Today marks the 100th anniversary of the execution of Nicholas II and his family, an event that toppled Russia’s Romanov dynasty. Yesterday, as the country was preparing to commemorate their deaths, Russian investigators announced that new DNA testing had confirmed that remains attributed to last tsar and his family are in fact authentic—a finding that may pave the way for the deceased royals to be buried with full rites by the Orthodox Church, according to Agence France-Presse.
The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which is responsible for probing serious crimes, said DNA analysis “confirmed the remains found belonged to the former Emperor Nicholas II, his family members and members of their entourage.” As part of the new tests, investigators exhumed the body of Nicholas' father, Alexander III to prove that the two are related, and also took DNA samples from living members of the Romanov family, according to the Moscow Times.
The new findings are the latest development in a tangled dispute over the remains of the Romanovs, whose downfall was nigh after Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne in the midst of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Radical Bolsheviks took power and formed a provisional government, and the tsar, his wife, Alexandra and their five children were imprisoned in the city of Yekaterinburg. In 1918, civil war broke out between the communist government’s Red Army and the anti-Bolshevik White Army. As the White Army advanced on Yekaterinburg, local authorities were ordered to prevent the rescue of the Romanovs, and in the early hours of July 17, the family was executed by firing squad. Those who remained alive after the bullets stopped flying were stabbed to death.
The Romanovs’ bodies were thrown down a mineshaft, only to be retrieved, burned and buried near a cart track. The remains of Nicholas, Alexandra and three of their daughters— Anastasia, Olga and Tatiana—were found in 1979, though the bodies were only exhumed in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to the AFP. As Tom Parfitt of the Times reports, DNA testing carried out at the time confirmed that the remains were authentic.
Orthodox Church officials, however, contested these findings. In 1998, the remains that had been uncovered some 20 years earlier were interred in Saint Petersburg, but the Church refused to give them full burial rites. In 2007, archaeologists discovered the bones of two more individuals, whom they believed to be the missing Romanov children: Maria and Alexei, the tsar’s only son and the heir to the throne.
“Their bones were also analyzed and scientists took the opportunity to repeat tests on the whole family using new technology,” Parfitt writes. “Evgeny Rogaev, a molecular geneticist, found there was one in a septillion chance that the remains thought to be of the tsar were not his.”
Still, the Church refused to recognize the remains. The bones of Maria and Alexei have never been buried.
Church officials explained their recalcitrance by saying that they need to be “extra sure” of the validity of the remains, since the tsar and his family were canonized in 2000, reports Alec Luhn of the Telegraph. This means that the Romanovs’ bones are relics—holy objects worthy of veneration.
But politics—and conspiracy theories—may have also come into play. The AFP reports that the Church clergy “felt sidelined” by an investigation into the remains that took place under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. In 2015, the Church ordered yet another investigation, but critics have accused Church officials of stalling the proceedings because they are reluctant to admit their mistakes in handling the remains. Last year, for instance, a Church commission involved in the probe floated the anti-Semitic theory the Romanovs were killed as part of a Jewish ritual.
“There is absolutely no reason to examine these absurd theories about the deaths and the veracity of the remains when we know the circumstances, and scientists have proved beyond doubt they are real,” Viktor Aksyuchits, who fronted a state advisory group on the remains in the 1990s, tells the Times’ Parfitt.
The latest DNA analysis is part of the criminal investigation ordered by the Church. According to the AFP, Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida said in a statement that officials will review the latest findings “with attention.” The Romanovs may finally receive a full Church burial—though it will not come in time for the centenary of their deaths.