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Russia: Controversy Continues Over Authenticity Of Tsar's Bones

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 3 March 1998 (RFE/RL -- After nine years of investigation by Russian, European and American experts-- including three different sets of affirmative DNA tests-- the question of whether the bones found in 1991 near Yekaterinburg are those of the Tsar and his family seems as if it ought to have been definitively answered.

Not so. A small but vocal minority has challenged the government's conclusion that the bones are royal and is accusing the government of arranging a "political stunt" in order to "bury a dark chapter in history."

Leading the charge of skeptics is the Russian Expert Commission Abroad -- a group of 20 scholars in the West -- and Russia that has also been conducting its own parallel investigation into the Tsar's remains. Members of the Commission Abroad are not convinced the remains are authentic.

"From the point of forensics, and not from emotion, we have concluded that there are a multitude of problems with the government's claims," Peter Koltypin-Wallovskoy, chairman of the commission, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from his home in Connecticut.

His commission's objections partly influenced the Russian Orthodox Church to call off a burial of the remains that had been scheduled for February 1996. Lately the commission has again been getting much play in the Russian media, and in January it sent a six-page letter to President Boris Yeltsin arguing the remains cannot be the Tsar's.

"The more our commission studies this question, the more things we find that remain untold," reads a copy of the letter obtained by RFE/RL. "We find incomplete procedures, a lack of professionalism in the forensic study, and an unbelievable secretiveness in the activity and in the conclusions of the Russian governmental commission in Moscow."

One of the commission's most prized pieces of evidence for its doubts is the absence of a scar on the skull presumably belonging to Nicholas II. As a young man visiting Japan, Nicholas was attacked by a would-be assassin, who struck him a blow to the head with a sword. That should have left a scar in the bone, argues Vyacheslav Popov, a forensics expert in St. Petersburg.

Formerly a member of the government commission headed up most recently by First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, Popov was one of the first scientists to examine the tsarist remains after they were exhumed in 1991. But since he has since switched allegiance to the skeptical Commission Abroad.

In Popov's own words, "while there is evidence to think the remains are those of the Romanovs, Nemstov's commission still has not shown its scientific data to the public. The commission's work is being done amidst great secrecy."

The government's explanation for the missing scar is that it was destroyed by acid -- After the Bolsheviks executed the Tsar and his entourage, they by some accounts, destroyed the bodies in acid. The skeptics are quick to seize on the acid as well. Indeed, this is one of their chief arguments that the tsarist remains cannot be authentic-that they were "entirely" destroyed by acid, which agrees with the account first put forward by White Army officer Nikolai Sokolov, who investigated the scene of the crime soon after the 1918 execution.

"Based on documents, we know that the Red Army soldiers had five times more acid [than they needed] to entirely destroy all the bodies," said Koltypin-Wallovskoy.

The members of the Nemtsov commission, however, respond by citing exhaustive DNA testing that has matched Nicholas's genes with those of his brother-- whose body was exhumed from the Peter and Paul Fortress for the tests-- and those of his distant relative, Prince Philip, husband of England's Queen Elizabeth.

Koltypin-Wallovskoy and the skeptics respond that some American scientists are now questioning the effectiveness of DNA tests in general. He also questioned why the tests were not done with samples taken from Nicholas II's mother, who is buried in Copenhagen, or with the body of Empress Alexandra's sister, Elizabeth, which rests in Jerusalem.

The government commission says that exhuming Nicholas's brother was already invasive and expensive, and also resulted in definitive DNA test proof-- making it pointless to exhume his mother or his wife's sister.