Image: Nicholas II, Prince Alexei
This photo shows Russian Czar Nicholas II, left, and his son Prince Alexei sawing wood to heat the dwelling in Siberia where they were held prisoner in 1918. They and the rest of the Russian royal family were executed in July 1918, and their remains were covered up for decades.
updated 8/24/2007 10:03:09 AM ET 2007-08-24T14:03:09

Prosecutors said Friday they have reopened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the last Russian czar and his family nearly 90 years ago after an archaeologist said the remains of Nicholas II’s son and heir to the throne may have finally been found.

The announcement of the reopened investigation, while a routine matter, signaled that the government may be taking seriously the claims that were announced Thursday by Yekaterinburg researcher Sergei Pogorelov.

In comments broadcast on NTV, Pogorelov said bones found in a burned area of ground near Yekaterinburg belong to a boy and a young woman roughly the ages of Nicholas’ 13-year-old hemophiliac son, Alexei, and a daughter whose remains also never have been found.

Yekaterinburg is the Urals Mountain city where Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children were held prisoner and then shot in 1918.

Missing chapter
If confirmed, the find would fill in a missing chapter in the story of the doomed Romanovs, whose reign was ended by the violent 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ushered in more than 70 years of Communist rule.

The find comes almost a decade after remains identified as those of Nicholas and Alexandra and three of their daughters were reburied in a ceremony in the imperial-era capital of St. Petersburg. The ceremony, however, was shadowed by statements of doubt — including from within the Russian Orthodox Church — about their authenticity.

On Friday, a church official voiced what appeared to skepticism about the latest find.

“I would like to hope that the examination will be more thorough and detailed than the examination of the so-called ‘Yekaterinburg remains,’ which the church did not acknowledge as the remains of members of czar’s family,” Bishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s External Church Relations department, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

The spot where the remains were found appears to correspond to a site in a written description by Yakov Yurovsky, the leader of the family’s killers, according to Pogorelov, an archaeologist at a regional center for the preservation of historical and cultural monuments in Yekaterinburg.

“An anthropologist has determined that the bones belong to two young individuals — a young male he found was aged roughly 10-13 and a young woman about 18-23,” he told NTV television by telephone.

Executed by firing squad
Nicholas abdicated in 1917 as revolutionary fervor swept Russia, and he and his family were detained. The next year, they were sent to Yekaterinburg, where a Bolshevik firing squad executed them on July 17, 1918.

Historians say guards lined up and shot the royal family and four attendants in the basement of a nobleman’s house. The bodies were loaded onto a truck and initially dumped in a mine shaft but were later moved, according to most accounts.

The Bolsheviks mutilated and hid the bodies because they did not want the remains — especially Alexei’s — to become a shrine or rallying point for anti-Bolshevik forces.

Parts of the bodies were exhumed in 1991 — the year the Soviet Union fell apart — and reburied in St. Petersburg in 1998. Scientific tests indicated the bones of Anastasia, a daughter some have said survived the shooting, were among the remains that were buried.

But two skeletons have never been found: those of Alexei and a daughter scientists believe was Maria.

The Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas, Alexandra, Alexei and his four sisters as martyrs in 2000. But the church — citing the two missing corpses and questions over whether the bones were actually those of the royal family — chose to scale down its participation in the 1998 ceremony.

Proceeding cautiously

Image: Royal family
A portrait photograph shows Russia's Czar Nicholas II seated second from left and Czarina Alexandra at center rear. Olga and Maria are to the left of Nicholas. Anastasia, Alexei and Tatiana are to the right of Alexandra.
Historian Edvard Radzinsky, author of a book about Nicholas, told NTV that if the remains are confirmed as those of Alexei and a sister, it would prove the authenticity of the earlier find by providing “documentary affirmation of what is written in Yurovsky’s notes.”

According to NTV, a 1934 report based on Yurovsky’s words indicated that the bodies of nine victims were doused with sulfuric acid and buried along a road, while those of Alexei and a sister were burned and left in a pit nearby.

Archaeologists discovered shards of a ceramic container of sulfuric acid as well as nails, metal strips from a wooden box, and bullets. They also found the remains in a search using metal detectors and metal rods as probes, not by digging.

Experts will be conducting molecular and other tests on the new remains, Nikolai Nevolin, a Yekaterinburg regional forensics scientist, said in televised comments Friday.

A representative of the Romanovs urged caution, given past controversies.

“It is necessary to treat these findings very cautiously,” Ivan Artseshchevsky told NTV from London.

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