Forensics Case: Being Anastasia Romanov

By Douglas P. Lyle

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a bloody affair that included the execution of the royal family. On July 17, 1918, by order of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, Czar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children, and four others were executed in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg, Siberia.

This act ended three centuries of Romanov rule. During the ensuing years, the house became a de facto, or unauthorized, shrine, and pilgrimages to see the Czar’s final resting place became commonplace. In 1977, however, the Soviet government put an end to the practice by bulldozing the structure.

For Gely Ryaboy, locating the Czar’s burial site became an obsession. Being a filmmaker with the Interior Ministry, he had access to many secret archives, which he searched for evidence of where the czar and his family might be buried.

Through this research, he located the children of Yakov Yurovsky, a guard who had witnessed the executions. Yurovsky’s son gave Ryaboy a note from Yakov, describing the disposal of the bodies in a swamp near the bulldozed house in Yekaterinburg.

Working under cover of darkness, Ryaboy finally amassed a collection of bones and clothing fragments that he thought might represent the executed royal family. However, instead of the expected 11 skeletons, only 9 were found.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, the task of identifying the remains was undertaken more openly. Superimposition of photos of Nicholas and Alexandra over two of the skulls suggested that, indeed, they were remains of the czar and czarina. DNA testing showed that five of the nine skeletons were from one family; however, it didn’t conclude whether skeletal remains of the man, woman, and three children were, in fact, the Romanovs.

So the investigation turned to mitochondrial DNA for the answer. Because mitochondrial DNA is passed down unchanged from generation to generation through the maternal line, a maternal relative was needed. As it turns out, Prince Philip, the husband of England’s Queen Elizabeth, is a direct descendant of Czarina Alexandra’s sister. The prince offered a blood sample, and the match was made, proving that the remains were indeed those of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three of their children.

But what of the two other children? The bones of Crown Prince Alexei and his sister, Anastasia, were not among the remains. Their skeletons were missing from the swamp. Rumors suggested that Anastasia and Alexei survived the execution and escaped, but no one knew where the two ended up.

In 1920, a Berlin woman named Anna Anderson claimed to be the missing Anastasia. Many people believed her, but others considered her a fraud. Although Anderson died in 1964 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the truth didn’t come to light until 1994.

Anderson had undergone a surgical procedure before her death, and the hospital kept a sample of her tissue. DNA testing of the sample revealed that she wasn’t Anastasia but rather a Polish peasant named Franzisca Schanzkowska.

Finally, in 2007, the remains of two children were found in a shallow grave not far from where the remains of the Romanov family had been discovered, and mtDNA, STR, and Y-STR analysis suggested that the remains were those of Anastasia and Alexei.