Andrew Osborn








Russia's Tsarinas "brought back to life"

The Sunday Herald, 19th August 2006 17:08

by Andrew Osborn in Moscow

Their remains have gathered dust in sealed sarcophagi for over six hundred years in the Kremlin, their

appearance in life a mystery, the manner of their deaths the subject of intense speculation.

But with the help of modern forensic techniques usually employed to solve gory murder cases, the First

ladies of medieval Russia – a catwalk of Tsarinas and glamorous Princesses – are being ‘brought back to


In a macabre and extraordinary scientific project, Sergei Nikitin, one of Russia’s leading  forensic

scientists, has pieced together the appearances of the wives and mothers of Russia’s rulers from the

fifteenth to the eighteenth century. To do so he applied the latest forensic modelling

techniques on the women’s skulls that were controversially removed from tombs beneath the

Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin for the project. Until now the blue-blooded women were faceless; no

portraits of them existed and details of their lives survived only in crumbling manuscripts.

But thanks to Nikitin and a team of scientists who have been working on the project for over a decade,

historians know for the first time what the women behind the Tsars’ thrones really looked like.

Other tests have revealed what they ate, what medicines they used, what they wore, what cosmetics

they used, and even, in some cases, how they died.   

Nikitin’s facial reconstruction technique is one that is more commonly employed to identify murder or

accident victims whose appearances have been horrifically disfigured and was memorably featured in

the 1983 film ‘Gorky Park’ to reveal the identity of three faceless corpses.

Nikitin has used his expertise to piece together the appearances of at least five women including that of

Marfa Sobakina, Ivan the Terrible’s murdered third wife who was the victor of the first beauty contest to

be held on Russian soil – in the sixteenth century. The infamously harsh Tsar ordered 1,500 women to take

part in ‘the contest’ and for them to undergo strict medical tests.

He chose the winner, Marfa, to be his third wife, but she fell ill shortly before the wedding and died two

weeks after taking her vows. A jealous rival had poisoned the young beauty though

who killed her remains a mystery. Forensic tests on her remains failed to detect traces of the poison.

Nikitin has also ‘resurrected’ Ivan the Terrible’s mother, Elena Glinskaya, who was also poisoned,

something that chemical testing has finally proven. Other women to get the ‘Gorky Park treatment’ include

Princess Sofia Paleolog, the wife of Tsar Ivan III, Tsarina Irina Godunova, and Evdokia Dmitrievna, the

wife of a medieval prince called Dmitri Donskoy. Nikitin is currently working up a likeness of Tsar

Peter the Great’s mother, Natalia Kirillovna, and has at least four more heads to sculpt before an

exhibition, provisionally entitled ‘Kremlin Women,’ opens next year.

Chemical tests on the women’s bones and hair have uncovered large quantities of toxic substances.

Experts say these are probably traces of medieval medicine that was concocted using poisonous substances

such as mercury, arsenic, and lead. Other tests have shown that the women’s cosmetics were

not much better and that they painted their faces with the same toxic materials used by artists to paint

icons and frescos at the time, namely white lead and barium.   

For centuries the women lay untouched in a special necropolis in the Vosnesensky (Ascension) Convent

within the Kremlin’s walls in Moscow.  Between 1407 and 1731 it filled up with the corpses of

the great and the good. But the Bolsheviks demolished the convent in the 1930s

on the orders of Josef Stalin who presided over the destruction of thousands of churches as part of a

campaign to wean the masses off religion. Encased in their white stone sarcophagi the Kremlin

wives were moved to the nearby Archangel Cathedral in 1929 ahead of the demolition.

Once scientists have finished studying their remains, their bones will be put back where they were found and

Nikitin says they will probably never be disturbed again.       

“It was a unique opportunity to see their faces,” he told the daily Izvestia.

“But once our research is finished we will put them back in their sarcophagi and nobody will touch them

again.” Nikitin says he sometimes suffers the equivalent of

writer’s block. “Sometimes I can sit for two weeks opposite a head and

stare at it. And then suddenly I understand what I need to do to really make the person ‘live.’ It’s

easier for sculptors; they work from living models whereas I just have a skull and empty eye sockets to

go on.”