IN SEARCH OF THE ROMANOVS

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THE DEATH OF COMRADE NICHOLAS Romanov was nasty and brutish. In 1918 the last Czar of Russia was a prisoner of the Ural Regional Soviet in the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg. With him were his German-born wife, the Czarina Alexandra; their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia, and hemophiliac son, the Czarevich Alexis; the family doctor, Eugene Botkin; and three servants.

On the evening of July 17 a member of the Soviet's executive committee, Yakov Yurovsky, ordered the prisoners to dress. They were herded into a barren, unfurnished room with a single grilled window. Because "your relatives are continuing to attack the Soviet Union," Yurovsky told Nicholas, the committee had ordered his execution. A firing squad of 11 Russians and Latvians began shooting. The scene was bizarre as well as murderous. Some of the women were wearing, in effect, priceless bulletproof vests: they had hidden jewels in their corsets, which sent slugs ricocheting around the room. Pulses were checked and the stripped bodies loaded onto a truck for burial elsewhere. The "whole procedure," as Yurovsky called it, took 20 minutes.

As Robert K. Massie points out in The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (Random House; 320 pages; $25), the imperial family's murder was only one horrifying moment in an unfinished saga. Shortly after officials in Moscow announced that the Czar had been shot (there was no immediate mention of his family), rumors arose that some or even all of the royals had managed to escape. In the 1920s, Europe and America were almost awash with fraudulent Romanov wannabes, several of them demanding access to a huge fortune that Nicholas had allegedly secreted abroad.

The most notorious of these claimants was "Anna Anderson" (subject of a 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman), who persuaded a few surviving Romanovs, including the ex-Czar's first cousin Grand Duke Andrew, that she was Nicholas' youngest daughter Anastasia. A majority of the family were not convinced: their skepticism was vindicated last year when Anderson, who died in 1984, was exposed as an imposter by DNA testing.

DNA testing plays a major role in this brisk, whodunit-style narrative by a Russophile writer best known for his successful 1967 biography, Nicholas and Alexandra. The much publicized tool of forensic pathology led to an unseemly squabble among rival scientists trying to determine whether nine skeletons dug up near Ekaterinburg in 1991 were those of Nicholas and his family. At the end of August, U.S. and Russian experts announced that DNA testing had proved conclusively that one skeleton was that of Nicholas, thereby clearing the way for the family's interment in St. Petersburg's Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Will another Romanov ever rule Russia? Not according to Prince Nicholas Romanov, a retired farmer living in Switzerland, who is the acknowledged head of a now bitterly divided family. "We cannot even think of it," he told Massie, even though some symbols of the czarist past, like the country's pre-Soviet flag, have been restored. Should the impossible happen, one plausible candidate for the throne is a retired U.S. Marine colonel named Paul R. Ilyinsky, the son of the late Grand Duke Dimitri, a cousin of the Czar's. Ilyinsky, however, prefers the job he already holds: mayor of Palm Beach, Florida.