In the early hours of 17 July 1918, Bolshevik revolutionaries marched the Russian Imperial family — Tsar Nicholas II, his empress and their five children — and their staff down to the cellar of the house in which they were living in exile, in Ekaterinburg, and shot and bayonetted them to death.
When Josef Stalin rose to power in the 1920s and when the Soviet Union was established in 1922, all discussion of Russia’s last Imperial family – either printed or in public – was banned. In the new socialist state, religious faith and practice, or any nostalgia or veneration of the Romanovs, was forced underground by the ruling Communist Party’s favoured policy of “state atheism”.
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However, many ordinary Russian people, particularly those of the older generation, did not let go of their Russian Orthodox faith or stop praying to their murdered tsar. They still wished to have their children baptised – but did so in private.
In the west, interest in Russia’s last imperial family withered on the vine with the rise of Soviet Russia, except for the occasional flurry of interest – such as that over the false Anastasia claimant, Anna Anderson, who in the 1920s became notorious after persisting for many years with her claim to be the tsar’s youngest daughter and thus sole survivor of the 1918 massacre. By the mid-1970s, there was growing official Soviet concern about the persistent private veneration of the Romanovs, which the government decided to take radical measures to try to suppress.
The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg
The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg was the site at which the Romanov family had been held under close guard from the end of April 1918 until their assassination on 17 July 1918. Desperate to obliterate its old imperial connections, the Soviets promoted the house as a revolutionary monument, celebrating the destruction of the old and disliked imperial order by the Revolution of 1917. From 1927 to 1938, the house served as the Ural Museum of Revolution before being converted to a Museum of Atheism and, in 1946, it was taken over by the Ekaterinburg Communist Party.
Yet, the systematic attempt to destroy this last mournful connection with the House of Romanov failed. Despite the hostile political climate of the Soviet Union, the Ipatiev House became the precise opposite of a symbol of revolution: it became a house to which pilgrims and believers continued to pay their respects to their much-loved imperial family.
The Soviet government moved swiftly to defuse the problem. Approaching the 60th anniversary of the Romanovs’ deaths in 1978, the Politburo [the policy-making body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] decided to remove the source of the problem. Orders were sent down from the Party’s head of state security, Yury Andropov, to local Ekaterinburg party leader, Boris Yeltsin, to organise the house’s swift demolition in September 1977. It was, as Yeltsin himself later admitted, “an act of barbarism”.
The destruction of the Ipatiev House made no difference: people continued to look upon the house as a place of pilgrimage, prayer and remembrance. A simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross was erected over the wasteland where the house had once stood, only to be quickly removed by the local authorities.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union
The removal and replacement of the cross continued in an ongoing cycle until the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. As soon as the old, oppressive order was gone, the Russian Orthodox church slowly but surely re-emerged and soon became resurgent. With it came the open veneration of the Romanov family as the totemic heart of the faith for many Russians.
By the year 2000, the Romanovs had been canonised as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia (though the ROC Abroad had long since done so in 1981), and plans were afoot to erect a grand cathedral on the site of the house in Ekaterinburg. With an injection of funds from numerous patrons, work began on what is now Ekaterinburg’s Church on the Blood (in full: The Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land). It was consecrated in 2003 and has become a major pilgrimage site – the focal point of growing interest in the Romanov family worldwide.
The significance of the Church on the Blood to the Russian Orthodox faithful has snowballed, with a massive influx of pilgrims every July for the ‘Tsar’s Days’ – a three-day period of commemoration, veneration, prayer and religious procession in and around the city. At the end of a long vigil held at the Church on the Blood on the night of 16 July, the congregation walk en masse for approximately12 milesto the Koptyaki Forest outside Ekaterinburg. Here, they gather at what is now known as the Monastery of the Holy Imperial Passion Bearers, which comprises seven small churches representing each member of the Romanov family.
The number of people commemorating the Tsar’s Days has rapidly grown every year. The early pilgrimages comprised of just a few thousand people; in 2017 they estimated crowds of as many as 60,000. On the tail end of the 2018 Football World Cup, it was believed that as many as 200,000 people could flock to the city to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Romanovs’ execution, undoubtedly the largest public demonstration yet of the growing and irresistible significance of the Romanovs in the cultural, spiritual and emotional life of modern-day Russia.
There are also hopes that the Russian Orthodox Church will finally announce the findings of their recent testing of the Romanov remains found in the grave at Ganina Yama, a village north of Ekaterinburg, in the 1990s. Elsewhere, a digital project called #Romanovs100 has opened up rare personal photographic archives to bring the final years of the Romanov family to life for a digital age. There is talk, also, of a project to rebuild an exact facsimile of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, along with an enormous new cathedral – possibly to house the family’s remains.
Ekaterinburg – if not the equivalent of Mecca, as a place of Christian pilgrimage – certainly promises to be a New Jerusalem for Russian Orthodox faithful from all around the world.
Helen Rappaport is the author of The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue Russia’s Imperial Family, published by Hutchinson. She was also a contributor to the #Romanovs100 project.
This article was first published by History Extra in July 2018