The Empress Alexandra was devastated by Rasputin’s death. He was the only man alive who could save Alexei and now he was gone.
It is unknown whether she considered the implications of a man known to be favored by her being murdered despite her protection. But looking back, it was another sign that the people were increasingly dismissive of the imperial Romanovs.
Nicholas had no military experience and the war was not going well. At the front, men starved; at home, women and children went hungry. The Romanovs, however, seemed oblivious. It is more likely that the tsar’s gestures that were meant to give courage were misplaced or misinterpreted by a struggling people. The pretty grand duchesses, the impressive uniforms, the picturesque photographs looked as though they were part of a different war than the one being fought by the Russian army.
By February 1917, conditions in Russia were unbearable. Food shortages became commonplace; meanwhile, the army was losing badly. The public blamed the tsar, and Nicholas decided to return to St. Petersburg to restore order.
When riots caused his train to be diverted, his generals seriously advised the tsar to abdicate. Nicholas agreed and abdicated for Alexei, too. It was another fateful decision; any remaining sense of order was destroyed, and revolution was all but guaranteed.
In March 1917, the Romanovs were placed under house arrest, and moved to Tobolsk in August. The conditions there, though greatly diminished from their former grandeur, were still relatively comfortable. The tsar hoped to go to the Crimea, where Alexei would somehow be restored to health.
It was not to be.
In April 1918, Vladimir Lenin exiled the Romanovs to Siberia, under armed guard. It was a tense, frightening life, in which hostile guards treated them rudely and they were allowed few privileges.
During this time, Alexei’s health deteriorated, and he was confined to a wheelchair.
Yankel Yurofsky, the commander in charge of the family, allowed them just one indulgence – the tsar and the grand duchesses were permitted to take a short daily walk in the courtyard outside their home, the ominously-named House of Special Purpose. The tsarevich and his mother were too ill to join the family. The tsar was required to assist with chores, but according to his captors, he enjoyed the physical activity and was glad to have an opportunity for exercise.
In the early hours of July 17, the guards awakened the family. They were told that threats from the village required the soldiers to move the royal family. The tsar and his family were ordered to go to the cellar and wait until a truck came to drive them to safety.
The family obediently dressed and entered the empty cellar. Tsar Nicholas carried his son, and requested chairs for his wife and son.
Yurofsky entered with a squad of drunken Bolshevik soldiers. The Romanovs were told to line up by the wall. Rumors they had escaped required the soldiers to photograph them as proof they were still alive, under guard. When the family assembled, Yurofsky cleared his throat and said: “Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.” (The assassination was actually a direct order from Lenin.)
Nicholas turned sharply. “What?”
There was no time for more. The soldiers fired on the family immediately. Nicholas and Alexandra died instantly; Alexei a few moments later.
The grand duchesses did not die. The bullets wounded them but they lay on the floor, alive! The soldiers fled the room, terrified. Yurofsky ordered them back in, and they killed the girls with bayonets.
Rasputin’s grim prophecy was fulfilled. Perhaps as strange as Rasputin’s life was this irony in death. The monk, born in squalid Siberia, was murdered by royals in a luxurious cellar in St. Petersburg; the Romanovs born to splendor in St. Petersburg, met their end in a Siberian cellar, at the hands of poor Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks examined the Romanovs’ bodies after the execution. The seeming immunity of the girls to the bullets was explained by their clothing – they had woven diamonds into their corsets, an attempt to salvage something from the wreckage of the Romanov dynasty.
Around the neck of each grand duchess, the soldiers found a locket that contained a prayer, and an image of Rasputin.