It’s nighttime on July 17, 1918, and the Romanov family are cowering in their basement. They’ve just been sentenced to death, and a group of soldiers are stood before them. Bullets spray across the room, and smoke soon chokes the air. But Maria Romanov, a young woman who’s not even out of her teens, hasn’t been hurt. So she sneaks toward the back doors, desperate to escape – when a gunman looks straight at her.
Before we find out exactly what happened, though, let’s first take a look at Maria’s childhood. She was born on June 14, 1899, to parents Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and Tsar Nicholas II – the Slavic equivalent of an emperor. And when Maria came into the world, she already had two older sisters: Tatiana and Olga. Two years later, another girl, Anastasia, joined the imperial brood, followed by Alexei in 1904 – Maria’s only brother.
And as the daughter of a Tsar, Maria was officially called a Velikaya Knyazhna. Yet although the title is most commonly referred to in English as “Grand Duchess,” it’s actually closer to a “Grand Princess.” Therefore, the young girl and her sisters enjoyed a superior status to other European royals’ daughters. These other princesses were known as “Royal Highnesses” – whereas Maria was technically of a grander imperial rank.
Yet although she boasted an impressive title, Maria’s formative years were nowhere near as grandiose. You see, as far as was possible the Tsar and his wife wanted their offspring to enjoy normal childhoods. To that end, then, even their staff were encouraged to do away with honorifics. They instead called the royal girl “Maria Nikolaevna,” or used her Slavic moniker, “Mashka.” She didn’t have her own room, either, and instead slept in the same chamber as Anastasia.
And this night-time proximity was perhaps one of the reasons why the siblings grew so close. Indeed, family members lovingly referred to the two girls as “The Little Pair,” whereas Olga and Tatiana, the older sisters, were called “The Big Pair.” And by all accounts, the grand duchesses got along well together as a foursome, too. They even occasionally scrawled “OTMA” at the bottom of notes – an acronym of their given names.
Yet Maria seemed to be something of the black sheep of the family. You see, the grand duchess was a particularly sweet-natured child, whereas her sisters were far more rambunctious. She often found herself apologizing for Anastasia’s unpleasant actions, for example, and the older girls once called Maria their “stepsister.” According to the girls’ governess, Margaretta Eagar, Olga and Tatiana simply thought that Maria was simply too well-behaved to be their sibling.
On one occasion, though, Maria proved that she certainly was related to her sisters. That was when the grand duchess pilfered a number of her mom’s cookies. The Tsarina and Maria’s nanny both thought that some punishment was in order. Her father intervened, though, and said, “I was always afraid of the [angel’s] wings growing. I am glad to see that she is only a human child.”
According to Eagar, Maria worshipped her father. The nanny reported, for instance, that the young grand duchess regularly attempted to leave her playroom in search of “Papa.” And after Nicholas was stricken with typhoid, his middle daughter came up with a sweet nightly ritual: every evening, she would smother a small picture of the Tsar with kisses.
Maria also had a surprising secret talent: remarkable physical strength – and a penchant for weight lifting ran in the family. Her grandfather, Tsar Alexander III, had also been impressively strong. During the 1888 Borki train disaster, for instance, he had supposedly borne the weight of a locomotive carriage’s fallen roof so that his loved ones could flee to safety. Rather than tackling a train, though, the grand duchess contented herself with occasionally picking up her teachers.
However, her aptitude for weight lifting was apparently belied by her appearance. As a small child, in fact, Maria was regularly likened to the iconic angels painted by the Italian artist Botticelli. Growing up, too, the grand duchess remained pretty as a picture, with brunette locks and flushed cheeks. It was her bright blue eyes, though, that were particularly beguiling – her family often called them “Marie’s saucers.”
And it seems that Maria turned her “saucers” on a certain group more than most. From a young age, you see, the grand duchess was besotted with soldiers. Once, while watching an army unit, she confessed to Eagar, “I love these dear soldiers. I should like to kiss them all!” The nanny apparently then chastised her young charge by saying, “Marie, nice little girls don’t kiss soldiers.”
Eagar’s admonishment notwithstanding, Maria continued to be fascinated by soldiers, and she even harbored romantic feelings for a number of them. Indeed, the grand duchess once discussed her desire to become a trooper’s wife and bear many children – if she hadn’t been born into Russian royalty, of course. But if Maria had lived long enough to fulfill this wish, it’s possible that her children could have been afflicted by a curious, and dangerous, medical condition.
You see, hemophilia ran in Maria’s family, and it affected her brother as well as other relatives. And while Maria didn’t suffer from the condition herself, any children that she bore might have inherited it from her genetic code. As sufferers of this affliction, their blood wouldn’t have clotted properly, meaning that a minor scrape could result in significant bleeding. They would also have been more susceptible to bleeding in the brain.
Maria’s brother, Alexei, proved that living with hemophilia was no easy feat. The boy was often seriously ill as a result of the disorder, in fact, and came close to death on several occasions. As the next in line to the throne – or Tsarevich – his sickness was especially concerning for his parents. They were determined to help him, and so they turned to a bizarre holy man who claimed he could heal Alexei with his mystical powers: Grigori Rasputin.
Originally a peasant who hailed from Siberia, Rasputin styled himself as a mystic who was capable of curing the sick, among other supernatural feats. Alexandra and the rest of the family were wholly convinced by his claims, and in 1906 Rasputin started treating Alexei in earnest. Many Russians didn’t take kindly to the enigmatic figure, though, and some were no doubt opposed to his reputation for bawdy behavior.
The Romanov children didn’t seem to share the public’s antipathy towards Rasputin, however. The siblings were actually rather fond of him, in fact, at least according to Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, who was an aunt of Maria. “They were completely at ease with him,” she recalled, “All the children seemed to like him.”
And Maria herself seemed close with the monk, if their correspondence is anything to go by. For example, in a telegram sent in 1908, Rasputin wrote, “I miss your simple soul. We will see each other soon! A big kiss.” In a subsequent message, too, he continued to display affection towards the grand duchess, addressing her as “My Dear M! My Little Friend!”
Some Russians thought that the monk was actually far closer to the Tsarina and the grand duchesses than was appropriate, however. Nonetheless, the available evidence indicates that his relationship with the children never extended beyond friendship. It’s unsurprising that people bought into the rumor, though, as Rasputin himself circulated passionate letters addressed to him that were supposedly penned by Alexandra and her daughters.
But this was only one of the reasons why the Romanovs found themselves at the center of a devastating political fallout – Maria included. You see, public opinion of Nicholas’ administration had been souring for a while. Prompted in part by military misadventures, especially Russian forces’ continued participation in World War One, various factors had given rise to an outpouring of dissatisfaction. Something had to give – and in February 1917, it did.
Yes, in the spring of 1917 Russia was rocked by the first of two revolutions that would overhaul the country’s leadership that year. Nicholas formally relinquished his power on March 15, and the unbending absolutism of the Tsar was followed by a temporary government. But what was to happen to the former ruler and his family? Indeed, would there even be a place for them in this bright new world at all?
It seems that revolution wasn’t at the forefront of Maria’s mind, though. That’s because, while the tumultuous events were reaching their crescendo, the family were battling measles. She was the last of the children to succumb and when Maria also contracted pneumonia, she came close to death. Those around the grand duchess feared for her health so much, in fact, that no one told her that Nicholas had given up his title until her recovery was assured.
Following Nicholas’ abdication, then, the Romanovs were taken into custody. Their palatial former home in Tsarskoye Selo – a settlement close to Saint Petersburg – subsequently became their prison. Maria seemed to adjust well to life as a jailbird, though, and quickly ingratiated herself with the guards. In time, the family were moved almost 2,000 east to the town of Tobolsk. The grand duchess even said that she wouldn’t mind staying there for good – if she could take unchaperoned walks, that is.
Yet it was not to be. Maria and the Romanovs were moved again – this time further east to the revolutionary city of Yekaterinburg. Their new jail, the stately Ipatiev House, had been converted in readiness for their stay with the construction of a tall barrier that encircled the compound. Indeed, the family’s only contact with the outside world would be through the garden that they were allowed to take their exercise in.
Maria was the first of the children to settle into Yekaterinburg, as she was selected to travel there with her parents in April 1918. Her siblings had to stay behind, however, owing to the Tsarevich’s poor health. Nevertheless, in a few short weeks they were reunited – but would any of them ever leave Ipatiev House alive again?
While Maria had been given more time than her siblings to become acquainted with her surroundings, she seemingly didn’t take easily to life in Yekaterinburg. Around a month after she’d moved in, in fact, the grand duchess wrote, “Oh, how complicated everything is now! We lived so peacefully for eight months, and now it’s all started again.” But she did manage to find one salacious way to distract herself from the family’s predicament.
As at her previous residences, Maria tried to befriend her captors. And her efforts didn’t go unnoticed, either by the men themselves or Alexandra. Indeed, the Tsarina regularly admonished her daughter for her amiable demeanor. There was one particular guard called Ivan Skorokhodov, however, who really took a shine to the girl – and it was reciprocated. After he sneaked in a birthday cake for her, in fact, the two were later found between the sheets by Skorokhodov’s commanding officers.
Despite her misgivings, though, when Maria awoke on July 16, 1918 – two months after she’d first moved to Yekaterinburg – she likely had no reason to fear that it would be for the last time. The day proceeded as any other, by all accounts, with the family enjoying an afternoon walk around the garden. Indeed, the first hint that something was amiss didn’t come until dinnertime, when the chief guard, Yakov Yurovksy, delivered a curious message.
Yurovsky told the family that Leonid Sedniv, their kitchen dogsbody and a friend of Alexei, had to leave the property immediately. The 14-year-old was actually the latest of a string of attendants who had left Ipatiev House earlier that day – for reasons that were still unknown to the Romanovs. When they finally found out the truth, though, it would be far too late.
Hours after darkness had fallen, Maria and her family were woken up and greeted with some worrying news: there was trouble in the city, apparently, and they needed to hide in the basement as a result. So down they went, bringing cushions and one of their spaniels as well as other assorted items. During the journey, Nicholas apparently assured everybody that they were “going to get out of this place.” His promise came true – but none of them were alive to see it.
When the family first entered the cellar, Yurovsky did something peculiar. You see, the former photographer began treating the Romanovs like they were about to have their picture taken. He motioned Alexandra and Alexei to the two seats and asked the rest of the family and their staff to stand behind them. They remained like this, motionless, for around 30 minutes, until the head guard returned – and delivered a devastating order.
Yes, Yorovsky announced that Maria and her family were to be executed – immediately. Almost as soon as he had finished speaking, in fact, the guards opened fire. Maria’s mother and father were killed almost instantly, but the grand duchess herself emerged unscathed from the first round of bullets. She tried in vain to open the basement’s rear doors – but then one of the gunmen cottoned on to her plan.
Peter Ermakov, a military official who had apparently consumed a great deal of alcohol that day, then turned his gun on Maria. Despite the smoke that clouded the air, his shot rang true: the bullet sliced into her upper leg. The grand duchess consequently collapsed on the ground alongside Anastasia. But instead of killing her, Ermakov and the other shooters exited the room for a few minutes. Upon their return, however, the vapors were gone – and Maria was doomed.
The inebriated soldier lurched towards the Little Pair, no doubt determined to finish them off. Rather than shoot Maria again, though, he instead attempted to kill her with his bayonet. But the blade couldn’t penetrate her jeweled garments. Frustrated, Ermakov apparently aimed his gun at the grand duchess’ head before pulling the trigger.
And although the gunman later claimed he’d successfully shot Maria in the head, the girl apparently woke up and started screaming when the bodies were being taken from the basement. The bullet hadn’t quite hit the mark, it seems, and so Ermakov again picked up his bayonet. But he still couldn’t pierce the grand duchess’ clothing, so the soldier rained heavy blows down on her head until she grew quiet.
It’s believed, then, that these blows were what killed Maria – but no one really knows for sure. Although the skull that’s believed to be Maria’s is missing a portion of its face, Yurovsky offered a different account of what happened. The head guard wrote that the heads of all of the Romanovs had subsequently been smashed up prior to burial, so their facial features had been destroyed in the process.
Moreover, experts still aren’t totally sure about which skeleton is even Maria’s. In 1991, you see, archaeologists ventured into the woodland beyond Yekaterinburg’s city limits and dug up a number of human bones. The remains had been interred together in one large grave and were subsequently identified as the Romanovs’ and their attendants’ through DNA testing. But there was a problem – rather than finding all 11 victims’ skeletons, there were only nine bodies in the grave. So who was missing?
As it turned out, international experts had very different ideas. An American forensic specialist, Dr. William Maples, for example, was convinced that the skeletons of the Tsarevich and Anastasia were missing. The Russians had a different view, though, and used computer software to ascertain that Maria’s remains still hadn’t been found. Even when archaeologists returned to Yekaterinburg in 2007 and found the two missing bodies, though, it’s still not known for sure which skeleton is which.
Moreover, until the skeletons were uncovered, a number of people refused to believe that the grand duchess had died at all. Over the years, several individuals have, in fact, purported to be Romanovs who’d survived the massacre. In 1919, for instance, two women insisted that they were the Little Pair. Rather than seeking to regain their power, though, the duo retreated to the Ural Mountains and became nuns. And when they died in 1964, the women were entombed as Maria and Anastasia Nikolaevna.
And rather than declaring that they themselves were the grand duchess, others were adamant that they were Maria’s descendants. Alex Brimeyer, for instance, alleged that the grand duchess was his grandmother. According to him, Maria hadn’t been executed at all. Instead, she’d fled to Romania and then began a family there – resulting in “Prince Alexis.” The Belgian justice system didn’t take kindly to Brimeyer’s story, though, and the man actually served a year and a half of jail time for his claims.
But whatever exactly happened to the grand duchess, the Russian Orthodox Church felt that she and the rest of her family were worthy of special commemoration. So in 2000 the leaders of the church immortalized Maria and the executed Romanovs as passion bearers – meaning somebody who dealt with their impending demise in a way that emulated Jesus Christ. Seemingly, then, Russia’s attitude to its former rulers has come full-circle – they’re revered once more.