St. Petersburg: Peter and Paul Fortress and the Romanovs

August 20, 2011 • 6:13 am

The heart of old St. Petersburg is the Peter and Paul Fortress, built in 1703 on an island in the Neva by Peter the Great.  It was intended as a fort to defend the nascent city against the Swedes, but was never used for that purpose. It served instead as a prison (housing, among others, Dostoyevsky, who underwent a “mock execution” there), a garrison, and it houses a mint and the famous Peter and Paul cathedral, the burial place of all the tsars from Peter the Great to Nicholas II. Nicholas was the last tsar, who was executed (along with his entire family) by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Here’s an aerial view of the fortress (not my photo); the cathedral with its enormous spire, the tallest structure in old St. Petersburg, is clearly visible:

I went there for one reason: to see the tombs of the tsars, especially those of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their children.  Their murder by the Bolsheviks is one of the horrors of the Russian Revolution, and one of the earliest murders engineered by Lenin.  It’s always intrigued me, especially because of the now-debunked story that one child (Anastasia) had survived the execution, and because the bones of the family, buried in haste by the Bolsheviks, were rediscovered, identified by their DNA, and interred in the Cathedral during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.

With its high steeple, the Cathedral is an imposing sight, visible from many places in the city.

Inside are the graves; this is the biggie: Peter the Great (Peter I).  I can’t make out the rest of the Cyrillic, but I’m sure one of my readers can:

Half of the floor is covered with tombs of the tsars and tsarinas; here are some more:

I was there, however, mainly to see Nicholas and his family.  Here they are in a photo from 1913. The whole lot (along with their doctor and maids) were shot by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinberg on the night of July 16, 1918.  Wikipedia labels the photo below as: “left to right: Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana.

Alexandra, of course, was Nicholas’s wife, the tsarina; the rest were the daughters (with Anastasia being the one who, in legend, survived), and Alexei, the young son, a hemophiliac who was ill at the time of the execution.  The daughters all carried the title of “Grand Duchess,” and Alexei was both “Tsesarevich” (heir apparent) and a Grand Duke.

Here are their photos in one of the corridors of the cathedral.  The story of Nicholas and Alexandra was the subject of a best-selling book by Robert Massie, and was made into a film that won several Academy Awards.

The execution of the family is described graphically by Wikipedia and other places, though accounts differ somewhat.  What is clear is that it was a grisly and brutal business, carried out with handguns and bayonets (it’s said that some of the daughters weren’t killed by bullets because they had diamonds sewn into their clothes).  They were killed because of fears that the White Army was approaching Yekaterinburg and might rescue the family, but also because, if left alive, Nicholas instead of the Bolsheviks could be regarded by other European powers as the legitimate head of state.  It’s beyond me, however, how anyone could, in the name of politics, coldly murder an entire family, including the wife and young daughters and sons.

I’ve watched several videos about the execution itself.  The family was roused around midnight, taken to a room in the basement, and told that they were going to be transported elsewhere.  But then a sentence of death was read out, and almost immediately a group of men began firing at the family with handguns.  If you want an idea of what that was like, watch the following video, but WARNING—it’s bloody and you might find it disturbing.

The bodies of the family and retainers were buried in the forest, but most of them were found by an amateur archaeologist in 1998 and identified by DNA analysis.  These bodies were interred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998; a photograph of the ceremony is below. You can make out Boris Yeltsin (I think) between the second and third priest from the left (click twice to enlarge):

Two other bodies, those of Alexei and Maria, were found and identified in 2007; they are now interred with the others. Here is the alcove in the church where the Romanovs lie.  Nicholas is to the left of center, Alexandra to the right, and the children around them.  Even if you don’t read Cyrillic, you can make out the names (click to enlarge). I find this ineffably sad.

The area on an adjacent island, which has a view of the Fortress in the background, is a popular place for Russian wedding parties to have their photographs taken. I saw at least four such parties on the two days I visited the area.  Here’s one of them, with the bride and a bridesmaid (?, wearing a sash) looking jaunty.

I have at least one more post on St. Petersburg, involving the art and interiors of the Hermitage and Russian Museum. I’ll try to put that up this week.

41 thoughts on “St. Petersburg: Peter and Paul Fortress and the Romanovs

  1. Little-known (or, I suppose, well-known, but only to few) is the nearly successful assassination attempt on Lenin just six weeks after the executions: (After I learned about this I asked a Russian colleague if she was aware of it and she wasn’t.)

    How history might have differed if Fanni had succeeded.

    Are the Romanovs interred behind those panels, or collectively in that marble tomb(?) at left?

    1. Your friend is either very young, or he forgot everything.
      Story of Fanni Kaplan was taught in schools on history lessons even in late Soviet Union. Now i would be very surprised if a school-leaver knows who was Lenin…

    1. The resumblance is remarkable. (KGV is Wills’s great-great-grandfather, Chuck’s great-, Liz’s grand-, to bring it down to today.)

      Yet it was Phil the Greek, who’s a generation closer, who gave the DNA that proved the family’s identity.

      According to Wikipedia (…)
      “In July 1993, through mitochondrial DNA analysis of a sample of Prince Philip’s blood, British scientists were able to confirm the identity of the remains of several members of Empress Alexandra of Russia’s family, several decades after their 1918 massacre by the Bolsheviks. Prince Philip was then one of two living great-grandchildren in the female line of Alexandra’s mother Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, the other being his sister Sophie, who died in 2001.”

  2. It’s beyond me, however, how anyone could, in the name of politics, coldly murder an entire family, including the wife and young daughters and sons.

    Amen. What’s even more incomprehensible is that not only was this not an uncommon event in history, but that, by the numbers, it was insignificant.

    As vanishingly few things there are worth dying for, there are far fewer worth killing for. Yet why does our species have so much blood on its hands?

    It seems to be almost more of a defining characteristic of the species than the problem-solving ability. How many of our technological advances have resulted from solving the “problem” of “having” to kill each other in even larger numbers?


    1. Ramen. But my opinion is that the violent ones are unwittingly allowed to gain power, its a societal problem that hasn’t been solved yet, at least not solved in the United States and some other countries.

      1. Long time no see! I trust all is well?

        My position on pacifism and violence is, “Do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto, except to the minimum degree necessary to stop others from violating this rule.”

        Self-defense and defense of others is permissible, of course, but it’s not an excuse to go overboard; do what’s necessary to stop the crime, and no more.



        1. Long time no see! I trust all is well?

          Thanks for noticing, Ben. Pathetic as it is, I consider this community one of my few “social” groups.

          Yeah, situation normal; you know what follows that…

          Re pacifism–I couldn’t improve on your distillation. One of my biggest crises of living as an unconflicted atheist was having a son. As a child of the ‘Nam/draft era, I never trusted the US not to revert to the same resort during the next war (and there’s always a “next war”). But I’d heard that CO status was next to impossible to obtain w/o some sort of proof a history of a religion-associated commitment to pacifism. There was I time I seriously considered pretending to be a Quaker…

          (I’m a feminist and I also have a daughter, but I figured the country wasn’t gonna be drafting women anytime soon…)

          1. Oh, I don’t know that it’s so pathetic. I mean there’s what’s-his-name who posts here who…um…I mean, just look at that one gal…er…ah…well, there has to be somebody cool who’s read some of what we’ve written, right?


            Anyway, glad to hear things are as insane as always. I’m not sure I could imagine them otherwise.

            I still remember how scary it was when I learned that I had to register with the SS in order to get a scholarship…and how relieved I was when I finally aged out of “eligibility.”

            You remind me, though, of one of the things I find most infuriating about all these wars of the past half century. Those kids who enlist place a great trust in the politicians to use their lives for justice…and every single fucking time that trust has been horridly abused. We send them away to kill and be killed by brown-skinned people for no good reason whatsoever.

            I’d probably have enlisted if it were to defend our homes against foreign invaders. I’d have supported some of these wars if they were to defend other nations against foreign invaders, provided that the defenders came to us asking for aid.

            But we’ve been the invaders!

            I should probably shut up, now….


            1. Oh, you’re singin’ to the choir!

              I often think that all atheists should be pacifists; or maybe it’s the converse, that only those who count on an afterlife could ever countenance war…It doesn’t seem to work that way, though…

              Let’s see; murder is a crime, but mass murder is…foreign policy?

              OTOH, if we must have soldiers, I can’t imagine a better pool to draw from than our congresscritters.

              Yes, we have sort of gotten off on a tangent, haven’t we?

              (And oh, I should be so lucky as to have Jerry & the crew here as my actual social circle! Rarefied heights, indeed!)

  3. Thanks for these articles, Jerry!

    I highly recommend the account of the identification and scientific examination of the Romanov family remains in the book “Dead Men Do Tell Tales” by forensic anthropologist William Maples.

    1. unbelievable, Yes, life under the Tsar was so wonderful wasn’t it? I don’t understand how you can write an article about this and not mention the history of oppression that Russia was under your tsar.

      good riddance

      1. I never said life under the Tsar was wonderful. And you can’t say that life under Lenin and Stalin was wonderful either. The point is that the cold-blooded murder of an entire family is never justified.

        Good riddance to you, sir!

      2. Historians generally concede that until the Bolshevik revolution, Russia was well on the way to becoming a liberal, democratic, constitutional monarchy.

        Industrialization was proceeding, a middle class was forming, and the worst abuses of the old autocratic Russia were already things of the past.

        Even if it is “right” that Russia get rid of its monarchical system, I point out the countries such as Greece and Italy that got rid of theirs without feeling the necessity to shoot their royal families in a basement.

        Tsardom may have been bad, but Bolshevism was much, much worse.

        1. Historians also generally concede that Nicholas II, especially under the influence of his beloved wife Alexandra, was an incompetent autocrat fighting against the democratic forces in the Empire every step of the way — just the right sort of ruler to pave the way for the Bolsheviks by holding a hard line against needed change. A perfect partner for Lenin.

          In light of the the millions killed on all sides in the Russian Civil War and then under the Communist regime, the murder of this one privileged family should be kept in perspective.

          But then, as Stalin remarked, “one death is a tragedy, a million — a statistic.”

          1. Having studied Russian history while learning Russian at secondary school, I have to agree with you, albeit reluctantly.

            There was no other solution available during that revolution.

            No-doubt Cromwell would have done the same to Charles I’s heirs if he had had the chance.

            The West has done such vile acts many a time, executing leaders not too our liking or no longer useful, particularly in the Middle East and in Central and South America (Chile, for example.)

            Alas, as the French Revolution turned into a Reign of Terror, and Cromwell pushed policy that can justly be described as genocide, the first Russian Revolution turned into a second one with monstrous consequences for literally millions of people.

            Tragic doesn’t describe it.

  4. Last year in school I was doing one of those exit interviews. And the man I met, who was around 70 himself, was the great grandson (or just the grandson) of the tutor of the Tsar’s children. She was also killed during this episode.

  5. I notice from Jerry’s fortress link that the first person to escape from it, when it served as a prison, was the fascinating anarchist Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin in 1876.

    a Russian zoologist, activist, philosopher, economist, writer, scientist, evolutionary theorist, geographer and one of the world’s foremost anarcho-communists. Kropotkin advocated a communist society free from central government and based on voluntary associations between workers. Because of his title of prince, he was known by some as “the Anarchist Prince”. Some contemporaries saw him as leading a near perfect life, including Oscar Wilde, who described him as “a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia.” He wrote many books, pamphlets and articles, the most prominent being The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops, and his principal scientific offering, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. He also contributed the article on anarchism to the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition

    I stumbled over Kropotkin in Matt Ridley’s book The Origins Of Virtue Dawkins quote:

    If my The Selfish Gene were to have a Volume Two devoted to humans, The Origins of Virtue is pretty much what I think it ought to look like

    BTW: The bullet ricochet sound effects in the video clip of the execution ruined the drama. The sound mixer must have stolen them from some cowboy B-movie

    1. yup.. I would have made it dead silent; the only sound the final bullet fired into the neck of the woman who lived through the first volley.

  6. I’ll just stay the hell out of the politics and comment that I, too, love going to cathedrals to see tombs and relics when on vacation. Fascinating and beautiful. Thank you, Jerry.

    1. I’ll second this. Thank you, Jerry, for these posts. They’re wonderful to read, and the pictures are great. Plus, because of these posts, I’ve added to my “to go see” list.

  7. It’s hard to make out the Cyrillic on the plaque below his name and epithet, with the bars in the way. I think I can make out the Russian for “Imperator and Autocrat of All the Russias”, and the rest is a series of dates.

        1. I don’t think any of the inscriptions are Church Slavonic, old or modern. There are a few tell-tale letters that I don’t see, that should be there, by all rights, if the Romanov’s graves were in Russian Church Slavonic. And there’s a letter Church Slavonic doesn’t use clearly displayed on Peter’s grave.

      1. Nowadays pastiche of old-style is popular in Russia. Who would resist temptation to do it in such a case? I’m not sure if it really matches any real old orthography.

  8. The rule of Nicholas the Tsar was not the greatest, but it was much better than the “Red Czars” that came after.

    1. How would you know?
      The nick name of last tsar was “bloody”, due to the number of people killed during his rule. It started when several hundred people were killed in crowding during celebration of his coronation in Moscow. He drew Russia to war with Japan, which he lost, and to First World War, which was going equally bad when he resigned.
      He was weak and incompetent person. When the revolution was almost here he still refused to hear anything contradicting his believe that all Russian people loves him. He was appointing people to the highest positions under influence of his wife, who, in turn was under influence of a crazy shaman Rasputin. And when he at last got some idea what was going on he just run away – resigned.
      He definitely was not suited to govern Russia in the situation it was in the beginning of XX century. If you do not like what Lenin or Stalin do, then Nikolay II the bloody is a first person to blame they come to power.

  9. >It’s beyond me, however, how anyone could, in the name of politics, coldly murder an entire family, including the wife and young daughters and sons

    When first Romanov became a Russian Tsar in 1613 he killed all the family of False Dmitry, including his wife and small son. Hereditary monarchy is a cruel thing, cause if one is going to rule, than he had no other choice but to kill pretenders. And if everybody from family dies than you have many other people killing each other until next dynasty settles.

    Btw, do you know that a person you are mourning about ordered shooting of a peaceful procession coming to him to ask for help? Did he care if any woman or children were killed? Do you know he support Jewish massacres? And add two wars and devastation of economy.

    Nikolay and his family were not “coldly murdered”. They were murdered by the very upset people, who were upset by his reign. And nobody never present a convincing proof that this killing was ordered by Lenin. In fact Lenin ordered Nikolay II to be transfered to Moscow, and send a train for this mission. The train, however was stopped, and tsar with his family was killed by the order of Ekaterinburg Board of Workers’ Deputies, which, at the time, was not under control of central soviet government. It makes no sense for Lenin to kill Nikolay, much better for him would be some sort of public trial, and it seems for me like it was what Lenin was going to do.

    1. Did you make a conscious effort _not_ to read the post?

      Because it noted up that accounts differ, and it was aghast at the killing of innocents (family).

      If your morality admits killings for “what-ifs”, fine. (Or rather not because no justice system allows it, as is proper.) But you should be able to understand that others may find it “beyond” them.

      1. Either my english is not very good, or the story that the killing was ordered by Lenin is the only one mentioned in the article. This story is obviously a forgery.

    2. So Nicholas was a jerk. In what universe does that make the murder of his children justified? Explicable in terms of the situation at the time, but in no way excusable.

      1. I do not think justification is required at all in the universe without free will, like this one. Much better would be to analyze causes and try to eliminate them in future.

        Hereditary monarchy, as I’ve noticed, is a cruel form of government. Those people do not have a choice – they were born in the family of tsar when the situation was bad for the dynasty.

        Should they be lucky to be born in better time they will enjoy their position at the very top of pyramid of power, while millions at the bottom would be dying of starvation or back-breaking work. Or may be they will start a game of killing each other in order to seizure full power, another activity not uncommon in monarchy circles, especially when the heir health is bad.

        Their killers do not have much choice either: they know well that if any of those girls remain alive and the White army wins and restore them to power, they will order to kill as many Bolsheviks as they can found. It’s war, they had to kill or be killed. You can only choose what for are you fighting for.

        And as Invigilator earlier, I do not see a need to distinguish a death of this family over death of many more families at the time.

  10. I read Massie’s _Nicholas and Alexandra_ many years ago, and like Jerry, I was always fascinated by the “now-debunked story that one child (Anastasia) had survived the execution.”

    What I didn’t know until I moved to North York/Toronto (Ontario) is Nicholas II’s sister, the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna is buried in York Cemetery:

    According to Wikipedia, “After her escape from Russia in 1919, Olga was often sought out by Romanov impostors who claimed to be her dead relatives. She met Anna Anderson, the best-known Anastasia impostor, in Berlin in 1925.”

    1. The Tzar’s sister Olga married a man chosen by her family. However during the First World War she divorced him and married a commoner with whom she was very happily married. She was never treated well by her mother and sister. After the Russian Revolution, she lived for a while in Denmark and then immigrated with her husband and two sons to Canada. They lived on a farm but eventually she wound up living over a drug store where she died.

  11. It was intended as a fort to defend the nascent city against the Swedes,

    Ugh, again with the warfare against Russia. “Fear the Swedes!”

  12. I’m not at all sure the DNA tests on Anna Anderson were legitimate. Prince Philip is the closest living relative and it was his DNA which was used for testing.
    However it is thought by some that the Tzar had deposited a fortune in The Bank Of England. Some believe it was for this reason that it would be inconvenient were Anna Anderson indeed Anastasia.

    Also, the Tzar’s mother did escape on an English war ship. She was the sister of the then Dowager Queen of England, another Alexandra. Marie, the Tzar’s mother brought out of Russia a large number of jewels. They were bought at 10 cents on the dollar by the then Queen of England, Queen Mary. Elizabeth, Queen of England, made a settlement with the then living Romanoffs in the 1950s. The British Royal Family often wears them. Princess Diana sometimes wore the “Loveknot tiara” and Kate Middleton has worn one of the Russian tiaras too.

    King George V did doublecross the Tzar by promising to rescue the family but due to political reasons then refused, leaving his first cousin and his family to face their destinies in that cellar in Yekaterinburg.

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