I had never imagined that I would find the remains of the Romanovs. I was not planning to get involved with this whole thing in any way. All of it somehow happened by itself.”
Alexander Avdonin was speaking truthfully and, at the same time, telling only part of the truth. It is true that fifty years ago, when he set out on the journey that would lead to his remarkable historical discovery, he did not know where this journey would end. But the finding of nine skeletons in a shallow grave four and a half miles from the Four Brothers mine shaft did not happen by itself. It was a purposeful enterprise, carried out over many years, successful in spite of towering obstacles. It was a team effort, but the team was small, and Alexander Avdonin was its leader and motive force.
Avdonin, now sixty-four, is an intense, silver-haired man of average height, with light blue eyes which gaze out through thick, steel-framed glasses. His tanned skin and sturdy, resilient body are not surprising: he was a geologist—he is now retired—and most of his life has been spent outdoors, tramping the meadowlands and forests near his native city. He was born and grew up in Ekaterinburg, then called Sverdlovsk. As an adolescent in school, he was drawn to the natural sciences—geology and biology—and also to the history and folklore of this rolling country east of the Urals. There were dark strands woven into this history: rumors that the floor of the forest was filled with the bodies of people shot by the Cheka; legends about the Romanovs; tales about the execution, about Sokolov, about pretenders reappearing. As a boy, Avdonin saw Ermakov walking about the town. Curious, young Avdonin went to the Ipatiev House, visited other museums, and read what he could about the Romanovs. “Whenever I heard anything, I would somehow accumulate it, just for my own knowledge, not for any other purpose. But as I collected information and documents, material evidence and other historical facts, my thoughts began to change. Our Soviet history was so restricted and boring that I began to think of restoring unknown spots in the history of our region, not for use at that time, but for the future.”
Because the subject was forbidden, most of what Avdonin learned came by word of mouth. He spoke to a niece of one of the guards at the Ipatiev House, to the wife of a member of the Ural Soviet who had voted to shoot the Romanovs, to the son of one of the executioners, and to a reporter for the newspaper The Urals Worker who, as a teenager, had participated in Sokolov’s investigations. In 1919, this man, Gennady Lissine, had been one of twenty children and adolescents whom Sokolov gathered and brought to the woods at the Four Brothers. He lined them up six feet apart and sent them walking in a row through the woods, picking up everything they found. Near Ganin’s Pit, they found a button, the remains of a small scarf, and another rag. More important to Sokolov, they found nothing anywhere else; for this reason the investigator concentrated his work near Ganin’s Pit and the Open Shaft. In 1919, Lissine was fifteen; in 1964, when he was sixty, he took Avdonin to the Four Brothers and told him what he remembered about Sokolov and his work. Neither man had ever seen Sokolov’s book, which was banned. Avdonin read Bykov’s book, which said that there had been remains that had been burned, but not completely burned, and that had been taken some distance from the Four Brothers and buried in “a swampy place.”
Over time, Alexander Avdonin became known in Sverdlovsk for his particular interest and knowledge, but his work was stymied. “It was not simple to gather information in the sixties and seventies,” Avdonin said, looking back from the vantage of the mid-1990s. “There were no tape recorders, it was all word of mouth. And people were afraid to talk.”
Then, out of the blue, Avdonin found a powerful ally. Geli Ryabov was an important man in Moscow, a famous filmmaker and writer of detective thrillers. One of his films, a well-known ten-part series, The Birth of the Revolution, was about the MVD, the ordinary Soviet police, or militia, who handle nonpolitical crime (as opposed to the more sinister KGB, the Office of State Security, responsible for dealing with political dissent). In 1976, Ryabov came to Sverdlovsk to show his film. Out of “pure human curiosity,” he went to the Ipatiev House, then closed to visitors (and only a year away from destruction). He persuaded the police to let him in. He went down to the cellar room. When he came out, Ryabov remembered, “I decided that I must get involved with this story. I felt a moral obligation, a mission, that will stay with me until I die, to write about all that happened to those people.”
Ryabov needed somewhere to start. He asked the local MVD chief whether anyone in the city knew anything about the Romanovs. He was told, “If anyone, Avdonin.” A year later, the two men were introduced. Avdonin’s first reaction was dismissive (he says “cautious”). He told Ryabov that it would be impossible to find anything; looking would be a waste of time; houses and a factory had been built over the places where everything had happened. In time, Avdonin—whose first reaction to newcomers remains a strained politeness—began to mellow. He said he found Ryabov “a very intelligent and interesting person. I liked him.”
They talked at length about their motives: why should they look for the remains? “We both had only honorable goals,” Avdonin recalled. “We wanted to do this in order to restore one of the pages of our history. In principle, the question of the tsar’s remains should have been handled by the government. But the government had just knocked down the Ipatiev House. We thought it was possible that they would liquidate the remains as well. We didn’t know where they were, but we thought that if we didn’t find them, they could easily be destroyed. We decided that we had to look for them.”
There was another consideration to be discussed. “This is very dangerous,” Avdonin told Ryabov. “If anyone finds out about this, if it reaches ‘the organs’ [the KGB], this will end up being very lamentable for me. I have a family and two sons. Ryabov told me that he worked for Sholokhov, the minister of internal affairs, and so, what do I have to worry about? ‘I will always cover for you,’ he said. So I said, ‘Under those conditions, let’s start. You supply me with materials from the archives and I will search for the spot.’ ”
Ryabov returned to Moscow and told Sholokhov that in order to continue writing his history of the Soviet militia, he needed greater access to secret archives for books, memoirs, and documents. Sholokhov wrote a letter of permission and “thereafter”—Ryabov smiled—“everything I needed was given to me.” One of the books acquired was Sokolov’s, which Ryabov brought, to Sverdlovsk. Avdonin took Ryabov to the Four Brothers mine shafts, which, according to Avdonin, made a tremendous impression on the filmmaker. Together, the two men found more objects—buttons, a coin, wires, glass, a bullet—which Avdonin gave to Ryabov. “We treated Ryabov with great respect, as an older person, a well-educated person, a writer,” Avdonin remembers.
They went back and forth over the Sokolov and Bykov accounts. Bykov said that there had been remains and that they had been taken quite far from the Four Brothers site. Where had they been taken? Curiously, Nicholas Sokolov, whose book had firmly denied the existence of any remains, provided a clue. In it, there was a picture, taken during his 1919 investigation, of a simple platform or bridge made of fresh logs and railway ties laid over a muddy spot in the Koptyaki road. In the photograph, Sokolov himself is standing beside the bridge. His explanation for its existence was that on the night of July 18, two days after the executions, a truck left Ekaterinburg and went down the Koptyaki road. At 4:30 A.M. (by now it was July 19), this truck got stuck in the mud. The railroad operator at the small workstation where the road crossed the tracks said that men came to him, told him their truck was stuck, and asked for railroad ties to make a bridge across the mud. They made the bridge and the truck left; by 9:00 A.M., it was back in its garage in Ekaterinburg.
Reading Sokolov, Avdonin and Ryabov decided that the investigator had overlooked something important: “From the woods where the truck got stuck, back to the garage, it was half an hour’s drive,” Avdonin reasoned. “If the truck was stuck and all they had to do was push it out, that is not so complicated—this could have been done by the soldiers in half an hour. So what was it doing there? Something must have been going on there. What was happening in that place for nearly five hours?” Although Sokolov had had his picture taken standing on the bridge, the investigator had never asked himself this question. Therefore, Avdonin and Ryabov decided, it was up to them to look for the spot where a bridge of railroad ties had been placed across the Koptyaki road.
Because Ryabov had to return to Moscow, Avdonin began the search with the help of a friend, a fellow geologist named Michael Kachurov. “We were looking for the bridge,” Avdonin said. “There were four low areas in that part of the Koptyaki road near the railway where the mud might have been deep in July 1918, and where they might have had to build a bridge. But, of course, in 1978, when we were looking, the bridge was no longer there. Fifty years had passed since Sokolov took his picture, cars had driven over it, dirt had been added to it, and, with time, it sank into the ground and ceased to exist. Grass grew over it, then the road itself ceased to exist. And then one day, we came to a ravine and Kachurov climbed a tall tree and from his perch called down, ‘Sasha, I see the old road and two low places where the bodies might have been buried.’
“We constructed a very simple instrument made of a sharpened steel water pipe to take core samples, a contraption that resembled a large corkscrew. We walked along the path of the old road, and, at intervals in low places, we pounded and screwed this instrument into the ground. If there was nothing there, it went all the way in. If there was a stone in its way, I would move it a little to one side and it would go in right past the stone.” When Kachurov made his sighting in the area of the Porosyonk [Pigs’] Meadow, Avdonin began drilling his corkscrew at closer intervals. He recounted, “We hit something soft like wood at a depth of forty centimeters [sixteen inches]. We moved here and there, drilling all around, and discovered an area approximately two meters by three meters [six and a half feet by ten feet] where there was evidence of wood beneath the surface. That is when we wrote to Ryabov that we had found the place.”
Geli Ryabov, meanwhile, had made another momentous discovery. With the help of a Urals friend of Avdonin, he had located the eldest son of Yakov Yurovsky, the chief executioner of the Imperial family. In 1978, Alexander Yurovsky, a retired vice admiral in the Soviet Navy, lived in Leningrad. When Ryabov went to see him, the younger Yurovsky did something extraordinary: he gave the filmmaker a copy of his father’s report to the Soviet government on the execution of the Romanovs and the disposition of their bodies. The original of this report lay in the secret files of the Central Archive of the October Revolution in Moscow; a copy had gone to the Soviet historian Michael Pokrovsky, who had never been permitted to publish a word. Alexander Yurovsky’s reason for giving his own, handwritten copy of this document to Ryabov was that he wanted to repent for “the most horrible page” in his father’s life.
Yurovsky’s report filled in gaps and corrected errors made by Sokolov and Bykov. This is a synopsis of the account, hidden for sixty years, that Ryabov and Avdonin read in 1978–79:
On the morning of July 17, 1918, after killing the Romanovs and dumping their bodies down the Four Brothers mine shaft, Yurovsky returned to Ekaterinburg to make his report. To his horror, he found the city buzzing with stories describing where the bodies of the tsar’s family had been hidden; Ermakov’s men, obviously, had been unable to hold their tongues. A new burial site was needed quickly; the White Army was close. Ignoring Ermakov, Yurovsky asked for help from other local officials. He was told that there were very deep mines along the Moscow highway twenty miles away. He went to investigate. His car broke down, and he had to finish the trip on foot, but eventually he found three deep mines filled with water. He decided to bring the bodies there, attach stones to them, and throw them in. If there was time, he would burn the bodies first, then bury whatever remained in the water after disfiguring everything beyond recognition with sulfuric acid.
When Yurovsky finally returned to Ekaterinburg—he started by walking, then commandeered a horse from an unlucky peasant—it was nearly 8:00 P.M. He began assembling the things he needed—more gasoline and sulfuric acid. He and his men did not set out until 12:30 A.M. on July 18. Returning to the Four Brothers, they lighted the original mine shaft with torches. One of Yurovsky’s men climbed down and stood in the darkness, icy water up to his chest, surrounded by bodies. A rope was lowered. He tied it around the bodies, one by one, and sent them up.
Yurovsky thought for a while of burying some of the bodies in the earth right by the mine shaft and started digging a pit, but he gave it up when he realized how easily such a grave could be seen. By this time, most of the day had been lost. At 8:00 P.M. on the evening of July 18, the bodies set off in carts for the deep mines. Soon the carts began to break down. Yurovsky halted the procession and went back to town to find a truck. When the truck arrived, the bodies were transferred and the journey resumed. The truck had a hard time, bouncing and slithering through muddy ruts, several times getting stuck in holes filled with water.
“At about 4:30 on the morning of July 19,” Yurovsky wrote,
the vehicle got permanently stuck. Since we weren’t going to get as far as the deep mines, all we could do was either bury them or burn them. We wanted to burn Alexis and Alexandra Feodorovna, but by mistake instead of her we burned the lady-in-waiting [Demidova] and Alexis. We buried the remains right there under the fire, then shoveled clay on the remains, and made another bonfire on the grave, and then scattered the ashes and the embers in order to cover up completely any trace of digging. Meanwhile, a common grave was dug for the rest. At about seven in the morning, a pit six feet deep and eight feet square was ready. The bodies were put in the hole and the faces and all the bodies generally doused with sulfuric acid, both so they couldn’t be recognized and to prevent any stink from them rotting. We scattered it with branches and lime, put boards on top, and drove over it several times—no traces of the hole remained. The secret was kept—the Whites did not find this burial site.
At the end of his report, Yurovsky added the precise location of the secret grave: “Koptyaki, 12 miles from Ekaterinburg to the northwest. The railroad tracks pass 6 miles between Koptyaki and the Upper Isetsk factory. From where the railroad tracks cross [the road] they are buried about 700 feet in the direction of the Isetsk factory.”
This was exactly where Avdonin and Kachurov had bored into the old roadbed and found traces of wood beneath the surface.
Confident that they had located the site, Avdonin and Ryabov had to wait until the following spring before continuing their search for the remains. In late May 1979, Avdonin and his wife, Galina, and Ryabov and his wife, Margaret, came back to the area. Using Avdonin’s homemade steel-pipe core sampler, they bored deeper into the ground, five feet. All the holes disclosed alluvial, loamy soil, pebbles, and layers of dark brown and greenish clay. Under two of the holes, something was different: the layers were all mixed up, and at the bottom there was a dirty, black, mucousy clay (“black as soot,” Ryabov remembered), oily to the touch, with a foul, bituminous smell. They took these samples home for acid testing and found that the soil in these two holes was highly acidic. Yurovsky had written that he had poured acid on the bodies, and Avdonin knew that acid can remain in soil, particularly in clay, which acts as a sealant, for even longer than sixty years. He was certain they had found the grave.
They were impatient. Early on the morning of the following day, May 30, they dug into the site. There were six in the party: Ryabov and Avdonin, their wives, a geologist friend of Avdonin’s named Vassiliev, and an army friend of Ryabov’s named Pysotsky. (Kachurov was unavailable, and not long afterward, he drowned accidentally in a northern Siberian river.) Throughout the enterprise, Avdonin did his best to impose security. Before the excavation, he introduced no friends or colleagues to Ryabov. Ryabov never met Kachurov and only met Vassiliev the day of the excavation. “I did all of this because I was very much afraid of everything,” Avdonin said. “It was a very frightening business. We were scared.”
In May near Ekaterinburg, the sun rises near five in the morning. By six that morning, the party, carrying shovels, was in the forest. They were alone except for a few mushroom hunters, wandering about, calling to one another. As soon as Avdonin and his colleagues began to dig, they found the railroad ties, and directly underneath, they saw human bones. In one small area, only eleven square feet, they saw three skulls. All of them were frightened. “I admit that our interference in this pit was barbaric,” Ryabov said. “It was horrible. But we did not have the time, we did not have the instruments, and, of course, we were controlled by fear … fear that we would be found out. Of course, when we found this, it was even more frightening!” Shaking his head, he said it again: “It was frightening! It was frightening!” Avdonin, also, was afraid: “All my life I had searched for this, or somehow was heading for this. And then, when we first started to lift up the planking, I thought to myself, ‘Let me find nothing.’ ”
Nevertheless, they kept going. “We removed the three skulls,” Avdonin said. “We knew that some kind of tests should be done—we didn’t know what kind yet. We separated them and lifted them out. Then we closed up the grave, putting everything back the way it was, with the grass on top. We had to do it as quickly as possible; it was six when we started to dig and we were finished by nine or ten.”
Back in town, the group was in a state of emotional shock. That evening, some of them went to church and asked the priest to say a panikhida, a special service of prayer for the Imperial family and for themselves. (Not wholly trusting the priest, they worked the names Nicholas, Alexandra, Alexis, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia into a much longer list, hoping the priest would assume these were their own aunts, uncles, and cousins.) The service did not greatly calm Avdonin, who, for two months afterward, felt ill.
In the days following, the skulls were cleaned with water and examined. They were gray and black; in areas, etched traces of sulfuric acid were evident. The central facial bones of all three skulls were missing. In the left temple of one of the skulls, there was a large, round hole, as if made by a bullet. The left lower jaw of another skull held an extensive bridge of gold teeth. Ryabov knew that Nicholas II had had bad teeth, and he assumed that this skull had belonged to the tsar. (Later, it turned out to be that of the servant Anna Demidova.) He suggested that one of the other skulls belonged to Alexis, and the third to one of the four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, or Anastasia.
Facing the question of what to do with the skulls, they decided to divide them up. Avdonin kept the skull presumed to be that of the tsar, and Ryabov remembers how this dialogue proceeded: “Avdonin said that, considering the fact that he, a resident of Ekaterinburg, was the organizer of this expedition, he had the right to keep the emperor’s skull with him.” Ryabov took the other two back to Moscow, hoping to use his connections with the Interior Ministry to carry out discreet, unofficial testing at the Forensic Service of the Ministry of Health. He was rebuffed. For a year, he kept the skulls in his apartment in Moscow, then, having failed to find any scientist or laboratory which would help him, he brought them back to Ekaterinburg. Avdonin had done nothing with the skull he had kept; it had spent the year hidden under his bed.
In the summer of 1980, Avdonin and Ryabov, frustrated and still afraid of the consequences of their discovery, decided to return the three skulls to the grave. They were placed in a wooden box with a copper icon and returned to the site. The men dug again into the grave. This time, they uncovered a new skull, which they briefly brought to the surface. This skull had teeth made of white metal; Ryabov assumed it must be that of Demidova, whose false teeth might well have been made of inexpensive steel. (Later, he learned that the skull belonged to the empress and that the “cheap, white metal” he had seen was platinum.)
Before returning the box and its three skulls to the earth, Avdonin and Ryabov again discussed at length what they should do with the information they had discovered. They could not tell anyone; it was not a time in Soviet history conducive to interest in—let alone sensational news about—the Romanovs. Three years before, the Ipatiev House had been bulldozed. “We swore an oath that we would never talk about this until circumstances in our country had changed,” Avdonin said. “And, if these changes did not happen, we would pass along all of our materials and information to the next generation. We could only leave it to our heirs. Ryabov didn’t have any children. That meant there were only my children. Therefore, we decided that this history would pass to the next generation through my oldest son.”
In 1982, Leonid Brezhnev died, followed quickly to the grave by his successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union and gradually began the policies of glasnost (openness) andperestroika(reform). At the beginning of 1989, Geli Ryabov, believing that the time had come to reveal the historical secrets he and Avdonin were keeping, attempted to contact Gorbachev “to ask for his help on a government level so that all of this could be properly handled.” Gorbachev did not reply, but fragments of the story leaked out to the editor of the liberal weekly Moscow News. The editor pursued Ryabov. On April 10, 1989, an astonishing interview appeared in that paper. The next day, every major Western newspaper carried the story that, ten years earlier, Soviet filmmaker Geli Ryabov had found the bones of the Imperial family in a swamp near Sverdlovsk.
Ryabov is a short, slender man with a narrow, deeply tanned face, dark brown eyes, white hair, and a white mustache. His manner is nervous; his fingers drum when someone else is talking. Unlike Avdonin, whose stare is hard and voice implacable, Ryabov frequently looks away, speaks softly, and never interrupts. Appearing on television, he told his audience, “I am a typical proletarian. My father was a commissar in the Red Army during the Civil War, and therefore his hands were steeped in blood. My mother was a simple peasant woman. I am now a believer and a monarchist.” He said that he had unearthed three skulls and showed photographs of the skulls and of the excavation site. His effort to find them, Ryabov said, had taken three years. “Great efforts were made in 1918 to conceal the identity and location of the bodies,” he continued, “because, even then, the moral dubiousness of the execution was obvious.” Nevertheless, he said that he was convinced of the authenticity of his findings. “Even for me,” Ryabov said, “it was not difficult to identify them.” Despite Gorbachev and glasnost, he said he was not ready to share his discovery with others, and he did not reveal the exact location of the burial site. “I am prepared to show the remains that I found, as well as the grave itself, to any panel of experts,” he told the Moscow News, “but only on condition that permission is given for a decent burial befitting human beings and Christians.”
The announcement created an international furor. Ryabov was believed and disbelieved, praised and denounced. But one curious aspect of his revelation was that at no point in these interviews, or in a subsequent long article he wrote for Rodina (Motherland), did Ryabov mention the name of Alexander Avdonin.
“My reaction was horror,” Avdonin said, remembering how he felt when he learned that Ryabov had broken his vow. “It is true that in 1989 change had arrived in our country. And I understood that Ryabov is a writer and couldn’t pour out his heart in meaningless articles and letters. Before he gave his interview and published his story, I visited him. He told me that he was writing about this, and he showed it to me. I liked it; I told him it was good. But I also told him that he should hold on to his article for a while and not publish it just yet. We should wait and see which direction our politics would go.”
When Ryabov decided to go ahead, did he ask Avdonin’s permission? “No,” said Avdonin, “and his announcement didn’t even mention that other people were involved. To this day I still don’t understand why he did that.”
Ryabov’s response was that Avdonin did not want to be mentioned because his wife was working as an English professor at an MVD academy in Ekaterinburg. “It still was dangerous for him,” Ryabov explained. “He didn’t want publicity. He thought it was still a bad time to release this information.” Ryabov, therefore, in deciding to go ahead, resolved to take all of the risk—and all of the credit.
In one respect, Ryabov did follow advice Avdonin had given him long before. Ryabov’s article in Rodina, appearing three months after his Moscow News interview, indicated the location of the burial site. However, as Avdonin had suggested, his description pinpointed a spot half a mile away from the actual site. One day after copies of this magazine appeared in Sverdlovsk, heavy machinery arrived in the forest, dug up the earth around the false site, and carried away all the soil. “KGB,” according to Avdonin.
Avdonin and Ryabov no longer speak to each other. Employing his fame as a finder of the grave, Ryabov wrote to Queen Elizabeth II of England, a relative of the Romanovs, asking that she use her influence to ensure that they were buried in a Christian manner. The queen did not reply. In 1991, when Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s new leader, authorized a scientific opening of the burial site, Avdonin met Ryabov for the last time and said, spontaneously, “Come! We are going to exhume them.” Ryabov refused. “Maybe his conscience was bothering him,” Avdonin says. Ryabov cannot be drawn into criticism of Avdonin. On the contrary, he says, “There can be no question of the priceless role of Alexander Nicholaevich Avdonin in this story. No one has doubts about that. He played a monumental role. He was the one who dug up the remains.”
There it might rest. Except that, in the milky darkness of a Siberian summer night, Avdonin blurted out his true feelings: “betrayal, treachery—just like what happened with Ryabov.”