Putting czar's bones to rest won't resolve daily struggle Taxes are immediate, Romanovs are history

July 16, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- When they lower the bones of Nicholas II into an imperial vault in St. Petersburg tomorrow, solemnly laying to rest the czar whose murder symbolized Russia's most terrible century, Vladimir Kopytov won't care.

Kopytov is a Ural Mountain coal miner who has other things to worry about -- he hasn't worked since January or been paid since September.

Nadya Zernina won't care, either. She's a 20-year-old university student from Perm, and she'll be enjoying a chance to study abroad this summer in Oxford, England.

Tamara Maximova won't care. The Muscovite believes in the monarchy and she believes tomorrow will mark a turning point in Russian history as the 80th anniversary of the czar's murder -- but she doesn't believe those will be the czar's bones in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Fortress.

It will be a dignified, romantic, poignant end when the remains of the czar and eight others killed with him are interred -- but will it really mean that much?

The legend of Nicholas and Alexandra, of their hemophilic son Alexis, of their daughter the Grand Duchess Anastasia -- maybe she did escape death at the hands of a Bolshevik firing squad that night of July 17 -- caught the imagination of the West.

Glittering royalty, true love, a tragic end. Surely the funeral completes a circle, closes a bloody and painful chapter of history.

As Viktor Aksyuchits, the government official in charge of ceremony, put it: "This day will stay in the memory of the Russian people and world public as the day of accord and repentance. The arguments and contradictions we have now will be forgotten."

But nothing is so straightforward in Russia. Russians have a decidedly more mixed view of their last czar. While there is a feeling that things did begin to go wrong when he was deposed and killed, there is also an understanding that revolutions don't happen by mistake. Most Russians find little that is holy in Nicholas II.

"For a lot of Russian people who were educated in Soviet times and brought up to be atheists," Alexander Meschersky, a deputy editor of the weekly Argumenti i Facti, said in an interview, "the event will not be of any international or even national importance. People are much more concerned with taxes and wage arrears."

In just the past 10 days, in fact, there have been two separate rumors of impending coup attempts (both written about in national newspapers), protesting coal miners again blocked the trans-Siberian railway, the ruble was in danger of collapsing, the stock market already was collapsing, a general who was a fierce critic of President Boris N. Yeltsin's administration was shot dead (police blamed his wife but skeptics were everywhere) and seemingly everyone was predicting that things only would get worse.

If Nicholas' time was marked by palace intrigue, weak leadership and stupidity in government, people here could be excused for wondering how things have changed.

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church is keeping the whole service at arm's length out of concern that the bones might not be authentic and a secondary fear that it shouldn't be acting too much at the behest of the Yeltsin government.

The patriarch and other church leaders said they would stay away, which led Yeltsin to decide not to come himself. Parliament decided against attending on Tuesday.

Leonida Georgiyevna, the generally recognized head of the Romanov family, said the funeral as planned wasn't going to be sufficiently grand. Instead, she'll go to a memorial service the patriarch is conducting.

"This burial could be a symbol of getting rid of Stalinism, Leninism, all of it," said Yuri Borisov, a historian at the Russian Institute of History. "But I think they'll miss this opportunity."

Controversy and sniping over the church's role and the government's wary reaction have done little to persuade most people they should care.

"To many of our readers," said Meschersky, "the event looks like a purely political fuss about the bones. There's something dishonorable about it. Many people will be relieved when they're finally buried and it's over."

Nicholas was 50 when he was killed. His rule, from 1894 to 1917, was marked by police repression, violent political upheavals, a disastrous war with Japan and the peculiar influence of the monk Grigory Rasputin -- whose advice Nicholas ignored only once, when the czar led Russia into World War I in 1914.

That war -- the great forgotten cataclysm here, with no monuments, no memories of the 1.7 million Russians killed -- brought about the fall of the house of Romanov, in February 1917.

People in St. Petersburg were jubilant when word came that Nicholas had abdicated.

The first country to recognize the new provisional government was the United States.

Washington was only weeks away from entering the war when the monarchy fell; it enabled President Woodrow Wilson to cast the war as one in which the democracies -- Britain, France, the United States, and now Russia -- were fighting the autocratic rule of Germany and Austria.

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