The mystery surrounding the brutal murder of Czar Nicholas II—the last ruler of the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia for some 300 years—along with his wife and their five children has captivated the world’s interest for nearly a century. Forced to abdicate the throne in February 1917 as revolution swept through Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), Nicholas and his family went into exile. Beginning in May 1918, Bolshevik forces held them in captivity in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, on the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains. As anti-Bolshevik forces closed in on the city that July, the czar, his family and four of their servants were ordered into the cellar of the house where they were being held and were executed by firing squad.
The burial ceremony for the remains of czar Nicholas ll and his family at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1998. (Credit: Sovfoto/Getty Images)[/caption]
Revolution turned into bloody civil war, which ended in 1922 with the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). For most of the rest of the 20th century, all that remained of the Romanovs was the theory that their murderers had burned their bodies, doused them in acid and buried them somewhere in Yekaterinburg.
Rumors persisted that one daughter—Anastasia—had survived, and several women surfaced over the years claiming to be her. These rumors only intensified after a mass grave was found in a Yekaterinburg forest in 1991, even as the Soviet Union was crumbling. The grave was found to contain the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra and three of their daughters but was missing those of Crown Prince Alexei and one of his sisters, presumed by many to be Anastasia.
Extensive DNA testing in Britain and the United States incorporated comparisons with living relatives, including Britain’s Prince Philip, who shared a common female ancestor—Queen Victoria—with Alexandra. Experts also confirmed the identity of the Romanovs by matching DNA samples from the remains with that of a bloodstained shirt worn by Nicholas II during an earlier assassination attempt. In 1998, the five royals were buried amid great pomp and circumstance in St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich Alexis Romanov the Tsesarevich and heir apparent to the throne of the Russian Empire. He was the youngest child and only son of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)[/caption]
In 2007, archaeologists found a second grave about 70 yards from the first one, containing a number of bones and bone fragments. According to subsequent DNA analysis, the remains were identified as those of 13-year-old Alexei and his 19-year-old sister, Maria. A Y chromosome taken from Alexei’s remains matched the bones believed to be Nicholas II’s, as well as a sample taken from a living donor, Andrei Romanov, also descended from Czar Nicholas I.
In 2011, the Russian Investigative Committee (the country’s top law enforcement agency) concluded based on DNA evidence that the Romanovs’ remains were genuine, including those of Alexei and Maria. The Russian government is now pushing for all of the Romanovs to be laid to rest together, but has encountered a powerful obstacle in these efforts: the Russian Orthodox Church. Though the church canonized Czar Nicholas and his family as saints in 2000, it has never formally recognized their remains. Church authorities say there must be absolutely no doubt, as the remains will be treated as holy relics, and are insisting on more DNA testing before they are convinced.
To satisfy the church’s demands, Russian investigators have launched a renewed probe into the Romanov remains. Last month, they exhumed the remains of Nicholas II and Alexandra, and scientists are also examining bloodstained clothing worn by Nicholas’s grandfather, Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881. Earlier this week, the Peter and Paul Cathedral closed to visitors as investigators began their examination of the grave of Nicholas’s father, Alexander III, who died in 1894. Their work began with a religious service, and the church says that a requiem mass will be performed before the full exhumation, expected to take place in several weeks. The exhumation of Alexander III’s remains is expected to cost around $300,000, and may damage his ornate 19th-century tomb–perhaps a small price to pay, if it means solving once and for all the compelling, enduring mystery of the Romanovs.