akov Mikhailovich Yurovsky was born on June 19, 1878, in the Siberian city of Tomsk, the eighth of ten children. The family was solidly working class, with bourgeois values and traditional dedication to home life; to the Orthodox Church; and especially to the Romanov Dynasty. Yurovsky's father Michael worked as a glazier, while his wife worked as a seamstress from their home. Both were industrious. Yakov Yurovsky later wrote that his parents "worked to the point of exhaustion."
Right: Yurovsky in later life when he was one of Stalin's henchmen.
With ten children to feed and clothe, money was tight and luxuries were nonexistent. Yet the family was not impoverished. Unlike most families in Tomsk, the Yurovskys had two houses. From June to February they lived in a wooden dacha along the banks of the wide, flat Ob River, on the outskirts of the city. When the spring thaw brought melting snow and the river overflowed, they retreated to a small, first-floor apartment they kept in the center of town; situated above a butcher shop, this was small and cramped and, as Yurovsky recalled, filled with the smell of blood and boiling meat from the shop below.
Michael Yurovsky was deeply religious. "On holidays and regular days the children were forced to pray," Yakov Yurovsky wrote, "and it is not surprising that my first active protest was against religious and nationalist traditions." Before he was ten, as Yurovsky later recalled, he would often sit in the courtyard of their dacha, "thinking what a difficult life it was in this world. At the time I thought it possible that one could go to the Emperor and tell him how hard our lives were. But of course we would then have been told that such hardships were sent from Heaven." It was an answer reinforced by his mother. When the boy asked why their lives should be hard while those of others were easy, she replied simply: "Because God wills it." Early on, Yakov Yurovsky keenly felt the inequity of his family's situation. He repeatedly questioned why his parents were forced to work so hard, and why they had so little. "I used to sit alone," he later wrote, "and think to myself, It would be great if I had money. I would not keep it all to myself and I would give lots of things to others who had nothing." Even as a boy, he felt trapped. "Tomsk was a backwater in the far reaches of the Empire," he remembered. "From the time of my birth, my place in life was settled as a worker, just as it had been for my father. There was no escape."
At the age of six, Yurovsky was enrolled in the River District Grammar School, though in 1890 his father forced him to quit to pursue a trade. Although the boy wanted to continue his education, his father, he recalled, "was very severe and would not allow any contrary points of view from his children." He was apprenticed to the town's best watchmaker, working sixty hours a week from the time he was twelve to the age of twenty-two.
It is one of the ironies of history that, in 1891, thirteen-year-old Yakov Yurovsky joined the people of Tomsk in welcoming the future Nicholas II to their city. On July 5, 1891, Tsesarevich Nicholas-returning across Siberia from his Far Eastern tour-arrived in Tomsk to the welcome of church bells and a cheering crowd waving miniature Russian flags. Standing in the doorway of the watch repair shop where he worked, Yakov Yurovsky watched as the Tsesarevich sped past him along Post Office Street in a brightly painted troika, and followed the crowd to the Governor's House, where Nicholas appeared on the balcony. "I remember how handsome the heir was," Yurovsky wrote many years later, "with his little, neat brown beard." He, too, cheered his future Emperor as Nicholas "nodded and waved to us."
This encounter seems to have been a highlight for the Yakov Yurovsky: in his unpublished memoirs he devoted more space to its telling than to any other incident of his childhood or youth. He had been raised in a household where Nicholas I was revered, and the family often passed evenings around the dinner table discussing the merits of the Romanov Dynasty. Yurovsky, in fact, later caused an intense and violent argument with his father when he protested that it was Alexander II who deserved the glory for his reforms; after the altercation, he ran away, refusing to return home for two days. When he did so, it was as a headstrong young man: "Times had changed, and this was a different era," he recalled. His early enthusiasm for Tsesarevich Nicholas soon changed to hatred: the Emperor, he later declared, was "a fiend, a bloodsucker, a killer. And finally I came to yet another understanding: that everything was made by the hands of workers and peasants, and that the Emperor was dependent on us." With a chilling presentiment, he concluded: "We controlled their destinies."
In 1897, the nineteen-year-old Yurovsky led the first workers' strike Tomsk had ever seen. Arrested, he served only a few months in prison, but on his release he found that he was no longer welcome at his old job in the watchmaker's shop on Post Office Street, or at any other watch or jewelry shop in the city. His participation in the strike marked him as an outcast in the city, and a revolutionary in the eyes of the Imperial regime. He wandered across Siberia, eventually settling in Ekaterinburg shortly after the turn of the century. Here, he found a position at a jeweler's shop and met his future wife, whom he married in a 1904 in a traditional Orthodox ceremony. Then came the 1905 Revolution, an event that had a profound effect on the burgeoning revolutionary. His ideology was one of idealism, not yet infused by war and revolution. The birth of his children only heightened his sense of injustice. "My children," he later wrote, "deserved a life different from the one I was forced to live, a life of freedom and hope." Such sentiments led him to join the Bolshevik Party in 1905. Eventually Yurovsky took his family and fled to Europe, where he lived in Berlin. During this time, he converted to the Lutheran Church, a mysterious move that remains unexplained. His religious attitudes remained ambivalent, as they did with many born into the Russian Orthodox Church who later turned to revolution. In a letter to his children written shortly before his death, he railed against religion, echoing the official Soviet line. Yet just three days before he shot the Imperial Family, he commented to a visiting priest, "It is important that one must pray, and one must save one's soul." It remains-like the man himself-an historical enigma.
Yurovsky was back in Russia in 1912, working in the underground Bolshevik movement when Okhrana agents arrested him; the evidence against him, however, was minimal, and he was simply exiled to Ekaterinburg, where he set up his own photographic studio. In 1915 he was drafted into the Russian Army; rather than join the ranks of ordinary soldiers, he signed up for medical training and was assigned to the 198th Perm Infantry Regiment as a field hospital orderly. He took part in the disastrous Carpathian campaign, one of the most bloody and destructive misadventures in the War. The carnage hardened Yurovsky. "He lost his decency in the Army," remembered one man who knew him well. With the outbreak of the February Revolution, he deserted the Army, returning to Ekaterinburg where in the fall of 1917 he became one of the founding members of the Ural Regional Soviet. He was appointed Deputy Regional Commissar of Justice, and joined the Regional Cheka.
Yurovsky turned forty just two weeks before he was appointed Commandant of the Ipatiev House. A tall, sturdy man, with dark hair and eyes, he sported a small, neatly trimmed beard and habitually wore a pair of pince-nez eyeglasses. At the time of the murders, he shared a small apartment with his wife, two sons, daughter, and widowed mother. He cut a wide swath through the city, friendly with some and reviled by others. Sister Agnes, Mistress of Novices at the city's Novotikhvinsky Convent, knew him well, and commented that he was "very intelligent and very active. He did not drink, not even wine. He did not make unnecessary conversation and he was close to no one." Her nuns, who regularly delivered provisions to the Ipatiev House, considered him "dangerous," and an unwelcome and ominous change from the generally agreeable Alexander Avdayev, whom he had replaced.
Yurovsky assumed his new post charged with two instructions: reorganization of the guards and security at the Ipatiev House, which had completely broken down under Avdayev, and ultimately to pave the way for the prisoners' execution. When he entered the Ipatiev House on July 4, 1918, he bore only a faint resemblance to the thirteen-year-old boy who had waved so enthusiastically at Tsesarevich Nicholas when he visited Tomsk in 1891, or even to the idealistic young man who in 1905 had joined the Bolshevik Party in an attempt to secure a better future for his children. Now the man who controlled the destiny of the Imperial Family was hardened by prison, exile, and war, determined - as he later wrote - "to settle the Revolution's score with the Imperial House for centuries of suffering."
The new Commandant of the House of Special Purpose instituted a new, harsher prison regime that would last for the remaining twelve days of the Imperial Family's captivity. He ordered that the prisoners hand over all of their jewelry, the first in a series of increasingly cold measures that signaled the ominous developments beyond the carefully guarded palisade surrounding the Ipatiev House. He curtailed deliveries of provisions from the nuns of the Novotikhvinsky Convent, though for the first time these baskets were handed over to the prisoners in their entirety, without first being pilfered by the guards; he even returned a leather case and watch to Nicholas that he had found in the guardroom-one of a number of items stolen from the Imperial Family's belongings in the storage shed. But he also installed new guard posts, ordered machine guns placed around the compound and, on Monday, July 8, he brought into the Ipatiev House a new squad of guards who now filled all of the interior posts: these men, culled from the nearby Verkh-Isetsk Factory, had all been personally selected by Yurovsky based on their willingness to execute the prisoners.
Yurovsky's impressions of the Imperial Family, formed over the twelve days of his tenure in the Ipatiev House, were surprising. Nicholas, he later wrote, "appeared to be an ordinary gentleman, simple, and I would say very much like a peasant soldier." The Empress made a less favorable impression. "She held herself especially proud," he recalled, noting, "it quickly became apparent that she came from a family where the women dominated the men." With his medical training, Yurovsky was curious about the Tsesarevich's condition, but when he asked about his illness, Dr. Eugene Botkin refused to discuss it. He deemed Tatiana "the most mature of the four girls," while he found Anastasia "very attractive," and "best adjusted to their position." After observing them, Yurovsky was conflicted. "It was impossible," he later wrote, "not to hate what the Imperial Family represented, and have bitterness for all the blood of the people spilled on their behalf. Yet even with these feelings, it was difficult for me to view them in this way. One could not find such simple, unassuming, and generally pleasant people. If I hadn't been given my charge, I would have had no reason to have anything against them after I got to know them. It made my position even more difficult." Yet if Yurovsky suffered any pangs of conscience he refused to let them interfere with what he saw as his revolutionary duty. He spent the second week of July attending urgent meetings of the Ural Regional Soviet as they argued their future course of action, and visiting the abandoned mines surrounding the city, searching for a suitable place to dispose of the bodies of the Imperial Family and those imprisoned with them.
On Tuesday, July 16, 1918, Yurovsky received his final orders. He interjected his own wishes only once, asking that the life of the kitchen boy Leonid Sednev be spared. "What reason is there to kill him?" he demanded of his comrades. "He was only a playmate for Alexei." After some arguing, Yurovsky managed to convince the members of the Ural Regional Soviet to accede to his request: at eight o'clock that night, he pulled the boy from the Ipatiev House dining room, saying that his uncle Ivan-who had in fact been executed six weeks earlier-wished to see him. Sednev happily gathered his things and left the prison, only six hours before the execution.
In the horror of that night, Yurovsky never wavered, ruthlessly leading his band of nine men in the murder of the Romanovs and their faithful retainers. Yurovsky had never before participated in a murder, much less the mass execution of innocent women and children, and he was clearly overwhelmed by the slaughter he instituted: within minutes of the end of the shooting, a guard found him in his study, collapsed on a sofa, a cold compress on his head. His hope that this was the end of his assignment was quickly shattered when he was forced-through the drunken ineptitude of Peter Ermakov-to take charge of the disposal of the bodies. For the next fifty hours, he struggled to bury the victims without success, until finally, on the morning of July 19, the truck carrying their bodies became irretrievably stuck in a meadow in the Koptyaki Forest. Only when the last shovel of earth and railway tie was thrown atop the common grave did Yurovsky's brutal two-week reign as Commandant of the House of Special Purpose come to an end.
In the aftermath of the execution, Yurovsky gathered his wife and children and fled to Moscow, where he worked for a time in the Kremlin, ironically cataloging the former jewels and personal possessions of the family he had killed. By 1920 he was back in Ekaterinburg, installed in a house whose windows looked across Voznesensky Prospekt to the Ipatiev House itself. Despite his leading role in the execution, Yurovsky found himself avoided and scorned, even by the most hardened revolutionaries. Fearful of vengeance, Yurovsky rarely left his house; when he did, he wore a long coat and a hat pulled low over his face to avoid recognition. A British officer who met him at the time recorded that, even within two years of the massacre, the man who had led the execution squad was filled with "remorse and horror" at having murdered the Imperial Family.
Yurovsky's stay in Ekaterinburg was brief, and he returned to Moscow where he took up a position in the newly created State Diamond Fund in the Kremlin. At the request of Soviet authorities, he wrote his famous 1920 Note, outlining the execution; a longer, personal memoir followed in 1922, and in 1927 he again returned to the murders in a short account that accompanied his gun when it was deposited in the Museum of the Revolution. He was to speak of the murder only once more, at a reunion of former members of the Ural Regional Soviet in 1934, held in the Ipatiev House itself. By this time, many of his former comrades had themselves fallen victim to Stalin's purges, and Yurovsky's own daughter was arrested and sent to a Soviet labor camp. Increasingly ill from heart trouble and an ulcer, Yakov Yurovsky spent his last days in a Kremlin hospital, haunted by the ghosts of his bloody past; to the end, recalled his son Alexander, Yurovsky continued to express great regret over his role in the murders. On August 2, 1938, Yakov Yurovsky died of a heart attack at the age of sixty. He is buried in the Novodievechy Cemetery outside Moscow.
Please send your comments on this page to the author - Greg King
Thirteen Years at
The Russian Court