By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 17, 2008
MOSCOW, July 16 -- Ninety years after the Bolsheviks executed the last czar and his family, Russian investigators said Wednesday that DNA analysis confirmed categorically that remains found in a pit last year in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg were those of the czar's children Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria.
With that announcement, the remains of all of Nicholas II's family have been accounted for. The myth, reinforced down the years in films and false claims, that one of the czar's offspring had survived has been formally put to rest.
"It is very important that these results are now official and that it is 100 percent so," said Prince Dmitry Romanov, a descendant of an earlier czar, Nicholas I, in an interview on Echo Moskvy radio Wednesday. "The larger part of my family, nearly all members, have been hoping all this time that it will be so. It was clear for us it was so."
As revolution swept Russia in 1917, Nicholas II abdicated. He and his family were imprisoned in a number of locations before they were taken to a merchant's home in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow. It was there on July 17, 1918, that the entire family -- Nicholas, his wife Empress Alexandra and their five children -- was summarily executed in the basement, on the orders of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Also shot were the family doctor and three servants.
The murders shocked even the war-weary world of 1918. The bodies were burned, doused with acid and buried and reburied in secret to prevent any grave site becoming a place of pilgrimage.
Within months of the murders, the first of dozens of people surfaced who claimed to be a surviving child of the czar. The most famous of these pretenders was Anna Anderson, who declared that she was the czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia. DNA disproved her claim after her death in the United States in 1984.
In 1991, word spread that a mass grave had been discovered in Yekaterinburg. DNA analysis confirmed that the grave contained Nicholas, three of his children and his retinue -- but it was missing son Alexei and daughter Maria.
The royal family was reburied with full honors in the imperial crypt in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg in 1998. But the absence of two family members continued to confound historians. The Russian Orthodox Church and some Romanovs questioned the authenticity of the identification of the family because of the two missing members.
Amateur investigators in Yekaterinburg continued to hunt for a second grave, reexamining Soviet-era documents for clues. Evidence suggested that the killers, led by the Soviet secret policeman Yakov Yurovsky, had buried two of the bodies at a different site to confuse any intrepid royalists who might stumble on one of the graves.
Last July, just 77 yards from the principal grave, diggers found bone fragments, some intact and some charred. The grave also contained bottles that the killers had used to douse the bodies with acid.
DNA testing, conducted in part at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, confirmed the find as the remains of Alexei, the son who famously suffered from the blood clotting disorder hemophilia, and his older sister Maria.
"The overall scientific results, which were based on DNA tests using three genetic systems, agrees with the hypothesis that in the second burial site the remains of Grand Duchess Maria and Czarevich Alexei have been found," the Prosecutor-General's Office said in a statement.
On Wednesday, hundreds of Russians visited the site of the killing, on which a church has been built.
Nicholas II was ridiculed and demonized through the Soviet era, but he is enjoying some new attention in a country where nostalgia for the pre-Soviet past competes with affection for the communist era. In a Russian television program that is polling its audience to select the most significant Russian historical figure, he is in the lead. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who led in the early going, is now in second place, and there have been accusations here that the television channel, embarrassed by Stalin's popularity, orchestrated Nicholas II's ascension to the top spot.
The czar and his family have been canonized by the Orthodox Church. But on Wednesday some of the church's clergy, noting that prosecutors said they will continue forensic testing, expressed caution about the latest finding.
"The official position of the church has yet to be announced," Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy head of external relations at the Moscow Patriarchate, told the Interfax news agency. "I think that those who want to learn it should be patient; moreover, scientists say that the examination will continue. And it is not the first time that we have heard statements that it is over and that everything is clear."
Romanov family members said Wednesday that no funeral or final burial plans have been made. But all signs are that Alexei and Maria will eventually be buried in St. Petersburg with the rest of their family.