Such sympathy for fascist strongmen is not unusual among those in Russia who, like Vyshpolskaya, support the return of the monarchy. The Russian Imperial Union’s Fyodorov told me that he was hoping a right-wing general would overthrow the Russian government: “Someone like Franco [should] take power, become a dictator, clean up the mess, and in two or three years restore the monarchy.”
“The monarchy was brutally put to an end, and it was a tragedy for Russia,” says Princess Vera Obolensky, who claims to be a descendant of the 16th-century czar known as Ivan the Terrible. She grew up in Paris and emigrated to St. Petersburg three years ago.
“The monarchy is a romantic idea,” says French historian Mireille Massip, an expert on White Russian exiles. “Democracy is not popular, because democrats turned out to be total losers. Communists aren’t popular. Monarchism is seen as something fresh and fashionable.”
The Russian Orthodox Church has created a memorial to Nicholas and his family in the woods at Ganina Yama. When I visited it with Gribenyuk, we parked next to a row of tour buses and walked through a wooden gate flanked by souvenir kiosks. Tourists and pilgrims browsed through Nicholas pins, postcards and orthodox icons. Perhaps nowhere was the link between the church and the royal family more evident. Religious choral music blared from loudspeakers. Just beyond a large bust of Nicholas, its base inscribed with the words “Saint, Great Martyr and Czar,” footpaths led to a dozen churches of varying sizes scattered through the woods. Each of these impressive structures, constructed of rough-hewn logs and topped by a green-tile roof and golden dome, was dedicated to a different patron saint of the Romanovs. We approached a plank walkway that surrounds a grass-covered pit—the abandoned mine where the Bolshevik death squad first dumped the corpses after the regicide. One worshiper was laying a bouquet of white lilies on the grass. Priests and tour groups led by young acolytes wandered past. “The church has really built this [complex] up,” Gribenyuk observed.
At the same time, the church appears poised to obliterate the sites uncovered by Avdonin and Gribenyuk, a few miles away, where, according to the government and forensic scientists, the Romanov remains were found. Last year, the church tried to acquire the land and announced plans to construct at the site a four-acre cemetery, a church and other structures bearing no connection to the Romanovs.
“It is enough to cover up everything,” said Gribenyuk.
This past spring, he and others filed a legal action to block the project, arguing that it would destroy one of Russia’s most important landmarks. (As we went to press, the court ruled against the church. The decision is likely to be appealed.)“The bodies were buried here 92 years ago,” Gribenyuk said, “and now the church wants to bury the memory of this place again.”
Joshua Hammer, who wrote about Sicily’s Mafia in the October issue, lives in Berlin. Photographer Kate Brooks is Istanbul based.