MOSCOW -- The czar's daughters -- Masha, Tanya, Olya, Nastya -- were the biggest problem on that July day in 1918 in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. The bullets had trouble penetrating their diamond-studded vests, and they had to be finished off with bayonets.
"What was surprising was how the bullets from the revolvers ricocheted and bounced around the room like hailstones," Yakov Yurofsky, one of the executioners, wrote in his official report.
"When they tried to stab one of the girls with a bayonet, even the bayonet couldn't penetrate the bodice," he wrote.
Call it the Romanovs' revenge: 72 years after Czar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolshevik secret police, they have returned to haunt the Russian public consciousness and to make their contribution to the undermining of the Communist regime.
Suddenly the Romanovs seem to be everywhere -- their portraits for sale in the Metro, their lives detailed in an exhibit in a Communist Youth League hall, their descendants interviewed on television and in the newspapers.
But more than any other aspect of the long-suppressed czarist history, the execution of the Romanovs seems to have captured the public imagination, transformed into a symbol for all the blood spilled by the Communist regime.
Readers can't seem to get enough of the gory details of the execution -- and musings about its moral and political implications -- presented in article after article in the popular press. At least four films are being made portraying the fateful day, July 16, 1918.
The explosion of interest has been fueled partly by the pioneering research of Edvard S. Radzinsky, 52, a Moscow playwright who for two years has shelved his theater career to pursue an obsession with the life and death of Czar Nicholas.
In a series of articles in the popular magazine Ogonyok, Mr. Radzinsky reopened the long-banned subject of the last Romanovs. He was the first to label the execution a "murder" in print.
Most significant, he has uncovered convincing proof that the order to kill the imperial family did not come from the local Bolshevik leadership, as the official version has it. As Western historians have long surmised, the order came from V. I. Lenin himself.
"It was all the decision of Moscow, and it couldn't have been otherwise," Mr. Radzinsky said. "It was the fanatical idea, the favorite Bolshevik idea that blood unites."
Mr. Radzinsky says he fears that the image of Czar Nicholas -- so unpopular in his own time that after his abdication his guards had to protect him from lynch mobs -- might be on the way to being transformed into something beyond reproach, and his execution used to incite hatred or even violence.
"Now they'll print books and make films endlessly -- until they turn the czar into a new Lenin," he said. In Russia, he said, "the important question has always been: 'Who's to blame?' " At the time of the revolution, the answer was Czar Nicholas; today the answer is Lenin, his successors and, by analogy, all Communists.
"We must understand it was a murder -- but not demand revenge," Mr. Radzinsky said. "We don't need an all-around settling of scores. We need repentance."
The reason for the renewed interest in the czar and his end is self-evident.
"It's all connected with the fact that the prestige of the Communist Party is falling; the prestige of Communist ideology is falling," said the historian Roy A. Medvedev. "So attitudes to the October Revolution are changing, and interest is growing in what led to the October Revolution and who opposed it."
Of the end of the Romanov dynasty, Mr. Medvedev said, "Little was written and little was said in the past. There's a desire of the people to know everything, all the blank spots, all the black pages of history."
Mr. Medvedev, a longtime dissident who has been accepted back into the Communist fold, said the cruelty of the Bolsheviks in executing the entire family "has been greatly exaggerated."
First, every child was a potential heir to the throne, capable of leading a counterrevolution, he said. Second, he said, "the murder of the czar's family was the obsessive idea of all Russian revolutionaries beginning with Decembrists" in 1825.
Even the great poet Alexander Pushkin, Mr. Medvedev pointed out, wrote in 1817 of an earlier czar:
"I hate you and your throne,
"Your death and the death of your children
. "I'll watch with cruel joy."
At an exhibit on the last years of the Romanovs, Muscovites, who themselves must spend hours in line for meat and eggs, peruse the elegant menus -- in French -- from dinners in the imperial palaces in the 1880s and 1890s. Newsstands peddle charts of the Romanov dynasty.