The boneyard

January 06, 2008

Sometime this winter, the world may know if the last of the Romanov bones have been found. The skeletal remains of two young people were unearthed last summer near the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg, just a short distance from the site where most of the Russian royal family was discovered nearly 30 years ago, and genetic testing now under way should prove conclusive.

If these are indeed the bones of Alexis and his sister Maria, they will be laid to rest, finally, in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg, alongside those of their parents, Nicholas and Alexandra, and their sisters Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia.

When Russia buried its former czar in July 1998 - 80 years to the day after the Romanovs and four servants had been shot to death by Soviet gunmen - it was an unexpectedly stirring moment. What could be less relevant than an assortment of bones that remained from a distant imperial past?

Yet as the nine dark green vans solemnly drove through the great Baltic city, crowds gathered and watched in silence; the president, Boris N. Yeltsin, spoke movingly of atonement and of finally bringing to an end the horrible chapter of Russian history that began in that bloody cellar in Yekaterinburg.

But two of the victims were missing (and it's almost certain that one of them is Maria, not Anastasia, as legend had it). That led the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to worry that the remains were inauthentic, or that believers (especially those abroad, then being wooed back to the church) would refuse to accept them as authentic.

The church's deep entanglement since World War II with the Soviet regime that had murdered the czar was another source of discomfort for all involved. So the patriarch and the other leaders of the church stayed away from the funeral service, and ended up looking pedantic and foolish.

Maybe Maria and Alexis can offer them another chance. It was Alexis' hemophilia, after all, that led Alexandra into her disastrous relationship with the monk Grigory Rasputin, and without the dissolute and reviled Rasputin at court there might never have been a revolution. Perhaps the resolution that President Yeltsin longed for was never possible as long as Alexis - the bleeding heir - remained unfound, un-funeraled.

As for the rest of the world - fascinated for generations by the glamour and futility and lost possibilities of the Romanov story, and entranced by the hint that Anastasia had survived, or even Alexis himself, once reported to have been spotted driving a tram in Warsaw - there might be some slight disappointment if it turns out that the last mystery has been solved, the last remains tracked down.

No more story-telling - but it's just as well. They belong to history now.

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