A hush fell over the crowd at the ornate St. Isaak’s Cathedral on Wednesday night as a 74-year-old Romanov, the pretender to the Russian imperial throne, bowed his head and kissed a cross hanging from the neck of Patriarch Alexei II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
It was a sight that this graceful city on the banks of the Neva River has not seen since the Bolsheviks swept to power in the 1917 Revolution, bringing an end to the dynasty of the Romanovs, who had ruled Russia for more than three centuries.
Beginning his brief sermon, Alexei addressed Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov--a second cousin of the last czar and considered by many to be the heir to the Russian throne--as “your highness,” an address most Russians have only met in historical novels and movies.
Throughout the two-hour service--rich with Orthodox ritual and with the chants of dozens of priests and bishops dressed in gold and an a cappella choir--Romanov stood in stony-faced silence in St. Isaak’s, briefly reconverted from a museum back to a church for the homecoming service.
The would-be czar was likely thinking about his first 24 hours ever in Russia.
Born in Finland just a few months before the revolution, Romanov has spent most of his life in France. “To return to my motherland and meet face to face with my countrymen is a joy that I cannot describe in words,” he told reporters.
He was especially happy to visit St. Petersburg now, he said, because this week the city, which was called Leningrad through most of the Soviet era, celebrates the restoration of the name given by its czarist founder, Peter the Great. “Not just for Russia, but for the whole world, the name St. Petersburg is connected with our dynasty,” Romanov said.
Romanov indicated that he has not given up hope that his family will once again reign in Russia and openly expressed his dissatisfaction that some of the republics that were part of the pre-Soviet Russian empire are trying to secede.
“I feel I have the right to rule the whole (Russian) empire if I am invited by the top officials according to the will of the people,” he said.
He said he has even raised his 10-year-old grandson with the understanding that he might one day rule Russia. “He is totally conscious of who he is and of the conditions of his inheritance,” Romanov said of the boy. “It is visible in the way he acts with his comrades and other friends that he is imbibing his upbringing.
“Let me tell you an anecdote,” Romanov continued, punctuating his words with a throaty giggle. “In his French school about a year and a half ago, one guy said to him, ‘My papa says I should be very nice and polite to you because you could become president of France some day.’
“My grandson answered, ‘President of France--that is not very likely. But the czar of Russia--that is very likely!’ ”
Public opinion here is split over the grand duke’s visit, conducted at the invitation of the city’s radical mayor, Anatoly A. Sobchak.
Tatyana M. Molokova, 37, an architect, carefully studied Romanov’s face during the elaborate service at St. Isaak’s Cathedral.
“He has the right features,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “He looks like a Romanov.
“I am very glad that the last descendant of the Russian Orthodox czar came here,” she added. “Unfortunately, not all Russian people understand the need to return to monarchy. Monarchy is the best form of government for Russia, because with monarchy, God bestows the power and not men. But sadly, I am one of only a few who believe this.”
Anatoly P. Vasilyev, standing not far from Molokova, said he considered it presumptuous for Romanov to come to a country that he has never even visited before and repeatedly refer to it as his own. (Romanov arrived Tuesday in a private plane rented by a Finnish television company that bought “exclusive” rights to film his journey.)
“How could he call this his country?” Vasilyev asked. “I do not consider him any more important than the next guy. Russia’s time for monarchy is passed. We need a new type of government.”
Even monarchists have complaints about Romanov’s visit. Some argue that Romanov has no right to be the head of the dynasty, because his father, Kirill Vladimirovich Romanov, cousin of Nicholas II, signed away his chances at the throne before he married a second time without the Russian Orthodox Church’s blessing.
Others greeted his visit enthusiastically but criticized his timing. Traditionally, Nov. 7 has been Revolution Day, the anniversary of the Bolsheviks’ victory and the death of the Russian monarchy.
But for the first time in many decades, there will be no military parade or any other major ceremony in Moscow, only two political rallies, one pro and the other against communism. There will be no ceremony because of the way that Communists were discredited after the failure of the coup by hard-liners in August.
Few people could overlook the irony of the heir to the throne coming back to Russia to figuratively dance on the grave of communism on the day that, for years, has been the holiday marking the Communist victory over the monarchy.
“I am very glad that a member of the imperial family has come to Russia for the first time since 1918,” said Oleg Sokolov, a history teacher and monarchist. “But by coming at this time, he is participating in a big, dark political joke. I do not take any joy in the senior Romanov acting as a card in a political game.”
Special correspondent Natalya Shchulyakovskaya contributed to this report.