It’s a quiet spot in the Koptyaki Forest. The breeze carries a soothing earthy aroma, the calm of the clearing punctuated by the calls of magpies. But beneath the stillness, the forest is haunted by a dark memory.
Hours after midnight on July 17, 1918, a Fiat truck pulled over here, in the murky recesses of this Ural forest. Seven blood-soaked bodies were offloaded, doused in acid, and dumped down a mine shaft. It’s a gruesome fate, and even more shocking when you realise this misfortune befell those who were, not too long ago, the most powerful family in Russia—the Romanovs. Today, Ganina Yama, where the mine shaft used to be, is a lily-dusted monastery complex with seven onion-domed Orthodox-style wooden chapels, one dedicated to each member of the imperial family. This includes the last Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children: Tsarevich Alexei, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and their youngest daughter Anastasia Romanov. It is no secret that Anastasia’s rumoured escape has inspired movies, musicals, books, and documentaries for over 101 years, but (spoiler alert!) Anastasia did not escape the Bolshevik execution squad. This did nothing to discourage a trail of conspiracy theories, which has sent many, including me, down the Romanov rabbit hole.
I’m standing in front of a bronze statue of the five children wearing crowns and bearing crosses, and I feel overcome by the sting of a broken promise. As a child I had watched an animated Anastasia waltz to the crescendo of “Once Upon a December,” and now I am forced to confront the reality of a princess who was murdered at seventeen. Ganina Yama is my second attempt at processing the Romanov tragedy, and it doesn’t seem to be getting easier.
Earlier that morning, I had stood somberly inside the ominously-named Church on the Blood, less than 20 kilometres south-east of Ganina Yama in the city of Yekaterinburg. The golden-domed white structure stands on a little green hill and replaces the demolished Ipatiev House, where the Romanovs were transferred from Siberia in April 1918. My mind had diligently deconstructed the magnificent Church interiors to reimagine a spartan house that was the family’s last home. The Church’s lower floor was the basement where they were summoned on false pretext before being shot and stabbed to death. Today, the Romanovs are considered Saints, or rather Passion Bearers, if you are persnickety about Russian Orthodox lexicon. Once again, crowns and crosses come together to create intricate portraits of the family on a golden background. You don’t need to be able to read the Cyrillic-lettered names to guess who is who. Nicholas and Alexandra take centre stage, flanked by Olga and Tatiana, looking over Maria, Alexei, and Anastasia. The black-and-white of the imperial portraits seems to have metamorphosed into the shimmer of the icons, as if nothing happened in between. But the execution did not just happen. The story that ends in Yekaterinburg begins in Saint Petersburg, the former capital of Imperial Russia.
I’ve discovered that Petersburg and its suburbs have more palaces than I can count. Hugging the banks of Moika, the honey-coloured Yusupov Palace has witnessed blood. Don’t get distracted by marble staircases and opulent chandeliers, and head straight to the exhibit of Grigori Rasputin—the controversial mystic who earned close confidence of the royal family and the wrath of Russian aristocrats. The somewhat cartoonish wax figures of Rasputin and his assassin Felix Yusupov on display mask the gravity of the situation.
It is said that the extended Romanov family could not bear Rasputin’s influence on the imperial couple. What they didn’t know was that Tsarevich Alexei had the ‘bleeding disease’ or haemophilia, which Rasputin could allegedly control. It is possible the Siberian ‘Mad Monk’ was whispering political advice into Nicholas’s ears, but what made Rasputin indispensable was his ability to calm Alexandra, and by extension, the heir. But nothing troubled the relatives more than Rasputin’s lecherous reputation—flaunted at the light-hearted MuzEros (Museum of Erotica). Back in Imperial Russia, lewd cartoons of Rasputin and Alexandra hit the papers—gossip that lingered at least until Boney M.’s Euro disco hit “Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen.” Felix Yusupov decided to get rid of the image problem. Rasputin was poisoned and shot, his body thrown into the icy river in December 1916. But for the Romanovs, it was too little, too late.
I’m standing by the Alexander Column in the middle of Palace Square outside the emerald and ivory Winter Palace, the official residence of the Russian Emperors from 1732 to 1917, now repurposed as the Hermitage Museum. Time is fungible here. Tourists are taking selfies with actors dressed as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great—Russian rulers who existed a century apart. My solemn mood, however, reconstructs a different time: February 1917. In the bitter Russian winter, protests erupted. On top of poor working conditions and food shortages, the Empire had been suffering embarrassing losses in World War I against Germany. Mass demonstrations swept the city and thousands stormed the Palace Square. While the Tsar personally commanded the front, inside the Winter Palace, the German-born Alexandra was in charge. She misread the situation and ordered the soldiers to fire at the crowd. Discontent, though, had fermented into rebellion and the soldiers turned their guns on the Palace instead. The next 18 months were nothing short of Russian Game of Thrones. Nicholas was forced to abdicate and the family was placed under house arrest.
When it comes to Tsarskoye Selo, 30 kilometres south of Petersburg, I’ve always found the blue and white Catherine Palace more charming than the neighbouring Alexander Palace. But the last Romanovs preferred the relatively humble grounds of the latter, their custard-coloured abode with its gardens and ponds. It’s also here that the luxuries of royal life began to lose lustre and the family started to experience restrictions and rations.
It’s an unusually warm summer day in Petersburg, so I set off on a high-speed hydrofoil, the best way to access Peterhof. The Peterhof Palace is perhaps the most spectacular of the imperial palaces and was called the Summer Palace for good reason. From May to September, the estate’s gilded fountains create a gorgeous cascade, the highlight of any Petersburg trip. The Palace must have held a special place in Nicholas and Alexandra’s hearts; after all, four of their five children, including Anastasia, were born here. As I walk through the gardens, I cannot help but wonder if the Romanovs expected to return here in the summer of 1917, or even later. That summer, the Provisional Government, headquartered in the Winter Palace, was barely holding onto power. For their safety, the Romanovs were moved to Tobolsk, a tiny town in Siberia, only 200 kilometres from Rasputin’s village of Pokrovskoye.
I’m now on a different boat called Battleship Aurora, this time in the heart of Petersburg. The cruiser served in the Soviet Navy and was sunk in World War II before being converted to a museum stationed in Neva River. On a night in October 1917, when the Romanovs were sleeping in Siberia, a blank shot fired from the Aurora signalled the storming of the Winter Palace. The Provisional Government was ousted by the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin.
The medieval Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood or Spas Na Krovi in Petersburg gets its gory name from the fact that Nicholas’s grandfather Alexander II was assassinated here in 1881. Alexander was a reformer but his policies were seen as inadequate, the reason a group of student revolutionaries decided to kill him. One of these students was Alexander Ulyanov, Lenin’s older brother, who was then executed.
The sweet smell of beeswax candles wafts through the baroque and jewelled interiors of the Church. It’s at this scene that the encounter of the two Alexanders—one Tsar and one revolutionary—would seal the fate of the Romanov dynasty. If Alexander, the Tsar, had not been assassinated, Nicholas may not have resisted much-demanded political change. If Alexander, the revolutionary, had not been executed, his brother may not have taken up the same cause, seized power and eventually approved the execution of Nicholas and his family. Amid multitude of mosaics, I feel the weight of the cobwebs of time, where one nick can unravel the entire fabric of history. Wandering the hauntingly beautiful premises, I realise that even before she was born, Anastasia Romanova—the princess and the prisoner—was condemned to be the collateral damage of her father’s lack of reform and the revolutionary takeover of Russia.
There is one more place I must visit: the Peter Paul Cathedral on its namesake fortress whose spire is an iconic feature of the Petersburg skyline. Inside the Cathedral, gold-bordered white gravestones bear gold lettering with the names of Nicholas, Alexandra, Anastasia and her siblings. It was only after the fall of Communism that the bones were exhumed in Koptyaki Forest, verified, and buried here alongside other Tsars and Tsarinas. At last, the family was back home in Petersburg—perhaps the only silver-lining in the Romanov tragedy.
Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.