Russia buries its last czar Closure: President Yeltsin's eulogy for a czar murdered in 1918 turns a dubious funeral into an historic ending.

July 18, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- From widely scattered parts of the world, members of the Romanov family who had gathered here yesterday fell to their knees when army officers began lowering the coffins of Nicholas II and his family into a white marble crypt in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul.

Some wiped away tears. An emperor was in his grave at last.

"We've addressed the most difficult part of our past," Duke Nikolai Romanovich, who lives in Switzerland, said later. "Now it's time to look to the future."

Russia struggled with this funeral. Bickering, posturing and apathy accompanied the planning. The Romanov family split over whether to take part. It began to look like political poison -- until President Boris N. Yeltsin's sudden decision Thursday to attend.

When he arrived yesterday, in the company of a handful of politicians who also suddenly decided there was no more important place to be, it seemed that Russia might, after all, be trying to face up to its history.

The burial "is an act of human justice, a symbol of unification in Russia and redemption of common guilt," the president said in his funeral address.

"This is our historical chance. At the turn of the next millennium we must do this for the sake of those living now and the generations to come. I lower my head for the victims of the merciless killings. Let them rest in peace."

The two-hour ceremony, coming 80 years to the day after the murder of the imperial family, showed Yeltsin rising to the occasion, as he so often has.

He succeeded in making the Russian Orthodox Church -- which refused to embrace the funeral, disputing the authenticity of the bones -- look petty and pedantic. He made other politicians who scrambled to attend look foolish.

And he implicitly reminded the entire nation of the particular guilt of the Communist Party -- in the deaths of the ruling family and of millions of others.

"For the first time since 1991," said Alexander Shurygin, a Cossack officer, referring to the failed coup attempt by hard-line Communists, "he reminded me of the man who stood on the barricades."

"Yeltsin gave a great speech," said U.S. Ambassador James F. Collins. "The whole thing was quite dignified and pretty decent."

Bells pealed from the belfry of the cathedral yesterday morning as mourners converged on the Peter and Paul Fortress, among them prominent musicians, writers, film stars and politicians.

Alexander I. Lebed, governor of Krasnoyarsk and a likely presidential candidate, detoured through the onlookers, signing autographs. "It's an historic event that they tried to turn into a farce, but, thank God, it has again become an historic event," he said.

At noon three cannon shots boomed out, and the service began. As at any Orthodox service, nearly everyone stood throughout. The Office for the Dead is a highly stylized, and lengthy, ritual. Because of the church's doubts about the authenticity of the bones, the officiating priest did not identify the remains as those of Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, three of their four daughters and the four others killed with them.

Yeltsin, like the other mourners, held a long candle. The only speaker besides him was Vladimir Yakovlev, governor of St. Petersburg.

"We've re-evaluated the past," Yakovlev said, "and grasped our moral responsibility. In a simple human duty, we give to Earth the remains of those killed."

Memorial services for the dead czar and all those persecuted for their beliefs were held here and throughout Russia. In Moscow, a Christian procession of 3,000 commemorated the anniversary.

From his seat in the town of Sergiev Pasad, Patriarch Alexy II said believers should reflect on the sin of the murder -- and on the sin of the indifference of the citizens of Russia.

The Rev. Pavel Krasnotsvetov, archpriest at the Kazan Cathedral here, conducted two services and dismissed any suggestion that the church and government might split as a result of the funeral. Since Yeltsin at first had announced he would not attend out of deference to the patriarch, his reversal could be seen as a repudiation of the church's position.

Not so, said Krasnotsvetov. Yeltsin's coming was good in that it focused the blame on the Communists. And the priest was inclined toward the long view anyway.

"Politicians are here today," he said. "Tomorrow maybe Yeltsin retires. But the church is eternal."

When the funeral concluded, a 19-gun salute reverberated along the embankments of the Neva River. It would have been 21 if Nicholas had not abdicated before his death.

Then flags that had been at half-staff throughout St. Petersburg were raised high. The mourners repaired to the Marble Hall in the Ethnographic Museum for a funeral banquet.

Among the first to emerge, two hours later, was Dmitri Likhachev, the 91-year-old historian who a day earlier had persuaded Yeltsin that the funeral was to be a crucial moment in Russian history, and who stood next to the president throughout the service. Bystanders on the street burst into applause when he appeared.

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