In 2013, I was invited by Peter Sarandinaki to join his first expedition to Perm, Russia to locate the remains of the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich Romanov, the final leg of a journey he’d been on for years and, in a way perhaps, his entire life. We just completed the third expedition and, having not yet achieved our goal, are already preparing for a fourth expedition in August 2016. It has been one of the most unique and rewarding experience of my life and career, precipitating an interest in Russian history and culture that I was previously as ignorant of as most Americans, and I have to thank Peter for it. Someday soon I plan to tell his amazing story for all the world to read.
The search for Mikhail and his faithful secretary and friend, Brian Johnson, are to be the final chapters in a book we’ve been working on, tentatively titled FINDING ANASTASIA, about his aristocratic family’s dramatic role in the Russian revolution and civil war, and his own tenacious efforts to complete a task begun many years ago by his great-grandfather and grandfather. When asked, I’ve been describing the book as part non-fiction Dr. Zhivago, both for the time and place and for the sweeping narrative of major historical events, as well as part detective story, part forensic true crime, and part the tale of a romantic quest.
Peter’s great-grandfather was White Army General Sergey Rozanov who was the first White officer to enter the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg after the Reds retreated from the city. Just a few days earlier in the basement of that house, their Bolshevik captors murdered Tsar Nicholas II, his empress Alexandra, their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia, and the young heir to the throne, Alexei, as well as the family doctor, and four servants. Unable to bring himself to go into the blood-stained, bullet-marred basement where the slaughter took place, Rozanov sent his adjutant, Capt. Kiril Naryshkin, who would later marry the general’s daughter, Anna, and thus is Peter’s grandfather on his mother’s side. He was the first to see the note scrawled on the wallpaper by one of the killers, a quote from the German poet Heinrich Heine: “Balthazar was, in this same night, killed by his slaves.”
Back then rumors abounded, but no one seemed to know–or would say for fear of reprisal should the Reds return–what had become of the bodies of the royal family so that they could be buried in a manner befitting their station and place in Russian history. On the recommendation of General Rozanov, an investigator, Nikolai Sokolov, was appointed to gather evidence of the murders and attempt to locate the remains. Working for several months, he located several areas of interest, and came close to where they’d been secretly buried–so close that had he looked down at one point and known what he was looking at, he would have completed the task then. But before he could finish, he was forced to flee the city when the Reds returned.
Eventually, the Reds won the civil war, and the Rozanovs, Naryshkins–Peter’s maternal grandparents–and the Sokolovs were forced to leave Russia along with millions of other White Russians. The Naryshkins and Sokolovs traveled first to Japan and then to Europe, eventually settling in France. The investigator Sokolov took with him a chest containing the evidence of the royal family’s murder, including the scrap of wallpaper with the Heine quote, topaz stones from one of the grand duchesses necklaces, and the empress’s severed finger. He would write a book about his investigation that included a photograph of him unknowingly standing on top of the remains of the royal family, except that of two of the children. One of the killers would make note of Sokolov’s near discovery in his own writings, but that remained a secret for many years. In the meantime, both Kiril Naryshkin and Nicolai Sokolov would die under mysterious circumstances; the former murdered in his bedroom in the south of France, and the latter dying suddenly, and mysteriously, in his Paris garden.The “Sokolov Box” was given to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and passed from memory though the box itself–and a second book written by Sokolov–remained in possession of the investigator’s family.
In 1978, a couple of amateur historians, retired Russian geologist, Alexander Avdonin, and documentary filmmaker Geli Ryabov–using Sokolov’s book, as well as other documents including writings made by the killers–discovered the remains of most of the royal family below a set of railroad ties that had been placed across a road in what was known as Pig’s Meadow. Nicholai Sokolov had been photographed standing on the ties, not knowing that they had been placed there by the killers for a more sinister purpose than to shore up a low spot in a remote muddy road in the Russian countryside. Due to the politics in the Soviet Union at the time, Avdonin and Ryabov replaced the remains in the grave and waited for a better political climate.
It came in 1991 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, disintegration of the Soviet Union and the advent of perestroika, a reform movement, and glasnost, which translates to “openess.” Suddenly, Russians interested in a part of their history that had been hidden or lied about during the Soviet era could pursue the truth. The amateur historians announced their find amid international press coverage and the remains were recovered from the clandestine grave. Although authenticated as belonging to the Romanovs–including by our search team member and forensic anthropologist Sergei Nikitin–not everyone who mattered accepted the remains as belonging to the Romanov royal family. Particularly problematic was the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow which while declaring the remains “martyrs of the revolution” did not accept the remains as necessarily belonging to the royal family. Although the remains were interred in St. Petersburg again with international media attention, the ceremony was notable both for the many important secular people in attendance, but also the absence of any major church officials. Politics between the church in Moscow and the church abroad plays a role in this, as do the unscientific opinions of naysayers who opposed the authenticity.
There was one other issue. The remains of two of the royal children were missing. One was Alexei; the other was one of the grand duchesses, though whether the missing victim was Marie or Anastasia became something of a controversy between Russian scientists and American scientists who viewed the remains that had been found. (This controversy was addressed in my book NO STONE UNTURNED: The True Story of the World’s Premier Forensic Investigators). This was where Peter Sarandinaki entered the picture.
Peter’s grandmother, Anna, his mother Anastasia, and father, Alexandre Sarandinaki, had immigrated to Argentina following World War II. He grew up listening to the stories of his aristocratic family whose roots can be traced back to Catherine the Great on his maternal side and to the Greek seafarers Sarandinaki on his father’s side. The stories were filled with exciting tales of the revolution–of facing down firing squads, of the women’s flight across the Steppes to join his great-grandfather Rozanov, of Cossacks and Reds, and most of all a quest that began the moment his great-grandfather and grandfather stepped foot into the Ipatiev house, the subsequent investigation of Nikolai Sokolov, the flight from Russia carrying the Sokolov box with the severed finger of an empress, and the weight of an unfinished quest.
Immigrating to the United States, Peter and his family became part of the tight-knit White Russian community that had fled the revolution and later the Soviet Union. He would attend the New York Maritime College and eventually become the captain of several of the world’s largest commercial vessels. In yet another circle in a tale full of them, he met and married Masha Tolstoy, the great-granddaughter of the novelist who happened to be friends with Peter’s great-grandfather. Her family had its own dramatic tale of escape and flight before eventually reaching the United States where her great aunt, Alexandra Tolstoy (Leo’s youngest daughter) established the Tolstoy Foundation in New York to assist other Russian emigres (all of which is also part of FINDING ANASTASIA).
Peter never forgot the stories he learned at his grandmother’s knee. So when he read a report about the missing Romanov children and that American anthropologist Bill Maples would be going to Russia to examine the remains, he contacted Maples and they became friends. I’ll leave it for our book to discuss the details, but Peter was soon involved in the search for the missing children in Russia–creating the S.E.A.R.CH Foundation (Scientific Expedition to Account for the Romanov Children) to raise money for the search, as well as efforts to authenticate the remains found by Avdonin and Ryabov, and those of the missing children if found. As such, he became the point man for getting some of the top DNA laboratories in the world to verify what was obvious to some, if not accepted by all. The DNA results, arrived at independently, confirmed that the remains were those of the Romanovs and their retinue; yet still the church hesitated.
Peter hoped that finding the two children–accounting for all of the royal family and putting to rest the myth that one of the children, usually Anastasia, had survived–would help push the church towards complete acceptance. It would also serve the purpose of reuniting the remains of the children with their family, all of whom are considered martyred saints by the church (as is Mikhail). He returned several times to Russia, working with his friends such as Avdonin and Nikitin to try to determine from the records what had happened to the two missing Romanovs. He even asked NecroSearch International to assist though the scientific controversy above would derail that plan. Some felt that the remains might have been left at the Four Brothers Mine where the entire family was at first taken and dumped down a shaft only to be removed again by the killers and taken to Pig’s Meadow. Perhaps, the two smaller bodies had been missed or they’d been cremated as some of the writings suggested (the killers’ accounts varied and were purposefully misleading).
Peter found evidence of the murders at the mines–a bullet from one of the same guns used at the Ipatiev house and a topaz stone from a necklace worn by one of the grand duchesses–but the remains themselves eluded him. Working with his Russian colleagues, they determined that one of the accounts suggested that the children had been at least partly cremated and interred near where the rest of the family was eventually found. So they returned to Pig’s Meadow and began to search there, though the first attempt came up empty-handed. In 2007, he was back in the United States raising money for another search when he got a telephone call that other searchers looking at the Pig’s Meadow site had located the remains of the missing children.
After the find, Peter’s work switched to spearheading the efforts to have all of the remains tested at the DNA laboratories. He also located the great-grandson of Nikolai Sokolov and found the box and learned of the existence of the second manuscript. He learned that the contents had been interred in the wall of a Russian Orthodox church in The Netherlands (and has been pressing to have the biological items tested by the DNA labs)
Then his friend Nikitin told him about one last missing piece of the Romanov puzzle. A month before the tsar and his family were murdered, the Bolsheviks in Perm, some 600 miles to the north and west of Yekaterinburg, assassinated the Grand Duke Mikhail Romanov and his faithful secretary and friend, Brian Johnson. They’d been driven into the countryside one night in June 1918, shot and buried in a clandestine grave. Nikitin suggested that they find Mikhail and if his DNA matched that of the remains believed to be that of his royal brother found in Pig’s Meadow, the church would have to accept their authenticity.
I’ll discuss the historical importance and romantic character of the Grand Duke Mikhail, who some consider the actual “last tsar of Russia,” in a subsequent post here on my From Russia With Love blog. But suffice it to say for now that the search for Mikhail and Brian became the final chapter in Peter’s story to complete a quest that has come down through the generations to him.
Together with members of NecroSearch International, Peter’s S.E.A.R.CH Foundation, and our Russian hosts and colleagues we first went to Perm to search for Mikhail and Brian in 2013. Based on documents that included statements and writings made by the killers, we narrowed the search area to a small valley about six kilometers from Perm. Located near a rather nasty looking prison, as well as a village built for prison workers in the 1930s, the area consists of a large meadow, and even larger swampland through which the Yazavaya stream flows, all of it dominated by a steep-sided hill, referred to in the killers statements as Red Mountain. It would seem no coincidence that a chapel dedicated to Mikhail Romanov sits on top of that hill, though no one seems to know exactly why it was built there; it’s the destination of an annual trek from Perm by the faithful on the anniversary of the murders.
Along with Peter and myself, the American-United Kingdom team consisted of Michael “Mick” Swindells, a former police officer from Blackpool in the U.K. and one of the top search-dog handlers in the world who became our field leader, Brook Schaub, a former police officer from St. Paul and a computer forensics expert who currently works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as well as NecroSearch International, and geophysicist Clark Davenport, a founding member of NecroSearch International whose expertise is in the forensic use of remote-sensing equipment such as ground-penetrating radar. (I’ll write more on the team and our Russian colleagues in a future post.)
We began the search in the meadow on the west end of the area closest to the prison. With Davenport searching with his remote-sensing equipment looking for anomalies beneath the surface, while Mick Swindells and his search dog, Sam, a border collie trained to locate human remains, used the dog’s remote-sensing equipment, his nose. My role was to help Mick poke more than 6,000 holes, each a meter apart, in a Russian meadow–the idea being to release any scent of death that lingered beneath the surface. It was a long, tedious process, brightened only by our new friendships with the Russian side of the team and maybe a shot or two of vodka. After more than two weeks, we had to call it quits for the year and returned to our homes.
The team returned in 2014, this time with noted British archaeologist John Hunter and NecroSearch International botanist Crystal Strouse and moved into the heavily treed, swampy area closer to Red Mountain. This time an excavator was hired to removed the trees and dig enormous trenches to get down to 1918 levels to test with the equipment and the dog. The team located an old stone roadway beneath the surface that could have been the one described by the killers, but the remains of Mikhail and Brian eluded them.
This year the expedition began with what turned out to be–at least for now–a wild goose chase (read my earlier posts about the skull found on Red Mountain). It was a necessary endeavor–the story plausible enough that it couldn’t be ignored–but it took nearly a week away from the original plan for this year’s search. When we did return to the original plan, it was to continue the march eastward through the swamp, digging trenches, testing with the equipment and the dog. Again we came away empty-handed.
Next year when we return, it will be to continue the methodical search unless new evidence is brought to Peter. (When leaving this year, we were told that the government is sending a researcher to look through files in St. Petersburg and Moscow–including old, never-before-seen Communist Party documents–to see if there is something that can help with the search). Looking for a one hundred year old grave is like looking for a needle in a haystack, we also have to hope that we are searching the right haystack. But as Swindells has noted, we’re looking for evidence that could be taken to a court of law and that means being meticulous and thorough. It should bring us to an area that I am particularly interested in.
In 2013, I decided to follow the Yazavaya stream into the swamps, looking for a bridge mentioned in the documents. In an area about twenty meters shy of where the 2014 expedition ended it’s search, I found the abandoned remains of a substantial old bridge, consisting now mostly of large posts set in the mucky ground and a few pieces of rotting planking. Additionally, I found found several old square nails in the structure that could date from the early 1900s. Further up the stream, I came upon the remains of another old bridge but because the main structure was made of concrete, I decided it was too new for what we were looking for.
This year, with less to do to help Mick with the dog, I decided to try to find the old wooden bridge. The posts were still there, as were pieces of plastic tape I’d left in 2013 to mark the spot. Although unconfirmed at this point, it would appear that the stone road located by the 2014 team leads to this bridge, but there’s something else.
Studying aerial maps of the site, Brook Schaub noted what appeared to be a trail leading from the area of the chapel down towards the swamp. He asked if I would check it out. The trail at first parallels the valley through with the stream flows before suddenly diving down to the valley floor a footpath that to my surprise led to the second concrete bridge I found in 2013. However, this time on closer inspection, I saw that the concrete bridge had been built over what appeared to be an older wooden bridge similar to what I’d found downstream. Could the road and these two bridges be connected to the story of the Bolshevik killers and their victims? It does fit the story, but it could mean nothing at all. Will searching the area around them in 2016 yield the results we want? Only next year will answer that.
This year we ran out of time and with regret had to leave Perm and our work unfinished. All we have to show for our efforts so far is that we know where Mikhail and Brain are not. It’s frustrating for the entire team, but more so for Peter, who has put so much of himself into his quest–both raising money to bring the team to Russia and pay for such things as the excavator, getting official and logistical support in Russia for the project, but more importantly he is emotionally invested in seeing this through to the end. We all feel for him; he is the heart and soul of the expedition. He has to raise the funds, and he deals with the Russians and the bureaucracy. We want this as much for him as for the satisfaction of participating in what would be a major historical find. But as Mick told Peter at our debriefing on the last day: “This is the end of a chapter, not the end of the book.”
We’ll be back again next year with our captain