Burial of czar's remains puts nothing to rest 80 years later Neither Communists who had him shot, nor royalists find the occasion healing

June 25, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The burial of Czar Nicholas II was supposed to be an occasion of healing and atonement, but it's more likely to be one that picks at old wounds instead -- and maybe causes some new ones as well.

With just three weeks to go, a government commission is plunging ahead with its funeral plans, even as the Russian Orthodox Church demurs, monarchists object, President Boris N. Yeltsin finds himself otherwise engaged, the Communists -- whose forebears shot the czar and his family in the first place -- stand on the sidelines, and ordinary Russians wonder if it all isn't just a distraction from the country's ominous economic woes.

Viktor Aksyuchits, who heads the commission, found himself once again yesterday defending the scientific research that seemingly proved that the bones -- found in Yekaterinburg in 1979 but not publicly discussed until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- are indeed those of Russia's last emperor. Legions of believers here simply don't accept that. They think the government must be up to something sinister in its rush to inter the bones.

"There are no doubts about the remains," Aksyuchits said, his fierce pointy beard bristling with indignation. "They are 100 percent the remains of the Romanov family."

The funeral will take place at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg on July 17, the 80th anniversary of the death of the royal family and their servants at the hands of a Bolshevik firing squad.

But the Orthodox Church leadership has been treating the affair so cautiously that no one with the rank of archbishop or above will be taking part in the ceremony. Elsewhere, the church will be holding a service to commemorate the anniversary of the czar's death.

The church couldn't be in a more uncomfortable position. The current government is throwing a state funeral and needs its participation. But for the past 50 years the church has had strong links to the Communists -- links that exist to this day -- and the Communists are not exactly going to be honored guests on the 17th.

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, established in the United States by emigres who fled the Communists, believes that, with the exception of a finger that is now a holy relic in a church in Brussels, Belgium, the Romanov family bones were destroyed.

This is an idea that has a strong following among devout Russians; Aksyuchits said yesterday that the church is afraid to go along with the funeral out of fear that whole parishes might then defect to the Church Abroad, which already has a significant presence here.

What that means, then, is that the only people who really care about the fate of the royal family -- monarchists, Christians and a few old Communists -- oppose the idea of the state funeral, for different reasons. The majority of Russians see Nicholas as a victim but not a particularly admirable one. He was, after all, head of one of the most repressive regimes on Earth.

Aksyuchits eloquently argued the government's case. "This is the revival of historical continuity, historical justice," he said. "It's a possibility for national accord, repentance. It's a chance to stop the civil war that has been smoldering in Russia since 1917."

But with Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, declining to take part, Yeltsin decided he also had to stay away. The top-ranking government official will be Aksyuchits' boss, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. The commission has also scaled back its plans, in part because of budget restraints. The funeral is expected to cost about $830,000.

The nine oak caskets, containing the bones of Nicholas, his family and their servants, will be flown from Yekaterinburg to St. Petersburg on July 16. Each casket is just 48 inches long by 20 inches wide.

On the 17th the cathedral's bells will ring for an hour, and at noon the service will start with the firing of three shots by an honor guard. At the end of the service 19 more salvos will be fired, and the caskets will be lowered into graves alongside those of Romanov forebears.

Aksyuchits said that members of the Romanov family, representatives of European royal houses, and cultural figures from Russia and abroad will be in attendance -- but he was XTC unable as of yesterday to say who specifically would be there.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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