The House of Special Purpose
During a journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, travel writer Tim Warrington, discovered his trip coincided with a gruesome anniversary
Dashing through the centuries, I devoured, ‘An Illustrated History of the Romanovs’, as the train thundered through Siberia on its way to Yekaterinburg. I was aboard Tsar’s Gold, a private train that ferries 200 passengers along the Trans-Siberian, Beijing to Moscow route.
My bucket list was getting a serious pounding - great wall: tick; Terracotta Army: tick; Forbidden City: tick - awesome. And now Russia. And! I had scored big time: grouped with an amazing mix of jolly travellers – a seriously fun-loving crew. My tour guide said it was always like that on Tsar’s Gold … “why invest all that time and money on a trip like this and then not enjoy it.” She had a point.
We started in Beijing, home to one toppled monarch, Emperor Pu-Yi - Bernado Bertocelli’s little ‘Last Emperor - and we were about to arrive in Yekaterinburg where another Emperor was felled.
We’d been travelling for 12 days and had fallen into a comfortable routine of wining, dining and reclining. It was a rare treat to find myself with time to kill - my quarry: a weighty tome recounting the scurrilous lives of Romanov emperors and empresses. Twenty-two monarchs and three centuries to digest – but it was page-turning stuff and gory to boot. Apparently, Nicholas II cried when he became Tsar – the richest, most powerful man in the world,
Oh, boo hoo.
I had 7,621 kilometres and 15 days to reach the final chapter: ‘Tsar Nicholas II and the demise of the imperial family.’
Back in 1917, the 300-year-old dynasty balanced precariously on a legacy of murder, intrigue and treachery, nudged ever closer to the precipice by a hundred million hungry serfs: hungry for land; hungry for change and just plain hungry. Russian royalty was peculiarly immune to the suffering of its people but Empress Alexandra was something else - content with domestic drudgery and mysticism, she was fanatically religious. Her shortsightedness greatly exceeded the horizon of her royal contemporaries and the Russian people hated her for it. Her husband was equally unpopular and while their children were innocents, they carried the Romanov name, both a regal moniker and death warrant
I knew how this one was gonna end, so I decided to steel myself for the final chapter with vodka, much like the executioners chosen to dispatch the imperial family.
I peeked over the leather book binding at the stash of booze I had in my double cabin. Lucky I was flying solo, as I needed the other bunk as a makeshift bar. When we stopped in Ulan Bator, I’d done a spot of shopping. Browsing the alcohol aisle at the local supermarket, quickly turned to buying and I stocked up on the good stuff. It had to be vodka. And I was in Mongolia, so it had to be Genghis Khan, but silver, gold or platinum?
“Very good. Try all,” said the shop assistant with a face like old parchment.
“And this one, too,” she mumbled.
“This: very good,” she said as she dropped another flagon of rocket fuel in my trolley. And another.
Now, back on the train, in my cabin, a dozen Genghis Khan vodka labels eyeballed me from the other bunk and I was again faced with the dilemma of ‘which one’?
Somewhere, the distant voice of the shop assistant echoed in my memory - “try all” … so I did.
The next thing I remembered was the screech of steel on steel heralding our scheduled stop. We had arrived in Yekaterinburg. Sobriety restored, I attempted to wrangle my bed hair, squinting at the cabin’s huge mirror.
Verdant pastures beyond the vast picture window had given way to cityscape and I became giddy with excitement.
Toppled and then banished to this industrial outpost, I was about to visit the exact place 12 men murdered the royal family almost a century ago.
Crikey Dick! Hold on a moment. Surely not?
I waded through a sea of Russian Dolls and fridge magnets to the other side of my cabin and grabbed my diary. It was 100 years to the very day.
The very day!
I quickly unscrewed a bottle of vodka and chugged a mouthful. No, still tremulous. I necked a couple more.
I emerged from my cabin somewhat disheveled, my camera slung about my neck, armed with a notebook and handful of peppermints – viable enough.
I joined my fellow travellers for the short trip from the station to site of the execution.
There had been a residence - the Ipatiev house or ‘House of Special Purpose’ - where the family were slain, but in 1977 Boris Yeltsin ordered it demolished.
Following the collapse of the USSR, the Church on the Blood was constructed and became a major place of pilgrimage.
To mark the centenary, a chapel had been built in the crypt – exactly where the cellar was, where the Imperial family were slain.
As I alighted from the bus, busy with lenses and memory cards I caught the tail end of a clash between a pilgrim and a man walking his dog.
Even with my terrible Russian, I could make out ‘imperial scum’ and several references to ‘piss’.
Despite our exalted surroundings there was a rather ungodly scent of urine. Authorities seemed unprepared for the sheer number of monarchists and the scattering of portaloos was grossly inadequate. The horrible continued inside - surrounded with armpits and feet.
The devout had been camping outside for days and had walked the 20 or so kilometres from the church to the site where the bodies were buried. And back again.
My first impression of the site of the Romanov executions was that the modern cathedral built there had escaped some of the wilder excesses of the rococo, but the gilded domes seemed at odds with the humble and slightly whiffy congregation of pilgrims milling about. I made my way downstairs to the crypt where an exhibition displayed grand portraits of the martyred family.
In 1917 there were about 65 members of the Imperial Family, 18 of those were killed during the revolution – seven right where I was standing. The Tsar’s brother was shot in a forest along with his English equerry, and the Empress’ sister Ella was tossed down a mine shaft along with several Romanov Grand Dukes and princes.
The mood was suitably sombre.
As I rounded the corner into the main shrine, I almost trod on a man prostrate on the floor kissing the tiles. A gaggle of nuns crossed themselves vigorously, crucifixes flying and heavy vestments flapping violently.
All around me there was whispering and praying and signs of the cross and whimpering and tears; babies were being thrust at icons and headscarves tightened like garrottes. I was so distracted by the religious fervour I missed the ‘No Photos’ sign and the ‘Queue here to see the chapel/cellar where the murder took place and almost mowed down some fragrant bystanders.
I was tisked by a priest but he didn’t seem bothered that I had a lens the size of a bazooka pointed into the chapel or that I was standing on the wrong side of the queue. I stood at the entrance to the tiny chapel and gazed at icons of the murdered family hung on the far wall.
Historians tend to agree that Nicholas II of Russia died instantly in the Impatiev cellar. His son 13-year-old Alexei did not. Frozen in fear he remained seated as bodies fell about him. The Empress too perished in the first volley of bullets, experts think. They say she probably lost her finger as she made the sign of the cross: her final act.
But it took the executioners over 20 minutes to finish off the royal children, with bayonets and rifle butts: Olga, 22; Tatiana, 21; Maria, 19; Anastasia, 17 and Alexei 13
Stories of corsets sewn with royal gems acting as body armour seem vaguely believable. According to a first hand account of the murder, bullets did ricochet off the Grand Duchesses and the Tsarevich, who was nursing a cushion filled with diamonds.
As I walked away from the chapel built on the exact site the Romanovs were slaughtered in 1918, I couldn’t shake this mental image from my thoughts.
And neither, it seemed, could the hundreds of pilgrims milling about, praying, glassy eyed and lost in thought. An elderly lady with a large portrait of Christ slung about her neck swung at me with her walking stick.
“No cameras” she barked in a husky voice heavy with emotion and tobacco.
Whatever your views on the monarchy and its violent snuffing out, Yekaterniburg is a city charged with emotion and The Church on the Blood makes you think.
As I left the chapel I passed an exhibit dedicated to the royal family – huge portraits of the family to either side. The last picture was of Alexei the heir apparent. I paused.
I asked my Russian guide what she thought of the Romanovs,
“They had to die,” she replied matter of factly.
“But the children,” I replied.
“They had to die,” she repeated with rising frustration.
“Is it ever ok to bayonet children I called after her?”
She didn’t answer.
“You would kill a child?”
She stopped; she turned and with a scholarly precision about her words.
To save a million more? – in a heartbeat.
The author travelled courtesy of Flower Travel.
Touring there While it is possible to book trains, visas and entry tickets yourself, trans-Siberian travel experts Flower Travel specialise in individual and group travel to Russia, Mongolia and China, including the Yekaterinburg, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. They offer semi-independent touring where the essentials are all taken care of but you're not 'smothered'. See trans-siberian.com.au