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Eastern Europe

Death of a Dynasty

Edited from BBC News, 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 which renders it almost fanciful. But despite overwhelming scientific evidence which 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 which is most closely aligned with the legacy of Russia's imperials. Its stance is so assured that the patriarch of the church refused to officiate or even attend the elaborate funeral of Russia's last czar and family in St Petersburg on Friday 17 July 1998.

Like the assassination of US President Kennedy, or the suicide of Hitler, the murky facts which 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. Fearing the consequences of international reaction, the Kremlin instigated a cover-up which took more than seventy years to unravel. Although Moscow belatedly admitted to the execution, its culture of secrecy left key questions unanswered, such as the location of the bodies. Rumour and speculation stepped in to fill the void.

The Romanov riddle finally began to unfurl with the discovery in 1991 of a shallow grave. In a swamp which lies close to the Siberian town to which the family had been taken following their capture, 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 which were 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 regarding Anastasia, the family's youngest daughter. Some had claimed that the beautiful seventeen year-old had cheated death. Over the years, there was no shortage of pretenders to her title.

But even the sanctity of science could not quell the rumour mill, with the cult of the Romanovs set to peak again as the ceremonial burial was arranged to tie 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 to bring Hitler to power in Germany; with that bringing on the Second World War; and that bringing on the division of the world,' said Mr Massie, author of well-received books on the subject which include Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, the latter of which charts the discovery and identification of the bones.

'All my life we've been on the brink of nuclear war against Russia all because of the fall of the Russian empire,' he said. The other factor which 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 was planned for the autumn of 1998. What if anything it may have unearthed would only the latest attempt to bury the story once and for all.

Lenin and the October Revolution
Vladimir Lenin was the figurehead of the post-Romanov October Revolution and also its key instigator and controller, but the revolution plunged Russia into three years of bitter civil war

 

 

     
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