Russian Royals and DNA: Forensic Analysis and the Assassination of Tsar Nicholas II

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Assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his Family

Very early on the morning of July 17th 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, their five children, the family physician and three servants were taken to the basement of the house where they were under arrest, and shot. Their bodies were doused in acid, burnt and then buried in a pit. Only a handful of people knew the location of the burial site of the last Russian royal family. For the rest of the world it remained a mystery for several decades.

Then in 1991 nine of the 11 bodies were recovered from a grave not far from the city of Yekaterinburg where they were executed. Testing by pathologists quickly concluded the gender of each skeleton and that each individual had met violent deaths as bullet holes were observed.

Analysis of Russian Royals and DNA

The difficulty for DNA analysis of these bones was that they had been buried in Siberia. The ground is frozen for 10 months of the year and then water is present; conditions that are not ideal for the preservation of DNA. Eventually DNA was extracted and sent to several labs around the world. By comparing mitochondrial DNA of the skeletons to each other and to living members of the Romanov family, scientists were able to conclude that;

  1. There was a match between the Tsarina, the three children and a living maternal relative.

  2. The DNA from the Tsar’s skeleton matched the DNA from two living maternal relatives.

  3. The other four skeletons were unrelated.

The scientists also looked at DNA segments called STR’s - short tandem repeats. Five of the skeletons had similar STR sequences and patterns of distribution. This showed that they were related.

However, this analysis of the Russian royals and their DNA left two mysteries needing to be solved. Firstly, the skeletons of the Tsar and Tsarina’s two other children were missing, including that of Tsarevich, Alexei. Secondly, a woman known as Anna Anderson had for years been claiming to be Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the Tsar and his wife. She’d even managed to convince some members of the Romanovs, but was she really who she said she was? Now DNA analysis would soon be able to clear up the matter.

She had died in 1984 and her body had been cremated so DNA analysis was not an option here. But a journalist managed to find the hospital where Anderson had had her appendix removed. In the medical records was a slide containing a tissue sample. This sample was analysed and found not be a match to any Romanovs. So that was one mystery solved.

The second mystery was solved in 2008 when bone fragments found near the burial pit in Yekaterinburg underwent DNA analysis. The testing confirmed that the remains belonged to Alexei and his sister Princess Maria.


It is expected that the remains of these two children will be buried in the imperial crypt at St Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg. The rest of the family were buried there in 1998.


Identification of the Remains of the Romanov Family by DNA Analysis: Nature Genetics 6, 130-135 (1994)