Nicholas II and an unidentified man sawing wood during the captivity at Tobolsk.

The Romanovs’ Last Christmas: Tobolsk, 1917

by Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey

Fol­low­ing Tsar Nicholas’s abdi­ca­tion in March, he and his august fam­i­ly lived under house arrest in the Alexan­der Palace for the next five months. By mid-July, Alexan­der Keren­sky, then Head of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment, decid­ed that it was time for the fam­i­ly to leave Tsarskoye Selo for the “safe­ty” of Siberia. He select­ed as their des­ti­na­tion the town of Tobol­sk — a provin­cial back­wa­ter of 20,000 peo­ple, locat­ed 200 miles north of the Trans-Siber­ian railway.

Found­ed by Cos­sacks in the late 16th cen­tu­ry, Tobol­sk was part of the Russ­ian advance into Siberia.  Sit­ting high above the Irtysh Riv­er, Tobol­sk in 1917 could only be reached by boat. Promi­nent on the low­er lev­el of the town was a large neo-clas­si­cal res­i­dence. Built in 1788 by a local mer­chant, it had been tak­en over by the gov­ern­ment to be the res­i­dence of the gov­er­nor-gen­er­al of the region. It was here that Nicholas II and his fam­i­ly were brought in August, 1917. 

The jour­ney to Tobol­sk com­menced on August 1. Ear­ly in the morn­ing, the fam­i­ly board­ed the train that would bring them to Tyu­men. Arriv­ing at mid­night on August 3rd, they, along with their entourage, were trans­ferred to steam­ers for the 40-hour voy­age to Tobol­sk.  Arriv­ing on August 6th, they spent anoth­er week on board while the governor’s house was made ready for them.

Chapel in ballroom of the Governor’s house in Tobolsk
A ser­vice in the impro­vised chapel in the ball­room of the Governor’s house in Tobol­sk with a choir of nuns from the local con­vent singing
A New Residence and New Routine

The house, though large, lacked osten­ta­tious­ness. Con­sist­ing of two sto­ries and 13 or 14 rooms, it stood promi­nent­ly on a dusty road that had been renamed Lib­er­ty Street. The Impe­r­i­al fam­i­ly occu­pied the whole of its upper floor. Most of those who had accom­pa­nied them were sent to live in a house across the street. They were allowed to cross over and vis­it the fam­i­ly but the traf­fic was strict­ly one-way. 

With­in a cou­ple of weeks, the pris­on­ers set­tled into a gen­tly reg­u­lar rou­tine.  The younger Grand Duchess­es and Alex­ei con­tin­ued the lessons giv­en by their par­ents and the two devot­ed tutors who man­aged to fol­low the fam­i­ly into exile: Syd­ney Gibbes, the Eng­lish tutor, and Pierre Gilliard, the Swiss who taught them French. Alexan­dra read, embroi­dered or paint­ed. Nicholas walked in the com­pound when­ev­er he could or sawed logs stren­u­ous­ly with any­one who would join him. That was often Alexei.

Peo­ple in Tobol­sk were warm and loy­al when­ev­er they saw a mem­ber of the fam­i­ly. Some would kneel as the for­mer Tsar and Tsa­ri­na walked through a pub­lic gar­den flanked by guards, on their way to the near­by church for a ser­vice. Some would make the sign of the cross when one of them would appear at a win­dow. Gifts of food came to the house from the town and nuns from a near­by con­vent brought eggs and sug­ar. Life was rea­son­ably serene in the begin­ning, much as it had been at Tsarskoye Selo.

A Change in Fortune

But by the turn of the year, in the full grip of win­ter, things began to change. The Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment was over­tak­en by the Bol­she­viks and ter­ror began to stalk the coun­try as Red Guards were formed. After the dea­con at the near­by Annun­ci­a­tion Church had once intoned the cus­tom­ary prayer for the long life of the Emper­or and his fam­i­ly dur­ing a ser­vice, men­tion­ing their names, they were no longer allowed to attend ser­vices there.

As Alexan­dra wrote in a let­ter smug­gled to her friend, Anna Vyrubo­va, “One lives from day to day … God have mer­cy and save Russia.”

Empress Alexandra's white lace bedspread serving as an altar cloth.
Empress Alexan­dra’s white lace bed­spread serv­ing as an altar cloth.

The mount­ing dan­ger drew them all clos­er togeth­er. The fam­i­ly impro­vised a chapel in the ball­room of the Governor’s house for ser­vices, but a sol­dier always had to be present. An altar was set up with the Empress’ white lace bed­spread serv­ing as an altar cloth. The priest from the church would come to offi­ci­ate and some of the local nuns act­ed as a choir. 

Their last Christ­mas was spent here. Under house arrest and close­ly guard­ed, it was quite dif­fer­ent from all pre­vi­ous Christ­mases at home in the Alexan­der Palace. With thought­ful plan­ning, they were able to orga­nize a tra­di­tion­al Christ­mas that was in many ways their clos­est fam­i­ly hol­i­day. Grand Duchess Olga described the sim­plic­i­ty and resource­ful­ness of that last Christ­mas in a let­ter to one of her friends.

26 Decem­ber 1917, Tobolsk

Hi dear Rita,

              Well, here it is, already the hol­i­days. We have stand­ing in the hall a Christ­mas tree with a won­der­ful scent, com­plete­ly unlike any­thing we had in Tsarskoye. It is a par­tic­u­lar type, known as a “bal­sam ever­green.”  It has a strong smell like man­darin orange blos­som and the trunk all the time emits resin. There is no dec­o­ra­tion, only sil­ver tin­sel and wax can­dles (from the church, of course, as there are no oth­ers here). After sup­per, on Xmas eve, we orga­nized the presents, most of which were dif­fer­ent things we sewed. As we gath­ered them and des­ig­nat­ed to whom they would be giv­en, we recalled the char­i­ta­ble  bazaars we did in Yal­ta. Remem­ber how many things we pre­pared? The Vig­il ser­vice took place around 10 o’clock in the evening and the Christ­mas tree was lit. It was beau­ti­ful and cozy.  There was a large choir and they sang well but it was too much of a con­cert and this I don’t like. I am writ­ing to you in the large hall on the huge table, where the lit­tle broth­er sol­diers place them­selves. To add a bit more, Papa and the four chil­dren are hav­ing cof­fee, Mama is not yet up. The sun has shown itself and shines on the paper over my right shoul­der. There has final­ly been more snow these days and our moun­tain has grown.1 Iza has come 2 but they don’t allow her to come over. We see her only through the window. 
I will close now. Wish­ing you much hap­pi­ness in the com­ing year, with hugs and love to you, my dear friend. God bless you,

         Your Olga

On Christ­mas morn­ing, Nicholas not­ed in his diary a sig­nif­i­cant addi­tion­al detail:  “Litur­gy began at 7 o’clock in the dark. After Litur­gy, a moleben was served in front of the (won­der-work­ing –ed.) Abal­atskaya icon of the Moth­er of God which had been brought the evening before from the monastery 24 ver­sts from here.”

Pierre Gilliard recalled in his mem­oirs some years lat­er, the won­der­ful atmos­phere of that Christ­mas eve.

The Empress and the Grand Duchess­es pre­pared every­thing by their own hands, mak­ing in the course of many weeks, gifts for all of us and like­wise for all of the atten­dants. Her Majesty dis­trib­uted sev­er­al woolen pieces of her own. By such touch­ing atten­tion, she wished to express her grat­i­tude to those who had remained loy­al to her. The priest came on Decem­ber 24th in the evening to do the ser­vice at the house; every­one assem­bled in the hall. Then the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the des­ig­nat­ed “sur­pris­es” to us — this was done by the chil­dren them­selves. It felt as though we had become one big fam­i­ly; we began to for­get all our cares and sor­rows and to enjoy our­selves, not think­ing of any­thing else in these moments of pure friend­ship, in com­plete uni­ty of heart.

Orders to Move Again

The fam­i­ly remained in cus­tody in Tobol­sk until the spring of 1918, at which time they were all trans­ferred to Eka­ter­in­burg. They were bru­tal­ly mur­dered there by a Bol­she­vik squadron on July 17, 1918. The loy­al atten­dants who were with them were also killed. Only the tutors, Gilliard and Gibbes, who were not Russ­ian cit­i­zens, were released in Eka­ter­in­burg, their lives changed forever.

Gilliard returned to Switzer­land and mar­ried one of the children’s Russ­ian nurs­es. Gibbes became a Russ­ian Ortho­dox monk and priest and was giv­en the monas­tic name of Nicholas in mem­o­ry of the Tsar. Fr. Nicholas returned to Eng­land and lived in Oxford for many years, serv­ing in the memo­r­i­al St. Nicholas Chapel he estab­lished in his house on Marston Street. Here was always pre­served the hand­writ­ten poem giv­en to him by Empress Alexan­dra at Christ­mas in Tobolsk:

I pray

That Christ the Xmas King may stoop to bless,

And guide you day by day to holiness,

Your Friend in joy, your Com­fort in distress;

I pray

That every cloud may lead you to the light,

And He may raise you up from height to height,

Him­self the Day-Star of your dark­est night;

I pray

That Christ, before whose Crib you bend the knee,

May fill your long­ing soul abundantly,

With grace to fol­low Him more perfectly.


Tobol­sk                                             Alexandra

About the author

Mar­i­lyn Pfeifer Swezey is а Russ­ian spe­cial­ist and inde­pen­dent cura­tor. Mrs Swezey is the edi­tor of the recent release by Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions, The Romanovs Under House Arrest: From the 1917 Diary of a Palace Priest, to which she also con­tributed a His­tor­i­cal Set­ting and Epilogue.