The Romanovs: Forensic Identification of the Tsar’s Grave

The Romanovs were the last imperial dynasty to rule Russia, between 1693 and 1917. In the February Revolution in 1917, the first part of the Russian Revolution, the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and nominated his brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, who declined the crown.

Nicholas, his wife, Tsarina Alexandra (Alexandra Fyodorovna, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria), his son, Alexei, and his four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, were put under house arrest in a house known as “The House of Special Purpose”.

On 17 July 1918, Bolsheviks shot the Tsar and his immediate family and servants. The Bolshevik government kept their deaths a secret (only revealing it in 1926). The Romanovs’ bodies were supposed to be dumped in a mineshaft, but the truck broke down and they were buried next to the side of the road.

In July 1991, workers found nine skeletons in a shallow grave in Yekaterinburg, Russia, during construction work. There were reports that the bones had been originally found in 1979, but that the information was kept secret.

Reconstructing The Skeletons

Based on skull measurements, examination of the type of dental work, and superimposing images of the skulls on existing photographs, scientists matched the skeletons with the Tsar, the Tsarina, three of the children, their doctor and three servants, and concluded that the bodies of Marie and Alexei were missing.

A team of American forensic scientists also examined the skeletons. They came to a similar conclusion, but stated that the missing girl was Anastasia, not Marie.

DNA Evidence

In 1992, the UK-based Forensic Science Service worked with the Russian authorities to try to identify the bodies using forensic techniques.

DNA-based sex testing and a DNA profiling technique called ‘short tandem repeat analysis’, which looks at repeated patterns of DNA sequences, proved that the bodies came from a family group.

Forensic scientists used mitochondrial DNA analysis, which they use when only minute amounts of DNA are available, or when the DNA samples have been degraded by time, to analyses DNA samples from the bones. These were compared with relatives of the Romanovs, including Prince Phillip, and the scientists concluded that there was a 99% probability that the skeletons were those of the Romanov family.

Grand Duchess Anastasia

Despite eyewitness reports confirming their deaths, there were a number of rumours suggesting that members of the Romanov family had survived, including that Anastasia had only been wounded and had been taken away by a Red Guard.

A number of women have claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anna Anderson (also known as Anastasia Manahan) first claimed to be Anastasia in 1920. Lawsuits continued right through to the 1970s, and she died in 1984. Following her death, forensic scientists extracted DNA samples from a colon biopsy sample and analysed it, and confirmed that the DNA profile did not match with those of surviving relatives of the Romanovs, including Price Phillip.

The Postscript

In 2004, scientists from the USA argued against the results from the Forensic Science Service, based on an analysis of the DNA from the preserved finger of Tsarina Alexandra’s sister, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth. They suggested that the people who handled the bones in Russia probably contaminated the samples from the gravesite, perhaps intentionally.

Leave a comment

Explore Forensics