The execution of Russia's imperial family was mysterious even though no one doubted that the Bolsheviks ordered the killings and no one doubted their motive: Bolsheviks, after all, were happy to do away with Romanovs.

But Lenin & Co. lied about the murders -- beginning with their insistence that the imperial family had been "evacuated to a safe place" after the execution of Czar Nicholas II. In truth, Nicholas's wife, five teenage children, doctor and three servants had been led to the cellar of the ominously named House of Special Desig- nation.

There, in the Ural Mountain city of Ekaterinburg, a 12-man execution squad fired many volleys. But, oddly enough, the bullets didn't immediately kill all the intended victims; enough jewelry had been sewn into their clothing to allow some of the children to survive the fusillade. Diamond-filled corsets even made it difficult to kill some of the daughters with bayonets. The heir, 14-year-old Alexei, a hemophiliac, showed a "strange vitality," by one account, and had to be finished off by more bullets.

Eventually, the bodies were loaded onto a truck, taken to a mine and hacked to pieces before being doused with sulfuric acid and gasoline. Some were burned.

That was the end of the Romanovs, but such images, though they seem very far away, still haunt Russians in much the way images of John F. Kennedy's death haunt Americans. It is the special contribution of Russian playwright-historian Edvard Radzinsky to have chronicled the last days of the imperial family in gory, mournful detail. His book, "The Last Tsar," was published on Friday -- the 74th anniversary of the executions.

At first glance, the 52-year-old Radzinsky seems an unlikely person to write about Russia's last royalty. He is a man of the theater, a child of Jewish intellectuals. He has mildly unkempt red hair and the animation of an actor -- now and then he draws his hands to his cheeks in a gesture of mock sympathy. He acknowledges that in the late '60s, people wondered about his interest, even though he was a playwright drawn to historical subjects. "They decided I was a little bit crazy," he says, "because a book about Nicholas in a communist country is possible only for a crazy man or a man who has too much time."

On an early trip to the Central Archive of the October Revolution, he was given the 50 volumes of Nicholas's diary, begun when the czar was 14 and continued until three days before his death, 36 years later. ("I immediately understood him," says Radzinsky. "I immediately understood he was a typical Chekhov hero. He became my friend.") His browsing became more fruitful as the glasnost era arrived, and among his discoveries was a document not yet seen by independent researchers: a firsthand account by the commander of the execution squad, Yakov Yurovsky.

In late 1989, Radzinsky published Yurovsky's testimony in the magazine Ogonyok, and for the first time Russians learned about the demise of their last monarch in language like this: "The detachment had been told beforehand who was to shoot whom, and they had been ordered to aim straight for the heart, to avoid excessive quantities of blood and get it over with quicker."

In that objective, the assassins failed. There was a lot of blood, and Radzinsky's impressionistic, sometimes jittery accumulation of new documentation includes much disturbing detail: "The blood was gushing out ... the heir was still alive -- and moaning," is the testimony of Pavel Medvedev, one of the assassins. "Yurovsky walked over to him and shot him two or three times at point-blank range. The heir fell still. The scene made me want to vomit."

And this, from assassin Alexander Strekotin: "When they laid one of the daughters on the stretcher, she cried out and covered her face with her arm. The others also turned out to be alive. We couldn't shoot anymore -- with the open doors, the shots could have been heard on the street ... {assassin Peter} Ermakov took my bayonet from me and started stabbing everyone dead who had turned out to be alive."

The accounts go on like that, but more than ghoulish detail is present here. Radzinsky agrees with Richard Pipes, the Harvard historian, who wrote, "There was something uniquely odious about {the execution}, something that radically distinguished it from previous acts of regicide and brands it as a prelude to 20th-century mass murder."

Radzinsky says he wrote about the Romanovs "because it's a fantastic lesson for Russia. The situation before and after the February {1917} revolution is absolutely the contemporary situation in Russia today. There is still hatred for authorities, the same horror of hunger, the same disorder and so on. It's the same situation."

When he is pressed a bit on that analogy, he retreats. Boris Yeltsin is no Nicholas, though "Yeltsin has the face of a Russian czar." And former leader Mikhail Gorbachev? For Radzinsky, Gorbachev was Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government to whom Nicholas actually abdicated. Kerensky was deposed by the Bolsheviks in November 1917, at which point Nicholas was doomed.

Radzinsky, who is not shy about contradicting himself, also says he worries about an unhealthy interest in the past -- such as the ongoing trial of the Communist Party in Moscow.

"The tragedy of this country," he says, "is that it continues to see into the past. We have no food, no clothes, no leaders, and we continue to think about trials, the graves of the Romanovs."

For children of the Russian Revolution, the truth from the graves of the Romanovs inevitably includes the truth about the man Radzinsky calls "our sainted Mr. Lenin" -- namely, that it was Lenin who gave the order to kill the imperial family. As recently as 1990, Soviet officials were insisting that the orders were issued by the local soviet.

Radzinsky is fond of unanswered questions, such as the identity of the Berlin woman who 70 years ago announced that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia. In "The Last Tsar," he even introduces dubious testimony about someone who in 1947 claimed to be Alexei. Does he really believe someone could have survived the execution chamber?

"If someone asks if it was possible for two of the Romanovs to have survived the execution, I say: 'Not impossible.' " But he confesses that he speaks more as a playwright than a historian. The playwright insists that the bones of only nine bodies have been recovered in the burial pit 12 miles from Ekaterinburg; the historian acknowledges that the bones of the other two might have been lost.

Radzinsky is most intrigued by the idea that there is photographic evidence of the executions.

"Yurovsky was a professional photographer," he says. "He confiscated a camera from the czarina. It was impossible for him to take pictures immediately after the execution -- he was a little bit crazy, they continued to be alive, they continued to kill them. But afterwards, he had three days. He had an opportunity to take a camera to the grave. It is impossible for a man who likes pictures not to take such pictures."

And there is this: Who actually killed the last czar of all the Russias? There are three historical claimants, and three guns -- all of which are the property of the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow. Radzinsky says the czar's killer was undoubtedly a man named Mikhail Medvedev. It would have been a great honor.

Pipes, who devotes a chapter of his recent "The Russian Revolution" to the imperial family, says that Radzinsky "knows his stuff; it's a reliable account {but} it's very sensationalized." He notes that some of Radzinsky's discoveries appear in his own book.

Robert K. Massie, whose "Nicholas and Alexandra" was a popular success a quarter-century ago, says, "Radzinsky did a lot of work, he dug up a lot of that stuff, and I found it interesting." Massie also says, "It's not a coherent historical narrative. It's sort of an episodic blip here and there, in which the author makes himself a character."

Massie, though, is annoyed that the book's editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Onassis, sent him the Radzinsky book in hopes of getting a blurb. He recalls her letter saying, "This is a book that I think will stand as the definitive account of the fall of the House of Romanov." To which Massie says, "At the moment, he said modestly, my book has sold about 3 million copies and has never been taken apart."

Radzinsky's view of Onassis is devoted: "She was fantastic. It was really her work. I decided that such a beautiful woman, such a woman, it was maybe a hobby, no more. But she worked, corrected the translation, she chose the pictures. ... And people explained to me that the book was too big. But she did not cut it. She's the best editor."

The historical trail, meanwhile, is getting colder. The house in Ekaterinburg was bulldozed in 1977, under the direction of then-regional party boss Boris Yeltsin; the authorities had become fearful of a new monarchy movement. For Radzinsky, the destruction of the house was much like the destruction of the monarchy, in a society where "everything is secret, but there are no mysteries." In the end, the orders came from Moscow.