Nicky’s What refers to the apocryphal last words of Nicholas II (almost invariably styled “Nicky” in his correspondence), the last of the Romanov tsars and Russia’s last official autocrat (though by no means its last real one).

Following the February Revolution of 1917, when the Romanov regime was overthrown and replaced by Aleksandr Kerensky’s Provisional Government[1], Nicholas and his family – his wife, three daughters (including the deathless Anastasia), and son – were imprisoned first in the Imperial residence at Tsarskoe Selo[2]; then in the governor’s mansion of the Siberian city of Tobolsk; then, after the October coup brought Lenin’s Bolsheviks to power, in a town called Yekaterinburg, in the comfortable house of a military engineer named Nikolay Ipatiev.[3]

There was talk of smuggling them north and putting them on a British ship, but eventually the Bolsheviks, worried about a still-tenuous political foothold and the burgeoning civil war with the White Russians, decided they ought to make a statement. The Romanov family was awakened at two in the morning and told the house was under attack by the White Army and that they needed to take shelter in the basement.

There Nicholas stood. The soldiers brought in chairs for his wife and children. There was a brief, shuffling delay, following which the commanding officer present, Yakov Yurovsky, drew his gun and informed Nicholas he had been condemned to death by the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.  Whereupon – the Soviets always maintained – Nicholas II said “What?”[4] Then the Romanovs were shot, bayoneted, cremated, dissolved with acid, and hidden in a mine.

This is a titanic event, or at least the hinge of a titanic event, or at least one of several hinges. At any rate, it’s that single word, whether true or invented, spoken at that specific time, on which the understanding of the story turns – it’s that word that’s our window onto how history was perceived and recorded by its varios actors. So it seems as good a source as any for this pointillist history’s name.

1. This sounds a little like a traveling show, I know.

2. Lit. “Tsar’s Village”.

3. During the royal family’s imprisonment in the Ipatiev house, which was supposed to be secret, the newly Soviet soldiers were annoyed by the local peasants’ habit of standing under the window weeping.

4. The Russian is chto. It was of course in Soviet interest to portray Nicholas’ dying seconds as the final demonstration of his buffoonery and historical misunderstanding, and thus the famous chto means as much about the Soviets as it does about the Romanovs. Nicholas probably did say “what” – wouldn’t you? – but he also reportedly said, between that word leaping from his lips and the first bullets leaping from the guns, “You know not what you do.”


Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s drift to revolution, 1825-1917 (Viking, 1976).

Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra (Ballantine, 1967).

Radzinsky, Edvard. The Last Tsar (Knopf, 1993).



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