"The Romanovs: The Final Chapter," by Robert K. Massie. New York: Random House. 308 pages. $25
In the dead of a July night in 1918, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, his wife, four daughters, his son and their immediate entourage were led into a room in Yekaterinburg, Russia, supposedly to pose for a group photo. After the unsuspecting victims had arranged themselves with the Tsar at the center, a group of executioners burst into the room and opened fire with automatic pistols.
All were killed, their bodies taken out and secretly buried. But did everyone die?
Two years later, a young woman who had been rescued from a suicide attempt claimed that she was in fact the Tsar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, and that she had survived the execution. This woman, later known as Anna Anderson, had a couple of obvious holes in her story.
She apparently did not look all that much like Anastasia. She could not or would not speak Russian. She had a habit of holding her hand over her face when meeting someone who had known the real Anastasia.
Nevertheless, she managed to persuade a handful of the Tsar's surviving relatives that she was genuine. On the strength of this partial acceptance, Ms. Anderson lived on as an international moocher, mental patient, recluse and houseguest until she died in Virginia in 1984, her story by then pretty much forgotten except for a few believers.
But in 1991, as communism was dying in the Soviet Union, the Tsar's long-secret gravesite was exhumed - and two bodies that should have been there were missing. Scientific analysis indicated that one of the absent was the Tsar's son and heir, Alexis, a hemophiliac, who was 13 at the time of the murders. After all the bones were tentatively identified, it was determined that one of the Tsar's daughters - it could not be determined which one - was also missing.
Odds were that these two bodies had been buried elsewhere, but ... could Anna Anderson have been telling the truth? Robert Massie's book chronicles the executions, the claims of Anna Anderson and, at great and tedious length, the petty scientific and legal wrangling .
It is a fascinating story with some fascinating sidelights. One of the Russian royal family's closest living relatives turns out to be Prince Philip of England, grand-nephew of the Tsar's wife, the Empress Alexandra. Philip gave blood so that his DNA could be compared with DNA extracted from the bones and from some tissue that had been removed from Anna Anderson.
But, overall, this book is a hodgepodge: a few pages of thrilling adventure and scientific detection that are overwhelmed by long dreary passages of pointless academic squabbling and dry courtroom maneuvering. Mr. Massie introduces as many indistinguishable Russian characters - and then forgets about them - as a bad 19th century novel.
The same story was told far more succinctly - and with the absolutely essential addition of pictures - in a one-hour Nova special on the Public Broadcasting Service earlier this month. In the light of that broadcast, I feel free to reveal the ending: Anna Anderson was a liar. Her DNA did not match the royal genes taken from the grave. If you want to find out the banal truth of who she really was, you can read the book.
Lars-Erik Nelson, Washington columnist for the New York Daily News, has covered Washington politics since 1981. Before that, he was for many years diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, based in Moscow, Prague and London.