It is July 17, 1918, and the smell of cordite bites at the air. The cooling bodies of the family Romanov are scattered about the floor of the small room, which, has become their morgue. White feathers whirl like first winter’s snow around the room from the children’s pillows that they had bought for comfort.
Private Yuri Popovitch stares at his hands and weeps. It has been three minutes and twenty-seven seconds since those hands had helped murdered an entire family. He felt especially bad about the little boy who had clung to his mother’s hand, eyes huge and confused but understanding that death was in the air.
This is what Popovitch wrote to his mother later that night, exceptionally drunk on cheap potato vodka.
‘Forgive me, Mama, I have to write some dreadful things now. Please don’t hate me; I had no choice at all. Not if you wanted to see me for pождество, for Christmas, and I have some well-salted meat and will try to bring carrots.
Today, I helped murder the Romanov’s, traitors to the revolution and should feel so glad and proud, but I’m sick, Mama, sick to my stomach. And my heart is shrouded in shame.
Their blood was so red, Imperial red, Mamochka, and it set quickly even though the boy was supposed to be a bleeder.
Yurovsky. You remember him? A real hard bastard. He was so damned cold when he told the Tsar that his relatives were too late and the Bolsheviks had resolved to execute them all.
The Tsar, I mean Nicholas stepped in front of the Heir, his little boy and was shot immediately. I remember Yurovsky’s smile, it was monstrous, a smile of one who loves his job, a killer’s smile.
The women took longer to die because unknown to us they had made bodices out of their jewellery and the diamonds served as armour. Even the bayonets were refused. So we were told to shoot them in the head. The other soldiers spat on the ladies and called them zhadnyye shlyukhi, greedy whores but, secretly, I admired them. It takes guts to think you are going to survive a revolution and to stare down the men who intend to murder you.
But listen, Mama, and you must never tell a soul or both of us, probably the entire clan will be shot or worse, the salt mines. Do you promise? You must promise, Mama.
Yuri takes several large gulps of the potato vodka before continuing.
One of them was still alive, a maid, who must have hidden behind the Tsarina’s chair, was sitting up, bloody and dazed, but seemingly unharmed. It was a miracle, Mama, and my senses, my smell, taste, everything about that moment was electric. You know, like just before a storm when everywhere tastes like sparks. I waved my arm to silence her, forgetting the pistol was still in my hand. Her face, a lovely face, Mama, it drained of everything: hope, courage, colour and she brought the heel of her hand to her mouth and bit down so hard that a thick line of crimson ran down the inside of her arm and spotted her skirts and the air with bloody kopeks.
And even then, Matuska, even then, with her hair dusted with the violence of the slaughterhouse, she was magical and I was infatuated. I edged forward very slowly as if she were an injured mare because I needed her to hear me without raising my voice. Still skittish, my girl pushed back hard on her heels until she met the wall. My heart squeezed with anger and I thought I might kill Yurovsky if he walked back into the room now. And in that moment of rage I made the decision to save her.
‘You need to listen to me, I can help you. But you must keep quiet, like a mouse hiding from the cat, do you understand?’ Hazel eyes brightened with something, not hope, but courage perhaps; the survival instinct is very strong in times of stress. I have seen fellow soldiers crawling on their knees, feet and toes so blackened with frostbite that life expectancy could be counted in hours, not days. And still they crawled away from death.
My brave girl nodded and I motioned for her to come and stand beside me. She shivered and I understood that shock would arrive soon.
‘Don’t look at anything except for me’, I instructed, ‘they are gone now, no pain, no worry, no more suffering. But what is left looks ugly’. When I was satisfied that she was behind me and not going to faint, I opened the door to the stone flagged hallway and glanced quickly up and down. It was empty and oddly quiet and I took this as a sign. I knew I could help her, but there were practicalities to think off. Her clothes were flimsy and thin, decorative rather than practical and it could become chilly at night here in the Urals.
Motioning her to follow closely we made our way towards an old, rough timbered window leading to the back of the buildings and out into the cobbled streets of Yekaterinburg. ‘You must go through’, I whispered, ‘and don’t stop when you hit the ground’
My girl tested the frame with her arms as if sure of its treachery and then, satisfied that it was true, turned back to face me. She took my hand and kissed it softly, before hauling herself up onto the ledge.
‘Cпасибо вам свой лучший мальчик, thank you, my best boy’,
‘Jump,’ I urged and she did.
I believe God was with me then, Mama, and I hope I have paid in some small way, for the evil I did to those people, in the name of the Bolsheviks.
In the name of Bread and Peace. God forgive me.