Monday, 2 July 2018


July is the centenary of the execution of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, their four daughters and a son. The story never seems to lose its mystery – not the least because of the violence of their murders in contrast to photographs of the four girls dressed in gauzy white dresses – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia staring innocently into the camera with Alexei, in sailor suit.

I’ve seen both the place of their execution – Yekaterinburg – as well as the place of their happiest summer holidays – the Livadia Palace, in Yalta. And as long ago as 1957 I watched Ingrid Bergman play the part of Anastasia, the supposed daughter who got away.

I arrive in the port of Yalta on a summer morning in 2012 just as they must have done every summer… though they’d have started with a train journey from St Petersburg to Sevastopol, and then a ship to Yalta. At Livadia Palace the family walked, swam, hunted, rode, roller-skated and played tennis. Photography was a passion and they filled albums with summer holiday snaps taken on Brownie Box cameras.

My 2012 notebook:

'Livadia… meaning meadow or lawn in Greek. Italian Renaissance style… all white, with lovely gardens overlooking the sea. On the upper floors, the Romanov apartments. Beautiful photographs of the family. One of Nicholas II at 21 with his 16-year-old bride. (their marriage hastened by sudden death of his father) What a fate was in store for them. The children’s playroom still has Alexei’s wooden desk.' 

On an earlier trip to Russia in 2005 I visit Yekaterinburg (named after the Empress Catherine the Great).

‘We wake every morning on the train to thick mist. More houses and industrialization. More brick than wood. It has lost some of its charm. We are still in Siberia but it feels different. Getting closer to the border between Asia and Europe… the Ural Mountains. The city itself is bleak. Huge grey and brown monolithic buildings… Stalinesque baroque! We cover our heads for the visit to The Church of the Blood built over the site where the Romanovs were murdered. It’s a shrine to the martyrs. They have all been canonised.' 
The Church of the Blood

Outside the Church of the Blood in a Siberian breeze. 
What I haven’t written in my notebook is that Ipatiev House, demolished by the Politburo because it generated too much interest, had its windows white-washed so no one could look in or see out. I haven’t written of the boredom the girls suffered under house arrest, writing to their friends that all they do is wash hankies and learn to bake rolls, nor that Maria befriends one of the guards who brings her a birthday cake and is sent to jail for his misdemeanour and Maria punished with a cold shoulder from her mother whom she adored just a few says before her murder, nor that the washerwomen who came also a few days before their deaths, found the girls charming and ordinary with their straggly hair growing back having just lost it from a severe bout of measles. 

Nor did I write of the death scene where they were led from a courtyard down to a cellar after being  woken early and told they were being allowed to escape, nor of the executioners with Mausers, each with a designated target, nor of the corsets stitched with diamonds (for a possible escape into another country?) that prevented bullets from entering chests so that the girls had to be bayonetted. I haven’t attempted to write of that chaotic scene that took 30 minutes for a group of strong men to kill a man, a woman, four girls of 22, 21, 19 and 17 and a boy of 14, of the blood that sprayed, of bullets bouncing off walls, the terror and cacophony of sound. It’s a death scene too unimaginable – even for this writer – even a hundred years on.

If you are looking for a YA novel set at this time, Carnegie Award-winning writer Theresa Breslin’s The Rasputin Dagger came out last year. A story of love, loss and friendship set against the Russian Revolution.

Twitter: @dihofmeyr
Instagram: Diannehofmeyr

The Glassmaker's Daughter by Dianne Hofmeyr set in Venice, is now out in paperback. Illustrations by Jane Ray. Published by Frances Lincoln.  


Candy Gourlay said...

Gosh, Diane, I want to know more. Thanks for these thoughts.

Enid Richemont said...

Putin would have had them poisoned. The whole thing was such a tragedy, especially when the Brit Royals who were directly related wouldn't offer then refuge.

Jane said...

Helen Rappaport has just published "The Race to Save the Romanovs", if you want to know more. I adore Stephanie Plowman's two books, Three Lives for the Czar & My Kingdom for a Grave, set at this time; they deserve to be much better known.