Innocently, they arranged themselves as if posing for a family picture: the czarina and the sickly young czarevich sitting, the czar and the four pretty grand duchesses arrayed around them with the family doctor and servants.
Then the bullets flew.
Screams. Moans. Ricochets. The thrusts of bayonets and thumps of rifle butts. Eventual silence. Blood on the cellar room’s walls and floor.
When Red guards slaughtered the imperial family of Czar Nicholas II in July of 1918, the Bolshevik regime crossed what historians consider was a moral Rubicon, presaging the millions of deaths to come.
And, with the horrible resonance of their act, they created the makings of a mystery that captured imaginations around the world, a mystery that included such grisly clues as a severed finger, a decomposed dog and a plot of burnt earth saturated with human fat.
For decades, Westerners intrigued by the idea that some of the Romanovs, especially the Grand Duchess Anastasia, could have survived the massacre produced reams of speculation and partial evidence, from books to a classic Ingrid Bergman film.
But it took Russians--Russians angered by the collective crimes of their past, finally unleashed to explore a long-taboo subject--to find real answers.
So that only now, 75 years after the massacre in the Ural Mountains city of Ekaterinburg, does a combination of good police work, competent archive searches and hard-core science promise to solve many of the last Romanov riddles.
“We are very close to the last part of this mystery, to one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century, one of the great mysteries of my country, of Russia,” forensic scientist Pavel Ivanov said.
This spring, Ivanov and British colleagues working with a technique known as DNA fingerprinting expect to be able to announce unequivocally that nine skeletons unearthed near Ekaterinburg in 1991 belonged to the Romanovs and their entourage.
If all goes as planned, the Romanov remains will be re-interred in the imperial crypts in St. Petersburg on July 17, the anniversary of the killings.
Then, only one puzzle--the most fascinating of all, the fates of Anastasia and of Alexei, the heir--will remain.
For the muddled collection of bones and skulls dug up in a swampy meadow near Ekaterinburg apparently did not include those of Anastasia and Alexei.
Ivanov and British Home Office genetic detectives are considering an attempt to apply DNA testing to hairs from Anna Anderson, an enigmatic, eccentric woman who claimed that she was Anastasia right up until her 1984 death in Virginia. She managed to convince several of the noble houses of Europe of her authenticity but lost marathon court battles that lasted, off and on, from 1938 until 1977.
They also plan to test tissue samples from an American, also now dead, who claimed to be Alexei.
But Russian film director Gely Ryabov, a key player in the uncovering of the Romanov remains, contends that such claims of amazing survival by Anastasia or other Romanovs garnered support only because the West failed to understand Russian communism.
“We have no instances of the Communists ever, anywhere, having mercy on anyone,” Ryabov said. “If people understood that, it would not occur to anyone that Communists could let a member of the czar’s family survive. It’s simply impossible.”
He is convinced that if the searches near Ekaterinburg continue, they will eventually turn up traces of the two youngest Romanovs.
It was Ryabov, a former police investigator and filmmaker for the Interior Ministry, who first found the Romanov remains in the late 1970s.
He had become obsessed with the 1918 killings during a business trip to Ekaterinburg, then known as Sverdlovsk. Returning to Moscow, he plowed into secret archives using his special Interior Ministry access, and even managed to track down the children of Yakov Yurovsky, the Bolshevik guard who oversaw the executions.
Yurovsky’s son gave him a previously unknown note that included a description of the disposal of the bodies. With its help, Ryabov located the layer of logs shallowly covered with dirt that lay over the muddy spot where the Romanov remains were buried. A local historian helped him, along with a geologist who climbed high up into a pine tree to spot traces of the old road traveled by the truck that carried the corpses.
Ryabov was motivated at first by curiosity, then by a dawning sense that the Communist regime was evil, based on this original crime, the slaughter of a royal family. He knew that the authorities would surely stop his investigation as a pro-czarist act and punish him severely if they found out. So he dug at night to avoid discovery, and soon turned up the first bones.
“It was just mind-boggling,” Ryabov recalled, now sitting in his office, a narrow room densely hung with large oil portraits of the Romanovs. “It was hard to believe, these black and green bones with signs of the burns from acid. One of the skulls had a bullet hole in it.”
Ryabov had to keep quiet about his find in those years of Communist orthodoxy, when the guards who killed the czar were still revered as heroes.
It was only in 1988, when glasnost appeared likely to stick, that he went public, creating a sensation and exploding longstanding theories that the Romanov women had survived long after the czar was killed.
About the same time, a renowned Soviet playwright and trained archivist, Edvard Radzinsky, was reaching the climax of 20 years of his own research into the Romanovs’ last days and violent end.
He had found Nicholas’ diary and the Czarina Alexandra’s diary, and hunted down the same Yurovsky note that Ryabov had seen, finding a copy and publishing it in a popular Soviet magazine, Ogonyok, only in 1989.
“It was horror in every line,” Radzinsky said of Yurovsky’s descriptions of how the Romanovs were killed. “Revolution is madness, and he didn’t understand what he wrote. For him, it was not the killing of people, it was the killing of tyrants and the daughters of tyrants.”
Radzinsky, whose discoveries were published in America last year in the best-selling book “The Last Tsar,” was deluged with letters from helpful Ogonyok readers. Several of them eventually led him to hitherto-unknown accounts--either in the form of notes or passed on orally to family members--by six of the dozen guards who did the shooting that night, all long dead.
The picture he put together is a hair-raising account of what happened in the cellar of the merchant Ipatiev’s house in Ekaterinburg that late summer night:
The guards, armed with revolvers, crowded into the cellar room’s doorway and fired copiously at the Romanovs and their servants, some of whom dashed around the room and somehow, almost superhumanly, refused to die, showing what Yurovsky called “strange vitality.”
“Alexei, three of his sisters, the lady-in-waiting and (family doctor Yevgeny) Botkin were still alive” after a long round of shooting, Yurovsky wrote, according to Radzinsky. “They had to be finished off. This amazed the commandant, since we had aimed straight for the heart. It was also surprising that the bullets from the revolvers bounced off for some reason and ricocheted, jumping around the room like hail.”
Radzinsky explains the “strange vitality” by quoting descriptions he found of the fortune in family jewels that the Romanov children were wearing sewn into their belts and corsets. The jewels and their frames acted as armor against the bullets, and it was this shielding, plus the confusion of the moment, that could conceivably have allowed Anastasia and Alexei to survive.
The bodies were loaded into a truck and brought to an abandoned mine shaft, where, according to Yurovsky, they were undressed and thrown in, followed by a few hand grenades to collapse the mine over them and assure that they would never be found.
The mine did not collapse, however. After the anti-Bolshevik White Army retook Ekaterinburg a few days later, trinkets belonging to the Romanovs were found near the shaft. White Army investigators also found a severed finger and the remains of a fire that had saturated the earth with human fat. No matter how they searched, however, they could not find any actual remains except for some small bone fragments. In the mine itself they found only the partially decayed corpse of what they thought was Jemmy, the Grand Duchess Tatiana’s dog.
The Yurovsky note explains the missing remains. He wrote that because the mine shaft did not fall in, he worried that the bodies would be found, so he had them hoisted out and trucked to another spot, where two of them were burned and the rest buried.
That inexplicable decision--to burn two and bury the rest--also bolsters the theory on Anastasia’s survival. Radzinsky speculated that Yurovsky may have said he burned two bodies because Anastasia and Alexei somehow disappeared before the truck first reached the mine.
“As a historian I don’t believe this version,” said Radzinsky, a twinkly man with thinning red hair. “But as a writer, I absolutely believe it because otherwise it’s impossible to explain: Why did Yurovsky burn two bodies, and why did two sets of diamonds disappear?”
Anna Anderson, the mysterious claimant to be Anastasia, said that she had been rescued by a soldier who later fled with her to Romania.
Alexei, a hemophiliac, could have died of his wounds. He could have somehow escaped to America. Or he could have grown up into a peculiar man Radzinsky heard about, a labor camp inmate with a tendency to psychosis who convinced his psychiatrists in the late 1940s that he was the czarevich. He resembled Nicholas II to a T, they recalled, and fit Alexei’s description right down to hemophilia and an irregular testicle.
Anna Anderson’s story, and her identity, remained controversial to the very end.
Some asserted that she had knowledge, such as her account of a secret visit by a high German official to the Romanovs in 1916, that no impostor could have obtained, and that her ears and handwriting matched those of Anastasia. Others pointed out that she could not speak Russian and that her overall appearance bore no striking resemblance to photos of the Grand Duchess, who was 17 in 1918.
Forensic scientist Ivanov, one of Russia’s foremost DNA experts, holds little hope that even with the latest technology it will be possible to establish whether she was the true Anastasia. When Anna Anderson, by then known as Mrs. John Manahan, died, she was cremated. She left no children, although her house was full of cats. Only some hairs purported to be hers remain.
“It’s very difficult to work with cut hair,” Ivanov said. “It’s easier to work with bones or hair with roots.”
Still, testing is expected to start this spring, if funding can be worked out.
The results that Ivanov--working with scientist Peter Gill and his team at Britain’s central Home Office forensic laboratories in Aldermaston--have already achieved with the Romanov bones, using brand-new and still controversial technology, appear nearly miraculous.
The DNA fingerprinting process, pioneered in criminal cases by Gill in 1985, compares the patterns of deoxyribonucleic acid that makes up a person’s unique genetic blueprint.
Criminal cases normally involve matching blood or semen; Ivanov had to work with bones, which carry much less DNA than living tissue or vital fluids.
And the bones were in terrible shape. Some were so fragile that they turned to dust when touched. The skulls were so badly battered that another key test, comparing portraits of the Romanovs to the skulls by computer, could not bring conclusive results.
“Even if we managed to extract enough DNA, there was a question of its quality,” Ivanov recalled. And there was the issue of control samples: Once extracted, what could the DNA be compared to? There were no other sources for the imperial family’s genetic material.
There was, however, a method of comparing what is known as mitochondrial DNA, which should match between relatives descended from the same maternal line. And among the relatives suitable for comparing was Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II; his grandmother and Czarina Alexandra’s grandmother were sisters.
Prince Philip consented to give a blood sample for the DNA analysis, and the scientists managed to extract a minuscule quantity of workable DNA from the bones, amplify it through a process called polymerase chain reaction and compare sections of it to analogous sections of Prince Philip’s DNA.
Philip’s DNA matched with four of the skeletons--consistent with those believed to be the czarina and three of her daughters. Ivanov sent a telegram from Aldermaston to Gill, who was then away on a business trip, announcing: “Great news! Phil matches in both regions!”
“It was a great success,” Ivanov said. “We were very glad.”
The only thing holding back a full announcement now was a single mismatch found when they compared the czar’s bones with a relative who shared Nicholas’ maternal line four generations back. The four-generation gap increases the chances of a mismatch, and Ivanov believes the small discrepancy is the result of a mutation.
He expects further testing of other Romanov relatives to establish the mutation and clear it up this spring, particularly if he can persuade Nicholas’ nephew--an elderly man now living in Toronto who has so far refused to provide a blood sample--to cooperate.
Ryabov, who is now working on a film on Adm. Alexander Kolchak, the Siberia-based White Army commander, believes that it is Russia’s ultimate destiny to live under a czar.
“It just can’t be otherwise,” he said. “By any calculation, it’s better to have a czar than a Communist on the throne.”
Small monarchist parties are thriving in Russia, particularly in St. Petersburg, and the imperial burial this summer will show just how much they reflect a popular yearning for the restoration of the Romanov rule.
“Two years ago,” Radzinsky said, “if you asked me about the possibility of returning the Romanovs, I would say that was madness.
“But now,” he said, “I have only one answer: It’s not impossible. Because they are martyrs. And Russia loves martyrs.”