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A monarchist displays images of the Romanovs. Many Russians regard the Romanovs, canonized by the Orthodox Church in 2000, as martyrs. (Kate Brooks)

Resurrecting the Czar

In Russia, the recent discovery of the remains of the two missing Romanov children has pitted science against the church

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Valentin Gribenyuk trudges ahead of me through a birch and pine forest outside Yekaterinburg, Russia, waving oversize mosquitoes from his neck and face. The woods close in around us as we follow a trail, stepping over rotting tree trunks and dark puddles. “Right here is the Old Koptyaki Road,” he says, pointing to a dirt and gravel path next to a gas pipeline. “This is where the assassins drove their truck.” We stop at a spot where nine timbers are embedded in the ground. A simple wooden cross stands vigil. “The bodies were found buried right [at the site marked by] these planks.”

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Like many Russians, Gribenyuk, a 64-year-old geologist, has long been obsessed with one of Russia’s most infamous crimes. He now finds himself at the center of the latest controversy surrounding the grisly, world-shattering events of July 17, 1918.

Around 2 a.m. on that day, in the basement of a commandeered house in Yekaterinburg, a Bolshevik firing squad executed Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, the couple’s five children and four attendants. The atrocity ended imperial rule in Russia and was the signature act of a new Communist regime that would brutalize its citizens for most of the 20th century.

The murder of Czar Nicholas Romanov and his family has resonated through Soviet and Russian history, inspiring not only immeasurable government coverups and public speculation but also a great many books, television series, movies, novels and rumors. Yet if it has been an open secret that the Communists had dispatched the Romanovs, there was genuine mystery, apparently even within the government, concerning the whereabouts of the royal remains.

Then, in May 1979, a handful of scientists searching clandestinely in the woods outside Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.5 million residents 900 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains, found the long-decayed skeletons of nine people, including three children. But the scientists didn’t divulge their secret until 1990, as the USSR teetered toward collapse. As it happened, a powerful new forensic identification method based on DNA analysis was just coming into its own, and it soon showed that the remains of five of the nine persons uncovered were almost certainly those of the czar, his wife and three of their children; the others were the four attendants.

The story, of course, has been widely reported and celebrated as a sign of post-Soviet openness and as a triumph of forensic science. It’s also common knowledge that the Russian Orthodox Church and some prominent Romanov descendants dispute those findings. The church and the royals—both of which were suppressed by the Soviets—are longtime allies; the church, which regarded the czar as a near-divine figure, canonized the family in 2000, and a movement to reinstate the monarchy, though still small, does have its passionate adherents. Ironically, both the church and some in the royal family endorse an older, Soviet recounting of events that holds that the Romanov remains were disposed of elsewhere in the same forest and destroyed beyond recovery. The 1990 forensic findings, they contend, were flawed.

But that became harder to accept after a July day in 2007.

That’s when a team of investigators working with Gribenyuk uncovered the remains of two other Romanovs.

Nicolay Alexandrovich Romanov was born near St. Petersburg in 1868, the son of Crown Prince Alexander and Maria Feodorovna, born Princess Dagmar of Denmark. His father ascended the throne as Alexander III in 1881. That year, when Nicolay was 13, he witnessed the assassination of his grandfather, Alexander II, by a bomb-throwing revolutionary in St. Petersburg. In 1894, as crown prince, he married Princess Alix of Hesse, a grand duchy of Germany, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Nicholas became czar the same year, when his father died of kidney disease at age 49.

Nicholas II, emperor and autocrat of all the Russias, as he was formally known, reigned uneventfully for a decade. But in 1905, government troops fired on workers marching toward St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace in protest against poor working conditions. About 90 people were killed and hundreds wounded that day, remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Nicholas didn’t order the killings—he was in the countryside when they took place—and he expressed sorrow for them in letters to his relatives. But the workers’ leader denounced him as “the soul murderer of the Russian people,” and he was condemned in the British Parliament as a “blood-stained creature.”

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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