How Mitochondrial DNA Was Used to Identify the Last of the Romanovs

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The Romanov Family

On the fateful day of July 17, 1918 during the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks shot Tsar Nicholas Romanov, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, his children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and his only son Alexis as well as the immediate servants of the family, after they were held captive in Ipatiev house in Ekaterinburg (the house came to be known as the “House of Special Purpose”). The Bolshevik red guards kept the deaths of the Royal family secret until they were finally revealed in 1926. It was ordered that the bodies of the Romanovs be placed in a single grave, but since the truck carrying the bodies broke, they were buried in the side of the road.

It wasn’t until 1991 that nine skeletons were found in a relatively shallow grave in Yekaterinburg. It was highly evident from the remains that the murder was done brutally, and that the “remains” were wearing clothes sewn with jewels. It was hypothesized that the victims survived long enough after being shot to force the assassins to club them to death as seen by the multiple wounds the bodies sustained.


In an attempt to find out who was in the shallow grave, a team of forensics experts from the United Kingdom performed the short tandem repeat (STR) analysis that came out positive: the bodies found in the grave belonged to the same family or at least very close relatives. However, only five of the children of the last sovereign family of Imperial Russia were found. This fueled the romantic idea that two children (presumed to be Anastasia or Maria and Alexei) escaped or were “allowed” to escape by a Bolshevik red guard who fell in love with the duchess’ charms/ This paved way for many women to claim to be Anastasia. The most notable of these women is Anna Anderson, whose mtDNA disproved her claims.

Due to some series of events during the transport of the bodies to their graves, the two children, namely Alexei and Anastasia or Maria (Anastasia, as later on confirmed by an American forensics team) were buried in a separate site. This second set of remains uncovered from different sites was subjected to three types of genetic testing in order to establish paternity. One of these methods was the use of mtDNA. In order to confirm whether the bodies were children of the late Tsarina, mtDNA testing was performed. The confirmation came from the living maternal relative of the family: Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.


The identification of the two missing children of the last sovereign family of Imperial Russia is only one of the many cold cases and mysteries that mtDNA testing helped to solve. Forensics mtDNA analysis is becoming one of the most reliable crime-solving tools for many law enforcement agencies to this date. Currently, there are facilities all over the world that keep mtDNA databases in order to find missing persons and identify maternal relatives quickly. Although mtDNA data provide less information than what can be gathered from nuclear DNA analysis, mtDNA offers more data to forensic scientists with limited evidence.