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BRIA 13 3 a The Riddle of the Romanovs

CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Rights in Action
Summer 1997 (13:3)

Forensic Evidence

BRIA 13:3 Home | The Riddle of the Romanovs |  DNA, Lie Detector, and Voiceprint Evidence | How Reliable Are Eyewitnesses?

The Riddle of the Romanovs

In law and history there are many mysteries.  Today, forensic science is helping courts and historians unravel new and old puzzles, among them the 80-year-old mystery of what happened to last tsar of Russia and his family.

By the summer of 1918, Russia had erupted in civil war. On one side were the communist revolutionaries, called the Reds or Bolsheviks, who favored redistribution of wealth and worker control of government. They held the major cities, but in the countryside White armies were on the move. These forces opposed the revolutionary government, some favoring democracy and some the restoration of the monarch.

In the middle of this bloody conflict stood the fate of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his family. Two years earlier, Nicholas had been forced from the throne by a provisional democratic government. In 1917, the democratic government too had lost power, this time to the Bolshevik revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin. The Bolsheviks hated the old rulers of Russia, especially the Romanovs, the family that had ruled for 300 years. As tsar, Nicholas was the head of the Romanov family, made up of dozens of nobles and aristocrats who owned much of Russia's land and wealth.

By spring 1918, intending to place the tsar on trial, the Bolsheviks had moved Nicholas to the town of Ekaterinburg on the slopes of the Ural Mountains. With him were his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra; four young daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia; and the tsar's son and heir, 13-year-old, Alexei. 

To imprison the royal family, the Bolsheviks took over the two-story mansion owned by a rich engineer named Ipatiev. For security and to protect against the prying eyes of the townspeople, they built a tall wooden fence around the place and started calling it "The House of Special Purpose." 

The royal family stayed on the top floor with their physician, Dr. Botkin, and three servants. Their guards also occupied rooms in the house. Cut off from the outside world and confined to their rooms except for meals and brief periods of exercise, the family prayed for release.  They hoped the Bolsheviks would exile them to some foreign country or that the White armies fighting in the area would take over the town and free them. 

Unknown to the royal family, rather than a promise of salvation, the fall of the city would seal their doom.  Fearing that the White army would free the tsar, the local Bolshevik command, with Lenin's approval, had decided to kill the tsar and his entire family.

In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, they acted. After 78 days in the House of Special Purpose, something terrible happened to the royal family.

The First Investigation

For political reasons, the Bolshevik government in Moscow decided to keep the fate of the family secret.  It admitted that the tsar had been executed for crimes against the Russian people, but claimed that the rest of the family had been removed to safety.  Many people, including relatives of the royal family, believed these reports and held out hope that the tsarina and her five children were alive. 

On July 25, the White army entered Ekaterinburg and officers rushed to the Ipatiev house.  It was all but empty, only rubbish and odds and ends of the family's possessions littered the floors.  The Whites began an immediate inquiry, soon appointing a seasoned investigator Nikolai Solokov to lead it.

Solokov had only five months to complete the investigation before Ekaterinburg again fell to the Bolsheviks.  He interviewed townspeople, collected physical evidence, and took statements from Bolshevik prisoners. Eventually, he had to flee Russia when the White armies were defeated and the Bolsheviks gained control of the entire country. He published the findings of the investigation in 1924.

According to Solokov, the tsar, his wife, their five children, the doctor, and three servants all died in the early morning hours of July 17. The commander of the Ipatiev house had ordered them down to a small basement room, supposedly for their safety. Suddenly, a squad of executioners appeared at the door. The commander read a brief execution order and everybody started firing pistols into the helpless victims.  The tsar fell first with a bullet to the face.  After 20 minutes, the bloodshed ended and the 11 bodies were loaded on a truck and taken to the dense Koptyaki Forest some 12 miles from the city. There, according to Solokov's evidence, they were doused with acid to conceal their identity, burned, and thrown down an abandoned mine shaft.

But Solokov never found the bodies. The communist government in Russia, now the Soviet Union, kept the fate of the Romanov family a well-guarded state secret, only admitting their deaths in 1926.  Not trusting the communists, many people, including living members of the Romanovs, held out hope that at least some members of the royal family survived.

The Case of Anna Anderson

Soon after the civil war ended in Russia, a number of people came forward in Europe claiming to be members of Tsar Nicholas's immediate family. Most of the pretenders to the Romanov legacy were quickly exposed as frauds. But not all. 

In 1920, an unknown woman tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into a canal in Berlin, Germany.  Rescued, she was rushed to a clinic in a dazed and confused state. At first, she had a complete loss of memory, but slowly she began to recover.  One day, she saw a picture of the tsar's family and became quite excited.  Soon she was claiming to be one of the grand duchesses. Rumors spread that a member of the tsar's immediate family had survived.

Claiming that her memory had recovered, the unknown woman told a remarkable story of how she, as Anastasia, had survived the slaughter. According to the story, Anastasia had been saved from a fatal wound because one of her sisters shielded her from the bullets. Though seriously wounded, she awoke under starry skies. A soldier named Tchaikovsky saved her and smuggled her into Romania. There she bore him a son, but Tchaikovsky was soon killed. That is when she fled to Berlin to try to find Romanov relatives. Unsuccessful in her attempt, she became desperate and depressed and decided to kill herself.

What convinced many people of the unknown woman's claim was her ability to provide details about the Romanov family's life in pre-revolutionary Russia. She also bore a strong physical resemblance to the young duchess and had scars on her body consistent with pistol and bayonet wounds. So convincing was the unknown woman that even several relatives of the Romanovs supported her claims.

Most did not. They viewed the woman as a clever imposter, too common to be of Romanov blood and breeding. They also noted that the woman could not, or would not, speak Russian.  Frustrated by the family's refusal to recognize her, and now calling herself Anna Anderson, the woman filed a series of lawsuits in German courts for formal recognition. Relatives of the dead Tsarina Alexandra opposed her claim.

Lacking dental or fingerprint records of Anastasia, investigators on both sides of the issue resorted to other methods to prove their case. For Anderson's side, experts analyzed photos of the Anastasia and Anderson and claimed great similarity. Handwriting experts also argued that their penmanship was the same.  Investigators for those who opposed Anderson came up with their own theory about the woman's identity.  They claimed that she was a Polish woman named Franzisca Schanzkowska who had disappeared from a Berlin boarding house shortly before the unknown woman was pulled from the canal.  Photos of the woman did look like Anderson and the investigators claimed Schanzkowska had many wounds suffered as a result of an explosion in a munitions factory.

The lawsuits dragged on for nearly 30 years ending only in 1970.   At that point, the German court ruled that Anderson had failed to prove that she was Anastasia.  Frustrated by her many years of court battles, Anderson moved to the United States where she died in 1984.

Secrets From the Forest

In 1989 startling news came from the Soviet Union. It was a time of great change.  President Mikhail Gorbachev promoted a greater openness in Soviet society and peaceful relations with the West. On April 12, headlines announced that the bones of the Romanov royal family had been found in a mass grave in the Koptyaki Forest. In fact, they had been discovered by amateur historians led by Alexander Avdonin and Geli Ryabov in 1979. Fearing how the Soviet government might react, the finders hid the information until things changed.

In 1991, Soviet authorities opened the shallow grave. They discovered the tangled skeletons of nine people along with sections of rope and broken sulfuric acid pots. A team of Soviet scientists immediately began to try to identify the remains. Based on studies of the skeletons, they were able to determine the gender and age and found them consistent with those of the royal family, the doctor and the servants. All of the skeletons showed evidence of massive traumatic injuries and gun shot wounds. The dental work of some was the type used near the turn of the century and of the highest quality, affordable only by the richest of people. Scientists made careful skull measurements and compared them to life photos of Romanov family members. They superimposed pictures of the skulls on similar photos and found a match.  They noted evidence of old fractures or injuries to the bones and compared them to known medical conditions of family members. The scientists concluded that occupants of the lonely grave in the forest were the tsar and the others from the Ipatiev massacre. Only one thing did not match.  The scientists could reconstruct only nine skeletons. There should have been 11. They concluded that Alexei and one of the grand duchesses, probably Marie, were missing.

To help confirm the findings, the Soviets asked several American forensic scientists, including Dr. William Maples of the University of Florida, to conduct an independent study.  His team reached similar conclusions to the Soviets, but believed that the missing bodies were those of Alexei and Anastasia, not Marie.

Meanwhile, other Soviet citizens, including writer Edvard Radinsky, had searched Soviet archives to find more clues about the fate of the tsar's family. Through careful research and detective work, they added new details to the story of the tragedy of Ipatiev house. For example, killing the royal family in the cellar had been no easy matter. The young girls, and perhaps even Alexei, had sewn precious jewels—diamonds, rubies and the like—into their clothes to hide them from the Bolsheviks. Like bullet-proof vests, this jewel-encrusted clothing had protected them from the bullets. The executioners had to use bayonets to finally kill them.  Also, in disposing of the bodies, several accounts suggested that two of them had been burned and buried separately from the others.

Still questions remained. In 1992, the Soviets decided to conduct DNA testing on the remains. This process uses comparisons between sequences of genetic material to match samples of human tissue with living people or deceased relatives. DNA can be found in bone, blood, hair, and even saliva. Using blood samples donated by Prince Philip of England, the grandnephew of Tsarina Alexandra, Dr. Gill of the British Home Office Forensic Science Service conducted the tests.  The testing confirmed that five bodies, a father, a mother, and three daughters were all part of the same family. It also proved that the mother was Alexandra. The results were confirmed by two other laboratories.  Scientists ran another test comparing Tsar Nicholas's DNA with that of his dead brother Grand Duke George, whose body had been exhumed for a tissue sample. The test showed they were from the same family.

These tests left little scientific doubt about the identity of the remains found in the mass grave. But what about the missing skeletons?  Believers of Anna Anderson found support for their theories when Dr. Maples claimed that Anastasia's was one of the missing bodies. Two of Anderson's supporters, the granddaughter of the doctor who died with the Romanovs and her husband, Marina and Richard Schweitzer, asked Dr. Gill to make tests to compare Anna's DNA and that of the Romanov bones. Though Anderson had died and been cremated in 1984, a lab sample of her tissue was located. A living relative of the missing Polish woman Schanzkowska, who the Romanovs claimed was Anderson, also provided a blood sample for testing. Now Dr. Gill could test Anderson's DNA against both.

The test results shocked those who believed in Anderson's story. They showed that she was not related to the Romanovs, but was related to Schanskowska. Other labs confirmed the results showing that Anna Anderson had, by false belief or fraud, been an imposter all along.  Some supporters rejected the tests and continue to believe in her claims.

While most of the mysteries about death of the Romanov's now seem resolved through the use of DNA testing, a few remain.  What really happened to the bodies of the missing Romanov children?  Some believe they were burned and buried somewhere in the Koptyaki Forest and someday may be found.  Others suggest that they demonstrate that one or more of the children may have survived. 

If anyone does surface claiming to be the last of the Romanov children, DNA testing should quickly settle the matter.

For Further Reading

King, Greg, The Last Empress, New York: Buch Lane Press, 1994.
Massie, Robert K., The Romanovs, New York: Random House, 1995.
Radnsky, The Last Tsar, New York: Doubles Day, 1992.

For Discussion and Writing

1. Why did the Bolsheviks want to eliminate the entire Romanov
    royal family?  Why did they want to cover up what they did?

2. Why at this time might it be important to find out about the
    fate of the Romanov royal family?

3. Why might some people reject the findings of DNA testing?

  ACTIVITY: Answering Historical Mysteries

DNA testing and other modern forensic science techniques have been used to try to answer other historical issues and questions.  Working as individuals or in groups, select one of the following recent cases and research and write a one-page report describing what historians were trying to determine, what methods they used, and the results:
  The Death of Pharaoh Tut Ankh Amun
  The Fate of President Zachary Taylor
  The Death of Jessie James
  Napoleon's Last Days
  The Iceman
  The Bog People
  The Death of Adolf Hitler
  The Whereabouts of Joseph Mengele
  The Killing of Martin Luther King
  The Fate of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid