Modern history

CHAPTER 4
 
 A CHARACTER FROM GOGOL

By the autumn of 1989, the physical disintegration of the Soviet empire was under way. On November 9, the Berlin Wall came down. A few weeks later, Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia. Within a year, Lech Walesa was president of Poland. Within two years, Communist governments had collapsed or been overthrown everywhere in Eastern Europe.

On June 12, 1991, the first nationwide election of a political leader in the thousand-year history of Russia took place. Boris Yeltsin, a native of Sverdlovsk, was elected president. When he was inaugurated in the Kremlin on July 10, Yeltsin stripped the ceremony of Communist symbolism. In place of the giant portrait of Lenin that for decades had loomed behind the speakers’ platform, he stretched the white, blue, and red banner given to Russia by Peter the Great. The patriarch of the Orthodox Church blessed Yeltsin with the sign of the cross, saying, “By the will of God and the choice of the Russian people, you are bestowed with the highest office in Russia.” Mikhail Gorbachev was present too, clinging to office as president of the Soviet Union and general secretary of the Communist Party. One month later, Gorbachev survived in office only because Yeltsin climbed onto a tank in Moscow and faced down an attempted army-KGB coup. By December 1991, Gorbachev was gone. The Central Committee of the Communist Party was dissolved. Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Baltic states, and other former Soviet republics had proclaimed their independence. In relative peace, seventy-four years of Communist rule in Russia had come to an end.

During these years, turmoil and change affected every part of the Soviet Union, including Sverdlovsk. By 1990, the Communists had been expelled from the City Council. Soon after, the site of the Ipatiev House, now a vacant lot littered with a rubble of crushed bricks and stones, was turned over to the local Orthodox bishop. There was talk of erecting a chapel. The local Union for the Resurrection of Russia, a monarchist group, planted a wooden cross on the site. It was torn down by die-hard Communists. Eventually a six-foot metal cross, decorated with pictures of the tsar, the empress, and the tsarevich, was put in its place. Communists did not lose all their influence in the city once known as the “capital of the Red Urals.” The name of the city was changed back to Ekaterinburg, but the name of the region remained Sverdlovsk. The city’s main thoroughfare continued to be called Lenin Avenue, and, at a prominent intersection, there remained a statue of Yakov Sverdlov.*

After the new president’s election, Ekaterinburg authorities acted quickly to carry out a request from Alexander Avdonin. The regional governor, Edvard Rossel, asked Yeltsin’s permission to exhume the Romanov bones. Yeltsin nodded yes. A delegation of senior officials went to see Dr. Ludmilla Koryakova, the leading professor of archeology at the Ural State University, and asked her to help in excavating “an unknown grave from the Soviet period.” They refused to be more specific, but Koryakova guessed what was involved. She was reluctant, mostly on scientific grounds. “There was no time to prepare,” she later told the London Sunday Times. “There were no tools, no instruments, none of the things you really need for a proper excavation.” Nevertheless, under pressure from her superiors at the university, she agreed to help.

On July 11, 1991, the day after Boris Yeltsin’s inauguration in Moscow, a convoy of military trucks set out from Ekaterinburg. The trucks carried “two of everything—just like Noah’s Ark,” Dr. Koryakova said: “two police colonels, two detectives carrying cameras and video equipment, two forensic experts, two epidemiologists, the town procurator and his secretary, and two policemen, each with submachine guns.” And, of course, Alexander Avdonin.

Half an hour later, the convoy reached the forest site, a small clearing on the former Koptyaki road about two hundred yards from the Ekaterinburg-Perm railway line. When the exhumation party arrived, they found the site already under guard. A high, temporary fence had been erected, and because of a steady rain, a large tent was stretched over the grave. Inside the tent, powerful klieg lights illuminated the ground. The procurator made a speech about the “responsibility” of everyone present, and the detectives set up their cameras, which filmed, hour after hour, everything that happened. Then everyone took a spade and began to dig.

The pit was only three and a half to four feet deep; beneath that level a layer of rock had prevented a deeper hole. The searchers quickly found the box containing three skulls, which Avdonin and Ryabov had reburied eleven years before. It was intact and unchanged. Digging wider, they encountered more skulls, ribs, leg bones, arm bones, vertebrae. The skeletons lay in disarray, one on top of another, at all angles, as if the bodies had been dumped into the pit at random. The bones were various shades of gray and brown; some had a greenish tinge. The fact that they were not more grievously deteriorated was ascribed to the pit having been dug in clay, which prevented air reaching the bones. The skeleton at the bottom of the pit was the most thoroughly destroyed. Here the explanation seemed to lie in the broken pieces of large ceramic pots with screw-on lids believed to have contained sulfuric acid. Once the pots were placed in the hole and shattered by rifle fire, acid spread across the clay bottom of the pit, consuming the flesh and damaging the bones it encountered.

The pit revealed no traces of clothing; this was consistent with the accounts of both Sokolov and Yurovsky; both had written that all the victims’ clothing had been burned before the bodies were thrown down the Four Brothers mine shaft. Fourteen bullets were collected from the grave. Some had been embedded in the bodies; some probably were a result of the firing at the pots of acid.

More terrible was the evidence of what had been inflicted on the human beings to whom these skeletons and bones had once belonged. Some of the victims had been shot while lying down, said Dr. Koryakova (“There are bullet wounds through the temples”), they had been bayoneted, their faces were smashed in by rifle butts, their jaws broken (“the facial parts of the skulls are destroyed”), many other bones were broken, and, finally, they had been “crushed as though a truck drove over them.” In the course of her career, Dr. Koryakova has exhumed many prehistoric settlements in western Siberia and unearthed a large number of skeletons. “But never,” she told the Sunday Times, “so many that were so badly damaged—so violated. I was ill.”

The pit had one final, dramatic revelation, which became apparent only after three days of digging and preliminary assembling of the bones: these remains represented only nine skeletons, four male and five female. Two members of the Imperial party (which originally had consisted of two parents, five children, the doctor, and three retainers) were missing. Despite this mystery, on July 17 Governor Rossel announced to the press the discovery of bones which in “great probability” belonged to Tsar Nicholas II, his family and servants. Who was there and who was not, he said, would be left to further analysis by national and international experts.

Two weeks later, Dr. Vladislav Plaksin, the chief medical examiner of the Russian Ministry of Health, was asked to begin the task of validating the bones. Plaksin quickly dispatched his leading forensic anthropologist, Sergei Abramov, to Ekaterinburg. In Russia, it was a time of political crisis; the army and KGB moved just at this moment to overthrow Gorbachev. “Tanks were entering Moscow as we were leaving the city,” Abramov recalled. In Ekaterinburg, he found the exhumed remains laid out in separate piles on the floor of the city police firing range. Over three months, he painstakingly identified and pieced together 700 bones and bits of bone. Much was still missing, and Abramov sent a team back to the grave site to sift and pan the dirt and mud. They found another 250 bones and fragments, which Abramov incorporated into the nine skeletons he was assembling. First, he labeled them by number: Body No. 1, Body No. 2, and so on. Thereafter, his task, using cameras, computers, photographs of the victims when they were alive, and space-age mathematics, was to discover whether this was the Imperial family and, if so, to determine which Romanovs were present and which, if any, were absent.

“We had no money, and for that reason any possibility of DNA testing was out of the question,” Abramov said in the summer of 1994, looking back on this harrowing chapter of his life. “We decided to determine identity with our own methods. With a video camera, we recorded skulls, front and profile. And then, with the help of a computer program, we matched skull formations to photographs, calculated similarities and probabilities of likeness. Then, in order to compare the people from the grave site with a wider group of people in general, we also taped a control group of 150 other skulls. Unfortunately, the equipment we had at that time was very weak technically, and the program which compared domes—the tops of heads—went very slowly. So we were forced to settle for a control group of only sixty skulls.”

“No one, ever in the world, used this system before,” Abramov declared. “We invented it. We! Here in my department, sitting in the next room, is a brilliant mathematician. They brought him to me from the Institute for Space Studies. I told him what I needed. He said it could be done. And he did it! This method allowed us to calculate the likelihood that this group of skeletons was not unique; that somehow it could have been duplicated.

“The mathematical technique is called combinatorial mathematics. We took four factors: gender, age, race, and height. If we are dealing with a single individual, we prove nothing. With two, we can become a little more certain. With three, we are even more convinced … and so forth. And here we have nine. For each of the nine people, there are these four factors. Each of them adds mathematically to the common statistical kettle. Together, this combination makes an invincible case. How likely is it that these nine skeletons in a single grave could be duplicated in other circumstances? And then we add other evidence, other factors that we learned from superimposition—a wide face, narrow face, a prominent chin, a weak chin. When we added all this up, we realized that the possibility of coming across another group of skeletons with this same combination of factors was 3 multiplied by 10 to the minus 14th degree. This turns out to be 3 incidents in 100 trillion. One hundred trillion people have never lived on the earth.

“Further, when we first did our calculations, we did them using information from only seven of the people in the grave. We did not have the photographs of Kharitonov [the cook] and Trupp [the valet], so we left them out. If you add these two, the odds will be 10 to the minus 18th degree. If we also begin to measure nose lengths, shape of the head … then it will be to the 20th or 30th degree. We are talking astronomical figures, which go far beyond what is necessary. We know beyond doubt that these are the bones of the Romanovs.”

But which Romanovs were in the grave? Eleven prisoners were in the cellar; the burial site gave up only nine bodies. Abramov explained how he answered this question. In the process of photo superimposition, he said, it is important that the skull be compared with as many photographs of a person as possible. Seeking a match from many angles, he used the camera and the computer to turn the skull to the angle from which each photograph was taken. He demonstrated: “Like this … and like this … like this … and so forth … frontal … profile … all angles. The more superimpositions we do, the more certain we can be of the result.” Abramov and his team began with Nicholas because, he said bitterly, “some idiots already had said that Skull No. 1 belongs not to the woman Demidova but to the tsar.” Abramov was not speaking of Ryabov and Avdonin; he was speaking of other Russian scientists who criticized him and his technique, saying that his method was faulty and his results invalid. “These are people,” he said, “who try to judge not with knowledge but with authority. When I have to explain our technique to them, it is work for an idiot, time simply wasted. But, because we were attacked, we had to do it.

“So, to refute these idiots,” Abramov continued, “we started by comparing two photographs of Nicholas, one frontal, one profile, with Skull No. 1, Demidova’s skull. As we expected, there was no match. Then we compared photographs of Nicholas to the other skulls from the grave. With Skull No. 8, we tried three positions; all three were negative. With Skull No. 9, we tried two positions, both were negative. Skull No. 3: three positions, three negative. Skull No. 5: five positions, five negative. Skull No. 6: four positions, four negative. Finally, we compared the photographs to Skull No. 4. We tried in eight positions. We got eight positive results. We knew that No. 4 was the skull of Nicholas II.”

Abramov went on to examine and compare the other eight skulls from the burial site. He did not spend much time with Skull No. 2, Botkin’s, because it had no teeth. “Everyone else had upper teeth,” Abramov explained, “and we knew that Botkin wore dentures. We knew to whom this skull belonged; we didn’t need to go further.” The remaining seven skulls were examined by superimposition. “We cross-compared all of the skulls with all of the photographs,” he said. “That is, on the computer, we put each skull inside the head in each and every one of these photographs. The first time we had seventy-six or seventy-seven cross-references. We searched for differences in age, deformations of the skull, whether the markings on the indentations were exact, whether the inside point measurements matched, even the facial expressions and the position of the head. We considered the thickness of the soft tissue lying over the surface of the skull. We studied how the skull lay inside the face. We checked whether there was too little soft tissue on the chin, whether the nose was in the wrong spot, whether the eyebrows were lying properly. Look, here, we are superimposing Skull No. 4—Nicholas II—and the photo of Kharitonov. You see, there is some similarity, but here the skull sticks out too far. This skull cannot be Kharitonov. In every case, if we could not explain all of these differences, we categorically said that this skull and this photograph are not the same person. It was enough to have just one difference which we could not explain in order to reject a match.”

Abramov worked especially hard to identify the remains of the three grand duchesses, who were very close in age and whose physical characteristics, especially given the degraded condition of the skulls, were difficult to distinguish. He compared all the photographs he possessed of these young women with the skulls of three young females, No. 3, No. 5, and No. 6. He compared three photographs of Grand Duchess Tatiana with Skull No. 3 and Skull No. 6. The results were negative. When he compared these photographs with Skull No. 5, the results were positive. Abramov, therefore, identified Skull No. 5 as Tatiana. He had four photographs of Grand Duchess Anastasia. He compared these with Skull No. 3: all were negative. He compared them with Skull No. 5; all negative. But when he compared Anastasia’s photographs with Skull No. 6, all the findings were positive. “Here. You see? Olga’s skull is wider. Anastasia’s is narrower. There is not enough soft tissue here. Now, here is a photo of Anastasia with Skull No. 5, Tatiana. You see? Problems. But here is Anastasia with No. 6. You see, it matches perfectly. This skull, No. 6, is Anastasia.”

In Abramov’s opinion, the missing daughter was Marie, the third. “Maria [sic] has the highest dome (her skull is rounded at the top of the head). Her photographs do not match with the skull of Olga, No. 3. They do not match with No. 6; that is Anastasia. Anastasia’s face is narrow, and Maria has a wide one. They do not match with No. 5; that is Tatiana. None of the skulls matches the photographs of Maria. So, Maria is not among these remains. She was not in the grave.”

The process of identifying the bones was difficult enough, but for Abramov and his Moscow colleagues, the scientific task was made infinitely worse by two years of bureaucratic infighting. Even after his work was done and he had achieved a considerable success, Abramov became upset when he talked about what happened. Normally he is a pleasant man, looking out with amused eyes over the top of his glasses, running one hand over his small, neatly trimmed gray beard while he holds a cigarette in the other. But on this occasion, sitting in his office across the river from the Kremlin, he spoke in bursts of emotion, sometimes shaking his head, sometimes laughing nervously, sometimes pounding his desk. “I could say that this experience was interesting and complicated,” he began. “But, no. It was more than that. It was evil. This research on the tsar’s family was the worst experience of my life.” From the beginning, he said, the authorities in Ekaterinburg behaved as if the Romanov bones belonged only to them. They were “the owners,” he said they told him, and they were determined to treat the murder of the Imperial family as a local matter. Using photography to document work on human remains is an integral part of forensic examination everywhere in the world. Nevertheless, for months Deputy Investigator Volkov of the Sverdlovsk Region Office of the Public Prosecutor refused Abramov permission to take any pictures of what he was doing. “I have written documents forbidding the taking of photographs!” declared Abramov, still angry. “I have written documents stating that at any moment I can be thrown completely off this research project!”

When he arrived in Ekaterinburg, Abramov discovered that the original work of exhuming the bodies had been done incompetently. “I was told that Dr. Koryakova, the archeologist in charge, had left the dig three times to protest the barbaric methods they were using,” he said. Abramov saw immediately that many of the bones were missing. His first request to the local authorities to go back and dig into the grave was refused. Eventually, he succeeded, and collected another 250 bones or bone fragments.

Abramov next asked permission to take the remains back to Moscow, where the process of examination and testing would have been facilitated. Ekaterinburg said no. He appealed to the Russian Parliament. The Parliament said no. At that point, no one in the central government of the Russian Federation, from Boris Yeltsin down, wished to confront and overrule the government of the Sverdlovsk Region.

Abramov’s work, therefore, had to be done in Ekaterinburg. He had no money for expenses. The budget for his office is decided a year ahead of time, and no project of this magnitude had been expected. Therefore, during the autumn of 1991, Abramov repeatedly had to travel to Ekaterinburg, live in a hotel, eat his meals, and pay these expenses partially out of his own pocket. Avdonin—whom Abramov calls “a good man”—promised to help from his foundation, Obretenye, but then Avdonin found that he, too, had no money. The local forensic people had no time to assist Abramov during working hours—“they had their hands full dealing with current murders,” he said. Some were willing to work overtime on Saturdays and Sundays, but they wished to be paid and Abramov was unable to pay them.

In December, Abramov told Investigator Volkov that for financial reasons he could not continue. Volkov suggested that this Russian government forensic scientist find commercial sponsors. Abramov started looking. He found a television company, Rus, from the city of Vladimir, which agreed to pay some of his expenses if they were allowed to film the bones. Another sponsor, a charity called the Fund for the Potential of Russia, was willing to pay for work and travel in return for being acknowledged everywhere as sponsor of this research. Abramov was pleased; while he had these sponsors, he traveled to Ekaterinburg three times in the spring of 1992 and even was able to bring some of his technicians from Moscow.

The television people were invaluable to Abramov, not only because they provided money but because they brought cameras. “We did not even have a camera in Ekaterinburg, and our superimposition work required cameras.” Later, it was said that it was impossible to identify these skulls by superimposition because Abramov did not properly photograph his work during their reconstruction. “It is true,” he admitted, “that there are no photographs of the work I did in the fall of 1991. The reason is that I was not permitted to take photographs. Only in May 1992, when we had help from these television people, were photographs taken.

“But”—Abramov’s face darkened with disgust—“once they had the film, the television people spat at us. They went out and tried to sell these films. And then”—he threw his arms up in the air; he was a character from Gogol, caught in a maze of bureaucratic villainy and deceit—“the government of Ekaterinburg demanded that all films and tapes of the remains must be left in Ekaterinburg. Further, the authorities demanded that everything written down on a piece of paper must be left behind in the city. And then, these same Ekaterinburg people turned on me and said, ‘Abramov deceitfully has brought in a television company, which, despite the ban of the Ekaterinburg government, has taken and is selling this film.’ ”

In the summer of 1992, still shuttling between Moscow and Ekaterinburg and trying to complete his work, Abramov encountered an apparently disinterested angel, Baron Eduard von Falz-Fein, a wealthy Russian emigre in his middle eighties, now living in Liechtenstein. Falz-Fein had heard about Abramov’s superimpositions and, when in Moscow, came to his office to see them. “When he found out that I had people working for nothing,” Abramov remembered, “that we did not have enough diskettes, enough of this or enough of that, he silently reached into his pocket, peeled off ten hundred-dollar bills, and gave them to me. I immediately told my superiors. Their eyes lit up … the biologists wanted serum, everybody wanted something. But I said no, this is only for the research on the Imperial family. The first thing I did was pay the people who were working for me. I paid them in dollars. My brilliant mathematician who came to us from the space rocket program had worked here, doing only this, for a year without pay. He was the first one I paid out of the money Baron Falz-Fein gave me.”

By the summer of 1992, Sergei Abramov and his colleagues were convinced that they had found Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, Dr. Botkin, Demidova, Kharitonov, and Trupp. Alexander Blokhin, deputy vice governor of the Sverdlovsk Region, had backed them publicly, holding a press conference on June 22 to announce that “computer modeling, comparing ancient photos of the tsar and the empress, has definitely proved that the remains found were their remains.” Everyone knew that the tsarevich was missing. And Russian experts accepted Abramov’s finding that the ninth skeleton he had examined belonged to the youngest of the tsar’s daughters, Grand Duchess Anastasia. The missing daughter, everyone believed, was Marie.

* The figure perched atop a huge rock and intended to be heroic depicts a small, bespectacled man fiercely angry, wearing a coat too large for him. He is striding into the future, his arm flung out, pointing the way. A pigeon sits on his head. Local monarchists have tried to have the statue removed; failing, they continually scribble graffiti across its base.

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