Holy See

Letter #30, 2018: Russia’s tragedy

(Below, a photo of the Romanov family from 1913)

I am writing to invite you to join with me on a pilgrimage to the heart of Russia on one of the most solemn and historic of occasions. I propose to travel to the Ural mountains, the border between Europe and Asia, to the city of Ekaterinburg, on the 100th anniversary of a tragic event in that city: the execution of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei. That execution occurred on July 17, 1918. On July 17, 2018, exactly 100 years later, the Russian Orthodox Church will celebrate a solemn liturgy of remembrance in Ekaterinburg, which will remember the death of the Romanovs. I invite you to join me.” —Invitation to join a pilgrimage this July to Russia (see below)

There will be one purpose only: to stand as witnesses, to give testimony to our solidarity with all who are caught up in the violence of civil wars and revolutions, in a place — where the executions occurred — and at a time — exactly 100 years after the executions — which seem fitting… We do not wish to make any sort of political statement at all, in any form. We wish only to bear witness to our solidarity with all who suffer in the convulsions of civil war, especially children, but also the parents of children, who suffer great pangs of sorrow at the brutality that man is capable of visiting on other men, especially on the most innocent.” —From the invitation

Eleven Russians meet Pope Francis in Rome….

There was a little-noted event on Wednesday, May 23, in Rome — a small group of young Russian Orthodox men met briefly with Pope Francis.

At a time when Orthodoxy and Catholicism remain divided, at a time when the media in the West report ceaselessly on the evidently deepening political and military tensions between Russia and the West, this meeting was a sign of something different.

A sign of opening, or dialogue, of possible friendship, or possible collaboration… of possible peace between brother traditons and brother Churches. After all, the Orthodox trace their spiritual patrimony back to St. Andrew, the brother of… St. Peter…

The meeting was sponsored, in part, by the Foundation which we created in 2012 to try to bring the “two lungs” of Christianity into greater harmony — the “Urbi et Orbi” Foundation.

Here is a brief Osservatore Romano report on the meeting (link):


Vatican City

11 young Orthodox greet Pope Francis

The Osservatore Romano

This morning’s general audience was also an occasion to relaunch ecumenical dialogue: for the third consecutive year, in the framework of cultural exchanges between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow, eleven Orthodox youths led by Bishop Arsenij of Juriev greeted personally the Pope.

They are in Rome, from May 19 to 26, for a study visit that will allow them to get to know the Catholic Church closely.

“This initiative has a fraternal character of reciprocity and exchange, because the same type of visit is also carried out by Catholic priests who are welcomed in Moscow by Patriarch Kirill,” explains Fr. Hyacinthe Destivelle, official of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the unity of Christians.

(L’Osservatore Romano, 23-24 May 2018)

Meanwhile, in Moscow…

At the same time, also on Wednesday, May  23, in Moscow, there was a presentation of  a book byEmeritus Pope Benedict on  the liturgy by the “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church,Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, 51, known also for his musical compositions, including his moving The Passion According to St. Matthew.
Here is a notice of this presentation, translated from the French (link):

Presentation in Moscow of the Russian edition of Joseph Ratzinger’s book: “The Spirit of the Liturgy”

The book opens with a prefatory note signed by Metropolitan Hilarion: “I hope this book will not only contribute to open the minds of our contemporaries toward Catholicism, but will also help our own authors to solve some of the problems of Orthodox theology such as the anthropological aspects of the liturgy or the theological foundations of religious music.

“This book can nourish reflection on the questions concerning the life of the Church in the contemporary world, in a simple dialogue with the civil society and the culture.”

On 23 May, at the Library of Foreign Literature Mr. I. Rudimino (Moscow – 1 Nikolayamskaya Street) will be presented the Russian edition of The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger).

The Russian version of the book was published by the charitable fund St. Gregory the Theologian in 2017. This publication celebrates the 90th anniversary of the author [April 16, 2017].

The book will be presented by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, President of the Department of External Ecclesiastical Relations, andArchbishop Celestino Migliore, Apostolic Nuncio to the Russian Federation.

The book considers all aspects of liturgical life. In the German edition, the author writes: “The liturgy of the Church has been the focus of my life from my earliest years and, at the Faculty of Theology, the center of my research.”

A Pilgrimage to Ekaterinburg

Friday, May 18, 2018

Dear Friend,

I am writing to invite you to join with me on a pilgrimage to the heart of Russia on one of the most solemn and historic of occasions.

I propose to travel to the Ural mountains, the border between Europe and Asia, to the city of Ekaterinburg, on the 100th anniversary of a tragic event in that city: the execution of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.

That execution occurred on July 17, 1918.

On July 17, 2018, exactly 100 years later, the Russian Orthodox Church will celebrate a solemn liturgy of remembrance in Ekaterinburg, which will remember the death of the Romanovs.

There will be one purpose only: to stand as witnesses, to give testimony to our solidarity with all who are caught up in the violence of civil wars and revolutions, in a place — where the executions occurred — and at a time — exactly 100 years after the executions — which seem fitting.

We do not intend to support monarchy as a form of government, or to support any claim of any branch of the Romanov family to rule Russia.

We do not wish to make any sort of political statement at all, in any form. We wish only to bear witness to our solidarity with all who suffer in the convulsions of civil war, especially children, but also the parents of children, who suffer great pangs of sorrow at the brutality that man is capable of visiting on other men, especially on the most innocent.

It will be a long journey, perhaps a tiring journey. But we have been assured that the journey will be safe, that there will be old friends who will meet us and guide us when we arrive in Ekaterinburg, that we will be welcomed as respected guests, and that we will be received with honor as representatives of the Urbi et Orbi Foundation, as Roman Catholics, as friends of the Russian people and of the Russian Orthodox Church.

After Ekaterinburg we will spend four full days in Moscow, where we will have special meetings, and then fly to Rome, where we will stay near or inside Vatican City, for four more nights. (This final portion of the trip is optional, but we strongly encourage our pilgrims to make this journey with us to the Eternal City, where we will report back to Vatican officials on what we have seen and heard in Russia.)

This pilgrimage will be “historic” in the highest sense of the term: a pilgrimage to a place of great historical tragedy, on the 17th of July, 2018, on the 100th anniversary of the execution. Each of us will be able afterwards to say “I was present, to remember and to commemorate, on that anniversary.”

And, in the current American-Russian impasse, it might help that some Americans show their concern for Russia’s past, and Russia’s suffering, in this way.

One important note: to travel to Russia, you must receive a Visa to enter the country. We will help you obtain the Visa, but it must be done during the month of June, and it will take about one week’s time, so we must have your decision about the trip by June 15, no later — and much better if considerably earlier.

So the deadline for a decision on this trip is June 15, just four weeks away. If you are interested, please write to me by return email.

Below is a proposed schedule for this trip. We do not yet know the price, but air fare, lodging and meals will amount to several thousand dollars.

We will of course help with all details, from obtaining the visa to reserving all airplane tickets.

We look forward to having you join with us on this extraordinary, very special journey to Russia and Rome.

My very best wishes,

—Dr. Robert Moynihan

P.S. Here is the schedule we propose:

July 14 (Saturday) and July 15 (Sunday) — fly from America via Moscow to Ekaterinburg (overnight flight)

July 16 — rest and orientation (overnight July 16 in Ekaterinburg)

July 17 — Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Byzantine Rite for the Commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra and their five children (overnight July 17 in Ekaterinburg)

July 18 — meeting and visits in Ekaterinburg; commemoration of the execution of Grand Duchess Elzabeth, sister of Alexandra, killed on July 18, 1918 (overnight July 18 in Ekaterinburg)

July 19 — fly to Moscow; meetings in Moscow (overnight, July 19 in Moscow)

July 20-23 (FridaySaturdaySundayMonday) — 2nd, 3rd and 4th days in Moscow, special meetings, visits with Russian believers, both Catholic and Orthodox

July 23 — fly from Moscow to Rome (overnight in Rome, near or inside Vatican City)

July 24-26 — meetings inside the Vatican (overnight in Rome)

July 27 — end of pilgrimage, depart Rome for home

AddendumHere is an account of those 100-year-past events:

Execution of the Romanov family
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Russian Imperial Romanov family (Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and their five children OlgaTatianaMariaAnastasia, andAlexei) and all those who chose to accompany them into imprisonment—notably Eugene BotkinAnna DemidovaAlexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitonov — were shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death in Yekaterinburg on the night of 16-17 July 1918.

The Tsar and his family were killed by Bolshevik troops led by Yakov Yurovsky under the orders of the Ural Regional Soviet and according to instructions by LeninYakov Sverdlov and Felix Dzerzhinsky.

Their bodies were then stripped, mutilated, burned and disposed of in a field called Porosenkov Log in the Koptyaki forest.


The House of Special Purpose

The imperial family was kept in strict isolation at the Ipatiev House. They were strictly forbidden to speak any language other than Russian. They were not permitted access to their luggage, which was stored in an outhouse in the interior courtyard. Their brownie cameras and photographic equipment were confiscated. The servants were ordered to address the Romanovs only by their names and patronymics.


The windows in all the family’s rooms were sealed shut and covered with newspapers (later painted with whitewash on 15 May). The family’s only source of ventilation was a fortochka in the grand duchesses’ bedroom, but peeking out of it was strictly forbidden; in May a sentry fired a shot at Anastasia when she peeked out. After repeated requests, one of the two windows in the tsar and tsarina’s corner bedroom was unsealed on 23 June 1918. However, the guards were ordered to increase their surveillance accordingly and the prisoners were warned not to look out the window or attempt to signal anyone outside, on pain of being shot.

From this window, they could only see the spire of the Voznesensky Cathedral located across the road from the house. An iron grille was installed on 11 July after Alexandra ignored repeated warnings from Yurovsky not to stand too close to the open window.


To maintain a sense of normality…

To maintain a sense of normality, the Bolsheviks assured the Romanovs on 13 July 1918 that two of their loyal servants, Klementy Nagorny (Alexei’s sailor nanny) and Ivan Sednev (OTMA’s footman; Leonid Sednev’s uncle), “had been sent out of this government” (i.e. out of the jurisdiction of Ekaterinburg and Perm province). However, both men were already dead. After the Bolsheviks removed them from the Ipatiev House in May, they were shot by the Cheka with a group of other hostages on 6 July in reprisal for the death of a local Bolshevik hero who was killed by the Whites.

On 14 July, a priest and deacon conducted a liturgy for the Romanovs. The following morning, four housemaids were hired to wash the floors of the Popov House and Ipatiev House; they were the last civilians to see the family alive. On both occasions they were under strict instructions not to engage in conversation of any kind to the family.

Yurovsky always kept watch during the liturgy and while the housemaids were cleaning the bedrooms with the family.


The Romanovs were being held by the Red Army in Yekaterinburg, since Bolsheviks initially wanted to put them on trial. As the civil war continued and the White Army (a loose alliance of anti-Communist forces) was threatening to capture the city, the fear was that the Romanovs would fall into White hands.

This was unacceptable to the Bolsheviks for two reasons: first, the tsar or any of his family members could provide a beacon to rally support to the White cause; second, the tsar, or any of his family members if the tsar were dead, would be considered the legitimate ruler of Russia by the other European nations. This would have meant the ability to negotiate for greater foreign intervention on behalf of the Whites. Soon after the family was executed, the city fell to the White Army.

In mid-July 1918, forces of the Czechoslovak Legion were closing on Yekaterinburg, to protect the Trans-Siberian Railway, of which they had control. According to historian David Bullock, the Bolsheviks falsely believed that the Czechoslovaks were on a mission to rescue the family, panicked and executed their wards.

The Legions arrived less than a week later and on 25 July captured the city.


Planning for the execution

The Ural Regional Soviet agreed in a meeting on 29 June that the Romanov family should be executed. Filipp Goloshchyokin arrived in Moscow on 3 July with a message insisting on the Tsar’s execution. Only seven of the 23 members of the Central Executive Committee were in attendance, three of whom were Lenin, Sverdlov and Felix Dzerzhinsky. It was agreed that the presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet should organize the practical details for the family’s execution and decide the precise day on which it would take place when the military situation dictated it, contacting Moscow for final approval.


On 14 July, Yurovsky was finalizing the disposal site and how to destroy as much evidence as possible at the same time. He was frequently in consultation with Peter Ermakov, who was in charge of the disposal squad and claimed to know the outlying countryside, to which Yurovsky placed his trust in him. Yurovsky wanted to gather the family and servants in a closely confined space from which they could not escape. The basement room chosen for this purpose had a barred window which was nailed shut to muffle the sound of shooting and in case of any screaming. Shooting and stabbing them at night while they slept or killing them in the forest and then dumping them into the Iset pond with lumps of metal weighted to their bodies were ruled out. Yurovsky’s plan was to perform an efficient execution of all 11 prisoners simultaneously, though he also took into account that he would have to prevent those involved from raping the women or searching the bodies for jewels. Having previously seized some jewellery, he suspected more were hidden in their clothes; the bodies were stripped naked in order to obtain the rest (this, along with the mutilations were aimed at preventing investigators from identifying them).

On 16 July, Yurovsky was informed by the Ural Soviets that Red Army contingents were retreating in all directions and the executions could not be delayed any longer. A coded telegram seeking final approval was sent by Goloshchyokin and Georgy Safarov at around  to Lenin in Moscow.

There is no documentary record of an answer from Moscow, although Yurovsky insisted that an order from the CEC to go ahead had been passed on to him by Goloshchyokin at around 


Yurovsky and Pavel Medvedev collected 14 handguns to use that night, comprising two Browning pistols, two American Colts, two 7.65 Mausers, one Smith & Wesson and seven Belgian-made Nagants. The Nagant operated on old black gunpowder which produced a good deal of smoke and fumes; smokeless powder was only just being phased in.

In the commandant’s office, Yurovsky assigned victims to each killer before distributing the handguns. He took a Mauser and Colt while Ermakov armed himself with three Nagants, one Mauser and a bayonet; he was the only one assigned to kill two prisoners, Alexandra and Botkin. He instructed his men to “shoot straight at the heart to avoid an excessive quantity of blood and get it over quickly.”



While the Romanovs were having dinner on 16 July, Yurovsky entered the sitting room and informed them that the kitchen boy Leonid Sednev was leaving to meet his uncle Ivan Sednev, who had returned to the city asking to see him; Ivan had already been shot by the Cheka. The family was very upset as Leonid was Alexei’s only playmate and he was the fifth member of the imperial entourage to be taken from them, but they were assured by Yurovsky that he would be back soon. Alexandra did not trust him, writing in her final diary entry just hours before her death, “whether its [sic] true & we shall see the boy back again!” Leonid was in fact kept in the Popov House that night. Yurovsky saw no reason to kill him and wanted him removed before the execution took place.

Around midnight 17 July 1918, Yakov Yurovsky, the commandant of The House of Special Purpose, ordered the Romanovs’ physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, to awaken the sleeping family and ask them to put on their clothes, under the pretext that the family would be moved to a safe location due to impending chaos in Yekaterinburg.

The Romanovs were then ordered into a 6 m × 5 m (20 ft × 16 ft) semi-basement room. Nicholas asked if Yurovsky could bring two chairs, on which Tsarevich Alexei and Alexandra sat.

Yurovsky’s assistant Grigory Nikulin remarked to him that the “heir wanted to die in a chair. Very well then, let him have one.”

The prisoners were told to wait in the cellar room while the truck that would transport them was being brought to the House. A few minutes later, an execution squad of secret police was brought in and Yurovsky read aloud the order given to him by the Ural Executive Committee: “Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”

Nicholas, facing his family, turned and said “What? What?”

Yurovsky quickly repeated the order and the weapons were raised. The Empress and Grand Duchess Olga, according to a guard’s reminiscence, had tried to bless themselves, but failed amid the shooting. Yurovsky reportedly raised his Colt gun at Nicholas’s torso and fired; Nicholas was the target of all of the assembled shooters, and he quickly fell dead, pierced by many bullets. The intoxicated Peter Ermakov, the military commissar for Verkh-Isetsk, shot and killed Alexandra with a bullet wound to the head. He then shot at Maria, who ran for the double doors, hitting her in the thigh.[95] The remaining executioners shot chaotically and over each other’s shoulders until the room was so filled with smoke and dust that no one could see anything at all in the darkness nor hear any commands amid the noise.

Alexey Kabanov, who ran out onto the street to check the noise levels, heard dogs barking from the Romanovs’ quarters and the sound of gunshots loud and clear despite the noise from the Fiat’s engine. Kabanov then hurried downstairs and told the men to stop firing and kill the family and their dogs with their gun butts and bayonets.

Within minutes, Yurovsky was forced to stop the shooting because of the caustic smoke of burned gunpowder, dust from the plaster ceiling caused by the reverberation of bullets, and the deafening gunshots. When they stopped, the doors were then opened to scatter the smoke.

While waiting for the smoke to abate, the killers could hear moans and whimpers inside the room. As it cleared, it became evident that although several of the family’s retainers had been killed, all of the Imperial children were alive and furthermore, only Maria was even injured.

The noise of the guns had been heard by households all around, and had awakened many people. The executioners were ordered to proceed with their bayonets, a technique which proved ineffective and meant that the children had to be dispatched by still more gunshots, this time aimed more precisely at their heads. The Tsarevich was the first of the children to be executed.

Yurovsky watched in disbelief as Nikulin spent an entire magazine from his Browning gun on Alexei, who was still seated transfixed in his chair; he also had jewels sewn into his undergarment and forage cap.

Ermakov shot and stabbed him, and when he failed, Yurovsky shoved him aside and killed the boy with a gunshot to the head.

The last to die were Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria, who were carrying a few pounds (over 1.3 kilograms) of diamonds sewn into their clothing, which had given them a degree of protection from the firing.

However, they were speared with bayonets as well. Olga sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Maria and Anastasia were said to have crouched up against a wall covering their heads in terror until they were shot down. Yurovsky himself killed Tatiana and Alexei. Tatiana died from a single bullet through the back of her head. Alexei received two bullets to the head, right behind the ear. Anna Demidova, Alexandra’s maid, survived the initial onslaught but was quickly stabbed to death against the back wall while trying to defend herself with a small pillow which she had carried that was filled with precious gems and jewels.

While the bodies were being placed on stretchers, one of the girls cried out and covered her face with her arm. Ermakov grabbed Alexander Strekotin’s rifle and bayoneted her in the chest, but when it failed to penetrate he pulled out his revolver and shot her in the head.

While Yurovsky was checking the victims for pulses, Ermakov went back and forth in the room, flailing the bodies with his bayonet. The execution lasted about 20 minutes, Yurovsky later admitting to Nikulin’s “poor mastery of his weapon and inevitable nerves.”

Future investigations calculated that a possible 70 bullets were fired, roughly seven bullets per shooter, of which 57 were found in the basement and at all three subsequent gravesites. Some of Pavel Medvedev’s stretcher bearers began frisking the bodies for valuables. Yurovsky saw this and demanded that they surrender any looted items or be shot. The attempted looting, coupled with Ermakov’s incompetence and drunken state, convinced Yurovsky to oversee the disposal of the bodies himself.

Only Alexei’s spaniel, Joy, survived to be rescued by a British officer of the Allied Intervention Force, living out his final days in Windsor, Berkshire.

Alexandre Beloborodov sent a coded telegram to Lenin’s secretary, Nikolai Gorbunov. It was found by White investigator Nikolai Sokolov and reads:

“Inform Sverdlov the whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die at the evacuation.”

After Ekaterinburg fell to the anti-communist White Army on 25 July, Admiral Alexander Kolchak established the Sokolov Commission at the end of that month to investigate the murders.


Soviet historiography portrayed Nicholas as a weak and incompetent leader whose decisions led to military defeats and the deaths of millions of his subjects, while Lenin’s reputation was protected at all costs, thus ensuring that no discredit was brought on him; responsibility for the ‘liquidation’ of the Romanov family was directed at the Ural Soviets and Ekaterinburg Cheka.


Over years 2000 to 2003 the Church of All Saints, Yekaterinburg was built on the site of Ipatiev House.On 1 October 2008, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that Nicholas II and his family were victims of political repression and rehabilitated them.
(The Church of All Saints in 2016, top left, where the Ipatiev House used to be. Voznesensky Cathedral is in the foreground, where a machine gun was mounted in the belfry aimed at the tsar and tsarina’s bedroom on the southeastern corner of the house)

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