Russians near to solving last riddles in Bolshevik murder of royal family

February 03, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Innocently, they arranged themselves as if posing for a family picture: the czarina and the sickly young czarevich sitting, the czar and the four pretty grand duchesses arrayed around them with the family doctor and servants.

Then the bullets flew.

Screams. Moans. Ricochets. The thrusts of bayonets and thumps of rifle butts. Eventual silence. Blood on the cellar room's walls and floor.

When Red guards slaughtered the imperial family of Czar Nicholas II in July 1918, the Bolshevik regime crossed what historians consider was a moral Rubicon, presaging the millions of deaths to come.

And, with the horrible resonance of their act, they created the makings of a mystery that captured imaginations around the world.

For decades, Westerners intrigued by the idea that some of the Romanovs, especially the Grand Duchess Anastasia, could have survived the massacre produced reams of speculation and partial evidence, from books to a classic Ingrid Bergman film.

But it took Russians -- Russians angered by the collective crimes of their past, finally unleashed to explore a long-taboo subject -- to find real answers.

So that only now, 75 years after the massacre in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, does a combination of good police work, competent archive searches and hard-core science promise to solve many of the last Romanov riddles.

"We are very close to the last part of this mystery, to one of the great mysteries of the 20th century, one of the great mysteries of my country, of Russia," says forensic scientist Pavel Ivanov.

This spring, Mr. Ivanov and British colleagues working with a technique known as DNA fingerprinting expect to be able to announce unequivocally that nine skeletons unearthed near Yekaterinburg in 1991 are those of the Romanovs and their entourage.

If all goes as planned, the Romanov remains will be reinterred in the imperial crypts in St. Petersburg July 17, the anniversary of the killings.

Then, only one puzzle -- the most fascinating of all, the fates of Anastasia and of Alexei, the heir -- will remain, for the muddled collection of bones and skulls dug up in a swampy meadow near Yekaterinburg apparently did not include those of Anastasia and Alexei.

Mr. Ivanov and British Home Office genetic detectives are considering an attempt to apply DNA testing to hairs from Anna Anderson, an enigmatic, eccentric woman who claimed that she was Anastasia right up until her death in Virginia in 1984. She managed to convince several of the noble houses of Europe of her authenticity but lost marathon court battles that lasted, off and on, from 1938 until 1977.

They also plan to test tissue samples from an American, also now dead, who claimed to be Alexei.

But Russian film director Gely Ryabov, a key player in the uncovering of the Romanov remains, contends that such claims of amazing survival by Anastasia or other Romanovs garnered support only because the West failed to understand Russian communism.

"We have no instances of the Communists ever, anywhere, having mercy on anyone," Mr. Ryabov says. "If people understood that, it would not occur to anyone that Communists could let a member of the czar's family survive. It's simply impossible."

He is convinced that if the searches near Yekaterinburg continue, they will eventually turn up traces of the two youngest Romanovs.

It was Mr. Ryabov, a former police investigator and filmmaker for the Interior Ministry, who first found the Romanov remains in the late 1970s.

He had become obsessed with the 1918 killings during a business trip to Yekaterinburg, then known as Sverdlovsk. Returning to Moscow, he plowed into secret archives using his special Interior Ministry access, and managed to track down even the children of Yakov Yurovsky, the Bolshevik guard who oversaw the executions.

Mr. Yurovsky's son gave him a previously unknown note that included a description of the disposal of the bodies. With its help, Mr. Ryabov located the layer of logs shallowly covered with dirt that lay over the muddy spot where the Romanov remains were buried.

Mr. Ryabov had to keep quiet about his find in those years of Communist orthodoxy, when the guards who killed the czar were still revered as heroes.

It was only in 1988, when glasnost appeared likely to stick, that he went public, creating a sensation and exploding long-standing theories that the Romanov women had survived long after the czar was killed.

At about the same time, a renowned Soviet playwright and trained archivist, Edvard Radzinsky, was reaching the climax of 20 years of his own research into the Romanovs' last days and violent end.

He had found Nicholas' diary and the Czarina Alexandra's diary, and hunted down the same Yurovsky note that Mr. Ryabov had seen, finding a copy and publishing it in a popular Soviet magazine, Ogonyok, only in 1989.

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