beheld the Savior speaking to the Tsar in a vision:

“You see,” said the Lord, “two cups in my hands: one is bitter for your people, and the other is sweet for you.” In the vision the Tsar begged for the bitter cup. The Savior then took a large glowing coal from the cup and put it in the Tsar’s hands. The Tsar’s whole body then began to grow light, until he was shining like a radiant spirit. Then the vision changed to a field of flowers, in the middle of which Nicholas was distributing manna to a multitude of people. A voice spoke: “The Tsar has taken the guilt of the Russian people upon himself and the Russian people are forgiven.”

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As the First World War dragged on with mounting casualties and no conclusive end, causing a decline in morale and furthering discontent among those disposed toward revolutionary sentiment in the armed forces and urban factories, the Empress and her older daughters continued to serve actively as hospital nurses. Numerous historical accounts of the Empress’ life during the war years, especially the memoirs of the women who perhaps knew her best, her dear confidantes the Countess Anna A. Vryubova and Baroness Sophie von Buxhoeveden, recall her dedicated service in the blood and disease-filled hospitals of wartime Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Despite that Nicholas and Alexandra disliked her cousin, the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II, and had decidedly English cultural sensibilities (Nicholas II and Britain’s King George V were first cousins, as their Danish mothers were sisters, while the Empress Alexandra and her older sister Ella, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, had grown up at the court of their grandmother Queen Victoria), as the war dragged on, communist and anarchist groups working to subvert the monarchy and undermine the war effort at the same time began to circulate pamphlets and scrawl graffiti attacking the Empress as a German “imposter”, “traitor”, “spy”, and worse. According to this superb Pravmir article from May 2006 on “Tsar Nicholas and His Family”,

As soon as the war broke out, the Empress and the four Grand Duchesses (Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia) became nurses; and hospitals were opened at Tsarskoye Selo, near the family’s residence, where wounded soldiers were brought. They worked long hours, diligently and tirelessly following the commandment of Christ to visit the sick, since “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me” (Matthew 25.30).

Anna A. Vyrubova, the Empress’ closest friend, wrote: “I have personally seen the Empress of Russia in the operating room, assisting in the most difficult operations, taking from the hands of the busy surgeon amputated legs and arms, removing bloody and even vermin-ridden field dressings.” Vyrubova says that she was a “born nurse”, who “from her earliest accession took an interest in hospitals, in nursing, quite foreign to native Russian ideas. She not only visited the sick herself, in hospitals, in homes, but she enormously increased the efficiency of the hospital system in Russia. Out of her own private funds the Empress founded and supported two excellent schools for training nurses, especially in the care of children.”

Unsurprisingly, this is the same Empress who wrote in her diary at some point during that fateful year of 1917, “In order to climb the great heavenly staircase of love, we must ourselves become a stone, a stair which others will climb.”

In this deeply moving poem to Empress Alexandra, “To My Beloved Mama”, which she composed at Tsarskoye Selo on April 23, 1917, just over a month following her father’s abdication, the 22-year old Grand Duchess Olga wrote:

“You are filled with anguish.

For the suffering of others.

And no one’s grief

Has ever passed you by.

You are relentless

Only toward yourself,

Forever cold and pitiless.

But if only you could look upon

Your own sadness from a distance,

Just once with a loving soul-

Oh, how you would pity yourself.

How sadly you would weep.”

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The Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna as a young girl.

These are the qualities of a saint, ones which the young Princess discerned in her own mother. Grand Duchess Olga, clearly a beautifully gifted writer possessed of praiseworthy talent as a poet, evidently perceived the devastating combined impact that her father’s abdication and the Tsarevich Alexei’s incurable hemophilia continuously wrought on her mother’s emotional, physical and spiritual health.

As the following letter from the Princess indicated, Grand Duchess Olga, as the oldest of the children in the Imperial Family, consciously served as a kind of envoy for her beleaguered parents to the outside world beyond their prison walls:

“Father asks the following message to be given to all those who have remained faithful to him, and to those on whom they may have an influence, that they should not take revenge for him, since he has forgiven everyone and prays for everyone, that they should not take revenge for themselves, and should remember that the evil which is now in the world shall grow even stronger, but that it is not evil that will conquer evil, but only love. . .”
~ Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, writing from Tobolsk in the Urals during the Royal family’s exile there in summer 1917, about a year before their brutal execution.

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Emperor Nicholas II sawing wood with Alexei during the Imperial Family’s winter at Tobolsk.

The change in the Grand Duchess’ tone is remarkable: from an already highly perceptive young woman, it is evident that the several harrying months spent under house arrest confined to a few small rooms at the old Governor’s House in Tobolsk had caused the close-knit Imperial Family to keep a more eternal perspective. We read of a young woman both clearly aware that her words would eventually be read by many people who heartily supported the Romanov monarchy and the cause of their liberation from the Bolsheviks, and acutely aware that her father abhorred the continued bloodshed of the civil war between Whites and Reds.

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Nicholas’ exhortation for his supporters to refrain from further bloodshed in the cause of his liberation is at first glance surprising (though not when we take into consideration the Emperor’s profound concern for his people, whom he loved as much as he did his own children), and indeed, extraordinary, all the more so given the successes so many White army forces were having against the Bolsheviks at the time the Grand Duchess wrote this letter. One can only infer that the Imperial Family were permitted to receive little to no news of ongoing political developments outside the walls of their prison. Nonetheless, for the former Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias to write that “he has forgiven everyone and prays for everyone, that they should not take revenge for themselves”, one comes away with a clear sense that the Imperial Family anticipated their eventual martyrdom.

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The Imperial Family depicted in traditional Russian costume as New-Martyrs and Saints of the Orthodox Church.

Reading the following poem, another one beautifully composed by the Grand Duchess Olga, its meaning is unmistakable: by the time that she wrote these words, it is certain that the Imperial Family expected to be martyred. The Princess’ poem here is both hymn and dirge, a psalm of praise and one of sorrow and fear, but above all, a canticle of deep faith and a discernment of God’s will in all things. True of saints’ writings, we see that the centrality of the Princess’ poem is not her dwelling on her own anguish or horror at the thought of a potentially agonizing death, or lamentation at the thought of her earthly life cut short so abruptly, but a profound trust in God’s providence that His purpose guides all things and that, ultimately, He would work good out of evil.

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I do not know how many months or weeks before her death the Grand Duchess wrote this haunting poem, but I come away thinking that it is truly astonishing – and almost unheard of today- for a young woman my age to be so accepting of a possibly imminent death or any manner of torture. So long as the Imperial Family, with God’s aid, continued to endure and persevere in faith, withstanding all evil and, above all, forgiving “our neighbors’ persecution”, the Grand Duchess prays, above all, to receive strength to “pass the last dread gate” into eternal life.

Grant us Thy patience, Lord,

In these our woeful days,

The mob’s wrath to endure,

The torturer’s ire;

Thy unction to forgive

Our neighbors’ persecution

And mild, like Thee, to bear

A bloodstained Cross.

And when the mob prevails

And foes come to despoil us,

To suffer humbly shame,

O Savior aid us!

And when the hour comes

To pass the last dread gate,

Breathe strength in us to pray,

Father forgive them!

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Here is a beautiful quote from Saint John the Wonderworker (1896-1966) on the Emperor, which the younger saint said in July 1963, the 45th anniversary of the martyrdoms:

“Why was Tsar Nicholas II persecuted, slandered and killed? Because he was Tsar, Tsar by the Grace of God. He was the bearer and incarnation of the Orthodox world view that the Tsar is the servant of God, the Anointed of God, and that to Him he must give an account for the people entrusted to him by destiny, for all his deeds and actions, not only those done personally, but also as Tsar. . . Thus did the Orthodox Russian people believe, thus has the Orthodox Church taught, and this did Tsar Nicholas acknowledge and sense. He was thoroughly penetrated by this awareness; he viewed his bearing of the Imperial crown as a service to God. He kept this in mind during all his important decisions, during all the responsible questions that arose. This is why he was so firm and unwavering in those questions about which he was convinced that such was the will of God; he stood firmly for that which seemed to him necessary for the good of the realm of which he was head.”

 Holy Royal Martyrs, pray to God for us that He may save our souls!

95 Years Later: Commemoration of the Romanov Imperial Family, Russia’s Royal New Martyrs

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95 Years Later: Commemoration of the Romanov Imperial Family, Russia's Royal New Martyrs

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.

The Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg as it looked at the time of the murders.

The Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg as it appeared at the time of the murders.

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 Imperial Family in happier times aboard the imperial flagship yacht Standart.

The Imperial Family in happier times aboard the imperial flagship yacht Standart.

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.

Yekaterinburg's Cathedral on the Blood, dedicated to the memory of those New Martyrs - the Imperial Family and their four attendants - who died at the site on July 17, 1918.

Yekaterinburg’s Cathedral on the Blood, dedicated to the memory of those New Martyrs – the Imperial Family and their four attendants – who died at the site on July 17, 1918.

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!