Modern history



The last ceremonial burial of a Russian tsar took place in 1894, when Tsar Alexander III, father of Nicholas II, was interred in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg. A century later, the Russian government commission was completing its findings and recommendations regarding the burial of Nicholas II. Thereafter, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Council of Ministers and president of the Russian Federation were to make their decisions: the church would decide how, and the government where and when, the last Russian tsar and his family were to be buried.

“We are waiting for the scientists to finish their work,” said Edvard Radzinsky. “Once the scientists have assured the commission absolutely that these bones are valid, the Patriarchal Orthodox Church must determine what ritual will be used in the burial service. There is one ritual if Nicholas is to become a saint, another if he is not to become a saint. The Church Abroad already has made Nicholas a saint. So our church has a big problem.”

Alexander Avdonin, whose small working space is filled with pictures of Nicholas II, attempted to explain the dilemma confronting the Patriarchal Church: “Remember that—unlike the Church Abroad—our church is located in the country where these events took place,” he said. “Here, many people consider that Nicholas II himself was guilty of permitting the revolution and therefore was at least partly responsible for his own death. If this is true, should he be canonized? How will our people react to this? After all, one must not forget that our people are not thrilled with Nicholas II. Over seventy years, respect for him has been destroyed. The truth is that he was a weak emperor. The fact that he was a good person, a kind man, who treated his family well, this cannot take away his guilt for his poor governing of our country. It is a different matter for the others who died with him. They, emphatically, are not guilty. They, indeed, are martyrs.”

Metropolitan Euvenaly, the church’s representative on the government commission, was the official primarily charged with the question of canonization. Euvenaly, according to Avdonin, “personally examines everything that has to do with the remains. However”—Avdonin’s expression changed—“the church has known about the remains for four years. During this time not once did anyone from the Moscow patriarchate come even to look at the remains. Not one priest! Not even a deacon!”

Avdonin was correct that mixed feelings exist about Nicholas II in contemporary, post-Communist Russia, but he was mistaken when he said that, according to Orthodox doctrine, Nicholas’s performance as a ruler affected the question of his martyrdom. “Martyrdom has nothing to do with the personal actions of a person,” explained Father Vladimir Shishkoff, a priest of the Orthodox Church Abroad. “It only has to do with why and how that person died. In the case of Nicholas II, it is irrelevant what kind of a ruler he was, what he did or did not achieve as tsar. Nicholas became a martyr because he was brutally killed for no other reason than that he was ruler of the country.” Father Shishkoff did not condemn the Moscow Patriarchal Church for taking its time in coming to its decision. “The truth,” he admitted, “is that before our Church Abroad made Nicholas II a saint in 1981, we had a lot of resistance from people here, including priests. They used exactly the same arguments against the canonization of Tsar Nicholas.”

The Russian government’s decision, once the bones have been scientifically verified, will be where to bury them. Officially, the decision is between two cities: Ekaterinburg, where the family was murdered and the bones were found, and St. Petersburg, where for three hundred years Romanov tsars and empresses have been buried. Many factors have been considered, including questions of religion and historical tradition, but essentially the decision will rest on sheer political power. Here, St. Petersburg, whose mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, was vice chairman of the commission and a powerful political ally of Boris Yeltsin, has an overwhelming advantage. But Ekaterinburg, although talk of tourist hotels and restaurant complexes has faded, still continues to hope.

Bishop Basil Rodzianko of Washington, D.C., who had been to Ekaterinburg and seen the remains, insisted that the Romanovs should be buried in that city, where they lay in a grave for seventy-three years. The decision, he said, already has been made by God: “The bones should not be separated from the bodies. The bodies are there in different form, but they are there in the soil. Therefore, to take the bones away and place them in St. Petersburg means a dismembering of the bodies. To me, this is sacrilege.” Bishop Basil condemned the plan to inter the Romanovs in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, which, he said, is a “purely earthly, purely secular place; it has nothing to do with the church or religion. Burying them there would be only a political rehabilitation. ‘We killed them,’ the state says. ‘Now we rehabilitate them and accuse Lenin and others of this crime.’ ”

If the family is canonized, Bishop Basil went on to explain, there would be not a burial service but an Orthodox service of glorification. The bones, instead of being placed in coffins or vaults, would become relics, and fragments of these relics would be distributed and placed in the altars of Orthodox churches. Every Orthodox church has a piece of a relic in the altar; without this a service cannot be celebrated. But if there is not a canonization, he says, “they should be buried in Ekaterinburg. And they should all be buried together.”

None of the surviving Romanovs was asked to sit on the commission discussing the burial of their relatives. The Romanovs communicated their views to President Yeltsin, to commission chairman Yarov, to the patriarch, and to Investigator Soloviev, but the family’s voice was weakened by the fact that it was split; the two branches dislike each other intensely, and each vehemently objected to claims of primacy by the other. The Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, who lives in Madrid and sees herself as the pretender to the throne—on behalf of either herself or her fourteen-year-old son, George—proposed that the remains be divided into three groups: Tsar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra to be buried with earlier tsars in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg; the three daughters to be interred among the grand dukes now buried in a vault next to the cathedral; the doctor and the three servants to be buried in Ekaterinburg.

This proposal shocked Maria’s cousins, the numerous Romanov princes and princesses led by Prince Nicholas Romanov, head of the Romanov Family Association, who lives in Switzerland. Their view was that all of the remains should be left in Ekaterinburg and buried together. “It would be a crime to split them up,” said Prince Rostislav Romanov, a London investment banker who is a grandnephew of Nicholas II. “They died together and they should be buried together. It would be intolerable for the commission and the government to start rejecting these people as unimportant. Further, it makes sense to leave them in Ekaterinburg. If you’re going to canonize them in martyrdom, why not bury them where they were martyred? If you bury them in St. Petersburg with the other tsars, you’re pretending that nothing ever happened. Besides, you could make an awfully good argument that the future of Russia lies in the east, so it would be symbolic.”

Prince Nicholas Romanov, the head of the family, passionately insisted that the remains not be divided. “I have written twice to the patriarch,” he said. “I have spoken to government ministers, and I’ve said it in public on Russian television: we Romanovs want everybody, every victim of that massacre, to be buried together, in the same place, in the same cathedral, and, I’d say, in the same tomb. You want to bury the tsar in the Peter and Paul Fortress cathedral? Good! Then bury the doctor, the maid, and the cook with them, in the tsar’s mausoleum. They have been lying together for seventy-three years. They are the only ones who never betrayed the family. They deserve to be honored at the same time, in the same place. If present-day Russians don’t understand this, then, even if some Romanovs go to this funeral, I will not.”

Nikolai Nevolin, the forensic specialist who for almost four years kept watch over the remains in the Ekaterinburg morgue, still hoped that they would be buried in his city. “The Romanovs were executed here and our city would like to have some sort of memorial. But there are two other cities in our country, Moscow and St. Petersburg, who during the seventy-four years of the Soviet regime have always pulled all the blankets on top of themselves. Now, they are trying to take everything again.” When Nevolin was told that most of the surviving members of the Romanov family believed the remains should be buried in Ekaterinburg, he was astonished. “I didn’t know this,” he said. “If this were to happen here, I would be so beholden I cannot even begin to express it. You know, I was born here in the Urals. I am a patriot of my region.”

Boris Yeltsin also was born in the Urals, but he has moved onto a wider stage, where his fragile presidency needs all the buttressing it can get. Politically, the support of Anatoly Sobchak is essential to Yeltsin, and Sobchak has set his heart on burying the remains in St. Petersburg. The likeliest possibility, therefore, is that Yeltsin will remain in the background until the commission makes its recommendations and then will ratify whatever site the commission recommends. Once this is done, however, Yeltsin will place himself at the center of the Russian politicians and church officials, and the visiting royal and other persons attending the burial.

Three dates for the burial were chosen and then discarded. Originally, the ceremony was scheduled for May 18, 1994, Nicholas’s birthday, which, coming ten months after Doctors Gill and Ivanov had verified the bones at Aldermaston, seemed sufficient time to make arrangements. Then, in April 1994, the Moscow Patriarchal Church demanded additional research, including the exhumation of Grand Duke George. The date slid back to July 3, 1994. When that day arrived with George still unmolested in his tomb, the burial was rescheduled again, this time for March 5, 1995. This new date was religiously appropriate: in the Russian Orthodox calendar it was the pre-Lenten Day of Repentance; by burying the tsar and his family on that day, the Russian government, the church, and the people could ask forgiveness, not only for the killing of the Imperial family but for the murder of millions of others since 1918. This kind of public repentance, a nationwide exorcism of historical guilt, was the kind of ceremony over which President Yeltsin might wish to preside. In November 1994, that date was canceled. No new date has been set.

The years went by, and Alexander Avdonin waited. While the scientists argued, the commission pondered, the church leaders demanded additional proof, and the emigres hurled accusations, the earthly remains of the last Russian emperor, his wife, three of his daughters, and four faithful Russian followers continued to lie on metal tables in a little room on the second floor of a morgue in Ekaterinburg. Avdonin cannot understand why this is permitted. “This family was slandered while they lived, then horribly murdered,” he said. “For many years they lay in a pit where cars drove over them. Now they have been brought out. The discovery has tremendous historical meaning. These remains should be the source of unification of our people, who were split by the revolution. But they still cause division. These remains could unite the churches—our church and the church abroad—but they do not. They could unite the scientists, but, again, nothing is working out. People abroad do not believe—Koltypin, and Scherbatow and Magerovsky—they foment various kinds of disinformation and distortion. This is not the way it should be.”

Since the exhumation, Avdonin has tried to set aside as a memorial site the place where the bones were discovered. His small foundation, Obretenye, is dedicated to acquiring the land from the local authorities and then creating a park and a monument. He wants to erect a stone cross, a memorial plaque, and, eventually, when there is money, a chapel. “You understand, their blood and bodies are still right here, part of the soil,” he said. He turned and pointed to a place of tossed garbage, churned mud, and pools of dark water.

Tsar Alexander III died of nephritis in November 1894 in the Crimea at the age of forty-nine. As his funeral train rolled north across the Ukraine and Russia, peasants gathered and removed their hats along the track. In the cities of Kharkov, Kursk, Orel, and Tula, the train halted for religious services. In Moscow, the coffin was transferred to a hearse to be carried to the Kremlin. Low clouds whipped across a gray November sky, and splinters of sleet bit into the faces of Muscovites who lined the streets to watch the cortege. Ten times before reaching the Kremlin, the procession stopped and litanies were sung from the steps of ten churches. In St. Petersburg, red-and-gold court carriages draped in black waited at the station for the body and the family. For four hours, the cortege advanced slowly across the city to the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, where the Romanov tsars and empresses were buried. Throughout the city, the only sounds were the beat of muffled drums, the clatter of hooves, the rumble of iron carriage wheels, and the tolling of bells. Sixty-one royal personages, including three kings, arrived to join the family mourners. The ministers of the Imperial government, the commanders of the Russian army and navy, the provincial governors, and 460 delegates from cities and towns across Russia came to pay their respects. For seventeen days, the body of the emperor lay exposed in its coffin while tens of thousands of people shuffled past. On November 19, 1894, the tsar was interred.

One week later, briefly setting aside the atmosphere of mourning and without a reception or a honeymoon, the new, twenty-six-year-old Tsar Nicholas II married his twenty-two-year-old German fiancée, Alexandra Feodorovna.

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