Russians pay homage to lost past, a czar's descendant

April 30, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- High above the hard stone floor of St. Isaac's Cathedral, at the very peak of its vaulting gilded dome, is a sculpted white dove.

From its dizzying perch, so high as to be nearly in another realm, it looked down yesterday on a historic homecoming.

Past the golden statues of the saints that ring the dome, gleaming in shafts of sunlight; over the edges of gold-leaf moldings, and down past the tall pink, green and blue marble columns; through clouds of incense rising as if in concert with the unending choral music, the white dove looked down at the casket of the man who never ruled.

Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov lived most of his life in France and Spain and died in Miami, but several thousand mourners filled St. Isaac's for his funeral -- standing throughout the four-hour service, as Russians never sit in church -- simply because he had been head of the family that for three centuries sat upon this country's throne.

"He came back to his homeland, to his roots," said Taina Cherkova, a soft-spoken woman wearing a white shawl fastened tight under her chin with an ivory brooch, and holding a bouquet of yellow daisies and red tulips in her hand. "And I came today because he came."

Once it was unthinkable. The communists murdered the last czar and his family in 1918 and set about creating a state devoted both to atheism and to the elimination of the old $H privileges.

But the communists were ousted in turn (and treated far more gently than they had treated their predecessors).

So, yesterday saw the immense St. Isaac's packed with ordinary people who had come not so much to mourn the past as to pay their respects to Russian history.

Here was the head of the last remnants of Russia's ruling dynasty, his casket draped with a Russian flag and with a banner bearing the czarist double-headed eagle, and here was the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexei II, leading the funeral service.

"The Romanovs mean something to every Russian," said Leya Konzina, who had brought her 3-year-old granddaughter, Yulichka, to see the funeral. "They're part of our history, and no matter how bad that history has been, it's ours."

Before the service began, men in the uniforms of old czarist regiments gathered in the vast, art-laden cathedral.

One, Alexei Akimov, wore the white tunic and blue trousers of an officer of the Don Cossacks. A ship-construction engineer in his worklife, he said the point to parading around in old military uniforms was to revive the best traditions of Russian comradeship, duty and honor.

A red carpet was laid down, and a woman on her knees swept it with a straw broom. Then the service began, at 10 a.m., with the entrance of the patriarch, met at the door by 20 white-robed priests, some with golden, jewel-encrusted miters, and others bearing 4-foot candlesticks ahead of them as they proceeded. And it ended, finally, at 2 p.m., with Alexei leaving by the same south entrance, and Mr. Romanov's casket being carried out the north.

Mr. Romanov, who died last week at the age of 74, was a second cousin of Nicholas II, the last czar. He visited St. Petersburg last year, and requested in his will that he be buried in the cathedral at the Peter and Paul Fortress, where nearly all the Romanov rulers since Peter the Great lie entombed. (Nicholas II is one of two exceptions; after he was killed in Yekaterinburg, his body was thrown into a pit and set on fire.)

The city quickly agreed to the request, although Mr. Romanov will be buried in a section set aside for lesser nobility, rather than among the former czars themselves.

The cathedral at the fortress is faced with peeling yellow stucco and boasts a tall slender spire, more Protestant in appearance than Orthodox. But, then, nothing in St. Petersburg, the breathtakingly beautiful city created through the sheer force of will of the Romanov family, is orthodox.

Mr. Romanov's casket was taken yesterday to a small chapel at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where it will remain for four to six weeks,while its final resting place at the fortress cathedral is prepared.

After the funeral, standing in a bright afternoon sun, Mikhail Vasiliev said, "I never thought I'd see this. This was the man who should have held the power in our country. The time will come when Russia will once more have a czar."

But a mile or so away, across the Neva River at the Peter and Paul Fortress, Antonina Karotina offered a more restrained perspective.

She had come to push her baby around the neat, grassy grounds and to enjoy the mild weather.

"Vladimir Kirillovich? I don't feel any connection, personally," she said. "For instance, when Andrei Sakharov [the nuclear scientist and human rights dissident] died, I was really upset, and I cried.

"I had no such feelings about Vladimir Kirillovich. But he should be buried here. Why not? It's where he belongs."

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