Tsar Nicholas and his family waited patiently in the basement. For much of 1918, the Romanov family had been the captives of the Bolsheviks who overthrew Nicholas II in the bloody Russian Revolution, and they were used to moving from place to place.
They had no idea they had reached their final destination. Suddenly, armed thugs rushed in. Yakov Yurovsky, a revolutionary who led the Bolshevik’s secret police, told Nicholas he was about to be executed.
“What? What?” the tsar exclaimed. It was too late: The murder of the entire Russian imperial family, the Romanovs, had been ordered by the highest levels of Soviet leadership.
But the execution-style killings were just the beginning. The lifeless bodies of Russia’s last monarch, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, Alexei, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, were about to go on a journey that would stretch over years, stoke controversy and stump historians.
The burial of the Romanov family is as gruesome as their execution
The murder of the imperial family was no simple affair. It took multiple attempts and 20 minutes to kill every family member, and Yakov Yurovsky and his men had to use the butts of their guns, bayonets, knives and brute force to finish off the Romanov children and their servants.
Then it was time to cover up the murders. Chaos ensued as Yurovsky and his men drove the bodies into the forest, stripped them down, confiscated their jewelry and the jewels that were hidden in their clothing, and buried them. As they did so, they covered them in acid and buried them. But the grave, located in a mine, was too shallow, and when the men tried to collapse the mine with grenades it failed. Instead, they disinterred the bodies as they frantically searched for another grave site.
Finally, they dug another shallow grave, and, after abusing the corpses even more, buried all but two of the family members. Two of the children—likely Maria and Alexei—were burned and the remnants of their bodies buried in another, separate grave nearby.
Bolsheviks admit to killing Nicholas II, but cover up the murder of his family
A few days later, the Bolsheviks announced the tsar’s murder to the world, and the party used the elimination of their biggest enemy to consolidate their political power. Newspapers and party communications played up Nicholas’ perceived weakness and denounced his monarchy as evil.
“Nicholas Romanov was essentially a pitiful figure,” Pravda, the official party newspaper, declared after the murders. The editorial called the tsar “the personification of the barbarian landowner, of this ignoramus, dimwit, and bloodthirsty savage.” The people of Russia had no use for monarchy any more, it continued. “Russian workers and peasants have only one desire: to drive a good aspen-wood stake into this grave cursed by the people.”
The official party line was that the tsar’s wife and family were being cared for in an undisclosed location, but rumors started to swirl about what had happened to Alexandra and her children. Meanwhile, Bolsheviks went on a murder spree, killing every Romanov family member and associate they could get their hands on. Twenty-seven others were killed in the next 84 days. Only a few of their remains were ever recovered; the rest were dumped in mass graves or burned beyond recognition.
As Russia became the Soviet Union, the monarchy became a scapegoat, and those who supported the Romanovs went underground with their opinions as the political climate became more and more oppressive. As the years passed, rumors about possible survivors continued to rage, and a number of imposters claimed they were the Romanovs.
Remains of Romanov family members are not discovered for 61 years, but it takes until 2007 for Alexei and Maria’s bodies to be located
In the 1970s, a geologist named Alexander Avdonin, who had heard rumors about the site of the Romanovs’ grave his entire life, began asking others for information about its location. In 1979, with the help of Yurovsky’s son, he finally found the grave near the site of the mansion in Yekaterinburg, Russia where the family had been imprisoned. They began to exhume bones from the site. Fearing reprisals from the Soviet government, they reburied the bones. But in 1988, after the Soviet Union began to loosen its stance on discussing the Romanovs, Avdonin approached Gorbachev’s government and asked for an investigation.
It was finally carried out in 1991, after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The state’s investigative team found thousands of bones and other relics from the imperial family, and DNA analysis soon confirmed they were in fact the Romanovs. The remains were buried in St. Petersburg cathedral in 1998, and the buried Romanovs were declared saints in the Russian Orthodox church.
But two of the children’s remains were missing: Maria and Alexei. Rumors about their possible survival swirled until 2007, when Sergei Plotnikov, a builder who was part of a club that looked for the missing Romanovs on the weekends came across bone fragments. It was the missing children. “It was clear they didn't die peacefully,” Plotnikov told The Guardian.
The Russian Orthodox Church disputes the identification even as DNA tests confirm it
It would seem that the discovery of the missing Romanovs would put the rumors and mysteries to rest, but that didn’t happen. Though DNA confirmed the bones were Alexei and Maria’s, the Russian Orthodox church didn’t acknowledge the discovery, and historians worried the dispute was political, not historical.
It’s unclear why the church dragged its feet, but some commentators believe it was an attempt by the church to court Vladimir Putin and his government, who have suggested rehabilitating the Romanov monarchy. In 2015, Nicholas’ remains were exhumed for further testing, and this year, new DNA tests corroborated the original DNA findings.
But Alexei and Maria’s remains are still being held in a Russian state archive—not buried along with the rest of their family. It’s unclear when, or even if, that burial will occur, even with the new DNA results. A century after the Romanovs’ grisly murder, their story remains as mysterious and politically fraught as it was the day they were killed.