They said the old merchant’s house had been singled out by the powers that be, the owner told to leave and some of the rooms closed up. Then a detachment of guards came, along with speculation that this secluded villa might become a barracks.
By the time the palisade fence went up, people talked about a prison. It was as if a nearby forest of Siberian pines had marched up to the house in rag-tag formation, each rough hewn trunk staked into the ground, nails hammered in, no slither of daylight allowed between.
Some were surprised to hear that shortly before this ugly barricade had been put in place, a family of seven had already taken up residence. They had arrived in halting procession a month previously, their small entourage pruned on arrival. Only the doctor, the valet, the cook and the maid were permitted to accompany them over the threshold.
The head of the family was the first to arrive. He seemed weary and drawn, shrunken inside his field uniform, while his wife, veiled and shawled, leaned heavily on the arm of a tall, pretty girl, venturing the ghost of a smile.
After a few weeks, the remaining children turned up. Two of the girls were seen carrying lapdogs like lesser characters from a lost story by Chekhov. The younger girl cradling a toy spaniel with silky ears, while tucked under the arm of her older sister, aloof, gazing ahead, inscrutable, was something dark and all snout — a pointy-eared devil, most likely a yapper.
The girl with the docile spaniel darted looks that might kill, if she wasn’t careful. One could plainly see the foment of wilful rebellion bubbling to the surface like spring waters.
Finally the eldest child, a young woman, withdrawn, solemn as a nun, the corners of her mouth turned down, escorted the youngest sibling. The heir to nothing and unable to walk, he had to be wheeled in. Padding alongside, nose to the ground, was his loyal companion, a stubby bow-legged gundog, held on a leash by the kitchen boy.
There was a rumour the family wouldn’t stay for long and would soon be moved. Some said further east, along the iron road to Perm, while others crossed themselves and looked the other way. They said how pale the heir looked, perhaps he wouldn’t last another journey. It was better not to speculate and just get on with life and ignore what was going on beyond the flayed wood of that pitiless stockade, harvested from the fractured nightmare of some Baba Yaga enclave.
Perhaps if you rested an ear against the cleaved and splintered wood you could hear them in the garden most days — the girls like a burst of spring blossom, their chaffinch talk hovering in the air, briefly released from their rusted cage — before the silence returned once more to settle into dust.
When new guards with foreign names arrived, the thick walls seem to close in further upon the family, now little more than part of those old fixtures, marooned on the upper floor. Some pondered the real purpose lurking inside that squat mansion, windows blind to the world, perched above heavy eaves, while the brows of the basement ones barely visible at street level. This pale mausoleum was already half sunk in resignation, waiting for an epitaph.
When local women were summoned in to wash the floors, they saw the girls there, in plain dark skirts and white blouses, not the coiffured angelic beings on those souvenir postcards, but just like them, hair roughly brushed back, hands reddened from laundry washing, eager to be helpful — cheered almost, by fresh faces around them and the prospect of something to do.
But all the while as those local women scrubbed the floors and the girls helped shift the furniture, they were under the watchful gaze of their new overseer, a sardonic Bluebeard presence holding all the keys — so their whispered exchanges were limited.
As the trailing smoke from the cossack advance wafted across the plain, the locals began to live in fear of reprisals. Local curiosity about the old merchant’s house and its occupants had waned some time ago, as if the captive family had already dissolved into oblivion. No one thought it odd when the overseer took the kitchen boy away one evening and lodged him over the street.
By the early hours of the next day, everything had changed. The implacable stone facade could no longer conceal the new landlord’s modus operandi, the brutal culling of a despised dynasty and its servants in two acts — the first lasting twenty minutes, according to the will of the Ural Soviet and therefore, the people.
The impatient grumbling of the trucks in the courtyard, trying to cover the dreadful cacophony echoing from that crypt-like cellar, where Death himself had arranged his subjects for the final photograph.
After the gunfire had finally subsided — from somewhere a dog yapped — but not for long. Then the trucks departed — and the guards left behind rolled around drunk for hours, a sure sign that something terrible had been done.
No local women were asked to wash the floor of that sunken murder room. No one is entirely sure who cleaned it, either. The the job was sloppily done, like the deed before it — dirt shovelled over blood and water sluiced, the stains still visible, the petit-bourgeois wallpaper pocked with bullets. The main evidence was bundled away, like a batch of soiled laundry.
Alas, the white cavalry had arrived too late. It was left to an out-of-towner, an investigator called Sokolov, to scavenge for meagre clues at The Four Brothers nearby and discover trampled into the mud near the ash of a bonfire, a handful of precious stones — rare topaz with a heart of flame, impossible to destroy, overlooked in the dark by less scrupulous eyes.
And perhaps, just perhaps — as he walked along the twisted path that led back to the meadow, this wasn’t really the end of it.
July 17th, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the murder of the Romanov family and their loyal servants, by Bolshevik henchmen in Ekaterinburg, Siberia.
The Ipatiev House became the local Communist party HQ after World War II, and was eventually listed as a Revolutionary Monument in 1974. However, less than three years later it was razed to the ground on the orders of the politburo, shortly before the sixtieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a church commemorating the ‘Romanov Holy Martyrs’ was erected on the site.
Note: The only survivor of the massacre turned out to be Joy, Alexei’s spaniel, who was rescued a week later by Colonel Pavel (Paul) Rodzianko of the British Expeditionary Force in Siberia, after the arrival of the Czech forces. Joy was taken to the British Mission at Omsk and from there to Vladivostock, where he sailed to England with his new master, spending the remainder of his dog years in relative comfort at Sefton Lawn, not far from Windsor Castle. Joy had managed to take the very escape route denied the Romanov family in 1917.