Death of a dynasty: How the Romanovs met their end

On a July night 100 years ago, the family's rule of Russia came to a decisive, bloody end.

Revolution came to Russia in February 1917, and a month later Nicholas II, emperor and autocrat of all the Russias, abdicated his throne to become plain Nicholas Romanov. With revolution at home and catastrophic failure in the First World War abroad, the Romanov dynasty, which had celebrated its third century in power in 1913, came to a swift end. Bolshevik forces held the Romanov family as prisoners, moving from place to place until one bloody night in July 1918. The entire family was wiped out, victims to a fate that they refused to see coming. (Read more about Russia's chaotic year of revolution.)

Abdication could have been a relief for Nicholas, who took the throne in 1894 after the death of his father, Alexander III. Described as an unimaginative and limited man, he was suited neither by his abilities nor temperament to rule during such turbulent times. Chronically indecisive, Nicholas would put off issuing an order until the last minute and then simply repeat the most recent piece of advice he had been given. A joke making the rounds in St. Petersburg said that the two most powerful people in Russia were the tsar and whoever had spoken to him last. (See photos of St. Petersburg, Russia today.)

Nicholas was not a progressive overlord and firmly believed in his divine right to rule, a view his wife, Alexandra, shared. The ­Okhrana—his secret police, a terrible and murderous ­organization—operated with impunity.

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