History Files


Eastern Europe

Death of a Dynasty

The Romanovs, BBC Special Report, 15 July 1998

The fate of the Romanovs - Russia's last imperial family - is one of the most enduring historical episodes of the twentieth century.

Shrouded in myth and mystery, fuelled by subterfuge, sustained by romance and beauty, and set against the turbulent backdrop of revolution and world war, the story bears a potency that renders it almost fanciful.

But despite overwhelming scientific evidence that proves the royal family's ignominious fate at the hands of a firing squad, sceptics remain.

The Orthodox Church

Chief among them is the Russian Orthodox Church - the institution most closely aligned with the legacy of Russia's imperials. Its stance is so assured that the patriarch of the church has refused to officiate or even attend the elaborate funeral of Russia's last czar and family in St Petersburg on Friday.

Like the assassination of Kennedy or the suicide of Hitler, the murky facts that mask the Romanovs' fall have spawned their own breed of conspiracy and conjecture.

It's not altogether surprising. Nicholas II, Russia's last imperial ruler, and his family were executed on the orders of the Bolsheviks in July 1918. But fearing the consequences of international reaction, the Kremlin instigated a cover-up that took more than seventy years to unravel.

Although Moscow belatedly admitted to the execution, its culture of secrecy left key questions, such as the location of the bodies, unanswered. Rumour and speculation stepped in to fill the void.

The Romanov riddle finally began to unfurl with the discovery of a shallow grave in 1991. In a swamp close to the Siberian town where the family had been exiled, the geologist Alexander Avdonin exhumed the bones of two adults and three children.

The bones were then shipped to Britain for DNA identification. The test results were conclusive. DNA profiles taken from the bones matched those of living descendants of the Romanovs, including Britain's Prince Philip.

Nicholas, his devoted wife the Empress Alexandra, and three of their beautiful daughters were identified by the tests. Their other daughter, Marie, and their thirteen year-old son Alexi, were missing. It is thought that their remains were burned.

The results also scotched the enduring myth of Anastasia, the family's youngest daughter. Some claimed the beautiful seventeen year-old cheated death. Over the years, there was no shortage of pretenders to her title.

But even the sanctity of science will not quell the rumour mill and the cult of the Romanovs is set to peak again as the ceremonial burial ties in with the eightieth anniversary of their murder.

One reason for the enduring fascination, according to American journalist Robert Massie, is the immense impact of the czar's execution.

Fear of the future

"Fear of communism helped bring Hitler to power in Germany; that brought on the Second World War; that brought on the division of the world," says Mr Massie, author of the classic book Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, which charts the discovery and identification of the bones.

"All my life we've been on the brink of nuclear war with Russia all because of the fall of the Russian Empire," he said.

The other factor that has kept interest alive over eight decades, is simple: morbid fascination.

"The horror of their deaths; the savagery and bestiality of taking these people down into the cellar and massacring them and then keeping it a secret for so long has continued to keep the story alive," he said.

And it will continue to do so.

The story is not finished until the Russian Patriarchy accepts the bones as authentic - something it steadfastly refuses to do. And, as if to fuel the fire, a new search for the two still-missing children is planned for the autumn.

What if anything it unearths is only the latest attempt to bury the story once and for all.



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