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.
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.”
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,
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:
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;
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;
That Christ, before whose Crib you bend the knee,
May fill your longing soul abundantly,
With grace to follow Him more perfectly.
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.