Saturday, May 3rd, 2008
The remains of Tsar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, their daughters the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia, were unearthed outside Yekaterinburg in 1991, but Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria’s bones were missing.
Naturally this fueled rumors that the hemophiliac 13-year-old and his 19-year-old sister had somehow managed to escape a point-blank firing squad execution in a basement in the middle of the night, continuing the heated debate over the fate of the Romanov children well into the 21st century.
In August 2007, a search party unearthed bone fragments in a scorched location suggested by Yakov Yurovsky, the firing squad leader, in his memoirs as the place where Alexei and Maria were burned and buried.
Now both Russian and US laboratories have confirmed that the remains are those of the the final two children of Nicholas and Alexandra.
The test results were based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA, the genetic material passed down only from mothers to children. That DNA is more stable than nuclear DNA — the material inherited from the father’s side — especially when remains are badly damaged.
In this case, the bone fragments were so shattered and burned that Rogaev’s team first had to determine whether enough uncontaminated genetic material still existed for testing.
The delicate work proved that, indeed, useful DNA could be extracted from a very small amount of the material — a critical fact, since they wanted to preserve as much of the bone fragments as possible out of respect for the victims.
The labs are currently working on testing the nuclear DNA of the bone fragments as well to confirm the results of the mitochondrial tests.
No comment so far from the Russian Orthodox Church or the descendants of the Russian royal family. Neither party was particularly keen on the 1991 finds, so I doubt they’ll embrace the results of this one with open arms.
Here are the Romanovs in happier times (1913), with Maria standing behind her father to the left of her mother, and Alexei between Anastasia (left) and Tatiana (right):