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Issue 5 Autumn/Winter 2000ContentsPrevious ArticleNext Article

In search of Russia's lost princess




It's one of the world's great mysteries -- did any of the children of Tsar Nicholas II survive the massacre of the Russian royal family in 1918?

Women all over the globe claimed to be the youngest princess, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, who was popularly believed to have escaped death and fled into exile. But none could prove their claim.

Meanwhile, in rural South Africa, a woman known as Alena would become terrified and hide in her room whenever strangers -- especially police -- came near her home. Her family says she told them in strictest confidence that she had once been a grand duchess of Russia -- without saying which one. And that she knew details of the Romanov massacre decades before they were made public.

Dr David Ranson: drawn into a DNA mystery.

Alena died in 1969. In 1994, her step-grandson, Mr Louis Duval, who lives in Western Australia, approached a Perth documentary maker, Mr Mike Searle, and suggested he film the exhumation and genetic testing of 'Granny' Alena's remains to see whether she was Anastasia.

In 1995, Alena's bones were sent to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine at Monash University, where its deputy director, Associate Professor David Ranson, and colleagues attempted to extract and test mitochondrial DNA, which establishes family relationships through the maternal line. Unfortunately, Professor Ranson says "at that time, it wasn't possible to extract useful material from the samples we examined -- their DNA had leached out". Similar testing at Oxford University proved inconclusive.

Tsar Nicholas II's daughter Maria, left, back row, bears an uncanny resemblance to 'Granny' Alena, pictured above with her husband.

Yet, Mr Searle's documentary, In Search of a Lost Princess, shows how photographic comparisons and facial reconstruction led forensic scientists working independently at the universities of Sheffield and Manchester to a firmer, though surprising result -- Alena closely resembled not Anastasia but her sister Maria.

Then, in 1998, when the Romanovs were reburied in St Petersburg, the Russian government revealed one princess was, indeed, missing. It was Maria.

This intrigues Professor Ranson. "We could test Granny Alena's DNA again, as our techniques for detecting and analysing genetic material are constantly improving." And what if this showed she was the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia? "That," he says, "would be fabulous!"

- Sue McAlister

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For more information on forensic medicine study and research at Monash, contact Professor David Ranson on +61 3 9684 4305.


Issue 5 Autumn/Winter 2000ContentsPrevious ArticleNext Article


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