MOSCOW — For nine decades after Bolshevik executioners gunned down Czar Nicholas II and his family, there were no traces of the remains of Crown Prince Alexei, the hemophiliac heir to Russia's throne.
Some said the delicate 13-year-old had somehow survived and escaped; others believed his bones were lost in Russia's vastness, buried in secret amid fear and chaos as the country lurched into civil war.
Now an official says DNA tests have solved the mystery by identifying bone shards found in a forest as those of Alexei and his sister, Grand Duchess Maria.
The remains of their parents — Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra — and three siblings, including the czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, were unearthed in 1991 and reburied in the imperial resting place in St. Petersburg. The Russian Orthodox Church made all seven of them saints in 2000.
Despite the earlier discoveries and ceremonies, the absence of Alexei's and Maria's remains gnawed at descendants of the Romanov dynasty, history buffs and royalists. Even if Wednesday's announcement is confirmed and widely accepted, many descendants of the royal family are unlikely to be fully assuaged; they seek formal "rehabilitation" by the government.
"The tragedy of the czar's family will only end when the family is declared victims of political repression," said German Lukyanov, a lawyer for royal descendants.
Nicholas abdicated in 1917 as revolutionary fervor swept Russia, and he and his family were shot by a firing squad on July 17, 1918, in the Yekaterinburg house where they were being held.
Rumors persisted that some of the family had survived and escaped. Claims by women to be Anastasia were particularly prominent, although there were also pretenders to Alexei's and Maria's identities.
"It was 99.9 percent clear they had all been killed; now with these shards, it's 100 percent," said Nadia Kizenko, a Russian scholar at the University at Albany, State University of New York. "Those who regret this news will be those who liked the royal pretender myth."
Researchers unearthed the bone shards last summer in a forest near Yekaterinburg and enlisted Russian and U.S. laboratories to conduct DNA tests.
Eduard Rossel, governor of the region 900 miles east of Moscow, said tests done by a U.S. laboratory had identified the shards as those of Alexei and Maria.
He did not specify the laboratory, but a genetic research team working at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has been involved in the process.
The test results were based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA, the genetic material passed down only from mothers to children. That DNA is more stable than nuclear DNA — the material inherited from the father's side — especially when remains are badly damaged.