In the underrated 1997 film “Anastasia”, a beautiful redhead named Anya is a destitute amnesiac. Two schemers prey upon her, plotting to use her resemblance to Anastasia Romanov for monetary gain. In the end, Anya remembers that she indeed is the Grand Duchess and falls in love with one of the opportunists who helped her come to this realization. Aside from the bizarre casting choices of Meg Ryan, Kelsey Grammer, and John Cusack, and the fact that Anastasia will forever be immortalized as a redhead though she was a brunette, the movie is a romanticized version of a much darker story; that of Franziska Schanzkowska.
Somewhere along the line, a story spread that Anastasia escaped death when her executioners’ bullets ricocheted off of diamonds concealed in her corset. Schanzkowska, who also went by Anastasia Tchaikovsky, and later Anna Anderson, was one of many women who used this tale to her own advantage. After announcing that she was Anastasia in 1922, Anderson enjoyed a life of luxury at the expense of generous benefactors between stints in mental hospitals. She convinced Gleb Botkin, son of the Romanov’s physician and the real Anastasia’s childhood playmate, of her identity, but others were not so easily convinced. Even after the uncle of the real Anastasia obtained evidence that Anderson was actually Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker with mental health issues, questions remained. And like many great mysteries, those questions would remain until the advent of modern DNA testing.
A Grave Matter
Rumor has it that the mass grave in which the Romanovs were buried was first discovered in 1979 by a geologist. Fearing that the Soviet government would destroy the remains in an attempt to maintain control, the discovery remained a secret until the site was re-discovered in 1991 after the fall of the USSR. Researchers in Russia and the United States then conducted independent forensic and DNA analyses of the remains, and as with most things involving Russia and the US, a problem arose.
Not all of the family’s bodies were found in the grave. Both groups of scientists agreed that one of the two sets of remains that were missing belonged to Alexei, the only son of Alexandra and Nicholas. But they disagreed about the identity of the other missing body. The Russians said it was Maria’s, while the Americans argued it was Anastasia’s. Not only did this cast doubt on the otherwise reliable results of the DNA testing, it also allowed the rumors that Anastasia had survived (which had been swirling since 1918) to persist.
In 2007, archaeologists found additional remains 70 meters away from the first gravesite: one male and one female, both of the right age to be Romanov children. The Russian government appointed an international team of scientists to complete a new DNA analysis of the remains from both gravesites, hoping to put the rumors and doubts to rest once and for all.
The researchers used two kinds of DNA tests: short tandem repeat (STR) and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Let’s start with STR testing. To refresh your memory, our DNA is made up of 4 molecular building blocks that pair with each other to “spell out” our genes: A and T, and G and C. Although we think of DNA as making us different from one another, the vast majority of our genetic material is uniform. However, there are key regions that differ between individuals. STRs are short sequences of those DNA building blocks, lile ACCA, for example. Depending on the genetic material you inherit from your mother and father, you have a different number of copies of these repeats. You may be ACCAACCA, while I’m ACCAACCAACCAACCA. The scientists took DNA from bone fragments of all the remains (which were remarkably well-preserved, likely due to the cold climate where they were buried) and looked at the number of repeats at 15 STR sites. The results of this test showed that the two bodies in the grave discovered in 2007 were indeed the children of the two adults found in 1991. Now they knew that all of the bodies were related to one another, but whether they were Romanovs remained to be seen.
That’s where the mtDNA comes in. I’m sure if you learned anything in science class it is that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. But what you might not know is that mitochondria also have their own DNA (likely because they were an independent organism absorbed by a cell more than a billion years ago), separate from the nuclear DNA that encodes your traits. MtDNA is only passed on by mothers, and doesn’t shuffle and rearrange like nuclear DNA. Because it’s so stable, it is very valuable in genetic testing, including the kind that companies like 23andMe offer. By comparing the mtDNA of Alexandra’s bones to the mtDNA of her great-nephew (and Queen Elizabeth’s hubby) Prince Philip, and Nicholas’ bones to those of his brother, the researchers could conclude that indeed, these were the remains of the Romanov family.
Because Maria and Anastasia were so close in age and there are no known DNA samples to which the results could be compared, the data is inconclusive as to which body was in which grave. However, we do know that all five children are accounted for. So despite decades of rumors, sadly none of the Romanovs survived the 1918 assassination.
Eternal Rest Grant Unto Them
The results of the 2007 study confirmed that none of the women who claimed to be Anastasia were telling the truth. But Anna Anderson had been discredited long before that. In 1994, after she passed, researchers compared her DNA to that of Prince Philip (how many cheek swabs did this man give over the years?!) and the great-nephew of Schanzkowska. The results? She was not the daughter of Alexandra Feodorovna. She was the Polish factory worker that Alexandra’s brother had always believed she was.
In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church took the remarkable step of canonizing Alexandra, Nicholas, and their children as saints – martyrs of their faith. The canonization meant that the family’s remains had to be stringently authenticated, as the bodies of saints are considered holy relics. In 1998, the Church buried Alexandra, Nicholas, and the three daughters they were buried with, but it elicited controversy. This put pressure on Orthodox leaders to avoid upsetting followers who believed the scientific evidence, and those who thought it was a Soviet conspiracy. So despite the nearly universal acceptance of the 2007 DNA results, the Church has refused to recognize the authenticity of the remains. They have neither affirmed nor denied the identity of the last two bodies, but only said that they are continuing to “investigate.” As a result, the bodies of Alexandra, Nicholas, and three of their daughters now rest in Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, while Alexei and his fourth sister wait in an evidence box inside a state vault. The Romanovs are plagued by politics in death as they were in life. And science, despite its best efforts, cannot help.
Coble, M. D., Loreille, O. M., Wadhams, M. J., Edson, S. M., Maynard, K., Meyer, C. E., … Finelli, L. N. (2009). Mystery Solved: The Identification of the Two Missing Romanov Children Using DNA Analysis. PLoS ONE, 4(3). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004838
Elvidge, S. (2016, December 9). The Romanovs: Forensic Identification of the Tsar’s Grave. Retrieved from http://www.exploreforensics.co.uk/romanovs-forensic-identification-tsars-grave.html
Macfarquhar, N. (2016, February 13). Russian Orthodox Church Blocks Funeral for Last of Romanov Remains. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/world/europe/russian-orthodox-church-blocks-funeral-for-last-of-romanov-remains.html
Mitochondrial DNA and Ancestry. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ase.tufts.edu/chemistry/hhmi/documents/Protocols/Maternal Ancestry_Introduction_Reworked_Aug_25_2011.pdf
What is a Short Tandem Repeat Polymorphism (STR)? (2000, October 27). Retrieved from http://www.biology.arizona.edu/human_bio/activities/blackett2/str_description.html
Woman claiming to be Anastasia Romanov arrives in the U.S. (2010, February 9). Retrieved from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/anastasia-arrives-in-the-united-states
3 thoughts on “I Just Took a DNA Test…”
Good Morning. Just wanted to let you know that when Ray and I visited St. Petersburg, the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral was included on one of our tours. We saw the burial tombs of the Romanov Dynasty – all the Emperors and Empresses from Peter the Great and Catherine the Great to Nicholas II and his family. All the tombs are identical white marble decorated with gold crosses with the exception of the tomb of Alexander II. His tomb is made from a solid block of green Altai jasper. The tomb of his wife, Empress Maria, is made from a solid block of pink Ural rhodonite. All very lovely.
How about that?
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Incredible! What a dream trip!
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