Modern history


In February 1992, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, in his last year of office, was barnstorming around the former Soviet Union. During his three years of working for President Bush, the Soviet Union had splintered into a plethora of independent states, all of them interested in attracting American investment capital and technological know-how. Baker, accordingly, was warmly welcomed in Moldavia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan—and, of course, in Russia. On February 14, his blue and white Air Force 707 touched down at Ekaterinburg, his last stop before Moscow. In fact, visiting Ekaterinburg itself was not the primary reason for this stop. Baker was on his way to a secret nuclear research center called Chelyabinsk 70, one hundred miles to the south. The very fact that Baker was coming measured the distance recently traveled by the two superpowers. For decades, Chelyabinsk 70 had been considered so secret that the entire small city was encircled by high barbed-wire fences and watchtowers. For miles around, the countryside had been kept empty of population. The purpose of Baker’s visit was to see how the scientists who had been making nuclear weapons now were using their technology to make artificial diamonds; this was being offered to the Americans as a reassuring example of Russia’s ability to convert former war-making capability to peaceful purposes. Accordingly, Baker, his staff, and a group of American reporters made the trip to Chelyabinsk 70, the secretary addressed the scientists, and then the Americans returned to Ekaterinburg for the night.

The following morning was what the State Department calls “downtime”; that is, there was nowhere official to go and nothing official to do. President Yeltsin, whom Baker was scheduled to see in Moscow, was not returning to the Russian capital until the afternoon and did not want Baker to arrive before he did. As it happened, Margaret Tutwiler, Baker’s principal spokesperson, had been looking forward to a morning free in Ekaterinburg. For years, Tutwiler had been interested in the Romanovs, and she had read widely on the subject. She knew that the Ipatiev House had been destroyed, but she hoped, nevertheless, to be able to go and see the site. Before arriving in the city, she had mentioned this to Secretary Baker.

After returning from Chelyabinsk 70 the previous evening, Baker had eaten dinner with Governor Edvard Rossel in Rossel’s small family apartment. Baker, himself a hunter, had admired Rossel’s hunting rifle and the large moose head mounted on the wall. He had listened to Rossel’s description of the attractive business opportunities awaiting Americans in this part of the Urals. Then, as he had promised Margaret Tutwiler he would, the secretary had asked about seeing the site of the Ipatiev House. Yes, of course, Rossel had responded, and as you are interested in the Romanovs, why not also come and see their bones? Baker had asked if he might bring another person.

In the morning, Baker and Tutwiler accompanied Rossel to the Ipatiev site. “There was snow on the ground, red and white carnations lay at the foot of the concrete cross, and people were coming and lighting candles,” Tutwiler remembered two years later. Baker went up to the cross, leaned over, and touched it with a gloved hand. Then the party drove to the two-story morgue where the bones were kept. Alexander Avdonin was there, and Rossel introduced him. The visitors watched a demonstration of computer superimposition and then looked at the skeletal remains. At one point, Baker picked up one of Nicholas II’s bones. The singular nature of the situation was not lost on him. Early in 1994, sitting in his Washington law office, he recalled his feelings: “There was a real sense of history in that room. When we—the Bush administration—came into office, we were still confronted with a threat to our very existence from the Soviet Union and its ability to destroy the United States in a nuclear war. I remember how chary we were of the Soviets even as late as May and June of 1989. So, a scant three years later, here was an American secretary of state, standing there in what had been one of the most closed cities of the Soviet Union, just back from the nuclear site at Chelyabinsk, looking at the bones of the tsar. It was a striking example of how far things had come.”

Tutwiler remembered another moment from that unusual day. In the morgue, she and Secretary Baker were told that the tsar’s son and one of his daughters were missing from the skeletons laid on tables before them. “Is it Anastasia?” Tutwiler asked. Someone—she does not know which of the Russians present—answered decisively, “Anastasia is in this room!”

While Baker was still in the morgue, Rossel asked a favor. He said that scientists in Ekaterinburg were certain the bones belonged to the Romanovs, but they knew that in order to have this finding accepted in the West, they needed the endorsement of Western forensic experts. “Do you have anyone who could assist us?” Rossel asked. Baker replied that, when he returned to Washington, he would see what he could do. The American reporters accompanying the secretary wrote down this statement, and the following day it appeared in many newspapers.

Baker was as good as his word. Passing through Moscow, he instructed the U.S. Embassy to establish direct contact with the Ekaterinburg authorities. Returning to Washington, he told the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, “See what we can do to help.” Tutwiler remained involved, and cables stressing that “the secretary is very interested in this” flowed from her office. The two primary U.S. government forensic and pathological laboratories, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology based at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the FBI, were asked to participate. The AFIP had extensive experience in identifying bones unearthed after many years. Samples of the bones and teeth of American servicemen killed in Vietnam that could not be identified in Hawaii by standard anthropological, dental, and radiological methods were sent to AFIP for DNA analysis. Similarly, the FBI laboratory stands behind federal, state, and local police authorities as an ultimate resource for identifying criminals, victims, and missing persons. With the agreement of the secretary of defense and the director of the FBI, both laboratories agreed to help.

A joint team, led by Dr. Richard Froede, then the armed forces medical examiner and a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, was assembled. Dr. Froede was a forensic pathologist; that is, he dealt with remains when they were dead bodies. His assistant for the trip was Dr. Bill Rodriguez, a forensic anthropologist who deals with remains when they have become bones. Dr. Alan Robilliard of the FBI also was coming; his specialty, like that of Moscow’s Dr. Abramov, is computer graphic reconstruction. In all, eight American specialists, all employees of the U.S. government, made up the team. The costs were to be borne by the government as a contribution to good relations with Russia. (In fact, the salaries of the team members were already part of the federal budget; the additional expenses were primarily travel.)

The team met several times in Washington and began assembling materials and equipment. Glass-plate X-ray photographs of the tsar and the empress for radiographic comparison were acquired. Handheld X-ray machines, special laser scanning equipment, and computer graphic equipment, designed to work from different power sources in the field, were collected. There was a sense of urgency about these preparations; the Russians had stressed that they wanted the team in place by May. The team was ready on deadline: the equipment was crated, the scientists had their passports, Russian visas, typhoid and diphtheria shots, and airplane tickets. Then suddenly, two days before departure, the trip was canceled. A cable from the American Embassy in Moscow said that the authorities in Ekaterinburg preferred a different American team, led by Dr. William Maples, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Florida.

Members of the AFIP-FBI team were shocked and disappointed—some still are angry. “I’m not saying anything against Bill Maples, because he’s an excellent man,” one of the proposed leaders of the team said of the episode. “But this was an offer to the Russians by Secretary Baker, and we were the U.S. government team. From the point of view of forensic investigation, we are probably the best the U.S. has. We could have offered much more, particularly in the way of DNA analysis, because Maples couldn’t do that, and it ended up being done by the British. We have one of the few labs in the world capable of doing mitochondrial DNA, so we could have done it here, in house. We’re a huge pathology lab with state-of-the-art equipment both here and at the FBI. Being a U.S. government team, we thought we could really represent the United States. Nobody ever said ‘thank you’ or ‘we’re sorry.’ It was a sore subject around here for quite a while.”

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