He never fully recovered his authority. In August 1914, following the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Nicholas plunged the unprepared nation into World War I. Supply lines collapsed; food shortages and unrest spread through Russia. Hundreds of thousands died in trenches under withering artillery and machine-gun fire by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies. On March 12, 1917, soldiers in St. Petersburg mutinied and began seizing imperial property. Three days later, facing the Russian Parliament’s demand that he quit, and fearing an outbreak of civil war, Nicholas abdicated the throne. He was evacuated to the Ural Mountains, where the family was put under house arrest.
The American journalist and historian Robert K. Massie, author of the best-selling biography Nicholas and Alexandra, described the czar as an inept ruler “in the wrong place in history.” But Massie also took note of Nicholas’ “personal charm, gentleness, love of family, deep religious faith and strong Russian patriotism.”
The Bolsheviks, a faction of Marxist revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power that October and moved the family to a two-story house in Yekaterinburg owned by a military engineer, Nikolai Ipatiev. Nine months later, the Romanovs were awakened in the middle of the night, told of advancing White Russians—counterrevolutionary forces, including remnants of the czarist army—and led into the basement. A ten-man execution squad entered the room. Their leader, Yakov Yurovsky, pronounced a death sentence. Nicholas uttered his last words—“What?” or “You know not what you do” (accounts differ)—and the squad opened fire. The shots instantly killed the czar, but some bullets failed to penetrate his daughters’ jewel-encrusted corsets. The young women were dispatched with bayonets and pistols.
State radio announced only that “Bloody Nicholas” had been executed. But rumors that the entire family had been murdered swirled. One week after the killings, the White Russian Army drove the Bolsheviks out of Yekaterinburg. (It would hold the city for about a year.) The White Russian commander appointed a judicial investigator, Nikolai Sokolov, to look into the killings. Witnesses led him to an abandoned iron mine at Ganina Yama, about ten miles outside town, where, they said, Yurovsky and his men had dumped the stripped bodies and burned them to ashes. Sokolov searched the grounds and climbed down the mine shaft, finding topaz jewels, scraps of clothing, bone fragments he assumed were the Romanovs’ (others have since concluded they were animal bones) and a dead dog that had belonged to Nicholas’ youngest daughter, Anastasia.
Sokolov boxed his evidence and took it to Venice, Italy, in 1919, where he tried to present it to Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, the czar’s uncle; the duke refused to show the items to the czar’s exiled mother, Maria Feodorovna, fearing they would shock her. To the end of her life in 1928, she would insist that her son and his family were still alive somewhere. Officials of the Russian Orthodox Church, also in exile, embraced the investigator’s account, including the conclusion that the bodies had been burned at Ganina Yama.
Legend had it that Sokolov’s evidence ended up hidden inside a wall at the New Martyrs Russian Orthodox Church in Brussels. But Vladimir Solovyev, a criminal investigator in the Moscow prosecutor’s office who has worked on the Romanov case since 1991, searched the church and turned up nothing. The evidence, he said, “vanished during the Second World War.”
Yekaterinburg is a sprawling industrial city on the banks of the Iset River. Known as Sverdlovsk during Soviet times, Yekaterinburg, like much of Russia, is marked by its Communist past: on Lenin Street, a huge bronze statue of the Bolshevik revolutionary, his arm outstretched, leans toward City Hall, a Stalin-era structure covered with friezes of Soviet workers and soldiers. Inside a crumbling building near the city center, I climbed a stairwell redolent of boiled cabbage to a top-floor apartment, where I met Alexander Avdonin, a geologist who uncovered the truth about the Romanov remains—then kept it secret for a decade.
Avdonin, white-haired and ailing at 78, grew up in Yekaterinburg, not far from the Ipatiev house, where the executions occurred. From the time he was a teenager, he says, he was intrigued by what happened that notorious night. There were, to be sure, many different accounts, but in the one that would eventually pay off for Avdonin, the Bolshevik leader Yurovsky indeed piled the Romanov corpses into a truck and drove to the Ganina Yama mine. But Yurovsky decided that too many people had witnessed the movements of trucks and soldiers during the night. So he later returned to the mine, put the bodies back in a truck and headed for some other iron mines 25 miles away. Five minutes down the road, the vehicle got stuck in mud. It was here, a few miles from Ganina Yama, witnesses said, that Yurovsky and his men hurriedly doused some of the bodies with sulfuric acid and gasoline and burned them. According to Moscow investigator Solovyev, nine bodies were placed beneath some logs and two others in a separate grave. Yurovsky apparently believed that separating family members would help obscure their identities.
“The decision was meant to be temporary, but the White Army was approaching, so that grave would be the final grave,” Solovyev told me.
But where, exactly, was that final site? In 1948, Avdonin got his hands on a diary written by a local Bolshevik official, Pavel Bykov; it had been published in 1926 under the title The Last Days of Czardom. The book—the first public admission by the regime that the entire Romanov family had been executed—suggested that the bodies hadn’t been burned to ash, but rather buried in the forest. By the 1940s, The Last Days had vanished from libraries, presumably confiscated by Soviet authorities, but a few copies survived. Avdonin also read an account by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who said that, in the late 1920s, he had been taken to the burial site—“nine kilometers down the Old Koptyaki Road” from the center of town. Finally, Avdonin came across an account published by Sokolov, the original investigator. It contained a photograph of timbers—likely railroad ties—laid down in the forest; Sokolov described the site marked by the boards as a place where some unidentified corpses had been dumped. “Sokolov interviewed a railroad worker [who] said that a vehicle with corpses in it got stuck in a bog,” Avdonin said. “This worker said that the vehicle, horses and two dozen men spent all night in the forest.”