Modern history

CHAPTER 7
 
 THE EKATERINBURG CONFERENCE

Maples and his team did not return directly home after their three days with the Romanov bones. Instead, they remained in Ekaterinburg for a two-day conference organized by the government of the Sverdlovsk Region, “The Last Page of the History of the Imperial Family: The Results of Studies of the Ekaterinburg Tragedy.” About a hundred people attended, and twenty papers were presented, mostly by scientists from different parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union. The governor of the Sverdlovsk Region, Edvard Rossel, opened the conference. Alexander Avdonin described how he and Geli Ryabov had found the bones. Professor Krukov of Moscow denounced the “rude violations of archaeological and forensic norms” involved in the exhumation of the bones. Nikolai Nevolin analyzed the condition of the bones taken from the grave. Professor Popov from St. Petersburg described the damage done to the bones by pistol bullets. Dr. Svetlana Gurtovaya of Dr. Plaksin’s office in the Ministry of Health described finding pubic hair from Bodies No. 5 and No. 7 and “objects resembling hair” from Body No. 4. All of these objects, she reported, “turned out to be extremely fragile and breakable and if they were touched would turn practically to powder.” Dr. Abramov described his identification of the family using computer-assisted superimposition. Dr. Filipchuk from Kiev explained his determination of age, sex, and height obtained by examination of the skulls, long tubular bones, and pelvises of the victims.* Victor Zvyagin from Moscow insisted that Body No. 1 (whom both Abramov and Maples had identified as the maid, Demidova) was a male; Filipchuk gently corrected Zvyagin, saying, “According to our data, this skeleton belongs to a large female … there is absolutely no doubt that the pelvis of this skeleton is that of a female.” Dr. Pavel Ivanov of the Molecular Biology Institute of Moscow spoke of the further information that might be obtained from DNA analysis of the bones, possibly in England.

Some of the speakers were not scientists. One discussed the uniforms worn by Nicholas II as a reflection of his personality A monarchist from the Russian Nobility Society in Moscow presented himself as the representative of “Their Imperial Highnesses, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and the widowed Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna.” Even Baron Falz-Fein, the Liechtenstein millionaire, was allowed to speak. He talked exclusively about himself, mentioned that the estate where he was born, “Askanya Nova, had been the largest in Russia,” and said that his devotion to Russian history and culture was enthusiastic and everlasting. The American team was not on the original program, but, at the end of the conference, Maples was invited to present its findings.

In the press conference that ended the program, Maples was asked, “What is the level of Russian forensic science medical expertise if you were able to accomplish in three days what took our people an entire year?” His answer was diplomatic: “Don’t forget, they spent a great deal of time in putting all the skeletons in order, reconstructing broken faces and skulls. After this, I and my colleagues only had to come and look.” Nevertheless, although they did not speak Russian, the Americans understood enough to be surprised by the apparent lack of coordination among the Russian scientists present. Everyone, it seemed, specialized in a different part of the body and applied a different technique. An expert from Saratov specialized solely in human wrists; he determined everything about skeletal remains, including age, by examining the small bones of the wrist. The best way to determine the age of a skeleton, says Michael Baden, is to examine the skull, the teeth, the vertebrae, and the pelvis. “But”—Baden shrugged—“if you only know about the anthropology of the wrist, you do everything using the wrist.”

Some of the Russians seemed to be hoarding their research, guarding what each thought was unique information. Maples and his colleagues were accustomed to Western scientific conferences, whose basic purpose is to share and disseminate new knowledge. Before a conference, Maples said later, Western scientists often prepare abstracts which are purposefully vague because the authors have not completed the research. But by the time of the meeting, a paper is expected to present results, analysis, and conclusions. In this respect, the behavior of the Moscow serologist, Gurtovaya, whose paper was on blood typing from hair samples, particularly fascinated Maples. She told the conference that she had tested bone and hair from the burial site for A, B, and O blood types, but at the conclusion she did not announce what she had found. Maples, sitting in the audience next to an English-speaking Russian art historian, leaned over to his neighbor and said, “Ask her if they were able to blood-type the remains.” The Russian asked the question, saying that it came from the American sitting next to him. “The speaker’s answer,” Maples said, “was ‘Da.’ Nothing more. I said, ‘Ask her if she got results from hair or from bone.’ She said, ‘Both.’ I said, ‘Ask her if the results were the same with the hair and the bone.’ He asked her, and she said, ‘Da.’ So I said, ‘Ask her what blood type it was.’ And she said, ‘Oh, we must keep our own little secrets.’ ” This reminded Maples of a quotation: “ ‘In Russia everything is a secret, but there is no secrecy.’ In fact,” he said, “within fifteen minutes, somebody told me what her results were: A positive.”

Cathryn Oakes, the hair and fiber specialist on Maples’ team, had an even more frustrating experience with Gurtovaya. Oakes made the trip from America because she had been told that there was human hair in the burial pit. Accordingly, when she arrived in Ekaterinburg, she asked, “May I look at the hair?” “Oh, that’s in Moscow,” she was told. But, her informer continued, Gurtovaya, the Moscow expert, would be in Ekaterinburg at the conference a few days later and would be bringing the hair with her. When Gurtovaya arrived, Oakes introduced herself and asked, “May I look at the hair?” “Oh, yes,” Gurtovaya replied. But she did not supply any hair. At their next encounter, Gurtovaya told Oakes that “the hair wasn’t any good.” Even now, Oakes does not know what to believe: “She did not appear to have the hair with her. Or perhaps she did and simply didn’t want to show it to me. In any case, I never got to see or do anything.” In the subsequent visits to Russia and Ekaterinburg by Dr. Maples and his team, Cathryn Oakes refused to participate.

Maples did not know it when he arrived, but this compartmentalization of knowledge among the Russians extended to having kept secret from Plaksin and Abramov the fact that he and his American colleagues were going to be at the conference. “They didn’t know we were there until they walked in the door,” Cathryn Oakes remembered. “And they were not pleased.” “They were shocked,” agreed Lowell Levine. “There was a tug-of-war going on between Moscow and Ekaterinburg,” Maples explained. “The forensic people in Moscow wanted the remains sent to Moscow. The Ekaterinburg people wanted to keep the remains there. At some point in this struggle, Ekaterinburg realized that they were going to be outgunned. If they were going to maintain control, they had to have their own forensic team. But there were no forensic scientists of that caliber in Ekaterinburg. That’s when they made their request to Secretary Baker. As a result, we arrived, and we—without realizing it—became the Ekaterinburg team.”

It was in this atmosphere of mutual shock, misunderstanding, and only partly concealed hostility that William Maples, who believed that the missing grand duchess was Anastasia, first met Sergei Abramov, who believed that the missing daughter was Marie.

“Professor Maples’ participation at the conference in Ekaterinburg was arranged solely by the government of Ekaterinburg,” Abramov said later. “We found out by sheer accident. It was strange. He was allowed to photograph the bones, but we—Russian experts—had not been allowed to do this. I don’t have anything against Dr. Maples. I respect him greatly. But his role in all this has been puzzling to us. If he is doing the research independently from us, then why are we needed? And if he is doing the research together with us, then why is he hidden from us? We never stood side by side at the bones.”

During the conference, after Maples announced his conclusion that Anastasia was the missing daughter, Abramov came up to him and advised him not to pass this opinion around when he returned to America. “I did this to protect him,” Abramov explained. “He had spent three days with the bones. We had spent a year with them. For his sake, I would not have liked it to turn out that we were right and he was wrong.” Unbeknownst to Abramov, of course, Maples already planned to tell the press conference at the end of the meeting in Ekaterinburg that he believed the missing grand duchess was Anastasia.

One year later, in July 1993, Maples came back to Ekaterinburg to be filmed examining the bones by Nova, the PBS television science program. On his way home, he stopped briefly in Moscow and for the first time called on Abramov in his office. “Dr. Maples was exhausted,” Abramov said. “He had gotten up at 4:00 A.M. in Ekaterinburg to fly to Moscow. He had his television people with him; they were taking pictures of us shaking hands and being friendly.” Maples explained to Abramov that his technique of examining and measuring bones proved to him that none of the young female skeletons could be a seventeen-year-old. “Then it turned out,” Abramov said, “that he and I were not measuring the same bones. We measured the hip and the femur; he measured the bones of the forearm, the ulna, and the radius, which are a much less accurate indication of height. ‘But,’ Maples said to me, ‘you sawed the femur in half.’ I said, ‘No, we did not do that. Someone else did. But we measured the femur before it was cut. And, frankly, we did not expect any other experts would be coming.’ ”

During that conversation, Abramov mentioned to Maples a problem regarding these forearm bones about which Maples already was concerned: “These bones easily could have been mixed up between the bodies. They were not brought out of the ground with the most scrupulous care. And once they were on the tables in the morgue, anybody could pick them up and, by mistake, put them down in another place. Professor Popov was there—without us. Professor Zvyagin was there—without us. And now Professor Maples has been there—without us.”

Toward the end of this meeting, Maples, wishing to be conciliatory, said to Abramov that although his own results were different, if Abramov could prove absolutely that Anastasia was among the skeletons, “I will be happy for you.” Abramov, responding agreeably, asked Maples whether he knew of any other renowned Western scientist who, using superimposition, could help solve the problem. Maples supplied a name, Professor Richard Helmer of the Institute of Legal Medicine in Bonn, Germany, who was the president of the Craniofacial Identification Group of the International Association of Forensic Sciences. Abramov, who knew Helmer’s reputation and had read his monographs, immediately invited him to Moscow. A commercial company provided expenses, and, in early September 1993, Helmer spent five days in Moscow going over Abramov’s technique and results. He told Abramov that his was the best superimposition program he had ever seen—and that he had seen all the superimposition programs in existence. Further, he said he now believed Abramov’s results and agreed that Anastasia was one of the skeletons in Ekaterinburg.

After that meeting, Abramov continued to propose solving the problem by having both Helmer and Maples come to Ekaterinburg to work with him at the bones. He would also invite Dr. Filipchuk from Kiev. In the absence of any such joint investigation, Abramov rests on his findings, buttressed by Professor Helmer. And by the fact that Dr. Maples gave him Professor Helmer’s name.

“The fact of the matter is that with the methods which now exist and based on the comparative material we now have, I do not believe it is possible to determine who is missing, Marie or Anastasia.”

The speaker was Nikolai Nevolin, director of the Sverdlovsk Region Bureau of Forensic Medicine, responsible for the Ekaterinburg morgue in which the bones have rested for four years. He lives in a multistory apartment building almost next door to the morgue, and it was there we went to look for him because we were late. We sat under the rustling poplars in the light of the setting sun, watching children play in the courtyard while Avdonin went inside to find him. Soon, Nevolin emerged, a powerfully built, soft-spoken man in his forties. He was wearing a black and orange American T-shirt, a gift of Lowell Levine. He is a forensic anthropologist whose routine work deals with the violent crimes and death which contemporary Siberians inflict upon each other. But he had grown familiar with these special bones. He had worked at the side of Abramov and at the side of Maples, and he had carefully studied the techniques of both. In his opinion, both were wrong.

“Maples speaks of pinpointing age to such a degree that he can say that none of the skeletons belonged to a seventeen-year-old woman,” Nevolin said. “Yes, you can talk about averages. But a professional knows that from bones you cannot tell precisely the growth or age of an individual adolescent. Teeth are a better yardstick. Forensic dentists, studying growth, say they can estimate age within plus or minus two and a half years. That is reasonable. I would accept that.”

Nevolin was neither defensive nor vehement in his criticism. He knew that both Maples and Abramov had reputations greater than his. But he was gently firm. He did not accept Maples’ contention that he can establish age by the degree of growth on the upper and lower edges of the vertebrae. “I don’t say that the calcification of the vertebrae which Dr. Maples is talking about does not occur; of course, it always takes place. But the process is not fixed to any particular age, such as sixteen or seventeen years old. Medical science does not know such a thing. What exist are intervals—let’s say fourteen to nineteen years old—when the growth process occurs. I think that Dr. Maples may have been misled by the fact that these bones have been in the ground for more than seventy years. The surface of the bones has been somewhat destroyed; they are very different from recent bones, which he—and we—usually work with in our laboratories.

“Finally, I have to say that determination of age by vertebrae has never been considered reliable, either here or abroad. The most reliable methods of determining age are the degree of wearing of the teeth, the knitting of seams on the skull, and, most reliable method of all, Hanson’s method—investigating the structure of the upper portions of the long tubular bones. These are the basic methods that allow us most precisely to determine age. Vertebrae are not involved in this. Americans, Europeans, Russians—everybody is the same. And if someone attempts to differentiate these remains by height, that won’t work either. You cannot blame the difficulty on the fact that the bone has been sawed through.… Even if it were whole, it would be impossible to determine exact height. So if a person, judging by height, says that this is this victim and this is that victim, then I think, mildly speaking, this person is not quite telling the truth.”

Nevolin turned to Abramov’s results, achieved with superimposition. “This is slightly better,” he said. “Because here we use the method of elimination. We take a photograph of the person taken as close as possible to the moment of death. We have the image of the skull. They are placed on top of each other. If the image of the skull fits into the image of the face of the person in the photograph, we can say that the skull can belong to the person shown in the photograph. It works better in a negative sense. If the skull does not fit within the image of the photograph, we can say that this skull did not belong to the person in the photograph. So each skull is fitted into each photograph. It will not fit into some of them; it may fit into one of them. One must not accept this as a categorical method, especially in this case. The method still is not very reliable, and second, in this case, practically all of the facial parts of the skulls have been destroyed and some of the cranial parts of the skulls are damaged by bullets.”

Nevolin’s personal conclusion was offered with a wry smile: “Russian scientists believe one way, American scientists believe another. I believe in a third way. I believe that the argument regarding Marie and Anastasia cannot now be conclusively solved. They were too close in age and were not so very different in height so that forensic experts here or abroad could determine their identity.” The ultimate solution, he insists, must be found the time-honored way: by locating the medical records and comparing teeth, bridges, crowns, fillings, broken bones, and any other skeletal abnormalities to written records and, if possible, X rays. Like Lowell Levine, Nevolin maintains that the medical records of the Imperial family must be somewhere in the archives. “I cannot believe that the medical records of the Romanovs have been lost,” Nevolin said. “They exist somewhere. Such documents do not get lost. But so much has happened in our country that only the Lord God knows where these documents have ended up. I believe that they will be found. If they are, there will be no more questions. We will know who was who.”

* Filipchuk’s findings regarding the younger grand duchesses were more compatible with Maples’ than with Abramov’s. He believed that Body No. 5 was the tallest of the daughters and had been killed at the age of twenty. This was the skeleton which Maples had identified as Marie and Abramov as Tatiana. Filipchuk declared that Body No. 6 was the next tallest of the daughters and had died somewhere between the ages of twenty and twenty-four. Maples had identified No. 6 as Tatiana, Abramov as Anastasia.

 This public rejection of Zvyagin’s research may have given some personal satisfaction to Abramov, who was in the audience. Zvyagin had been foremost in Abramov’s mind when he denounced the “idiots” who had criticized his work in Ekaterinburg and patronized him the preceding autumn, winter, and spring.

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