Visions of Russia's last imperial family

August 23, 1998|By Joe Murray

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The last time I'd paid my respects to Czar Nicholas II was in a vacant lot at the Siberian city of Sverdlovsk. There was nothing to mark the spot but a listing Orthodox church cross.

That's the site where the czar and his family were murdered by Bolsheviks, in the cellar of a farmhouse in 1918.

The house was later demolished by a local communist chief, by the name of Yeltsin, for fear the site might become a shrine. Later he would say Brezhnev made him do it.

I was there in the early 1990s. The status of Nicholas II has since been elevated, not to mention that of Yeltsin.

The day before I arrived in St. Petersburg, the remains of the czar had been reinterred in St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral, the final resting place of all the czars since Peter the Great. Yeltsin presided.

I arrived a day after the ceremony on purpose. Such is my journalistic instinct. Better to come along after most everyone else has gone. You're likely to find something, or somebody, overlooked in the crush of the crowds.

Somebody like Anastasia.

I was talking to one person and then another as they filed past the gold-encrusted tomb, tourists and true believers alike.

There was a young guy there from Houston. He said he showed up because of the event's historical significance. There was Ivan, 65, a peasant worker, who said Russia would be a better place if the czars still ruled.

There was an elderly woman who would say next to nothing. "It is a very private matter," she muttered.

And then there was Anastasia, suddenly standing beside me, tall and blonde, her face framed by high cheek bones, dark eyes and sculptured lips -- a vision but very much real.

Yes, she assured me, speaking through an interpreter, her name was really Anastasia, named for the daughter of the czar. Moreover, her brothers and sisters had been named for other children of the murdered royal family.

"Of course, I have special reasons for being here," she explained. "Because our family has aristocratic blood, we received an invitation to the burial service."

At age 23, she is a teacher of the history of Russian literature. She spoke freely and openly of her hopes for the future of Russia.

"Of course, I never supported communism," she said. "Neither am I an ultra-nationalist.

"But I believe only real Russians, who follow the faith of the Orthodox Church, can lead our country and restore its greatness.

"Only the church faith can return Russia to its cultural values, that which comes from the heart -- traditions without political purpose.

"Of course, I am very optimistic. I am a believer. I know that the mother of Jesus will protect and save Russia.

"The Russian culture has survived communism. It does not die. It is our roots, our tradition. It is our everything."

A beautiful speech by a beautiful young woman. Still, I had to ask her about her namesake.

"When you were a child," I said, "did you ever play that you were the real Anastasia?"

She smiled a sad smile and shook her head. "Back then," she said, "it was dangerous even to think about it."

An ignorant question.

Joe Murray is editor-publisher emeritus of the Lufkin (Texas) Daily News.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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