Now it's official. The last mysteries of the most notorious regicide and royal massacre of the 20th century have finally been solved: And something mysterious and strangely hopeful has gone out of the world.
American DNA researchers have confirmed this week that bone fragments belonging to a young teenage boy and girl that were found last year in the Sverdlovsk region of Russia close to the site where the rest of the family were killed belonged to the Tsar Nicholas' only son and heir, the Tsarevich, 13-year-old Prince Alexei, and his sister, the Arch Duchess Maria.
The announcement came as no surprise: All serious Russian and international research over the past two decades, especially since the collapse of communism, had all pointed to the fact that Alexei and Maria could not have survived, even if they were briefly separated from the rest of their family who were gunned down by Bolshevik killers in that notorious basement in the city of Ekaterinburg. Soviet communism was notoriously incompetent and inefficient at everything except winning wars – and even then, only at a stupendous cost in millions of human lives. But the one thing it was always relentless and consistently good at was killing people.
As the wisest of philosophers and psychiatrists from Plato to Freud have told us, human beings need their myths and fairy tales. We need to believe that there is hope that the world is more magical and mysterious, and also far more merciful and protective, than the horrific, all-too-well-documented record of the past century tells us. Like Agent Mulder in "The X-Files," we want to believe.
We want to believe that young princes and princesses like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia will always confound and escape the clutches of the Darth Vaders who are determined to snuff them out. We want to believe that the sons of King Edward IV of England, the young princes in the Tower of London, escaped and lived and that they were not casually murdered by King Richard III, even though their skeletons were discovered more than 340 years ago.
The slaughter of the Romanov Royal Family in 1918 was particularly poignant, symbolic and horrific. It unleashed an age of horror on Russia and its subject nationalities that the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn later estimated cost at least 100 million lives. The example and terror of the Soviet totalitarian state inspired the rise of the Nazi totalitarian state in neighboring Germany only a decade and a half later. International revolutionary socialism begat National Socialism in its mirror image: Between them they unleashed bloodbaths on a scale that even Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun had never equaled.
How wonderful it would have been, therefore, if just one or two members of that doomed Romanov family -- once the most powerful and richest on Earth, ruling an empire that stretched at its height across 12 time zones in Europe and Asia from Finland to the shores facing Alaska -- could have confounded the killers, escaped and lived.
Many novels and movies -- most of them execrably bad -- have been launched on the notion. The extraordinary Anna Anderson, born Franziska Schanzkowska in Pomerania in 1896, confounded far too many credulous dopes around the world that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest of the tsar's daughters. The grieving survivors of the Romanov family found themselves pilloried and hounded by the popular press of America and the rest of the West for refusing to swallow this shameless scam.
Anderson-Schanzkowska lived a prosperous life, surrounded by true believers to the day she died, and even enjoyed the distinction of having Ingrid Bergman, one of the most beautiful actresses in movie history, play her in a highly successful and farcical fictional movie. Her pretensions were finally decisively exposed after her death by DNA research in 1994.
There were many other crackpot theories. It was particularly ridiculous to imagine that poor young Prince Alexei could have survived. The boy was a hemophiliac and would have died many times in his youth had it not been for the bizarre but well documented interventions of Gregory Rasputin, who whatever else he was, was certainly a remarkable and effective faith healer. But conspiracy theories claiming that Alexis lived at least into the 1950s -- thereby surviving Stalin and all his horrors -- flourished too.
My own favorite version of the myth was that it was the Arch Duchess Tatyana, eldest and most spirited of the tsar's beautiful, doomed daughters, who survived, rescued by the British Royal Flying Corps but crippled during her flight, to die in the arms of her husband and life-love and then be obscurely buried in an English country churchyard. However, even before the latest revelation, archaeological and scientific research had proved that Tatyana could not possibly have survived.
There is no Loch Ness Monster and the last tsar's martyred family did not survive. Their murder unleashed a hellish, decades-long cycle of mass murder, retribution and more mass murder that engulfed almost all the great land nations of Europe and Asia. The brutal extermination of that family was followed by the brutal extermination of scores of millions of other innocent families across Europe, Russia, China and many other lands. That is why the deaths of the Romanovs will continue to exercise a haunting symbolism as long as they are remembered. But the confirmation of those deaths this week carried a sad, depressing message of its own: It confirmed the triumph of harsh, undeniable fact over the wistful wish fulfillment of dreams.