Russia's last czar now an icon to some Some consider the murder of Nicholas II a symbol of all the nation's ills

May 20, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Faith brought a thousand people to an old war monument here yesterday, faith in the redemptive power of a man who in life was loving, mild and inadequate.

In death, the murdered Czar Nicholas II has become something else altogether. Above the priests and uniformed Cossacks and kerchiefed old women who came to mark his 130th birthday, the banners flapping in the warm breeze bore his likeness as if that of an icon.

"I think the czar fulfilled his mission, which was like Christ's," said Valentina Shatskaya. "He paid with his life for the sin of the Russian people."

Prayers were intoned, incense burned. A priest walked through the crowd splashing holy water, as believers held placards and icons out to try to catch a few drops.

Like almost no czar before him, the unassuming Nicholas haunts Russia to this day.

Even as the service proceeded, a few blocks away, the Russian government was confirming its decision to bury what are almost certainly the czar's bones and those of his family in St. Petersburg on July 18, the 80th anniversary of their execution. The government would like to see the funeral as a symbolic laying to rest of Russia's tragic past, so that the country can move on. The believers at the war monument would have none of it.

The government commission on the czar's bones -- now lying in a morgue in Yekaterinburg -- is trying to portray his death as a simple, bloody murder, she said, rather than a prophesied -- though temporary -- triumph of evil.

In the turn-of-the-century tumult that marks Russia today, a small but intense religious revival is one refuge for people looking for certainty, comfort, faith. The country seems to have horribly lost its way; people look back to the last Orthodox Christian emperor and lift him out of history and into the realm of belief.

"He can be called a banner -- for the revival of Russia and of the Orthodox church," said Margarita Pavlova. "He was the last Russian czar, murdered in such a ritual manner. There has to have been some meaning to this murder."

"It was the annihilation of traditional Russia," said her friend, Alexander Kodakov.

The St. Petersburg funeral, she said, will be a "terrible lie." The government is trying to trick the Russian people, she said. "I don't doubt for a second that these are not the czar's bones."

Against DNA tests and forensic evidence that all point to the authenticity of the remains, Pavlova puts her religious certainty. "I await the canonization of the czar," she said, as a first step toward putting the country back in God's grace.

The crowd pressed close to the newly restored monument, which honors those who died in the war to free Bulgaria from the Ottoman Turks in 1877. Vendors stood at tables toward the back, offering religious tracts, histories of the White Guards who fought against the Bolsheviks, anti-Semitic monographs and fascist newspapers

Shatskaya, a cleaning woman at a monastery, believes the forces of evil are striding across Russia, and that only Nicholas can intercede to save the country. "His canonization," she said, "will be the beginning of the revival of the whole Russian people."

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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