WHAT’S THE STORY? IT is one of the biggest, most enduring mysteries of the Russian revolution but light may now be shed on the savage murders of the last Emperor and Empress of Russia and their family. In a dramatic move this week, the bodies of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his controversial wife, Alexandra, were exhumed by Russian investigators who have reopened the 1918 case. DNA tests are to be run on the couple along with samples from the bloodstained clothes of Nicholas’s grandfather Alexander II who was killed by a revolutionary’s bomb in 1881. The Romanov bodies were buried at a cathedral in St Petersburg but Orthodox church leaders want family links authenticated before reburying them with two more bodies, thought to be those of the Crown Prince and his sister Maria. Discovered just a few years ago, these remains are currently kept in a box in the Russian archives. The new probe also includes tests from Alexandra’s sister, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, who is buried in Jerusalem and whose remains have been off limits to Russian investigators until now. Recently uncovered documents from an old investigation into the murders by the White Guard will also be examined in the hope that those responsible for ordering the deaths can finally be traced.

SHAMEFUL DESCRIBED by former president Boris Yeltsin as one of the most shameful episodes in Russian history, the family and some of their servants were killed in a frenzied bloodbath in July 1918. Placed under house arrest during the revolution, the family’s survival became more precarious as the fighting between the Red Army and the White Army became more intense. The Bolsheviks initially wanted to put them on trial for crimes against the people but, fearing they could be rescued by the Whites and used to rally morale, their captors ordered the family into a cellar and shot and bayoneted them to death. Witnesses said the last to die were three daughters, Tatiana, Anastasia and Maria who were initially protected from the shots by jewels they had sewn into their bodices. Alexandra’s maid, Anna, was stabbed to death against the wall while trying to defend herself with a pillow stuffed with precious gems. The bodies were dumped in a mine shaft and later Leon Trotsky claimed Vladimir Lenin had given the order to kill the family.

However, after a 1993 probe into the deaths, the Investigative Committee of Russia said there was no evidence to show that either man gave the order. The remains of the Tsar, and Tsarina, who was despised because of her dalliance with the “crazed monk” Grigory Rasputin, and three of their children, Olga (22), Tatiana (21) and Anastasia (17), were found in the Urals by amateur enthusiasts and exhumed from a mass grave in 1991. After being identified by DNA tests they were laid to rest with state honours in the St Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, last resting place of most Russian monarchs. Two more bodies were discovered at a different grave in the Urals in 2007 and are thought to be those of 13-year-old heir Alexei and his 19-year-old sister Maria, son and daughter of the Tsar and Tsarina. It is planned to bury them alongside the rest of the family but the Russian Orthodox Church has ruled that it must be verified that they are members of the Romanov family before they can be buried in state. The family was canonised in 2000 by the church for their “humbleness, patience and meekness”, then in 2008 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled they were victims of political repression and rehabilitated them. WHOSE ARE THE REMAINS? A DESCENDANT of the Romanovs, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, welcomed the new probe. “Not all aspects of the imperial family’s murder were explained in the case, and not all the Russian Orthodox Church’s questions were answered fully and clearly,” said her spokesman. “The grand duchess hopes that the examination of the Yekaterinburg remains will be scientific... The truth must be established in this case, with an answer to the main question – whose are these remains?”

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Portrayed in Soviet times as an incompetent and weak leader whose decisions led to the deaths of millions of Russians in humiliating military defeats, Nicholas II and his family have been given a kinder press in recent years. “There were many bad things about the Tsar’s regime, but he inherited an autocracy and his acts are now being seen in perspective and in comparison to the terrible crimes committed by the Soviets,” said Anglo-Russian historian Nikolai Tolstoy. “His regime had the possibility for reform.” He said that pro-monarchist groups have taken part in anti-Putin protests in Russia, believing that the restoration of the monarchy could rein in an “increasingly autocratic” president. “They want a constitutional monarchy, which would help diffuse power at the top,” he said. The Orthodox Church, always a supporter of the monarchy, has been more cautious about the issue, with some questioning whether the remains are those of the Tsar and his family even though DNA tests have confirmed links with living Romanov relatives, including the Duke of Edinburgh. It is also unlikely that Putin will regard the present investigation as anything more than a minor distraction and indeed his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is at the forefront of the move to give the bodies in a box a more fitting burial.