In April 1918, the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their children were moved by their Bolshevik captors to a house in Ekaterinburg, owned by a merchant called Ipatiev. Three weeks later, the rest of the family followed. They would never again set foot outside its confines.
The building was surrounded by a ten-foot fence with machine-gun posts in the corners, and the windows were whitewashed to prevent curious onlookers gawping at the once-regal inmates – and, presumably, to stop them looking out. The Romanovs and their remaining servants lived in a few rooms on the first floor, and were permitted into the yard for exercise twice a day.
Food was restricted, their belongings were pilfered, and they were no longer able to correspond with friends in the outside world. The respect they had been shown while under house arrest in Tobolsk, and previously at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, was ominously absent.
The germ of the idea behind my new novel, The Lost Daughter, came to me when I read that Maria, the third daughter, was found in ‘compromising circumstances’ with one of the guards at the Ipatiev House. Ivan Skorokhodov brought a cake for her nineteenth birthday on 26 June and she slipped out to the hall to join him for what was probably just a kiss and a cuddle. They were caught by Avdeyev, the commander of the guards, and Ivan was sent to jail for three months.
A new commander, Yakov Yurovsky, was brought in and security was severely tightened. Exercise periods were reduced and the Romanovs now had to ring a bell for permission whenever they wanted to use the toilet. Just three weeks after Maria’s birthday the decision was taken to murder the family, and her flirtation may have been one of the triggers.
I decided to write my novel from Maria’s point of view, starting when she arrived at the Ipatiev House. She was an amiable character and it must have seemed natural to her to chat to the guards, even though they were hardline Bolsheviks who hated everything the Romanovs stood for.
None of us knows for sure what we would do in a similar situation. I don’t think I’d be one of the brave ones who tried to disarm the captors or organise a mass escape attempt – but I imagine I’d try to make friends. I’d be hoping that if I could make the guards like me, it would increase my chances of survival. If I found out more about them, and why they had decided to take the job in the first place, perhaps I would start to empathise – and from there it’s a short step to Stockholm Syndrome.
The term was coined after four hostages in a 1973 bank raid in Sweden grew so attached to their captor, Jan-Erik Olsson, that they refused to testify against him when they were released following a six-day ordeal. He had frequently threatened to kill them, tied dynamite to them and put ropes round their necks, but they universally declared him to be a good guy. One woman even asked if she could leave with him in the getaway car he had demanded.
Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, grew so close to her captors after being kidnapped in 1974 that she voluntarily helped them to carry out a bank raid. This was despite the fact that she had been beaten, kept blindfolded in a wardrobe for a week, then raped.
Psychologists say that Stockholm Syndrome comes about when someone experiences sudden terror that they are about to be killed then, when the captor decides not to kill them, they are disproportionately grateful.
Even the smallest acts of kindness take on such great significance that the prisoners forget any cruelties. They feel as if their captor is giving them the gift of life rather than depriving them of their freedom, and they frequently empathise with the captor’s aims.
They become reliant on the captor for basic needs – food, water, permission to use the toilet, blankets to sleep under – creating a state of infantilisation.
Perhaps there was some of this in Maria’s flirtation with Ivan Skorokhodov. According to Yurovsky, she was popular with all the guards. I wanted to explore what might have been going through her mind, and at the same time to ask what it was like for those young men who were asked to kill four rather beautiful young women. That was my starting point, the seed from which the rest of my novel grew.
Gill Paul is an author of historical fiction and non-fiction between the 1850s and 1950s. Her eighth novel, The Lost Daughter, is about Grand Duchess Maria.
If you’re interested in the Romanovs, have a look at Gill’s review of the TV series The Last Czars.
The Romanov sisters (Maria, Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana) at Tsarskoe Selo, 1917: Pierre Gilliard via Wikimedia
The Ipatiev House in 1918: Wikimedia
Maria and guard in 1917: Imperial Russia blog
Maria, Olga and Tatiana Nikolaevna in front of the Imperial train, 1916: supplied by author
Cover of The Lost Daughter: supplied by author