Russia marks drastic changes as czar's remains come home In surprise reversal, Yeltsin says he'll come to funeral today

July 17, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- As a cooling breeze blew in from the Baltic, Russian soldiers in dress uniform conducted a changing of the guard here yesterday in exactly the same slow-stepping, highly choreographed fashion that they once used at Lenin's Tomb in Moscow.

But this was in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Inside the building lay the remains of the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, in an oaken coffin draped with an imperial banner.

There could hardly be a more powerful symbol of this week's events and the changes that Russia has undergone since Lenin's regime crumbled away.

Eighty years after Nicholas, his family and their servants were murdered by Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg, the remains of all but two were flown back to the old imperial capital yesterday, where they were taken by slow cortege through the streets of the city to the Peter and Paul Fortress to join generations of czars who had preceded them.

It was a dignified procession, its effect more powerful than many along the route had expected. After months of sniping and controversy, it did after all seem to be a signal moment in $H Russian history, a closing of a terrible chapter.

And as if he, too, had unexpectedly grasped the significance of ** the day, President Boris N. Yeltsin announced in Moscow that he had changed his mind and would be coming to today's imperial funeral.

"For 80 years the truth was hidden," Yeltsin said. "We need to pronounce this truth tomorrow. I need to take part."

Yeltsin's decision came after a phone call yesterday from Dmitri Likhachev, at 91 Russia's premier historian -- and famous here as a survivor of Lenin's notorious Solovetsky prison camp.

Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, former director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, paid his respects to Nicholas, Alexandra, three of their daughters and four servants at the cathedral here yesterday. As he emerged he was told of Yeltsin's decision and he burst into tears of joy.

'The sin of the heart'

"Today and tomorrow are the two greatest days for Russia in this century," he said. "Finally, we are doing what we should have done so long ago. When we let the sin of the heart go, then Russia can revive."

For seven years the bones of nine people have lain in the morgue in Yekaterinburg -- the remains of Crown Prince Alexis, the czar's only son, and one of the daughters, probably Marie, have not been found -- and the government felt that they finally had to be buried.

The Russian Orthodox Church has refused to recognize the bones as authentic, despite scientific evidence that seems nearly incontrovertible.

Yesterday morning, the coffins were taken by artillery cadets into the Church of the Assumption in Yekaterinburg, almost directly across the street from the spot where the royal family was killed in a cellar in 1918. It is the last church they ever attended.

As the coffins were being carried out again, thunder rumbled and a hard rain began to fall.

"It was the most difficult moment of my life when I stood at the place where they threw those bodies," said Dmitri Romanov, a relative who lives in Denmark. "But this is the beginning of the end."

Two Aeroflot planes -- still bearing the hammer-and-sickle emblem of the Soviet Union -- flew the remains and a delegation of family members and government officials to St. Petersburg, where the sun was shining and the aroma of the sea was in the air.

A procession of nine dark-green funeral vans wended its way through the Soviet-era suburbs and into the faded glory of the old city. Onlookers lined the route, even as many thousands more went about business as usual.

The cortege slowed as it passed the Winter Palace, where

Nicholas and his family once lived. Then it headed across the broad Neva River, patrol boats racing alongside the bridge. Interior Ministry troops and police were everywhere, and no incidents were reported.

Crowds fall silent

As the cortege passed, crowds fell silent, fascinated, strangely emotional. It was as if a thread that was broken 80 years ago were being refastened.

"There was nothing much to show to the public -- because it's not a show," said Natasha Avergiyeva, a university student. "The authenticity of the bones is not so important. What's important is that the government has finally made up its mind. It shows we've finally recognized the mistake we made. This can only lead to more understanding of the significance of religion and the value of a human life."

"It was a very unusual feeling," said Rimma Vikhrova, a teacher of English. "I thought, 'I am living here in St. Petersburg and I must see it. It is our czar. It is our history.' "

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