WC diaries: End of the Romanovs and start of a 3400-km journey

It's a church on a slight elevation, overlooking the lake they call the City Pond. There is very little on the outside to denote its significance; it looks like any of the other churches in Ekaterinburg, with its golden domes and white walls, though discernibly newer than the others. Then, before you come to the church, you spot a plaque by the side of the road set into the grass. The story becomes clear.

It was here, almost exactly a century ago, that Nicholas II, Tsar of all the Russias, his family - wife, four daughters and the heir to the Romanov throne - and their entourage were killed by the local Bolsheviks in the basement of the house where they had been imprisoned. The church is evocatively called Church on the Blood and the plaque lists those who were killed here. The executions were carried out at 2 AM, with great care taken to maintain secrecy; in fact the bodies were first doused in sulphuric acid and then buried in a mine shaft to hide their identity.

The secrecy was warranted. At that time, the October Revolution was only a few months old and the country was not yet in the firm grip of the Communists. The Czech army, which sympathised with the royal family, was marching on the city - they would reach and capture the city a week after the execution - and, most important, the greater majority of Russians still held the Romanovs in esteem. If the story of the mass executions got out, the precarious situation could turn against the Communists.

The full story never got out then, and it still hasn't been 100 percent confirmed if the bodies of teenagers found in nearby pits were of the Tsar's children. But just as the house became a place of pride for local Communists, who would pose for pictures near the bullet-ridden walls, it acquired the status of a shrine for the royalists - the Romanovs retained the sympathy of some sections of society in the USSR (the church, in particular). It was eventually ordered destroyed in the 1970s, an order carried out by Boris Yeltsin, then the local party leader.

But the Romanovs never went away and when the USSR disbanded, calls for revisionism grew louder. The inevitable happened: The Russian Orthodox clergy canonised the Tsar and his family for their faith in the face of extreme personal danger. Ekaterinburg, which had been renamed Sverdlovsk by the Communists, reverted to its old name again. And eventually this church was built on the site of the house, with the altar apparently built over the exact spot where the family was killed.

There is now also a museum next door, built in the same style as the church, which is fairly one-eyed in its retelling of events. Nicholas and his family are portayed as icons and in fact you have to wear covers on your shoes to walk around. There are Romanov family artefacts - a broken plate, a scarf, a napkin, a silver spoon. Plenty of photographs of the family at play, at work, on tour; mementos from the 1913 celebration of the dynasty's 300th anniversary.

The exhibits are in chronological order and it's when you come to the section dealing with their last days that things become especially poignant. There are letters and papers related to their last days and hours, including a couple of orders calling for the urgent bulk purchase of sulphuric acid.

Also see: World Cup stories: Jayaditya Gupta in Russia

In a country that has seen so much cruelty and persecution on such a large scale, this spot still registers on the sadness scale. Mainly because of the children. Whatever the Tsar's misdeeds, the manner of the children's killing is gruesome from any perspective. The legend is that when the princesses were shot their dresses were so heavily jeweled that the bullets failed to kill them; the soldiers, who'd heard stories that the Romanovs were in fact invincible, then bayoneted them to death.

Over the next month this spot will doubtless become a pilgrimage site for the increasing number of Romanov loyalists. The church, and the Romanov story, has President Putin's blessings - he visited it soon after its consecration. But it will be difficult, in the Ekaterinburg summer sunshine and amid the bustle of city-centre traffic, to imagine what happened at the spot 100 years ago.


There is much more to Ekaterinburg, of course, as I've already noted. It's the gateway to the Ural mountains and to eastern Siberia, and is located on the cusp of Europe and Asia. And it's certainly had heavy tourist traffic for the World Cup; I was here for the Egypt v Uruguay match and saw thousands of travelling fans, and it seems to be the same a day before Mexico v Sweden.

The local administration has made huge efforts to spruce up the city: the airport has a new landing strip, 20 additional parking areas for planes and 15 additional passport control booths, while the railway station, expected to handle around 400,000 passengers during the group stage, has also been modernised. I was there this morning and it is clean - not easy given its size and the volume of traffic - and well-staffed (and English speakers too).

In fact, I'm headed there in an hour or so from now to begin my big journey: On the Trans-Siberian Express, from Ekaterinburg to Irkutsk. Two nights, 3,400 km, 48 hours long and a swing of five hours on the time zone. The full journey, Moscow to Vladivostok, is seven nights and 9,200 km. My stops are Omsk, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk but I won't be seeing those towns: I'll be getting off only at Irkutsk.

I'm excited, I've packed enough food for several hungry people (or one really hungry me) and though I'll be missing some of the crucial group-stage games, I guess it's all in a good cause.

So, till Irkutsk, dosvidanya.