Blood & Revolution

The Last Tsar; Blood and Revolution is the name of an interesting and FREE exhibition currently to be found at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road SW7.  We visited on Monday.

The exhibition looks at the demise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Using artefacts, photographs and written records it illustrates the highly privileged life and subsequent death of the autocratic Tsars, a family touched by the tragedy of the ‘Royal Disease’ who became reliant not just on medicine but mystics and faith healers, most notoriously, Grigori Rasputin.

The kernel of the exhibition is, as befits  the Science Museum, a medical detective story, or rather several medical detective stories. The first is to identify the ‘Royal Disease’ and how it proliferated, the second is the finding and identification, using DNA sequencing techniques,  of the bodies of the murdered Romanovs and the subsequent quashing of the spurious claims of impostors to be surviving members of the immediate Romanov family.

The exhibition is good on the prevailing system of medicine and medical provision, especially in regard to mental instability or illness ( a condition often diagnosed in women who behaved ‘unsuitably’ or ‘hysterically’ ).  It shows how the ruling family kept the illness of the Tsaravitch, Alexei, hidden from all but an immediate circle of trusted intimates and medical men, thereby fuelling discontent among the aristocracy over the perceived remoteness of the Romanov family and influence of ‘advisers’ like Rasputin.   An autocratic and fundamentally unjust system could not survive without an involved and supportive aristocracy and the myth of a benign and progressive monarchy couldn’t be sustained by a monarch invisible to his people. Not so long after the outbreak of WWI a system of government which was creaking finally broke and the Tsar abdicated.

This is good, general historical context, but what is new in this exhibition is its concentration on the investigation into the death of the family, who were held under house arrest in the Ipatiev House in Bolshevik-held Ekaterinberg.  The initial investigation was headed by Nikolai, Sokolov, a Russian investigating magistrate, when that city fell out of Bolshevik control, and its findings were, for a long while, the only real evidence-informed information about their deaths. Later, after the Soviet state admitted executing the family and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, scientists were able to piece together those earlier findings with later discoveries made during the 1970s but not made public at the time, to find skeletons which could then be tested using the latest techniques.

The identification, which involved taking DNA from living relatives of the Tsarina, resulted in confirmation that the skeletons were indeed those of the Russian ruling family. In 2007 the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters were discovered and also tested.  Facial reconstruction and modelling techniques were then used to recreate the faces from the skulls, resulting in sculptures which closely resembled the photographs of the individuals taken while they were alive. So all eleven victims were identified and the fate of the Romanovs finally resolved.

In 2009 the ‘Royal Disease’ was finally confirmed to be haemophilia B, the rarer form of the condition, which is, largely, suffered by men but can be carried by women.  It features strongly in the ancestral tree of various European ruling houses ( somewhat startlingly ).

I can thoroughly recommend this exhibition which runs until 24th March it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in London.

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