Resurrecting the Czar

In Russia, the recent discovery of the remains of the two missing Romanov children has pitted science against the church

A monarchist displays images of the Romanovs. Many Russians regard the Romanovs, canonized by the Orthodox Church in 2000, as martyrs. (Kate Brooks)
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So far, the church has continued to challenge the authenticity of Maria’s and Alexei’s remains, just as it has refused to accept the identification of their parents’ and siblings’ skeletons. And the Russian leadership—President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—who are acutely sensitive to the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, have yet to authorize burial of the most recently unearthed remains with those of the other Romanovs in St. Petersburg. The bone fragments are stored inside a locked medical refrigerator at the Sverdlovsk Region Forensic Research Bureau in Yekaterinburg.

“The criminal case is closed; the bodies have been identified,” says Tamara Tsitovich, a top investigator at the laboratory. “They should be buried as quickly as possible.”

The Rev. Gennady Belovolov, 52, is a prominent clergyman within the Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg. He grew up in the Caucasus, where he was taught in school that the czar was a weak-willed person who failed to save Russia at the most difficult moment of its history. After the fall of the Communists, Belovolov read Russian and foreign biographies, and “I came to see [the czar] as a man with tremendous morality and charm, and his tragic end could not leave any sane person indifferent,” he says. “The story that happened to him became a symbol of what happened to Russia—the lost chance for greatness.”

Belovolov told me that, despite the scientific evidence, he still believed in Sokolov’s 1918 conclusion that the royal family had been burned to ashes at Ganina Yama. “Seventy years later, new people came, they found the remains of unknown victims in a grave and declared they belonged to the czar. [But the Bolsheviks] executed many in the forest during that time.” As for the bones of Maria and Alexei discovered three years ago by Gribenyuk and his friends, Belovolov said, “there are researchers who show completely different results. The church would be happy with only 100 percent certainty, nothing less.”

The church has another reason to resist the new findings, according to several observers with whom I spoke: resentment of Yeltsin’s role in rehabilitating the czar. “The church hated the idea that someone who was not only a secular leader but also a party functionary stole what they thought was their domain,” says Maria Lipman, a journalist and civil society expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. “This movement to sanctify the family of the czar—they wanted it to be theirs, and instead Yeltsin stole it.”

A fascination with the Romanov family’s “martyrdom,” along with what many describe as a spiritual yearning for a strong, paternal leader, have led some Russians to believe that their country’s salvation lies in the return of the monarchy. Each July 17, religious pilgrims retrace the route taken by the bodies of the Romanovs from the Ipatiev house to Ganina Yama; descendants of White Russian exiles have started monarchist societies; the great-grandchildren of Cossacks and Hussars who flourished under imperial rule have agitated for restoration of the Romanov line.

The Russian Imperial Union is a monarchist group founded by White Russian exiles in Paris in 1929. The union’s leader, Georgy Fyodorov, 69, doesn’t buy the forensic conclusions. “Nobody can give you 100 percent assurances that the [ Old Koptyaki Road] bones are those of the emperor,” said Fyodorov, the son of a White Russian Army major. “Nicholas told [his supporters] before he was killed: ‘Don’t look for my body.’ He knew what would happen—it would be destroyed completely.”

In support of their view, Fyodorov and Belovolov both cite the discredited results obtained from the Japanese handkerchief. And they question why the skull attributed to Nicholas bears no mark from the Japanese saber attack. (Forensic experts say that acidic ground conditions could have leached away such a marking.)

Fyodorov, who lives in St. Petersburg, said that Avdonin and his supporters have “political reasons” for pushing their version of events. “They want to put an end to it—‘God bless them, goodbye Romanovs.’ But we don’t want [the issue] swept away. We want the monarchy to return.”

Xenia Vyshpolskaya, a self-employed portraitist specializing in the Romanov czars, is not only pro-monarchy but might be considered pro-fascist as well. On her wall, squeezed in among the Romanovs, are framed photographs of Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Vyshpolskaya told me that her ambition is “to have a gallery of the world’s right-wing leaders....Each of them, like Nicolay, tried to take care of his people. You can agree or disagree with their methods.”


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