Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Myth, science and the fate of the Romanovs

Myth, science and the fate of the Romanovs

A new exhibition investigates the imperial family’s lives – and mysterious deaths

A new exhibition investigates the imperial family’s lives – and mysterious deaths

Kylie Warner | September 28th 2018

A century ago, the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, was killed alongside his tsarina, Alexandra, their five children and several loyal attendants in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg. The Bolsheviks orchestrated (and subsequently obscured) the imperial family’s deaths in order to secure their own political legitimacy. Yet the Romanovs’ mysterious end only enhanced their international appeal. For decades, it was rumoured that the youngest grand duchess, Anastasia, survived the carnage, inspiring more than ten imposters to claim her identity and Hollywood to spin her tale into profit. “Anastasia”, a cartoon movie-musical released in 1997, introduced a new generation to the Romanovs and their manipulative spiritual healer, Rasputin.

Britain has long been fascinated with Russia’s dynastic dramas – perhaps because the two countries share royal history and blood. Alexandra was in part raised by her grandmother, Queen Victoria, while Nicholas was a first cousin of King George V, which accounted for their famously uncanny resemblance. Although the British government initially offered political asylum to Nicholas and his family in 1917, the plan was quashed due to fears that this could lead to popular unrest, threatening other European monarchies. As such, the family’s bloody fate was sealed.

Family jewels Maria, Alexandra, Alexei, Olga, Tatiana, Nicholas and Anastasia

A new exhibition at the Science Museum in London, “The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution”, does not fantasise about potential Romanov survivors, nor does it dwell on the politics around their deaths. Instead, the show takes a more grounded (and, unsurprisingly, scientific) approach to the Romanovs and their legacy. The first half details the family’s relationship with both conventional and mystical forms of medicine which they used to address a range of ailments – including the tsarina’s anxiety and her son Alexei’s haemophilia. The second half outlines how, more than 70 years afterwards, forensics helped explain how the family died. Scattered throughout the exhibition are the objects from the family’s private lives – jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs among them. 

The exhibition sometimes lacks organisation or depth. Digressions on topics such as female mental illness are interesting but distracting. And although some objects on display truly belonged to the family (like their travelling medical chest), the show heavily relies on generic historical medical devices borrowed from the Wellcome Collection. But these are minor quibbles. The Science Museum has created an engaging, accessible exhibition that offers a novel perspective on one of history’s most infamous events.

 

Tsar Nicholas II and his children (1915)

This photograph was taken from one of the 22 photo albums compiled by Herbert Galloway Stewart, a British tutor employed by the tsar’s sister, the grand duchess Xenia. Between 1908 and 1918, Stewart photographed the extended Romanov family at home in St Petersburg and on their Crimean holidays. These albums were only recently rediscovered in the Science Museum’s archives.

In contrast with official photographs, which depict the Romanovs as stiff and inaccessible in their luxurious finery, these casual snaps give viewers an insight into their relaxed family life. Both summer and winter shots show the Romanovs enjoying various natural pastimes; it is evident from their cosy body language and easy smiles that they prefer life away from the strictures of court.

The tsar’s five children – Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei (pictured second from right) – were born into great wealth and privilege, but their parents tried to raise them as humbly as possible. The children slept on hard mattresses in iron frames, took cold baths, and had limited spending money. Yet compared to many other royal children, the Romanov brood had a happy childhood. Everyone doted on Alexei, and the girls were especially close, signing letters with their joint initials OTMA. Although Nicholas (pictured second from left) is still considered one of the most inept tsars in Russian history, photographs depicting him as a loving, proactive parent have spurred some historians to repaint him as a gentle, introspective man who was ill-equipped for the demands of his position.

Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna’s maternity dress (1903-1904)

History has been kinder to the tsar than to his wife. Along with Queen Victoria, Alexandra was one of the most famous royal carriers of haemophilia B, a rare genetic disorder that passes down the matrilineal line but manifests almost exclusively in males. Haemophilia stops its sufferers’ blood from clotting, making them vulnerable to excessive blood loss, easy bruising and internal bleeding. Alexandra’s childhood in Germany was marred by her older brother’s death from the disease, as well as by her mother’s from diphtheria. Although her marriage to Nicholas was a love match, the mutual political suspicion between Germany and Russia meant that Alexandra was an unpopular figure once she moved to Russia in 1894.

Alexandra had proven her fertility by giving birth to four healthy daughters, but the imperial establishment was not satisfied. The pressure to provide a male heir caused Alexandra to develop numerous health issues, such as sciatica, anxiety and even a phantom pregnancy in 1902. Around this time, she began to call on mystics in the hope that their unconventional treatments would help her to conceive a son. 

This lace-and-mauve silk maternity dress was made for Alexandra during her pregnancy with Alexei, the long-awaited tsarevich, who was born in 1904. It soon became clear that he was a haemophiliac. Guilt-stricken Alexandra withdrew from court, hoping to keep his condition a secret. She devoted her life to his protection but at the expense of her own popularity. Her aloofness did not endear her to the Russian people, and her firm belief in the tsar’s divine right to rule and her blind reliance on Rasputin (whom she recruited to treat Alexei) further damaged her reputation – and the public perception of the entire Romanov family.

 

Imperial Red Cross Fabergé easter egg (1915)

Between 1885 and 1917, Peter Carl Fabergé and his studio designed 50 opulent Easter eggs for tsars Alexander III and his son Nicholas II, who would give one as a present each year to their mothers and wives. Forty-three eggs still survive, including this one, presented by Nicholas to Alexandra in 1915. On each side of the opalescent, enamelled egg is a translucent red cross, inlaid with portraits of Olga and Tatiana in nurses’ uniforms. The image of Tatiana secures the egg’s double doors, which open to reveal a triptych of the resurrection and the grand duchesses’ patron saints.

This egg – along with its companion, the Red Cross with Imperial Portraits, given to Nicholas’s mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna, in 1915 – commemorated the work that Alexandra and her daughters did for the Red Cross during the first world war. By caring for wounded soldiers in a private hospital, Olga and Tatiana were finally able to take on public roles and responsibilities – as well as glimpse first-hand the disastrous effects of the war on Russia’s population.

 

Steel Fabergé easter egg with “surprise” miniature on an easel (1916)

This was the last Fabergé egg presented to the imperial family, given by Nicholas to Alexandra in 1916, a year before his abdication. Compared to the decadent designs of other Fabergé eggs, this creation is surprisingly muted. The steel exterior is unusually free of gemstones and is supported by four artillery shells, whereas the silk and velvet interior envelopes the “surprise” element – a miniature painting in a diamond-lined frame depicting Nicholas and Alexei strategising with Russian officers. The egg was clearly designed to portray the Russian military as a powerful and well-organised force.

The reality of the Russian war effort could not have been more different. Although Russia entered the war with the largest army in the world, it was badly prepared for a global conflict, lacking an industrialised supply base, efficient train networks and competent leaders. The war did not lead to an increase in patriotic, pro-imperial sentiment, as Nicholas perhaps had hoped. In fact, dwindling resources, heavy losses at the front, and Alexandra’s unpopularity made Russians increasingly dissatisfied with the imperial government. This anger manifested in riots and rebellions on the homefront, setting the stage for the February and October revolutions of 1917.

Diamond and emerald cross belonging to the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (before 1918)

Nicholas II abdicated during the February revolution. After the British government withdrew its offer of political asylum in April 1917, the Romanovs were moved by the moderate provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, to the city of Tobolsk in the Urals. The family intended to stay there until their foreign exile was arranged, but the triumph of the Bolsheviks during the October revolution spelled their doom. In spring 1918, Nicholas and his family were moved to their final location at Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were killed in the early hours of July 17th 1918.

Alexandra’s diamond and emerald cross was found in the room in which the family was killed. It was a gift from her mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress, and was one of the few personal belongings that Alexandra brought into exile. Along with the other items collected from the scene (including a damaged “Mother of God” icon, also on display), the jewelled cross was used as evidence in an official inquiry conducted by Nikolai Sokolov, a case investigator associated with the anti-Bolshevik White Army. Until the opening of Soviet archives during the 1990s, Sokolov’s report from 1920 provided the only reliable proof that the tsar and his family had been killed. But because Sokolov was unable to locate the Romanovs’ remains, rumours soon spread that one or more members of the imperial family had managed to escape the massacre.

Facial reconstruction of skull number 19 from the Ekaterinburg remains, believed to belong to Nicholas II (1995)

Nicholas II’s remains were uncovered in 1979 and exhumed in 1991 alongside those of four other suspected Romanovs. The forensic quest to conclusively identify the remains during the 1990s drew international attention. Peter Gill, a British scientist, used DNA profiling (a relatively new science at the time) to prove that they were from the same family group. Scientists then tested the mitochondrial DNA, which passes unchangingly down the matrilineal line, and compared the results against known Romanov descendents. The mitochondrial DNA from several living European royals – including the current British consort Prince Philip, who is related to the tsarina through his mother – perfectly matched the samples taken from Alexandra and her children. The bodies found were indeed those of the last Romanovs.

Two additional sets of remains, uncovered in 2007, were later identified as belonging to Alexei and Maria. But even in death, the Romanovs have not found a peaceful end. The family were canonised in 2000, pleasing Russia’s increasingly pro-church political establishment but angering those who saw the imperial system as autocratic. And although most of the family was interred with great pomp in St Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg in 1998, Alexei and Maria remain unburied at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church, who have kept the remains for further DNA testing.

The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution Science Museum until March 24th 2019