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In March 1917, he was forced to abdicate the throne. He and his family—wife Alexandra, and children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei—were held in Tsarskoe Selo, an imperial residence south of Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg).
Meanwhile, the provisional government created after Nicholas’ abdication was under threat from the Bolshevik party, a militant socialist party led Vladimir Lenin. For their protection, the royal family was exiled to Tobolsk, the capital of Siberia, in August 1917.
The Bolsheviks wrested control of the country away from the provisional government in November 1917. On March 3, 1918, the Bolshevik government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a harsh peace treaty with the Central Powers. The treaty ignited opposition to the Bolsheviks and marked the violent beginning of the Russian Civil War.
The royal family was again moved in April 1918, this time to Ekaterinburg, a city in the Ural mountain region. There they were imprisoned in the house of local merchant N.N. Ipatiev and guarded by Bolshevik forces.
“The imprisonment which now began was far different in character and severity from the preceding periods,” wrote Edmund Walsh in the March 1928 edition of the Atlantic. “Brutality replaced respect: the thirst for vengeance became increasingly apparent in the attitude of the jailers.”
In mid-July, the anti-Bolshevik White Army was nearing Ekaterinburg; the “arrival of their potential liberators sealed the fate of the Tsar and his family,” according to EyeWitness to History. Shortly after midnight on the night of July 16, the Bolshevik guards woke up the family and took them to a basement, along with their physician, a cook and two servants.
“Twelve revolvers bellowed thunder and spat tongues of fire; the hollow chamber, reverberating with the explosions, filled up with smoke and acrid fumes,” wrote Walsh. “As dawn began to streak the sky, twelve persons came out, leaving eleven corpses safely within, lying in pools of blood that spread in widening circles out into the corridor.”
Background: Czar Nicholas’ Reign and Abdication
Czar Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894, taking over a country with a deep divide between the nobility and the peasants. He believed that only a strong central monarchy could control the massive, multi-ethnic country, and resisted calls for a more liberal, democratic government.
His reign was marked by constant conflict with the lower class; resentment towards the monarchy began soon after his formal coronation in 1896, when hundreds of thousands of people rushing to receive free food and drink created a deadly stampede. With about 2,000 dead, Nicholas and wife Alexandra attended a ball, “giving the impression that they had a distinct lack of concern for their subjects,” according to Romanov-Memorial.com.
Nicholas was an ineffective leader both in domestic matters and in foreign policy. In 1904, he engaged in war with Japan in Southern Manchuria. The Russian Army suffered a string of comprehensive defeats and Nicholas was forced to surrender in September 1905.
As Russia was humiliatingly defeated in battle after battle, domestic opposition to the monarchy increased. In January 1905, striking workers marching to the czar’s Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg were gunned down by palace guards. More than 100 unarmed demonstrators were killed in an event known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The rest of the year was marked by a series of strikes, student demonstrations, terrorist acts and other domestic disruptions. In response to what became known as the Russian Revolution of 1905, Nicholas was forced to allow the creation of a legislative body, the Duma, in October 1905.
The measures quieted opposition somewhat, but Nicholas remained unpopular. In 1914, Russia entered World War I against Germany and Austria; after several defeats, Nicholas took control of the army in 1915. Russia continued to suffer heavy losses on the battlefield, and, with many resources dedicated to the war effort, it could not feed its own people.
In March 1917, in the midst of a bitterly cold winter and widespread food shortages, demonstrations became so large that they could not be contained. Some soldiers and several high-ranking officers joined the demonstrators, signaling that Nicholas’ reign had become untenable. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne.
In a particularly odd case, a Polish woman named Franziska Schanzkowska claimed to be Anna Anderson, the czar’s daughter Anastasia. A mentally unstable factory worker, “Anderson” declared herself “the Grand Duchess Anastasia” while undergoing treatment at Dalldorf Asylum in Germany after a failed suicide attempt. Schanzkowska died in 1984; her story was later proven false by DNA testing.
Although most of the Romanov family’s bones were uncovered in 1979, the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughter, Marie, and their 13-year-old son, Alexei, remained missing. In early 2008, DNA tests confirmed that fragments of bone found near Ekaterinburg in December 2007 belonged to the two missing children, closing the Romanov case for good.