Tuesday 17 July 2018

The House of Special Purpose

The Romanov Family
Nikolai II and his family.

One hundred years ago today, on July 17 1918, the deposed tsar, Nikolai II, was murdered, along with his wife, his son and his daughters, at the 'House of Special Purpose' in Yekaterinburg, Russia. In my novel The Last Rite, our hero, Mihail Konstantivich Danilov meets Nikolai earlier that year, and has a vision, through the tsar's own eyes, of his approaching fate.

Instantly I was in a different place. A narrow stairway leading down to a cellar. It was night – the early hours. In my arms I was carrying a boy. He was thirteen years old, but small for his age, weak, ill. There was a queue of us on the stairs, but soon we were in the cellar. There wasn’t much room, not for eleven of us. I looked at the faces around me. My wife was there, and my four daughters. The four others were the only ones who had remained loyal to us; my physician, a footman, a maid and a cook. Around my ankles scampered my little spaniel, Joy. She had remained loyal too. I turned round, back towards the stairs. They’d said we were being evacuated. Evidently we would have to wait here some time.
            ‘Could you bring some chairs?’ I asked.
            The man standing at the bottom of the stairs, our gaoler, shouted up. Moments later three hard wooden chairs were brought down. I placed my fragile son in one and offered the second to my wife. I took the third. Then the room began to fill, with more men coming down the stairs. Soon the little cellar was preposterously crowded. I had to stand up again, just to see what was going on. There were eleven of them, not counting our gaoler, the same number as there were of us. That in itself was suspicious. They tried to spread themselves through the room, each pairing off with a single member of my family or our entourage, as if fulfilling the promise made on some fantastical dance card. But in the cramped space it was impossible to move anywhere.
            The gaoler cleared his throat. He had a piece of paper in his hand which he read from.
            ‘In view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.’
            I turned quickly to look at my family. ‘What?’ I whispered. ‘What?’
            The gaoler repeated the sentence, reading it again, though it was short enough for him to remember by heart. I wondered where they would take us to perform the act, how much time we had, whether they would separate us – the men from the women, the adults from the children. I began to pray that in the coming hours we would have time properly to say goodbye.
            But the gaoler had scarcely finished speaking when his hand emerged from his pocket holding a revolver. He was standing just two feet away from me. He fired and I felt a thump against my chest. My legs grew weak and I began to fall. The gaoler fired again, but not at me. I heard my little boy scream and then fall silent. Until then I had felt no pain, but now every agony shot through me. I could not move, I could not speak, I could only perceive, and I knew that that would not last more than a few moments.
            The other assassins had rifles rather than pistols and they began to fire. Bullets ricocheted across the cellar. Bodies fell – I could not see who – and the monsters finished them off with bayonets. I tried to breath, but could not. Nor did I want to. My heart had been still for seconds now, blown apart by the bullet. My eyes gazed out across the cellar floor, across the pools of blood to where the spaniel pawed at the dead face of my beloved son. I tried to reach out to him but I knew there was no point. My only consolation was that we had died in the same moment.