THE Soviet chronicler Eduard Rodzinsky, who
recently disclosed the events of the night of July 17, 1918, when the
last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, his family, doctor and servants, were
hastily butchered by a team of secret police executioners, has laid bare
more than some old skeletons in the closet of Soviet history.
Words like "monstrous", "inhuman", and
"impossible" preface the otherwise factual and dispassionate account of
the night in the small southern town of Ekaterinburg (now Sverdlovsk)
published in the May edition of the magazine Ogonyok. What was always
represented as a shining example of revolutionary justice begins to look
like a bloody and awfully messy episode from a badly staged
On the night of the execution, the Tsar and his
entourage were moved into a basement room in the house where they were
imprisoned under the pretext of a possible attack by the
Tsar Nicholas came into the room carrying his son,
Alexis, in his arms. His wife Alexandra, surprised by the bareness of
the room, asked for a chair to sit on. Two chairs were brought in; one
for her and one for the 14-year-old Alexis.
Then, the execution squad marched in, hand guns at
the ready. The commanding officer hastily read to the stunned Tsar and
his family the execution order signed by the local party council.
The guards, ordered to aim at the hearts of their
victims, began firing. Alexis, three of his sisters, the doctor and
Alexandra's female attendant, who were still alive, had to be finished
off with more shots and bayonet thrusts.
The bodies were dumped into a disused mine for
temporary storage, and the officer and one of his guards went into town
to buy kerosene and sulphuric acid needed to make the bodies
The truck got stuck, the carts fell apart, the
bodies were mixed up, and there were some attempts at pilfering by the
All in all, the revolutionary guards who
terminated the long reign of the Romanov dynasty seemed to act more like
bungling and guilt-ridden criminals than soldiers. Finally, the
following morning, the grave was levelled and carefully disguised.
This account, based on the most complete archival
records available, lays to rest a number of popular myths, including the
possible survival of the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
It also makes it clear that, although the
execution was technically carried out by the order of local authorities,
it was made possible only with the tacit agreement from the very top.
The symbolic meaning of this carnage only becomes
clear if we recognise the place which the Tsar and his family held in
the Russian psyche. The Tsar was traditionally not only the head of the
nation, but also the embodiment of the heavenly Father on earth. The
cohesiveness of the society, and even of individual families, implicitly
depended on faith in the existence of an idealised mother and father,
both in heaven and on earth.
Such faith was sorely tested during the last
decade of the Russian Empire. The humiliating losses during the war, the
German-born and unpopular Tsarina, the morbidly sick descendant to the
throne, the presence of a debauched peasant monk, Rasputin, at the
court, the corruption-riddled Church - all these were stark reminders
that the old magic no longer worked.
The murder of Rasputin by a couple of dissolute
and aristocratic playboys symbolised the beginning of the carnage which,
as Rasputin had correctly predicted, would finally reach the Tsar's
Paradoxically, and despite all his faults,
Rasputin provided a symbolic link between the throne and the mystical
cravings of the peasant masses. Once that link was severed, the popular
dissatisfaction against the domination of the Europeanised and renegade
upper class became even harder to contain.
Now, 71 years later, the national consciousness of
the Russian people is finally awakening to the significance of the
murder of the Tsar and his family.
The interest in the events surrounding the Tsar's
murder is astounding. Another writer, Ryabov, who actually managed to
find the grave and identify the remains, told of the help and
encouragement he received from every quarter during his investigation.
Exposes by writers like Ryabov and Rodzinsky and
the huge popular interest they arouse (Ryabov's story may be made into a
film) beg questions about the meaning of the Russian Revolution that
have not been raised since a whole generation of psychologically
oriented Russian writers - such as Berdiaev, Rozanov, Solov'ev and Frank
- were exiled or hunted into oblivion.
Is it possible that the lawless way in which the
Tsar and his family were executed was a symbolic prelude of things to
come or, in the words of one Soviet psychiatrist, the "architect's
error" which crept into the very foundation of the Soviet State?
It is becoming increasingly clear from the Soviet
media that generation conflict in the USSR is at an explosive point, and
that it even overlays ethnic unrest. It was mobs of predominantly young
and disaffected Uzbeks and Azerbaidjanis that went on a rampage during
the recent bouts of ethnic unrest
In Moscow recently, a brawl between about 1,000
youths was broken up by police. Authorities are concerned that the
situation in Moscow may deteriorate further and become like that in
Kazan, where police virtually lost control over youth gangs.
Gorbachev's glasnost confirmed to the young only
what they suspected all along: that the last few generations of their
elders were not as confident in the righteousness of their cause as they
appeared to be. Thus, the young became more interested in mammon,
Michael Jackson and even marijuana, than in Marx. Does the lawless and
hasty murder of the Tsar and his family hold a key to this resurgent
process of alienation and disaffection, buried in the depth of the
Russian collective psyche?
Does Gorbachev, himself cast in the mould of the
benevolent populist Tsar, represent a transitional figure on the way to
Will he need to acquire a spiritual adviser, a
perestroika-minded Rasputin, to link him with the consciousness of the
masses, who seem to have lost faith in all rationalist slogans?
If so, will he simply get a sleeker Rasputin, a
Kremlin guru with the gift for TV evangelism? There are certainly
reports of the increasing interest among the Soviet young in Western
gurus of the like of Rajneesh and Castaneda
Revival of interest in the events surrounding the
murder of the last Tsar and his family makes such questions increasingly
relevant, and possibly even politically significant.