An encrypted telegram sent by two Russian communists in 1918 allegedly reports the death of czar Nicholas II and his family. Can a reader decipher it?

Once again, I have found an interesting encrypted message via Google. When I searched for “encrypted telegram”, a link to a Pinterest site titled Romanov Obsession came up. “Romanov” is the name of an old Russian aristocratic family, the most famous members of which were czar Nicholas II (1868-1914) with his wife and children. Romanov Obession provides a collection of pictures related to these persons.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_Imperial_Family_1913.jpg

Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra had four daughters and a son. One of the daughters, Olga, kept a diary that was partially encrypted. I blogged about this story in 2016 (in German).

As is well known, the Romanov family was imprisoned by the communists after the February Revolution. All five were shot and bayoneted to death in Yekaterinburg on the night of 16–17 July 1918.

According to Romanov Obsession, the two communists Alexander Beloborodov and Filipp Goloshchekin sent the following telegram to fellow-communist Yakov Sverdlov after the killing:

Romanov Obsession

Wikipedia mentions an encrypted message that is probably identical with this one. Translated to English, it read: “Inform Sverdlov the whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially, the family will die at the evacuation.”

There is no further information about this telegram in the literature known to me. Even in David Kahn’s The Codebreakers, which contains a whole chapter about Russian cryptography, this message isn’t mentioned.

So, I’m asking myself which encryption method was used. The ciphertext consists of long number sequences without any spaces in between. My guess is that these sequences have to be interpreted as two-digit nubers, most of which are smaller than 50. If this assumption is correct, the encryption system used could be a (small) nomenclator. Perhaps, the low numbers stand for letters, while the higher ones represent names.

The most popular encryption method used for telegrams were codebook codes. However, this ciphertext doesn’t look like a codebook cryptogram to me. Especially, it would be very untypical for such a code that (with few exceptions) every second digit is smaller than six.

Can a reader say more about this telegram?


Further reading: Revisited: An encrypted telegram from Mount Everest

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Kommentare (5)

  1. #1 Ralf Bülow
    Berlin
    5. Juni 2019

    In diesem Buch wird eine Entschlüsselung des Telegramms “two years later in Paris by a Russian cryptographer” erwähnt, aber leider steht die Quelle nicht auf den von Google Books überlieferten Seiten: https://books.google.de/books?id=XtE54LuhFzEC&lpg=PA781&ots=Gwqpg4f7e-&dq=%22inform%20sverdlov%22%20telegram%20lenin%20cipher&hl=de&pg=PA781#v=onepage&q=%22inform%20sverdlov%22%20telegram%20lenin%20cipher&f=false

  2. #2 Torbjörn Andersson
    Kalmar, Sweden
    5. Juni 2019

    If I remember correctly, this telegram and the encryption method used, is explained in some detail in “Swedish Signal Intelligence 1900-1945” by Bengt Beckman and C.G. McKay. It uses a variant of the Vigenère cipher (cyrillic plain and key alphabets, with numeric cipher alphabets) and the keyword “EKATERINBURG”.

  3. #3 Thomas
    5. Juni 2019

    Indeed, this is a Vigenere variant with the keyword Yekaterinburg.

    From a Russian source (DeepL-translated):

    “In November 1924, Nikolai Alekseevich Sokolov died in France, and in 1925 his posthumous book “The murder of the royal family” was published. In it, he step by step told the world the whole history of his dramatic investigation. The bodies of the murdered prisoners were never found. But numerous facts, painstakingly collected by Sokolov, clearly spoke of the brutality of the murder, the undoubted death of the entire royal family (including five children), many of its relatives (in the hands of the Bolsheviks) and servants. He also brought a mysterious telegram on the pages of his book Sokolov:

    “Moscow, the Kremlin, to the Secretary of the Council of People’s Commissars Gorbunov with a checkback. 3934354229353649262737284033305027262349341351284134314233514534 3425483942372347254228382602302341461554384331422113263617212831 33353844342740343328345028432944 2628493833342237342628262919»(375).

    The entire cryptogram was signed by Alexander Beloborodov, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Soviets of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of the Ural Region, and had an expressive seal. In his book Sokolov gave a transcript of the telegram and tried to give a detailed description of the key to the Urals Council code. However, the way he did it, clearly indicates his weak competence in the field of revolutionary cryptography. The key table given by the investigator (despite his actual fidelity) is not very clear and is too complex.

    Sokolov described his work on the mysterious Bolshevik document in this way:

    “It [the telegram – A.S.] immediately caught my attention and took a lot of time and trouble from me… On February 24, I handed over its content to an experienced person at the headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, on February 28 – to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and later – to General Zhanen, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces. The results were disappointing. In Europe, I managed to find the Russian person, who was always known as a man of absolutely exceptional abilities and experience in this field. On August 25, 1920, he received the content of a telegram. On September 15 of the same year, I had it decoded… On August 25, 1920, the idea of Bolshevik lies was absolutely clear to me: “We shot only the Tsar, but not the family. They put on a revolutionary guise and tampered with the moral principle of the crime. With this principle they justified the murder of the Tsar. But what morality can justify the killing of children? They had only one option left: to lie, and they lied. But they lied to the world. For themselves and among themselves, they had to speak truthfully. The content of this truth could not help but include the word “family”. Among others, it was given by me on August 25, 1920. A technician with enormous experience and a number of outstanding abilities revealed the meaning of the mysterious telegram. The key, obviously, is the word “Yekaterinburg”, which has 12 letters.

    Every reader familiar with Sokolov’s book will question the last phrase. The fact that the key to the Urals Council code in the word “Yekaterinburg” is not at all obvious. And we only have to be surprised by the insight of an unknown decoder. For he is absolutely right.

    Indeed, Sokolov’s key is correct. But beforehand it turned into a completely different “gamut”. It was done with the help of a “single-valued paired cipher” (according to Rosenthal’s terminology). It was two 27-letter alphabets, written in different lines towards each other. It was an ancient cryptographic rule, known in Russia, for example, from the “Tarabarskaya charters”. At the same time, the alphabet was shifted so as to combine the first and last letters of the keyword: «Е» и «Г».

    абвгдежзиклмнопрмтуфхцчшщюя
    изжедгвбаяющшчцхфутсрпонмлк

    Each pair of letters of the upper and lower alphabets here replaced each other. As a result, the word “Yekaterinburg” turned into a different combination of letters, on which the encryption table was built. It is necessary to think that this principle had no use exclusively for the cipher of Yekaterinburg, and extended to other regions of Soviet Russia. The main cipher system is already well known to us – it is the so-called “wise key” of the revolutionary underground (the direct heir to the Vigenere cipher). The key of the Urals Council is presented in Table 14:

    http://www.hrono.ru/libris/lib_s/tabl14.html

    Everything in the Ural Bolshevik code is familiar to us. Paraphrasing of key words originated from the times of popularity. The 27-letter alphabet for building ciphers was used by revolutionaries at the dawn of the 20th century. And even the double-row numbering of the table columns is not something exceptional and this principle has been met by us many times. As we can see, this tablet is much simpler than the one that the investigator Sokolov brought in his book.
    For two years, he has been searching persistently for a man capable of breaking the unfortunate code in the vast warring Russia. And he insisted on it for a reason! Using the word “family” as a hint, an experienced cryptologist was able to read the telegram of the Ural Sovdep in Sovnarkom within two weeks:
     “Tell Sverdlov that the whole family has suffered the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die during the evacuation.”

  4. #4 Thomas
    5. Juni 2019

    Page xxvi of Sokolov’s book contains the deciphering process and the Russian plaintext: https://books.google.de/books?id=BCZFDwAAQBAJ

  5. #5 Thomas
    5. Juni 2019

    This is the link to the images in Sokolov’s book:https://books.google.de/books?id=BCZFDwAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&hl=de&pg=PR25-IA6.

    The first table (like a Trithemius table, but containung numbers) is made up shifting the number sequences in the columns according to the alphabet positions of the 12 letters of the key ‘Ekaterinburg’ The second image shows how the plaintext is obtained. As can be seen, the first cipher number was taken from the first column of the aforementioned number table, the second letter from the second column and so on.