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When You Wish Upon a Czar : THE ROMANOVS: The Final Chapter, By Robert K. Massie (Random House: $25 ; 308 pp.) : TSAR: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra, By Peter Kurth . New Photos by Peter Christopher (Little, Brown: $60; 230 pp.) : THE ROMANOV LEGACY: The Palaces of St. Petersburg, By Zoia Belyakova (Viking Studio Books: $44.95; 192 pp.)

December 17, 1995|Margo Kaufman | Margo Kaufman is Book Review's official royal watcher

I was about 10 when I first learned of Anna Anderson, the woman who for more than 60 years claimed to be the last czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia. I remember feeling quite certain that she was legitimate and also reasoning that if she was a lost grand duchess, maybe I was too. I avidly followed her suit for recognition, which tied up the German courts for almost 40 years and ended in 1970, when the West German Supreme Court ruled that her case could not be proved or refuted. And I never lost faith that she was Anastasia.

Alas, in "The Romanovs: The Final Chapter," Robert K. Massie solves the Anna Anderson mystery and ties up all the other imperial loose ends too. His staggeringly well-researched book begins with a vivid description of the brutal murder of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, their five children, their physician and three servants in the early hours of July 17, 1918, in the cellar of Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg and unfolds like a detective story, albeit a highly technical one.

The author's first conundrum is what happened to the bodies, which for decades were assumed to have been dumped in a nearby mine, doused with sulfuric acid and gasoline and then burned to ashes. The issue remained unresolved until 1979, when Geli Ryabov, a respected Russian filmmaker with access to the archives, and Alexander Avdonin, a retired geologist who had grown up in Ekaterinburg finally located the secret grave. Massie's account of their search is riveting and includes a synopsis of the original 1918 murder report made by chief executioner Yuri Yurovsky.

Although Ryabov announced the discovery of the grave in 1989, it wasn't until 1991, after Russian President Boris Yeltsin's inauguration, that the Romanovs were finally exhumed and it was revealed that only nine of the 11 bodies were buried: four males and five females. Teams of forensic experts from Russia, Great Britain and the United States, employing a variety of intricate methods, tried to conclusively identify the remains, and Massie details their techniques and professional rivalries. He does a masterful job of simplifying the ins and outs of both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA testing. (Frankly, I'm surprised he wasn't asked to testify in the O.J. Simpson trial.) In the end, with the help of blood drawn from Romanov's descendants, including Prince Philip, it was established that the bones belonged to Nicholas and Alexandra, the grand duchesses Olga, Marie and Tatiana; the doctor and and their three servants.

The missing bodies, those of the czarevitch Alexei and the legendary Anastasia, are still missing, though they are presumed to have been burned beyond recognition and buried nearby. Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia, died in 1984 and was cremated, but as fate would have it, she left a clue behind.

Four years before her death, she had intestinal surgery at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Va., and the hospital saved a tissue sample. Anderson, DNA experts determined, wasn't related to Nicholas or Alexandra; however a DNA comparison to that of a descendant of Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish peasant who had disappeared around the same time as Anderson arrived on the scene, revealed a perfect match.

The Romanovs spring back to life in "Tsar" by Peter Kurth, a hauntingly beautiful coffee-table book. It is lavishly illustrated with old photographs, many from the royal family's morocco-bound albums hidden away for 60 years, and evocative new photos by Peter Christopher as well as period drawings, commemorative postcards, cartoons, ballet programs and pages from the royal diaries. The deluxe scrapbook chronicles the lives of the tragically dim Nicholas II and his beloved, but equally clueless, wife Alexandra.

The author's lively text touches all the historical bases: wedding, coronation, Bloody Sunday, Rasputin, World War I, revolution, execution and subsequent exhumation. It is rendered more powerful by the wealth of visual images arranged with loving care. The aristocracy posing at a fancy dress ball is juxtaposed with stark shots of rural laborers toiling in factories.

Kurth makes the Romanov execution seem almost inevitable, given their limited intellectual abilities and the political forces at play. Indeed the reader shares her foreboding as shots of the family on holiday give way to pictures of the grand duchesses in nurse's uniforms during World War I and then to heartbreaking scenes from their captivity: Grand Duchess Olga grimly chopping wood, Nicholas shoveling snow, the rickety cart that took them to Siberia. I'm not sure I really needed to see the royal finger found after the murder or the bashed-in skulls. But the book is a Romanov lover's treasure.

The final offering, "The Romanov Legacy," will appeal more to fans of interior design than amateur historians. It's filled with glamorous Architectural Digest-like photos of nine St. Petersburg palaces so lavish they make Versailles seem like a Cape Cod cottage. Author Zoia Belyakova provides a brief history of the ornate piles, but saves her passion for the intricate parquet floors and gilded balustrades. Her descriptions are commendable: "The ceiling coving features an elaborate composition of a stylized shell against a pair of crossed and flaming torches, with flowing fronds of acanthus leaves," but the result is soulless.

A must only if your dacha needs remodeling.

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