July 16, 1918, 7 a.m.

 At 7 a.m. sharp, a nun from a nearby convent approaches a two-story building on Ascension Hill. Despite the unusually cold and rainy summer, the trees around the mansion are in full bloom, and smiley-faced chamomiles poke through the dew glittering on the grass.

The nun’s arrival marks the start of a ritual that never varies. She sets the metal can containing the day’s milk supply down, makes a sign of the cross, and then greets a guard watching her through a slot in an iron gate.

“May God be with you, my son.”

“Go back to the convent and bring twenty eggs and some pork sausages. People are coming from Moscow,” he barks at her in response.

The nun nods and walks away. For the last three months, she has only been asked to bring milk for the family who lives behind the high walls that barely let passersby glimpse the rooftop and the storks nesting next to the brick chimney.

The building used to be called the Ipatiev House. Its owner, Nicolai Ipatiev, purchased it for his large family for six thousand rubles. But in April, he was given forty-eight hours to vacate it, which he did promptly, leaving most of his possessions behind, including a stuffed bear and her two cubs he had shot in a nearby forest.

With Ipatiev gone, it is now known as the House of Special Purpose. Only a few people know the purpose, and they don’t include the Romanovs, whose fate is being played out both here at the mansion and in the Kremlin hundreds of miles away. The Tzar and Tzarina and their five children have been moved around the country like chess pieces for over a year, and they feel they are always in the “check” position, fearing the “mate” is coming at any moment.


July 16, 1918, 8 a.m.

The routine of the House of Special Purpose is always the same. Every morning at eight a.m., the Romanovs are awakened by a knock on the door of their second-floor suite. They dress quickly and say their prayers. Once they finish, they go down to the dining room, where the table is set for seven. The servants and Doctor Botkin have their breakfast upstairs.

Alexandra Feodorovna arranges the children—Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei—in an orderly row and leads them to the first floor like a mother duck. Nicolai, her husband, will join them later. He likes to trim his beard in peace because, as he jokingly complains, with five pretty women performing their morning ablutions in front of just one mirror, he has no choice but to wait his turn.

Despite the lovely tablecloth and Romanov-crested porcelain, the food is scant. One slice of toast per person, a saucer of plum preserves, a two-inch circle of butter to share, and a pot of hot, sweet tea.

They eat slowly, relishing each bite, while the smell of pork sausages frying under a grill in the kitchen next door, a treat reserved for the guests from Moscow, makes their mouths water.

They avoid talking because, even though no soldiers accompany them in the dining room, they know that someone at the door is always listening and taking notes.

Anastasia swallows the toast smeared thinly with preserves through a lump in her throat. She tries to act normal; she helps herself to more tea, drinks unhurriedly, handles the cup with studied care, and keeps her attention on the food. But inside, her emotions are boiling over. Even now, surrounded by her family, she knows someone is watching her. It’s not one of the guards. It’s someone tall and big, and clumsy. She thinks she knows who it is. Someone she must have met in St. Petersburg. Someone who used to be part of the family’s inner circle.

The presence that follows her is not scary, but it is constant. It’s with her when she dresses. It breathes on her neck when she eats. It musses her hair when she walks in the garden. It whispers when she is about to fall asleep. She tries to scare it away like one would scare a persistent crow. And, like the crow, it flies away, only to return the following evening to watch her more closely.

She finishes the tea and looks up from the cup at her mother.

Mamasha. Please, can I go back upstairs?” she asks. 

“You may go,” Alexandra Feodorovna nods, offering a piece of toast to Alexei, whose motor skills, at fourteen, are more like those of a five-year-old. Because of his illness, servants, teachers, and family members treat him like one of the Romanov collection’s bejeweled Fabergé eggs. They all know he will never reach adulthood because a simple fall, a broken bone, or internal bleeding might kill him. Doctor Botkin can do nothing for him. Only one person could, but he is dead.


July 16, 1918, 5 p.m.

The Tzar and his wife are alone in their room. The children are in the garden, collecting chamomiles. Alexandra Feodorovna let them go but urged the girls to keep an eye on Alexei in case he harmed himself.

“Father Grigori was right; we are cursed, and we shall all die,” she exclaims now as she turns to face Nicolai.

“Do you remember what else he said? If I am killed by common men, you and your descendants will govern Russia for years to come, but if I am murdered by one of your stock, you and your family will die in the hands of the Russian people. And your niece’s husband killed him!” she sobs.

“Don’t say that, Alex,” the Tzar kindly reprimands. He can never be truly upset with her. At least not for long.

“You’ve always put too much faith in Rasputin’s prophecies. Cousin George says it’s just a matter of time before he welcomes us in London.”

“Cousin George,” she sneers dismissively. “Cousin George has been dragging his feet for more than a year. He wants nothing to do with us. We are a political time bomb he’d rather not touch, or it could blow up in his face.”

He doesn’t respond since, deep inside, he knows she is right.

A knock on the door makes them draw apart. Alexandra Feodorovna tidies her dress, and Nicolai stands upright, his expression serious.

“Come in,” he says.

Yakov Yurovski, the man the Kremlin put in charge of the Romanovs, enters the room. After months of uncertainty, the special purpose has finally been revealed, but he must not disclose it yet.

“Forgive my interruption, but the White Army is only ten miles from Ekaterinburg. We expect them to arrive in town before sunrise. The family, Dr. Botkin, and the servants will be moved to the cellar for your safety. Please pack your most important belongings and be ready by eleven o’clock,” he declares.

The Tzar finds it hard to disguise the hope that now permeates his soul.

Not everything is lost, then, he thinks.

“By tomorrow morning, we could be out of here and on our way to St. Petersburg. We might avoid the checkmate after all!”

Yurovsky clicks the heels of his boots. As he walks towards the door, the expression on his face changes to something resembling regret, but it soon transforms into a mean and portentous grin. 


July 17, 1918, 12.55 a.m.

They descend the two flights of stairs calmly. Doctor Botkin and the servants are in front, then Alexandra Feodorovna, Nicolai carrying Alexei, the girls in the back, and Anastasia closing the line.

The basement is lit by a single bare bulb hanging on a wire. Yurovsky and another guard are standing by.

“There aren’t even chairs here,” Alexandra Feodorovna complains, irritated.

“She wants the heir to die in a chair. All right, let him have one,” Yurovsky whispers to the guard.

The man soon returns with two chairs. Alexandra places her chair near the door, and Nicolai sits in the other, with Alexei on his knee. The servants and Botkin remain close to the wall while Olga, Maria, and Tatiana stand behind their parents. Anastasia takes a solitary position by the window through which a moonbeam sets her auburn hair afire. She looks beautiful: delicate features chiseled from an ivory piece, the nose a little point speckled by a freckled mist. Her face is as blank as an empty sheet of paper without a single letter. She is the only one who suspects something is not right. The rest of the family and the servants look around calmly. Nicolai takes his wife’s hand in his own and cradles it.

Steps thunder down the stairs to the cellar, and eight men, all holding firearms, rush into the basement.

Alexandra Feodorovna lets out a terrified gasp. Fear has paralyzed the sick child on Nicolai’s knee. Maria, Olga, and Tatiana whimper. Anastasia fixes her gaze on the soldiers. Doctor Botkin starts to speak, but Yurovsky cuts him off with a motion of his hand.

The soldiers advance, their respect for the Tzar’s family suddenly gone. They are prepared to carry out the orders, complete the mission, and eliminate the dynasty that ruled Russia with an iron fist for three centuries.

“By order of the People’s Soviet, Citizen Romanov, you have been sentenced to die,” Yurovsky says, aiming the gun directly at the Tzar’s head.

Nicolai’s skull explodes, exposing white bone fronds and bluish brain tissue blossoming like repugnant flowers. Alexei’s face is splattered with blood. This time, it is not his own. When the next shot topples him off his father’s knee, he raises his hand to touch the hot drops, then collapses face-up, his eyes wide open. Yurovsky aims the gun at Alexandra, who falls off the chair as if made of wood.

Each guard has been assigned a target, but they shoot randomly in the ensuing mayhem. The two servants and Botkin are soon dead, too. Bullets ricochet off the girls and the walls. The gunfire intensifies as they realize that, for some strange reason, the projectiles are not penetrating their bodies. Yurovsky instructs his men to draw their bayonets. The girls flee but are dragged back by their hair and stabbed in the back, shoulders, and chest. As one of the bayonets enters Olga’s corset, it snaps. Her gown is encrusted with diamonds, pearls, and emeralds that spill in a cascade onto the floor.

 Yurovsky works his way through the cellar, shooting the remaining victims one by one.

Anastasia glances through the window, her hair still aflame from the moonbeam. She is the sole survivor, aware that a gun will soon spit out a bullet that will enter her body. She will bleed and experience pain, but she is unconcerned. She is surrounded by the same presence she has felt since they arrived at the House of Special Purpose. She is ready to face death with a tremendous sense of peace.

Yurovsky draws his revolver, pointing it at her chest. A battle of stares ensues. It’s a losing one from the start, and she looks away meekly, shifting her gaze to whoever is by her side.

A protective hand rests over her breast.

“I am ready,” she says to the enigmatic presence.

The last thing she sees is the weapon spewing a blaze of red fire. 


July 17, 1918, 6 a.m.

The sky is clear, and the summer sun is as bright as a new penny, promising a pleasant day. However, it is still cold in the Ganina Yama forest early after sunrise. The lone soldier walking around the ring-fenced trench rubs his palms together to warm himself. Only two hours before, eleven naked bodies were thrown into the pit. Yurovsky promised to come soon with gasoline and grenades to burn the evidence.

“Once it’s done, it would be best if you forgot everything you’ve seen,” he said.

He also told him to shoot anyone who got too close and never touch the bodies stacked one on top of the other like waxy dolls.

The soldier is uneasy, even though he didn’t participate in the massacre. He’s not afraid of death either and has no sympathy for the victims. They’re little more than corpses, like the pigs he used to see hanging on hooks in the village abattoir.

It’s something else entirely. Someone is observing him. Someone big and tall and clumsy. Someone with dark, blazing eyes.

There’s a noise behind him. He turns to face a towering figure dressed in a black monk’s habit. He has long, greasy hair and a wispy beard.

“Rasputin! I thought… I thought you were dead!” he stammers, trying to lift the rifle.

“Yes, I am… But so are you…”

The monk strides forward, wraps his hands around the soldier’s neck, and twists once. The snap resembles a sapless branch breaking under the weight of snow.

The monk enters the pit, pushes Nicolai’s body aside, and carefully moves Alexei’s tiny corpse. He closes his eyes and briefly caresses the boy’s face. Surprisingly, there is little blood from his injuries. His hemophilia has been cured by death.

He must hurry. The soldiers will return shortly. He finally finds Anastasia beneath one of the sisters. One bullet hole is visible on the left side of her torso. But he knows Anastasia’s heart is on the right because of a freak of nature. He lifts her out of the pit, places her on the ground, and then rests the heel of one hand on her chest. He pushes down hard with his upper body weight, hearing her ribs reply with resistance, then with a harsh crack. He keeps going. He knows she’s alive. She makes a gurgling sound, spits blood, opens her eyes, and stares into his.

“Father Grigori,” she murmurs.

“Please stop; it hurts so much,” she begs as scarlet spittle smears the corners of her mouth.

“Don’t you worry anymore, Malenkaya. Father Grigori is back, and you are safe now,” he says.

He lifts her again and starts walking. Porosyonkov is five kilometers away, and he must leave before Yurovsky’s truck returns. His walk becomes a firm pace. He rushes out of the forest, gasping for air and clutching the girl in his arms.

Once he reaches the village, he will leave the girl in the care of an elderly woman who only knows she is an orphan whose name is Anastasia. The child will be fine if she can get used to her new identity and forget her past. And he can disappear. This time forever.


July 17, 1918, 7 a.m.

The nun arrives at the Ascension Hill building with the daily milk supply just as a truck full of soldiers drives away.

“There’s no need for any more milk, so just go away,” the guard says.

“The Romanov dynasty is no more,” he adds.

The nun lifts the can, glancing at the building one more time. It is no longer the House of Special Purpose. It is again the Ipatiev House. 


July 17, 2018, 10 a.m.

“On the occasion of the centenary of the executions of Nicholai II and his family, Russian investigators have officially announced today that recent DNA analysis has conclusively established the identity of the discovered remains as those of the former Tzar, his wife, their son Alexei, and three out of their four daughters, Olga, Maria, and Tatiana. The current location of Anastasia’s remains is still unknown. The DNA samples taken from the Romanov family’s living members, including His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, were analyzed by scientists as part of their investigation.”

The old woman puts away the newspaper to look at the garden brimming with smiling chamomiles. The sun’s warm fingers poking through the curtains set her still-red but slightly fading locks afire. With ivory-chiseled features and a sprinkling of freckles gracing her nose, she is still beautiful despite her advanced years.

She rises slowly and, reaching for her cane, murmurs, “So, it is finally over. The ghosts have been laid to rest.”

She leaves the cottage, locks the garden gate, and looks up to the rooftop and the nest, where a couple of storks used to dance a beriozka every summer for as long as she can recall. They have not returned as of yet this year.

She walks along the dusty road, leaning on her cane. It will take her at least half an hour to reach the Porosyonkov cemetery, where she will lay a bunch of chamomiles beneath the wooden cross that bears her grandmother’s name – Anastasia.

About the Author

Polish by birth, a citizen of the world by choice. First story short-listed for the Irish Independent/Hennessy Awards, Ireland, 1996. Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America and started writing textbooks for Latin American Ministries of Education. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, 66 of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, have been accepted for publication. She has recently won 1st prize in the International Human Rights Arts Movement literary contest.


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