A Forensic Dilemma: A Scientific Evaluation of Data Presented in “The Fate of the Romanovs”
Perhaps not since 1967 when the Pulitzer Prize winning author and Rhodes Scholar, Robert K. Massie wrote his outstanding classic Nicholas and Alexandra in 1967, has the West had the opportunity to read a new English language publication that deals with the final days of the Russian Imperial Family. Soviet Russia did not encourage its citizens to examine its imperial past in detail, nor allow its citizens to openly mourn the deaths of the Imperial Family. We in the West had to rely on the paucity of information published by a few scholars and keen historians. Thus, it was with eager anticipation many in the West waited for the release of Greg King and Penny Wilson’s “The Fate of the Romanovs” (hereafter referred to as FOTR) in 2003, hoping that it would provide some new archival research that would shed greater light on one of the most tragic episodes of early twentieth- century Russian history.
This review will only discuss the main scientific issues raised by the authors, that is, those which directly impact the S.E.A.R.C.H. Foundation; leaving any discussion of the numerous contentious historical issues introduced by these American authors to another time.
In order to write a book about the assassination of the Imperial Family, it appears that the authors were challenged by their idea, which is stated on the jacket cover of their book, of the possibility that Grand Duchess Anastasia may have survived her ordeal in the Ipatiev basement! This western idea having its origin in Berlin of the early 1920s was perpetuated by a small group of Russian exiles for many decades. Despite the fact that the identity of the alleged claimant was conclusively proven to be false when DNA profiling became available as a forensic analytical tool, FOTR attempts to maintain the notion of their survival hypothesis by discarding the expertise of all international forensic pathologists who collaborated to authenticate the skeletal remains of the Imperial Family.
Turning as is my habit when receiving a new publication to the acknowledgement section, I was immediately alerted to the first few paragraphs on page 546, which acknowledged the inquiries made by the authors to Mariya Vladimirovna, the current pretender to the alleged Russian throne. Curiously one of these matters dealt with the funeral of the Imperial Family in 1998, an event that Mariya Vladimirovna failed by personal choice to attend. According to the FOTR authors (page 486) “she was denied her rightful status at the ceremony.” There is however documented evidence that in fact she proclaimed to the media that her preference was to align with Alexei II of the Moscow Patriarchy, who to this day fails to acknowledge that the remains found in Ekaterinburg in 1970s are authentic. According to its own Press Release, the Church stated that “…the Russian Orthodox Church refrains from final judgment regarding the characteristics of the so-called Ekaterinburg remains.” For the record all other members of the Romanov Family did attend the funeral service, in order to pay their final respects.
One may contend that this element is just a minor consideration in the book. I believe however that there is a significant connection between the pretender and the underlying theme of this book. The perceptions of the Moscow Orthodox Church, the current imperial pretender, as well as the hypothesis of a claimant that is emphasized in this publication form the nexus whereby each assumes that the Imperial remains found in Ekaterinburg are not those of the Imperial Family but belong to some random victims.
It is important not to understate the significance of Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys (Leicester University) who had developed a technique for creating DNA profiles in collaboration with Professor Peter Gill of the Forensic Science Service (FSS). They jointly published the first paper on DNA profiling applications in relation to forensic science in 1985. As world experts in this new field, Professor Pavel Ivanov brought samples from Russia to collaborate with Professor Gill. Comparative DNA analyses on the Ekaterinburg remains were conducted in England in 1992. The team employed the new molecular profiling analysis technique to confirm the identity of the Ekaterinburg remains as those belonging to the Imperial Family. Testing was facilitated by using blood samples from living relatives. These samples were used to assist with the identification process and not as FOTR implies on page 445, that the blood samples “helped lessen doubts that lingered over the remains.” Their series of results were published in 1994 Nature Genetics, which is one of the most prestigious international peer reviewed scientific journals available to the scientific community. This detail will become important later in this discussion in relation to another more recent scientific endeavor.
In an attempt to be sensational the authors have contended that Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolayevich, a hemophiliac, may have miraculously survived the volley of shots that were fired in the confined, smoke filled room. On page 470, they make the startling claim that “the complete absence of any traces of their remains means that the deaths of Anastasia and Alexei that night are only a theory of history.” We agree that the remains of two children have yet to be found. Russian scientists guided by Dr Sergei S. Abramov in 1992, confirmed by the use of sophisticated photographic superimposition imagery of the skulls that Anastasia was probably among the remains. It was likely that it is Mariya who is missing. Abramov’s results were published in the American peer reviewed medical journal The Anatomical Record in 2001. It is incomprehensible why the FOTR authors, neither of whom possesses medical or scientific qualifications, prefer to diminish this pioneering technological procedure. They state on page 456, that Abramov and his colleagues “engaged in a bit of statistical wizardry in an effort to bolster their results.” This ill conceived opinion is outside the author’s expertise and I would suggest that to make such a determination on their part is offered not only to diminish the expertise of Russian forensic experts but also to assist to reinforce the author’s erroneous survivor’s hypothesis. Challenging Abramov’s expertise FOTR without any evidence proffer the following personal opinion on page 457:
“Almost certainly the study was conceived and designed as yet another Russian attempt to justify their identification of Anastasia, a preoccupation highlighted by frequent references to her throughout the text” (referring to the Anatomical Record publication).
The author’s grasp of molecular biology is made particularly awkward when they state on page 445 that mtDNA (mitochondrial) “was derived from genetic material in the nucleus of each cell.” They fail to appreciate that mtDNA is actually found in the cytoplasm of the cell, in organelles called mitochondria. The mtDNA is separate to the DNA found in the nucleus. Furthermore in the next paragraph, on page 445, it is difficult to comprehend from a scientific perspective what exactly the authors are attempting to describe by the following two descriptions: “in the string of base pairs forming the mtDNA pattern” and that “entire stretches were missing”.
Moreover FOTR makes the astonishing claim that while the search continues for the two missing bodies “with every passing year, enthusiasm wanes and hopes fade.” (page 471). Clearly, this is only an opinion that could have been easily tested, by making direct inquiries to the Director of the S.E.A.R.C.H. Foundation, Peter Sarandinaki. In fact S.E.A.R.C.H. is optimistic that the children’s remains will be found and buried according to Russian Orthodox custom alongside their family and loyal staff in St. Petersburg. S.E.A.R.C.H. looks forward to conducting a sophisticated scientific examination of the area mid next year in 2007. Financial support, not enthusiasm is the major consideration that prohibits forensic investigations from being conducted more often.
FOTR barely skims over the second strand of DNA evaluations (see page 447), conducted by Professor Pavel L. Ivanov in collaboration with Dr Thomas Parsons at the U. S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) from 4 June to 9 September 1995. FOTR neglects to provide the key points to these important findings that were published in Nature Genetics in 1996. Instead FOTR prefers to again diminish Russian expertise by suggesting that only the samples were sent to this laboratory. FOTR regrettably ignores Professor Ivanov’s active participation. It is unclear what FOTR means by “badly corrupted, the mtDNA sequence nevertheless matched that of Nicholas II” (see page 447). It is difficult to accept that the mtDNA sequence was corrupt if it actually produced a conclusive result. The second joint paper discusses the comparative DNA profile analyses between the exhumed remains of Grand Duke Georgii and Nikolai II. In this laboratory study the mtDNA from the same left femur and tibia bone samples that were used previously in England were re-assayed using this second laboratory’s own set of protocols and resources. The advance here was that the American team was now able to correlate the mtDNA profiles between Georgii’s left femur and tibia to the second set of bones putatively belonging to his brother Nikolai II. This second collaboration identified and confirmed that both males had “absolute positional identity of mtDNA” and that they demonstrated a rare genetic mutation referred to as heteroplasmy. The American laboratory confirmed the same exact sequences which the English laboratory had identified earlier.
The American finding was important for a second reason, in that the heteroplasmy was not simply a random event; but was shown to run through the maternal line on the Emperor’s side. In other words, the Imperial brothers demonstrated the same heteroplasmic mutation in exactly the same position of their individual DNA sequences. From an analytical standpoint - this type of identification application was demonstrated for the very first time to the world. Inexplicably, FOTR ignores this dramatic finding.
Regretfully the authors also ignored the Final Soloviev Commission Report that was submitted to the Russian President, Boris N. Yeltsin, including copies that were handed to the Moscow Patriarchate by Boris E. Nemtsov on 30 January, 1998. FOTR claims on page 443 that the final Report was “delivered in December, 1993.” Clearly the date they provided is not a typographical error. Nemtsov presided over the Government “Commission for the Identification and Re-burial of the Remains of the Imperial Family”. That report was unanimously ratified by the Russian government, and it was this ratification that facilitated the Commission’s decision to enable the re-burial of the Imperial Family in July 1998. FOTR completely ignores all the legitimate international co-operative evaluations that were conducted independently, after 1993 and up to January 1998, whose sole commitment was to authenticate the Ekaterinburg remains. But let us step back and address FOTR’s many deficiencies in relation to the Final Soloviev Report.
Vladimir N. Soloviev was commissioned from the Moscow Public Prosecutor’s Office to assume independent control of the Romanov investigation on 19 August 1993 as if it was a criminal investigation. His task was to co-ordinate activities from Moscow, his place of residency. Moscow, as the capital had the advantage of providing vast forensic resources which could be conveniently relied upon. The inference made by the authors on page 442: “to redirect the investigation away from the contentious issue of the identification of the remains,” is patently false. The Soloviev Commission’s brief was set up specifically to identify the remains first and foremost, and not to detract from that consideration as suggested by FOTR. The remains were transferred to the Moscow Forensic Medical Center to enable additional anthropological and molecular biological assessments using the latest techniques and innovations. FOTR was therefore incorrect to assume on page 472, that the remains lay “for seven long years, from August 1991 to mid-July 1998 … [were] …on cold metal autopsy tables … in the Ekaterinburg morgue.”
The Commission’s task involved reconstructing the crime, performing ballistic studies, and referring to witness accounts enhanced by modern analytical studies that included model reconstruction of all nine skulls found in Ekaterinburg, by Sergei A. Nikitin. This work was carried out in 1995 followed by a supplementary assessment of the Grand Duchess’s skulls in 1996. The final assessment using computer tomography and stereo-lithography determined that one of the skulls was more likely to belong to Grand Duchess Anastasia.
In addition the Commission authorized the exhumation of Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich in St. Petersburg in the previous year, on 11 July 1994, and not in 1993, as FOTR states (see page 447). The exhumation was conducted under the direction of the Soloviev Commission in the presence of Russian Orthodox priest Father Nikolai. The Church gave permission for the exhumation following two years of negotiation. FOTR is incorrect to state on page 447, that “it took Soloviev nearly a year before he [Soloviev] finally obtained official permission.” Permission was sought as early as 1992 when Soloviev was not heading the Commission. Professor Ivanov in his interview to Strana categorically stated that it was the St. Petersburg metropolitan (Ioann) who objected to the exhumation and that subsequent to his death, the mayor of St. Petersburg, the late Anatoli Sobchak, in 1994, was able to give the formal authorization required for the exhumation to proceed. To suggest that there was “an outcry of horror” from the Orthodox Church in Russia is misleading. The only condition imposed by the Church was that the exhumed tissue had to be returned to the crypt. With a tinge of the melodramatic the authors disrespectfully describe the scene of the exhumation on page 447, as that “watched over by a priest and a string of black-clad nuns who held tapers and chanted,” while “the rotting, blackened corpse of the grand duke was raised.” In actual fact it was the lid of the coffin that was raised revealing skeletal remains. A forensic pathologist descended down to the open coffin using a ladder, whilst prayers were respectfully intoned for the dead in the Cathedral. The Church throughout this procedure ensured that the Imperial remains were accorded respect as national sacred relics.
FOTR ignores the additional forensic stomatological studies which were conducted by Professor Gurgen A. Pashinyan, between December 1997 and January 1998 in conjunction with two separate additional anatomical studies using new technology that were carried out between 19 December 1997 and 16 January 1998 by Professors Yuri I. Pigolkin and Sergei S. Abramov. Their final reports to the Commission were submitted on 24 January, 1998.
The most glaring omission is the absence of any description emphasizing the importance of Professor Evgenii I. Rogaev’s two separate analyses conducted on Tihon Kulikovskii’s (Grand Duchess Ol’ga Nikolayevna’s son’s) blood sample preserved in a Toronto hospital. The second was a re-assessment of Tihon’s blood against the skeletal remains of Nikolai II (as deduced by Professor Abramov’s anatomical superimposition techniques). On page 446 FOTR claims that when alive Kulikovskii refused to assist the Russians and English scientists. This statement was correct at the time it was given, however the authors fail to acknowledge that just before his death Tihon had learned that a hospital tissue sample was used to discount Mrs. Manahan’s (also known as Anna Anderson) claim that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia by the use of exclusionary DNA analysis [Nelipa and Azar, 2006 in press]. It is misleading for FOTR to ignore the reason why Tihon had changed his mind and only state that he had permitted so in his will. Ol’ga Kulikovskaya, his widow, was obliged to grant access of the Toronto hospital sample to her nominated investigator Rogaev, who was at the time a visiting professor from Russia temporarily working in Canada. This important concession permitted the Soloviev Commission to direct Rogaev to run an independent DNA sequence assay on Tihon’s blood, under the Commission’s authority.
Rogaev compared Tihon’s DNA sequence to the profiles obtained by Professors Ivanov and Gill earlier. Previously, Professor Gill observed a C/T polymorphism at position 16169 in the mtDNA sequence of Nikolai that proved to be an identical condition later seen in the mtDNA of his brother Georgii. This sequence was compared to the mtDNA from two living descendants of the same maternal line: the Duke of Fife and Countess Ksenia Sheremetyevskaya-Sfiris. The mtDNA of both of these individuals exhibited fixation (“C”) at position 16169. Tihon Kulikovskii - the son of the Nikolai’s sister, had an identical mtDNA sequence except that the fixation at 16169 was with the base “T”. This would be expected with the C/T heteroplasmy present in Nikolai and Georgii. The obvious conclusion is that independent mutations at 16169, initially exhibited as heteroplasmy. The difference was a single nucleotide at the position 16169. At this position a “C” was found in mtDNA of Kulikovskii, where a C/T was in the mtDNA from the putative remains of Nikolai II. In the mtDNA sequence from two other descendants of Louise Hesse-Cassel (the great-great-grandson and the great-great-granddaughter) a “T” was found in the same position at 16169 (see Nelipa and Azar, 2006, in press).
These data confirmed that independent mutations took place in the maternal lineage. This was the third DNA analysis used to authenticate the Ekaterinburg remains. Rogaev’s results were submitted to the Commission in 1995 and were published independently in the Russian journal Genetika in 1996. Unfortunately, Mrs. Kulikovskaya not trained in science failed to appreciate the significance of Rogaev’s finding and instead under the umbrella of the North American group RECA (Russian Expert Committee Abroad), continued to maintain her stance that the Imperial remains are not what the international scientific community had meticulously proven to be authentic using a vast array of technology and time.
Since all the Ekaterinburg remains were secured in Russia, Rogaev upon his return to Russia was given the opportunity to re-assess Kulikovskii’s blood sample but with a very important variation. During December 1997 and January 1998, at the Psychiatric Health Center in Moscow, Rogaev was able to correlate his results directly with the femur from skeleton # 4. His results showed “complete coincidence” of mtDNA profiles between the bone fragment of skeleton # 4 and Tihon’s blood. This blind assay eliminated the possibility of bias on the part of the investigators. Rogaev was not informed whose skeletal remains they were. On 29 January 1998, Rogaev submitted his second report to the Soloviev Commission providing the fourth and final DNA analysis on the Ekaterinburg remains. The critical nature of Rogaev’s second study was that he determined that Tihon was maternally related to the # 4 skeletal remains. Professor Abramov and his anthropological team had previously identified skeleton # 4 as belonging to Nikolai II.
Despite the impression that the authors prefer to impress on their readers that there was doubt about the authentication process, Rogaev’s analysis confirmed two key facts; firstly in 1995, that the DNA profiles demonstrated by Professors Gill and Ivanov correlated with the DNA profile obtained by Rogaev and secondly even more significantly, Rogaev had independently confirmed that one of the Ekaterinburg skeletons belonged to Nikolai II. Rogaev’s definitive findings became part of the Commission’s final report to Yeltsin; just months before the re-burial was to take place in 1998. To their credit the Soloviev Commission ensured that every possible avenue was examined and verified before submitting their final unanimous recommendation to the government.
FOTR fails to recognize the existence of the publicly available 1998 Final Report (entitled Pokayanie). Instead, on page 451 they assert that the government commission had concluded its work in 1993! To add insult to injury they even suggest that “lingering doubts about the remains and their contentious identification were dismissed without explanation.” This is not just incorrect but it leads back to their underlying survivor’s hypothesis. King and Wilson argue that what they assumed to be “the final word on the identification of the remains, the 1993 report …” had actually provided the continuation of the Anastasia myth that somehow still manages “to hover over the case.” Furthermore, the authors believed that the Russians were “exasperated, increasingly defensive and insistent on the veracity of their own results.” These words are not based on evidence; they only serve once again discredit Russian scientists. The reasons become very clear when the next few paragraphs are read carefully. In effect the authors are implying that Nikitin’s anthropological evaluations which concluded that it was Grand Duchess Mariya who was missing, not Anastasia, throw into question the overall competence of the Russian scientists who worked on the Romanov remains. Regrettably the authors cast doubt on Nikitin’s credibility as a professional scientist.
On page 448 the authors argue that because of the rapid pacing of scientific advances, the steady progression from using a six-point STR (Short Tandem Repeat analysis) standard towards a more precise twenty-point STR standard, and including the possibility of false positives, the older results are of lesser value. It is more than evident that without evidence to support their presumptions the authors are constantly attempting to undermine science as a forensic analytical tool and by inference discredit the independent global network of scientists who worked favorably towards a common goal. The authors without a doubt intend to place distrust in the minds of their readers that the Ekaterinburg remains were incorrectly identified.
Now to return to what FOTR alleges is the most recent proof that the Ekaterinburg remains are not authentic. The next chapter in the twist to argue against the authenticity of the remains was created by a Japanese investigator, Tatsuo Nagai, who met Professor Popov in Russia at a conference in Ekaterinburg. Following his meeting with Professor Popov, and a series of negotiations, Nagai was privately financed by a group of North American individuals who claimed Russian heritage. RECA does not represent the Russian émigré communities scattered around the world. These foreigners interfered with the Soloviev Committee and vociferously disputed the Commission’s 1998 recommendation to the Russian President. The Russian government had granted authority to key accredited forensic examiners to assay the Imperial tissue samples until January 1998 before all the remains were collected and interred in St. Petersburg in July of that year. Nagai was not among that elite group of investigators.
As has been shown by Nelipa and Azar in 2006 (in press), Nagai could only have conducted his analysis (in 2001) on tissue samples without the authorization and knowledge of the Russian government. More disturbing is how the Imperial samples came to be in his possession for his evaluation in his laboratory in the absence of the mandatory bilateral customs and health permits. Let us discuss Nagai’s first set of experiments. Without comprehending the contaminated nature of the perspiration sample that was nefariously removed using sticky tape pressed against Emperor Nikolai’s clothing that was on display at the Ekaterinburg museum, Nagai and Popov failed to appreciate that because the suit would have been handled by many unknown individuals over the course of a century, and that any DNA that could have been isolated could never be directly correlated as that belonging to the Emperor, nor to any individual who would have handled the uniform during those decades. The results Nagai obtained confirmed that scientific reality. FOTR is incorrect in their naïve claim that “having remained unlaundered for more than eighty years, it still contained sweat stains from which a genetic profile could be drawn” (see page 448). It is certainly an unknown as to how that uniform may have been treated whilst it was preserved. It would be impossible to isolate a DNA sequence from the old fragment of material some eighty later and then claim that it belonged to Nikolai II rather than his valet, or any number of unknown museum employees who would have handled the museum exhibit.
The second set of experiments that Nagai attempted involved the use of Grand Duke Georgii’s exhumed remains from the Cathedral crypt. Popov readily confirmed that he handed over bone samples removed from the Moscow Military Medical Academy morgue. According to a number of interviews that Nagai gave, he himself stated that “the segments of the remains were handed over [to him] by Professor Popov.” Soloviev asserted that only Popov, as part of the early investigation team, had access to both the Imperial remains and to Nagai. In his Japanese publication Nagai stated clearly that he also received hair samples from Dr Popov. This second set of experimentation had also contravened Russian regulations which protected the custody of the remains inside Russia.
The results Nagai obtained were reported in abstract format at two Conferences (Muenster in Germany and Melbourne, Australia) by him to be “similar to those reported by Gill and Ivanov, except that heteroplasmy (C/T) was not found at the base position 16169”. Nagai seems to have attached great importance to this. He found instead 7 other mutations, but was unable to propose the reason for this discrepancy [Nelipa and Azar, 2006, in print].
It is hardly surprising that Nagai’s DNA sequence failed to correlate with the DNA profiles obtained by Professors Ivanov and Rogaev. Nagai’s attempts were meaningless and lacked scientific credibility. Nelipa and Azar believe this is one reason why Nagai’s results were never published in any peer-reviewed journal in the Russian or English scientific community for professionals to access and review. The second reason is the contentious matter of sample acquisition. The chain of custody of the tissue samples, excluding Tihon’s blood would be difficult to explain. Nagai was able to use conference abstracts as a form of publishing his results that are deficient in that they are not subject to review prior to their submission to any conference. They are a separate narrow class of private publications structured specifically to interest only those attending the given venue. The veracity of any claims made is usually only subjected to a series of Q and A sessions that rely on random audience participation. Nagai did not challenge Professor Gill and Ivanov’s DNA results, as FOTR assert (see page 448) because his evaluations were questionable.
Regrettably the lack of understanding and “reading” DNA profiles triggered confusion among non-scientific circles. FOTR is equally guilty of this confusion. They are incorrect in believing that “the DNA tests did little to assuage the growing doubts over the Romanov case.” How could the authors rationally come to such a conclusion when they failed to examine a copy of the Soloviev Commission’s Final Report published in 1998?
This review has briefly attempted to illustrate why FOTR has failed to provide its readers an accurate, unbiased understanding of the long series of scientific assessments conducted on the Ekaterinburg remains. The authors failed to examine the key Russian document – the Soloviev Commission Report, which conclusively proved that the remains found in Ekaterinburg were confirmed beyond reasonable doubt to belong to the Russian Imperial Family. Instead the underlying theme of the authors is their preference to discredit an entire body of internationally accredited forensic investigators that include: Dr Sergei Abramov, Professor Pavel Ivanov from Moscow, Professor Peter Gill from the U. K. Forensic Science Service, and Dr Thomas Parsons, from the U. S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. The authors likewise ignore the two key independent analyses conducted by Professor Evgenii Rogaev. Rogaev conclusively established that the skeleton of Emperor Nikolai II had been found. Instead the authors favor a privately funded Japanese scientist, who unlike the named scientists failed to publish his results in any prestigious journal accessible to the international science community for scrutiny.
The late Professor Maples, who assisted in identifying the skeletal remains in 1992, stated that:
“In my opinion the level of scientific work that has been done on these remains is extremely high. I would be proud to welcome each and every one of the participants into the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.”
The authors of FOTR prefer to leave open the possibility that one or more Imperial children survived the massacre. In their efforts to prove this highly dubious hypothesis, King and Wilson not only discredit Russian scientific expertise but also distort the scientific evidence that identifies the remains found in Ekaterinburg are indeed those of the Imperial Family. For these reasons I would respectfully contend that this book has no place in the serious study of Russian history.
October 18, 2006
"Ms Nelipa acknowledges that while the authors of FOTR do not deny that the Romanov grave was found in the Koptyaki forest it is the identification of some of those skeletal remains that was questioned in their book."