On 22-23 September 1977, the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg where the Russian Imperial Family were held under house arrest for 78 days before being murdered, was razed to the ground. The decision of the Soviet authorities was perceived rather ambiguously, but what was the reason behind the destruction of this historic building, and could it have been saved?
A house with a tragic fate
The two-storey stone Ipatiev House was built in the 1880s by state adviser I.I. Redikortsev, on the western slope of the Ascension Hill – a notable hill in Ekaterinburg. It was located at No. 49/9 on the corner of Voznesensky Prospekt and Voznesensky Lane (renamed Karl Libnecht and Klara Zetkin respectively, after 1917). The eastern facade (facing Voznesensky Prospekt) was one-story, and the western (facing the garden) had two floors.
Redikortsev did not remain the owner of the house for long, he was accused of corruption, and in order to improve his shaky financial condition in 1898 he sold the house to the gold miner I. G. Sharaviev.
In 1908, the Ipatiev House was purchased by military civil engineer Nikolai Nikolaevich Ipatiev, who paid 6,000 rubles to the former owner. The Ipatiev family lived in the upper floor, while the the lower floor was used as Ipatiev’s office. The house had running water and sewer, electricity and telephone. The interiors were richly decorated with cast iron, stucco mouldings, and artistically painted ceilings.
On 27th April 1918, the Bolsheviks ordered Ipatiev to vacate the mansion within two days, for the maintenance of the Imperial family, who were to be transferred from Tobolsk. Due to the fact that Ipatiev was away, his personal belongings were locked in a basement pantry next to the room in which the Imperial family were later shot. Subsequently, the basement was sealed in the presence of the owner. It is believed that the choice of the house was due to the fact that Ipatiev was well acquainted with the members of the Ural Council and, in particular, Yakov Yurovsky who served as a prominent representative of the cadet party, and who, after the February Revolution, was appointed a member of the local public security committee.
Machine guns were installed in the attics of neighbouring buildings, the house itself was surrounded by a high wooden double fence, the height of which was higher than the windows of the second floor of the Ipatiev House, with a single wicket gate, which was constantly guarded, two security posts were located inside, eight outside, thus completely prepared for the arrival of “Citizen Romanov” Nicholas II, his wife and their daughter Maria.
Immediately after the murder of the Romanovs, which occurred on the night of 16/17 July 1918, the house was returned to Ipatiev. Five days later, White Army units entered the city. Nikolai decided to emigrate, and sold the mansion to representatives of the White Army, and for a short time the mansion served as the headquarters of the Siberian Army, and representatives of the Russian government. Their stay in the Ural capital was cut short, after the city was recaptured by the Bolsheviks.
From 1922, the Ipatiev House housed a dormitory for university students and apartments for Soviet employees. For some time there was even a kindergarten, and in the basement, where the Imperial family were murdered, a children’s shower was installed.
In 1927, it was decided to open the Museum of the Revolution in the building. The Museum of the Revolution was open daily except Monday and Thursday from 12 noon to 6 pm, the cost of tickets was 5 kopecks for tourists, 10 kopecks. for union members and 25 kopecks for every one else. The tour of the museum included a visit to the basement and the room where the Imperial Family were shot. To complete the exhibit, a decision was made to restore the bullet riddled wall in the murder room, since the retreating White Guards had disassembled the genuine one and took it with them. [N.B. if there is any truth to this, the fate of the original wall from the “killing room” remains yet another mystery – PG]
In 1938, the former mansion housed expositions of the Anti-Religious and Cultural-Educational Museum, as well as offices of various departments. If turning the Ipatiev House into an “Anti-Religious” Museum was not enough, in 1923, the Bolsheviks imposed one further indignity on the murdered tsar and his family, by issuing postcards of the house surrounded by the wooden fence, bearing the insulting and disrespectful caption “the last palace of the last tsar”.
From the beginning of the 1970s, a branch of the Chelyabinsk Institute of Culture was moved here: in the basement, students even staged performances, as evidenced by preserved photographs.
The KGB and Politburo take action
The day of 26th July 1975 was a turning point in the fate of the Ipatiev House. On this day, a secret note No. 2004-A was issued.
“On the demolition of the Ipatiev mansion in the city of Sverdlovsk” was sent from the KGB to the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The text of the document read:
“Anti-Soviet circles in the West periodically inspire various kinds of propaganda campaigns around the Romanov royal family, whereby the former mansion of the merchant Ipatiev in Sverdlovsk is often mentioned. Ipatiev’s house continues to stand in the center of the city. It houses the training center of the regional Department of Culture.
“The mansion is of no architectural or historic importance; only a small number of the townspeople and tourists are interested in it. Recently, foreigners began to visit Sverdlovsk. In the future, the number of foreigners is expected to increase significantly, and Ipatiev’s house will no doubt become an object of their curiosity and interest. In this regard, it seems appropriate to entrust the Sverdlovsk Regional Committee of the CPSU to resolve the issue of demolishing the mansion in the order of the planned reconstruction of the city. The draft resolution of the Central Committee of the CPSU is attached. Please consider.”
The document was signed by the chairman of the State Security Committee, *Yuri Andropov (1914-1984). * Andropov later served as third General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, from November 1982 until his death in February 1984.
In the 1990s, Vladimir Solovyov, an investigator from the Prosecutor General’s Office, who investigated the murder of the tsar’s family, stated that the KGB had received information about how, every year, on the anniversary of the death of the Imperial Family, people came to the Ipatiev House, to light candles and offer prayers. The authorities referred to these annual visits “of painful interest” while declaring them as “anti-Soviet activity.” The Party bosses could not allow these pilgrimages to continue.
On 30th July 1975, Andropov’s proposal was unanimously adopted by the Politburo. Upon learning of the impending demolition of the Ipatiev House, the director of the museum, gave the order to save everything that could be carried away.
“It was impossible to resist”
The elimination of the Ipatiev House was entrusted to local authorities. The order was executed by Boris Yeltsin, First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Regional Committee of the CPSU . “It was impossible to resist, not to fulfill the Politburo Resolution,” Yeltsin would later note in his memoirs. “They assembled the equipment and demolished it in one night. If I had refused, I would have been left without work, and the new secretary of the regional committee would have complied with the order anyway,” he concluded.
The unofficial reason behind the demolition of the Ipatiev House was the need for reconstruction of the entire block – therefore, according to the “reconstruction” plans, all houses located in the entire block were to be demolished. The fact that the houses and merchant buildings located in the quarter were of architectural and historical value of late 19th-early 20th century Ekaterinburg, was of no interest to the authorities.
Experts noted that having destroyed the entire block, the authorities made it difficult to find the exact place where the Ipatiev House was located.
After the construction of the Church on the Blood, some people claimed that the Imperial Room – built on the site of the basement room of the Ipatiev House, where the family were all murdered – located in the Lower Church of the Church on the Blood is inaccurate. Each year on the anniversary of the regicide, a small group of people gather and create a square on one of the marble stones on the territory of the Church on the Blood. Here, they lay flowers, light candles and offer up prayers. It is ironic that given that the experts could not determine the exact spot, that a group of amateurs could?!
Prior to the demolition of the Ipatiev House, local historians removed many valuable interior elements, including a fireplace, door handles, tiles, stucco molding from walls, iron bars from windows, etc. These items can be seen today in local museums in Ekaterinburg and Ganina Yama. It is interesting to note, when opening the floor in the grand duchesses bedroom, a golden bracelet with precious stones and the monogram ‘T’ was found hidden under the baseboard and wrapped in a newspaper. The whereabouts of this bracelet is unknown to the author.
Could the Ipatiev House have been saved?
As previously noted in his memoirs, Yeltsin claimed that the house was destroyed in one night, but in reality it took two days to raze the building to the ground. Perhaps he just forgot. Here’s what else is remarkable. The destruction of the mansion began on 22nd September 1977, that is, more than two years after the decision of the Politburo.
The thing is that in 1975 the First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Regional Party Committee was Yakov Petrovich Ryabov – Yeltsin replaced him in this post only on 2nd November 1976. Journalists later asked Ryabov why he was in no hurry to comply with the highest order? “And why should I be in a hurry? The house stood in a lowland, it was not bothering anyone,” the former head of Sverdlovsk replied. According to Ryabov, he told his subordinates that when the reconstruction plan for the entire micro-district was ready, then a demolition decision would be made. Rumor had it that Ryabov wanted to keep the house and that even Brezhnev had taken an interest in it. In any case, it is known that the demolition of the house was opposed by representatives of the All-Union Society for the Protection of Monuments of History and Culture, and Ryabov helped them in every way. Many communists who were not members of the Politburo did not agree with the destruction of the historical building.
Perhaps such a confrontation contributed to the postponement of the demolition? It is also possible that those in Moscow would eventually have forgotten about their decision, however, the new secretary of the Sverdlovsk regional committee, Yeltsin, took the initiative and brought it to an end. Most historians agree that Boris Yeltsin was keen to improving his political position by transferring to Moscow and took advantage of an opportunity given to him.
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In August 2000, Nicholas II and his family were canonized by the Moscow Patriarchate as Royal Martyrs. In 2000-2003, the Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land was built on the site of the former Ipatiev House. On the night of 16/17 July 2018, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill delivered a Divine Liturgy here. This was followed by a cross procession by an estimated 100,000 people from the Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg to the Monastery of the Holy Royal Martyrs at Ganina Yama (21 km).
On 16 June 2003, 85 years after the murders of the former imperial family, the main church was consecrated by Metropolitan bishop Yuvenaly, delegated by Patriarch Alexy II who was too ill at the time to travel to Ekaterinburg, assisted by Russian Orthodox clergy from all over the Russian Federation.
Click HERE to read my article Doomed to Resurrection: Is it Possible to Reconstruct the Ipatiev House?, published on 2nd July 2018 and my article “What if” the Ipatiev House was reconstructed?, published on 29th November 2019
© Paul Gilbert. 25 February 2020