The Russian Royal Family was executed and buried in July 1918. So why does Vladimir Putin keep bringing up the bodies?

At about 1 a.m. on July 17, 1918, in a fortified mansion in the town of Ekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, the Romanovs—ex-tsar Nicholas II, ex-tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and their four remaining servants, including the loyal family doctor, Eugene Botkin—were awoken by their Bolshevik captors and told they must dress and gather their belongings for a swift nocturnal departure. The White armies, which supported the tsar, were approaching; the prisoners could already hear the boom of the big guns. They gathered in the cellar of the mansion, standing together almost as if they were posing for a family portrait. Alexandra, who was sick, asked for a chair, and Nicholas asked for another one for his only son, 13-year-old Alexei. Two were brought down. They waited there until, suddenly, 11 or 12 heavily armed men filed ominously into the room.

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What happened next—the slaughter of the family and servants—was one of the seminal events of the 20th century, a wanton massacre that shocked the world and still inspires a terrible fascination today. A 300-year-old imperial dynasty, one marked by periods of glorious achievement as well as staggering hubris and ineptitude, was swiftly brought to an end. But while the Romanovs' political reign was over, the story of the line's last ruler and his family was most certainly not.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia with Tsarina Alexandra and their children Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and Tsarevich Alexei.

For the better part of the 20th century the bodies of the victims lay in two unmarked graves, the locations of which were kept secret by Soviet leaders. In 1979 amateur historians discovered the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three daughters (Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia). In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the graves were reopened and the identities of the interred confirmed by DNA testing. In a ceremony in 1998 attended by Russian president Boris Yeltsin and 50 or so Romanov relatives, the remains were reburied in the family crypt in St. Petersburg. When the partial remains of two skeletons believed to be the remaining Romanov children, Alexei and Maria, were found in 2007 and similarly tested, most people assumed they would be reburied there as well.

Most of the family was still alive, wounded, crying and terrified, their suffering made worse by the fact that they were in effect wearing bulletproof vests.

Instead, events took a strange turn. Even though both sets of remains were identified by teams of top international scientists, who compared recovered DNA to samples from living Romanov relatives, members of the Russian Orthodox Church questioned the validity of the findings. More research was needed, they claimed. Rather than rebury Alexei and Maria, the authorities stored them in a box in a state archive until 2015 and then turned them over to the church for further examination.

Last fall the official state investigation of the tsar's murder was reopened, and Nicholas and Alexandra were exhumed, as was Nicholas's father, Alexander III. Since then there have been conflicting reports from government and church officials on when, or if, the entire Romanov family will be reburied and reunited, even if only in death.