Murder of Missing Russian Royals Confirmed

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
March 11, 2009
Two missing children of the last Russian monarchs were executed with their family in 1918, new evidence finds, closing a case that has captivated the world for almost a century.

Remains of a boy and girl, found in 2007 in a grave in Yekaterinburg, Russia, belong to Crown Prince Alexei and one of his sisters, according to "virtually irrefutable" evidence.

The children were buried together a few kilometers from a mass grave where the bones of their three sisters and parents, Tsar Nicholas II Romanov and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, were found in 1991.

(Related: "DNA Tests May Confirm IDs of Russian Tsar's Children.")

Three lines of DNA analysis show that the likelihood that the remains are related to the Romanov family is about "4.3 trillion times more likely" than the possibility they are from a random family, said study lead author Michael Coble, research section chief for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Maryland.

Romantic Idea

After 300 years of rule, the Romanov reign ended in 1917 following the Bolshevik revolution, when Tsar Nicholas II gave up his crown.

The family was exiled to the city of Yekaterinburg and held captive by the Ural Soviets.

Fearing a rescue from the family's supporters, Bolshevik executioners killed the tsar, his family, and four of his staff via firing squad on July 17, 1918.

Though DNA testing confirmed the identities of the rest of the Romanov family in the mass grave, the mysterious second burial fueled speculation that the two bodies did not belong to the missing children.

The public had a "romantic idea that someone perhaps survived and made their way out of Russia," Coble said.

Exact Matches

The Russian government, which invited Coble to lead an independent investigation of the remains in 2007, gave him and his colleagues access to 44 bone fragments from the tzar and his family for comparison.

Coble and colleagues first tested mitochondrial DNA—which is passed down through mothers—and found a match between the children's remains, those of the Tzarina Alexandra, and a living maternal relative of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Next, a "large-scale paternity test" of DNA inherited from each parent showed that 15 genetic markers were consistent with samples from the remains, said Coble, whose research is described in the journal PLoS One.

Lastly, DNA from a living relative and distant cousin, Andrew Romanov, was found to share 17 Y-chromosome markers with the male child.

The lab's data confirms previous DNA research of the Romanov remains published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year by Evgeny Rogaev of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Rogaev and colleagues had compared a bloodstain taken from the tzar's shirt during an 1891 assassination attempt with samples from living descendants and bone fragments from the boy's remains. They all matched.

End of a Sad Chapter

For retired U.S. sea captain Peter Sarandinaki, the findings have fulfilled his quest to "end a very sad chapter in Russian history."

Sarandinaki, whose great-grandfather was a lieutenant general in the Tzarist army in the early 1900s, founded the SEARCH Foundation to find the children's remains.

"I am excited and relieved that the two missing remains were found and identified as those of Alexei Romanov [and one of his sisters]," he said.

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