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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

Fall of the Romanovs

Spencer Day reveals how a holy man and a bitter radical sealed the fate of Tsar Nicholas II, bringing down a dynasty that had ruled Russia for more than three centuries
The imperial family in happier times. From left to right: Olga, Maria, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei and Tatiana

On 20 May 1887, in a medieval fortress just outside of the city of St Petersburg, five young revolutionaries were put to death for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. News of their executions would hardly have come as a surprise to the people of Russia. Acts of insurrection were spreading, and those behind them were being captured, tortured and killed with almost equal rapidity.

But there was something different about this particular incident, and that was the identity of one of the men dragged to the gallows.The name Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov will mean little to most people today. But the alias of his younger brother Vladimir – better known as Lenin – certainly will. And, little more than 30 years later, Lenin would exact his revenge on Alexander III’s hapless successor in a brutal bout of bloodletting, sounding the death knell for one of the mightiest dynasties in world history.

Just a few years before Aleksandr Ulyanov met his end, the collapse of that dynasty, the Romanovs, would have been inconceivable. They had ruled Russia for 250 years – and there was no reason to think that they wouldn’t continue to do so. Among their number were some of Europe’s most celebrated leaders, including Peter the Great, the brilliant warlord, moderniser and empire-builder, and Alexander I, who stopped Napoleon’s advancing army in its tracks at Moscow.

These weren’t just rulers, they were almost divine beings, believed by many of their 100 million or so subjects to be beyond reproach. They presided over a polity that covered one-sixth of the Earth’s surface. The power that they wielded was almost mindboggling.

But, by 1887, cracks were beginning to appear beneath the veneer of might and majesty. The Romanovs’ fierce authoritarianism and reluctance to introduce democratic institutions – not to mention the crushing poverty of Russia’s peasantry – had turned their nation into a seething mass of discontent.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

In this month's issue… Captain Cook's secret mission Retrace James Cook's 1768 first voyage - a scientific expedition that morphed into a globe-spanning quest to find a lost continent thanks to a set of secret instructions. Plus: Louis XIV and the Palace of Versailles; the tragedy of British Tour de France hero Tom Simpson; the fall of the Russian Romanov dynasty; history of chocolate; William Wallace; weird pets; and Palymrene Queen Zenobia takes on Imperial Rome.