Russia's Royal Bones of Contention

By Andrei Zolotov Jr.

 
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EVEN as a somber funeral ceremony takes place this week at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, controversy continues to rage over the "Yekaterinburg remains," the bones being interred this Friday in a burial vault built for Russia's last royal family. The true identity of the bones - the final link in the life and death of the last Romanov monarchs - will no doubt remain one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.

At the conclusion of seven years of various identification procedures, the Russian government this January announced that the nine skeletons discovered near Yekaterinburg in the late 1970s and secretly exhumed in 1991, belong, beyond any reasonable doubt, to Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, three of their five children, and four employees.

But many Russians, both inside and outside the country, remain unconvinced by what appears to be conclusive scientific evidence. Thanks to a combination of dubious procedure and Soviet-style secrecy, the government has been unable to overcome the deep mistrust of those who revere the tsar as a martyr and refuse to believe that the Yekaterinburg remains are in fact those of Russia's last imperial ruler and his family.

The issue has become so contentious that the country's heads of church and state have both announced that they will not attend the funeral. With neither President Boris Yeltsin nor Patriarch Alexy II in attendance, the burial ceremony is hardly the "act of national repentance and reconciliation" it was originally conceived as.

The riddle began in the early morning of July 17, 1918, when the tsar, his family and servants were roused from their sleep and ushered to the basement of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they had been held for over two months by their Bolshevik captors. Once the family was assembled, 11 men walked into the room and began shooting. Nicholas and Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatyana, Marie and Anastasia, and the heir apparent, Alexei, were killed. Also dead were the family doctor Eugene Botkin, Alexandra's maid Anna Demidova, Nicholas' valet Alexei Trupp and cook Ivan Kharinotov.

A few days later, the Bolshevik government announced only the execution of Nicholas, saying that the rest of the family had been transferred to a "place of greater safety." A week later, the White Army entered Yekaterinburg and immediately launched an official investigation into the Romanovs' disappearance.

In 1919, the case was taken over by the man then considered one of Russia's best criminal detectives, White Army investigator Nikolai Sokolov, who concluded six years later that the family's bodies had been retrieved from a mine shaft and destroyed with a combination of fire and sulfuric acid, leaving only a part of a finger, several burned bones and some pieces of clothing behind.

In response, Soviet authorities in 1926 proffered their own theory, publishing "The Last Days of Tsardom," by Pavel Bykov, then Yekaterinburg's local Bolshevik leader. Contrary to Sokolov's conclusion, Bykov wrote that "the remains of the corpses, after being burned, were taken quite far away from the mines and buried in a swampy place."

THE question was raised again only in the late 1950s, when Alexander Avdonin, a Yekaterinburg geologist, decided to pursue what he describes as a lifelong interest in the executions that had taken place in his hometown.

"The entire atmosphere here is filled with it," said Avdonin, who read Bykov's book when he was 16 years old. A patient, systematic man, Avdonin began interviewing people in the city, by then renamed Sverdlovsk, in honor of the Bolshevik officer who reported the Romanovs' murder to Lenin.

In 1976, Avdonin was joined by Geli Ryabov, a successful Moscow detective writer who had also become absorbed in the Romanov mystery and had invaluable access to Moscow archives and state records. The following year, the Ipatiev House was destroyed over concerns that it might continue to incite further speculation on the executions, an order carried out by then-regional Communist Party boss Boris Yeltsin.

"It was very frightening," Avdonin said of conducting his clandestine research. "Though people say today that we weren't afraid, we were in fact afraid. But our interest in removing this blank section in history overpowered us." Sokolov's book, then unavailable to ordinary Russians, was copied by hand by Ryabov and passed to Avdonin, who himself wrote out a second manuscript.

USING the book and a copy they were able to obtain of the testimony by Yakov Yurovsky, the chief officer in charge of the executions, Avdonin and Ryabov claimed they were able to track down a stretch along an old road running towards the road to Koptyaki, where the bodies might have been buried. In May 1979, Avdonin and Ryabov, assisted by their wives and two friends, secretly dug at the site and recovered three skulls. But after a fruitless, year-long quest for a laboratory to secretly test and identify the remains, they returned the bones to the burial site.

"Then there was 10 years of silence," Avdonin said. "It was a pretty scary time. It was hard to keep the secret." Convinced that their generation was indoctrinated only to think of the executions as a just end for an evil ruler, he and Ryabov agreed to pass their findings on only to their children.

But according to American historian Robert Massie, who documented the results of Avdonin's research in "The Romanovs: The Final Chapter," their account was made public in 1989, according to Massie's book, when a report Ryabov wrote to then-Communist Party general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was leaked to the editor of the weekly Moscow News, one of the officially sanctioned pioneers of glasnost. Ryabov then published his own account of the events in the paper but left out mention of Avdonin, triggering a feud between the two that continues to this day.

Mistrustful of anything that took place under the Soviet regime, �migr� and Russian critics have since maintained that the remains are false and that Ryabov, Avdonin and popular historian Eduard Radzinsky, who came to similar conclusions in his best-selling book "The Last Tsar," were working as Soviet agents. There are rumors that the Bolsheviks had killed a merchant's family whose composition by sex, age and height was similar to that of the Romanovs. Yurovsky's account also contradicts reminiscences of other participants as well as Sokolov's findings.

Some people, meanwhile, believe the remains are in fact those of the imperial family, but remain suspicious of Avdonin, who comes across as inscrutable. Yekaterinburg monarchist Nina Kolotvinova, for example, thinks Avdonin knew of the burial site since childhood and simply kept it a secret. "Knowing Alexander Nikolayevich [Avdonin], I can say that he can keep secrets," Kolotvinova said. Massie, too, writes in his book that while Avdonin is telling the truth, he does not appear to be telling the entire truth.

In 1991, Yekaterinburg governor Eduard Rossel, with the blessing of Yeltsin, by now Russia's president, authorized the exhumation of the remains. Local police dug up the bones under the supervision of Yekaterinburg university archeology professor Lyudmila Koryakova, and Rossel announced that the bones "with great probability" were those of the royal family.

The first identifications following the exhumation were made by Sergei Abramov, a leading Moscow forensic anthropologist, using a technique of computer superimposition, a technique considered inaccurate by many experts. Abramov concluded that the two bodies missing following the exhumation were those of Tsarevich Alexei and daughter Marie. He also identified the so-called skeleton No. 6 as that of Anastasia, the youngest daughter, a finding subsequently disputed by American anthropologist William Maples, who had asserted that Anastasia's body was in fact one of the two missing, and that skeleton No. 6 belonged to Marie.

IN 1993, the Russian government established a Commission on the Identification of the Remains and appointed Vladimir Solovyov, an investigator from the Prosecutor General's Office, to head a criminal investigation into the fate of the Romanovs and their remains. That year and the following, two major DNA tests were conducted on the remains. Pavel Ivanov, a leading Moscow molecular biologist from the Engelhardt Institute, worked with British expert Peter Gill at his Forensic Science Service Research Laboratory in Aldermaston, England. Tests were then done at the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland.

This time a highly sophisticated method was used of matching DNA samples from the bones with those of relatives of the individuals. Samples from Alexandra's remains were compared to those of her distant relative, Britain's Prince Philip, and the bones of Nicholas were compared with those of his brother Georgy, whose remains were exhumed from the Saints Peter and Paul crypt in St. Petersburg.

THE studies all concluded that the remains were indeed those of the Romanovs, and that the bones of Marie and Alexei were missing. In the summer of 1995, investigator Solovyov closed the criminal case, and the government commission set a 1996 date - Feb. 25, Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox calendar - for the imperial family to be buried in St. Petersburg.

But protests from critics forced the government to back away from its decision, and Solovyov reopened the criminal case. In September 1995, representatives of the Expert Commission Abroad, a U.S.-based association of Russian �migr� scientists and activists who subscribe to Sokolov's account that virtually no royal remains exist, came to Moscow to voice their doubts over the state's findings.

The Russian Orthodox Church joined the protests at the same time, criticizing the swift plans for the burial and demanding more information, including conclusive evidence concerning the missing remains of two bodies and an authentication of Yurovsky's testimony, which many consider to be falsified. Other questions applied to the two teeth found in the grave but never identified, and to the presumed bone scar that Nicholas received when he was attacked with a sword during his 1891 visit to Japan.

Yet another question asked the state to rule out the possibility of a "ritual murder" by Jews, a widespread theory among some right-wing Russian Orthodox believers based on the fact that almost everyone in the Bolshevik chain of command responsible for the execution of the tsar was Jewish, and that mysterious inscriptions were found on the walls of the room whether the family was murdered. The inscriptions were later interpreted as signs that the Christian monarch was killed by Jewish and Masonic partners as a symbol of their victory over an Orthodox and holy Russia.

Though both the church's commission on canonization and the government's commission denied this claim, saying that Jews who took part in the murder were driven by other motivations, their conclusions have proven insufficient for anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.

"The murder of a tsar anointed by God has a ritualistic-mystical sense regardless of whether the immediate executioners were aware of it or unaware of it," said writer Mikhail Nazaov, who champions the "ritual murder" cause.

In November 1997, after two years of inconclusive squabbling, Boris Nemtsov, then just appointed first deputy prime minister, took charge of the government commission and revitalized the case. In January, he attested to his faith in the authenticity of the remains, saying he was "99 percent sure, with six more nines after the decimal point."

To placate opponents, additional DNA testing was done by Moscow geneticist Yevgeny Rogayev comparing Nicholas' thigh bone to blood samples of the tsar's late nephew, Tikhon Kulikovsky.

Solovyov reported back to the commission on the church's questions, but the attempt to settle the issue failed. Nearly every leading Russian newspaper published articles doubting the commission's findings, and opponents, maintaining that the discovery of the remains was in fact just a continuation of the same plot that had killed the royals in the first place, sent appeals to the government and church to start the investigation anew.

"When we discovered the remains, we thought they would become a means of reconciliation for our people, �migr� Russians and the church," Avdonin mused.

"But none of that happened."

 

Copyright � The St.Petersburg Times