Resurrection of the tsars' women

500 years after their deaths, the imperial beauties are brought back to life by 'Gorky Park' forensic science
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The Independent Online

Their remains have gathered dust in sealed sarcophagi for more than 500 years in the Kremlin, their appearance in life a mystery, the manner of their deaths the subject of intense speculation. But with modern forensic techniques usually employed to solve murder cases, the first ladies of medieval Russia - a catwalk of tsarinas and glamorous princesses - are being "brought back to life".

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 15th to the 18th century.

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 Professor Nikitin and a team of scientists who have been working on the project for more than 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.

Professor Nikitin's facial reconstruction technique is one that is more commonly employed to identify murder or accident victims whose appearances have been horrifically disfigured. The method was memorably featured in the 1983 film Gorky Park to reveal the identity of three faceless corpses. He has used his expertise to piece together the appearances of at least five women, including Marfa Sobakina, Ivan the Terrible's murdered third wife who won the first beauty contest to be held on Russian soil, in the 16th century.

The infamously harsh Tsar ordered 1,500 women to compete and made 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 failed to detect traces of the poison.

Professor Nikitin has also "resurrected" Ivan the Terrible's mother, Elena Glinskaya, who was also poisoned, something chemical testing has proved.

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. The professor is now working on 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. These are probably traces of medieval medicine concocted using poisonous substances such as mercury, arsenic, and lead. Other tests have shown their cosmetics were not much better and that they painted their faces with the 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.

After scientists have finished studying, their bones will be put back where they were found and Professor Nikitin says they will probably not be disturbed again. "It was a unique opportunity to see their faces," he told the daily Izvestia. "But after our research is finished we will put them back in their sarcophagi and nobody will touch them again."

Professor 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 but I just have a skull and empty eye sockets to go on."

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