Putting the Romanovs to Rest?


In place of the heady incense that bathes the crypt of his imperial forebears, a nauseous blend of construction dust, cigarette smoke and the odor of decomposing bodies in the morgue two floors below wafts over the jumble of bones that is all that remains of the last czar of Russia.

Card-playing security guards and an iron gate seal off the cluttered laboratory holding the royal remains of Nicholas II and his family--precautions taken since one of the czar’s ribs was pilfered three years ago.

Film crews, historians and dignitaries deemed to deserve a glimpse of Yekaterinburg’s most renowned relics are ushered in almost daily for a look at the last of the Romanovs--nine specimen trays displaying what could be found of each victim’s skeleton, all now sealed as criminal evidence under clear plastic domes fixed by the local prosecutor’s wax and wire.


If ever eminent people have been denied a proper burial, Nicholas and Alexandra, three of their five children and four loyal servants have suffered such posthumous indignities that biographer Edvard S. Radzinsky likens their recent fate to “a second execution.”

Nicholas and 10 others in the imperial entourage were executed by firing squad in the cellar of a merchant’s house here in the predawn hours of July 17, 1918. The carnage was ordered by Bolshevik revolutionaries who had seized power eight months earlier and who sought to ensure that they would never again be challenged by a monarch. At least nine of the bodies were trucked 12 miles north of the city, stripped and dumped in a pit. A few days later, they were retrieved, doused with acid, burned in a bonfire, then moved to a second hiding place, where they stayed until two amateur sleuths led an exhumation team to the forested site more than seven decades later.

The remains of the royal family have since become pawns in a political tug of war that pits three powerful bosses of the New Russia against one another, casts the Russian Orthodox Church in the role of defender of national extremists and dredges up one of the most barbaric crimes committed after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

But the restless 20th century saga of the murdered Romanovs may finally be coming to an end.

More than six years after the bones were disinterred from the pit along Koptyaki Road, a federal commission charged with verifying their authenticity and recommending a date and venue for their burial convenes for the last time next week, and members disgusted by the unseemly delays and political intrusions say they will appeal to President Boris N. Yeltsin to at long last give the Romanovs a dignified repose.

European monarchs and distant Romanov relatives living in exile are to be invited to a soul-cleansing memorial ceremony, likely to be held on this July’s 80th anniversary of the executions that served as a chilling reminder of the risks of being royal.

“It is nothing less than atrocious that the remains still await burial more than six years after their discovery and after repeated DNA tests proving their authenticity,” fumes Radzinsky, a noted historian and writer.

Author of “The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II,” Radzinsky has for three years worked with archivists, scientists, historians and government ministers to produce an authoritative report on the remains’ identity and recommendations for a funeral.

All Russian monarchs since Peter the Great in the 18th century have been laid to rest in the imperial crypt of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. But protocol argues against interring the servants who died with their masters in the same regal vault with Nicholas and Alexandra.

The fact that Nicholas was forced to abdicate more than a year before his execution also bolsters the arguments of those who are against his being interred among those who died as sitting monarchs.

3 Political Bosses Vie Over Site of Burials

Nevertheless, earlier this month St. Petersburg Mayor Vladimir Yakovlev appealed to Yeltsin to decide in favor of burial of all at the imposing fortress and on the 80th anniversary of their execution this summer.

But Moscow’s powerful mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov--ever mindful of the value of historical controversy in luring tourists--has called for the Romanovs’ burial to take place in his city.

“Nicholas II was not the czar when he died as a martyr, but he was a Romanov,” Luzhkov said in arguing his case to journalists this month. He noted that while the monarchs are entombed in St. Petersburg, their lesser kin rest in the newly refurbished Novospassky Monastery on the banks of the Moscow River.

Not to be outdone, Yekaterinburg Gov. Eduard Rossel has already ordered the design of a crypt and memorial on the property of the razed Ipatiev House, where a dozen Bolshevik gunmen carried out the royal slaughter.

Possession being nine-tenths of the law even in lawless Russia, Rossel refused to deliver the remains to forensic emissaries from Moscow in November when a special armored train was sent here by the federal commission to collect the bones for final tests.

Lyudmilla Koryakova, an archeology professor at Yekaterinburg University who supervised the exhumation in 1991, expresses disgust over the events that have ensued since her team of diggers descended on the grave site along Koptyaki Road north of Yekaterinburg.

“I’m out of it entirely now. This has become a very sordid business,” Koryakova says with a dismissive wave. “The investigations that have been going on for the last few years have more to do with politics than with science.”

Repeated tests here and abroad, using DNA-matching techniques and computer imaging that fits disinterred skulls with old photographs, have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the bones are those of the Romanovs. Still, radical nationalists and some factions of the Russian Orthodox Church refuse to accept the research findings and insist on further investigation.

“This is bread and butter for a lot of people, so some will continue to drag it out,” says Koryakova, now burrowed into academic pursuits unconnected with the Romanovs.

Even many local opinion makers beholden to Rossel for their state jobs criticize the governor’s handling of the burial issue as a crude form of blackmail.

“The governor is behaving badly in this matter,” says Mikhail Lyubarsky, the host of a popular morning talk show on Sverdlovsk State Radio. He accuses Rossel of creating a furor over the bones to distract attention from the region’s high unemployment, ubiquitous crime and unpaid state wages.

Few serious scholars argue with the identifications. But Russian Orthodox clergy, conflicted over their decades of collusion with Communist authorities, have dithered over the divisive issue of whether Nicholas should be proclaimed a martyr before burial.

That designation was long ago made by the Russian Orthodox Church in exile, those faithful who fled the revolution and established an independent religious hierarchy abroad during the 74 years of atheistic Communist rule in the Soviet Union. The question of whether Nicholas should be canonized now confronts religious leaders here with the choice of making the humiliating admission that they were under the Soviet regime’s thumb for those seven decades or remaining at odds with Orthodox brethren abroad.

To sidestep that dilemma, the church put its weight behind a list of “10 unanswered questions” that opponents of a royal burial have raised to delay a final decision. Among the inquiries were demands to prove the origin of two teeth found in the Koptyaki pit that cannot be traced to any of the nine skeletons. Most controversial of the questions was the demand for determination of whether the royals had been beheaded--a conclusion demanded by fringe nationalists who claim the Romanovs were ritually murdered by Freemasons and Jews and that their heads were severed as part of the killing process.

As investigators wound up their probe this month, Russia’s chief forensics specialist, Vitaly Tomilin, dismissed all 10 issues raised by the burial opponents as groundless.

Remains of 2 Victims Are Still Missing

One question still troubling many Russians, however, is the absence of two victims. No trace of Crown Prince Alexei or Grand Duchess Marie, the second-youngest of the czar’s four daughters, was found in the exhumation.

Yekaterinburg’s chief medical examiner, Nikolai Nevolin, says he believes the two missing skeletons lie buried elsewhere along Koptyaki Road, the northern route out of the city taken by the Bolshevik gunmen in search of a remote place to hide the bodies.

“We can hardly dig up the whole region in search of the other remains,” says Nevolin, who has evolved as gatekeeper of the coveted relics and guardian of the laboratory-crypt’s only key.

Like Rossel and most officials in this city, Nevolin says he hopes Yeltsin will let Yekaterinburg, located about 900 miles east of Moscow in the Ural Mountains, bury the Romanovs in a gesture of atonement for their execution.

Rossel was appointed district chief executive by Yeltsin and then fired by him in 1993 for proclaiming Sverdlovsk, the district encompassing Yekaterinburg and the president’s former power base, an autonomous “Urals Republic.” Rossel was elected governor in August 1995.

While the most celebrated forensics case of 20th century Russia has earned him fame and a new pathology center next door to the dilapidated morgue, Nevolin says it was long ago time to put the Romanov bones to rest.

That view is shared by geologist Alexander Avdonin, who spent years studying reports from the executioners and the recollections of Ipatiev House neighbors, and located the pit containing the royal remains in 1979. To prevent the site from becoming a magnet for nostalgic monarchists in that intolerant Soviet era, the geologist and his journalist partner, Geli Ryabov, kept their discovery secret for the next decade.

It was only when Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s more open policies caused authoritarian communism to crumble that Ryabov brought their gruesome discovery to public attention.

In an interview with the weekly Moscow News in April 1989, Ryabov agreed to show the grave to authorities “on condition that permission be given for a decent burial befitting human beings and Christians.”

Avdonin was appalled at his sleuthing partner’s disclosure but says they have reconciled and share a sense of discomfort that the Romanovs remain unburied.

“I set out to find the grave because I wanted to fill this blank space in our history, this black and empty chapter that has haunted us for the past 80 years,” says Avdonin, who has settled into his role as quasi-official chronicler of the murder story that has long horrified readers. “They say the war is never really over until the last soldier is buried, and here we haven’t even buried the first ones.”

Avdonin argues for a Yekaterinburg burial to allow the descendants of the Bolshevik executioners here to make amends for the most heinous local crime.

“People here feel accountable for what happened to the Romanovs,” he says, calling for a cathartic ceremony to bury the city’s collective guilt along with the bones.

Most forensic investigators insist that the missing daughter is Marie, 19 at the time of the executions. But one researcher, the late William Maples of Florida, insisted that the youngest, Anastasia, was unaccounted for, rekindling the unlikely legend of a survivor, one most recently perpetuated by the animated film “Anastasia.”

Yeltsin vowed earlier this week to act on the federal commission’s report within a few days of its presentation next Tuesday and choose among the three proposed funeral sites. Sources close to the president say he favors a St. Petersburg ceremony on the anniversary of the deaths.

Rossel’s deputy, Anatoly Gayda, stands firmly behind the governor’s refusal to allow the remains to leave Yekaterinburg before Yeltsin issues a formal order on interment.

“It would be the most just resolution if the remains were buried here,” Gayda says, while insisting that local authorities will comply with any presidential decision. “This is where they were executed, and the people of the Urals feel a moral obligation to make amends with the past.”

As he has frustrated the final work of the federal commission, Rossel has been simultaneously recruiting support for a Yekaterinburg burial among factions of the more than 200 distant Romanov relatives scattered across Europe.

“After nearly seven years, we have come to regard these bones as our own,” Nevolin, the chief medical examiner, says of the region’s possessiveness. “If the decision is made to bury them in our region, I will gladly comply. I will comply with the order in any case, but if the burial is to be elsewhere, my soul will not be in agreement.”


Bones of Contention

The burial of Czar Nicholas II and his family has become a political issue. The powerful mayor of Moscow is seeking to have the remains laid to rest in the capital. The city of their execution, Yekaterinburg, wants to atone for the crime and bury them there. Russia’s previous czars are interred in St. Petersburg.