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Russia: Romanov Burial May Be Part Of Kremlin Image Campaign

  • Claire Bigg --> Maria Fyodorovna and Aleksandr III during a trip to Denmark in 1893 (Public domain) The remains of Maria Fyodorovna, the Danish princess who became empress of Russia in 1866, are due to be reburied in St. Petersburg on September 28. Is this Russia's reconciliation with its Soviet past, or a Kremlin campaign to raise its own profile?

MOSCOW, September 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Early on September 26, a Danish naval ship carrying Maria Fyodorovna's remains reached Peterhof, the former imperial summer residence close to St. Petersburg.

The coffin was met with great pomp by some 40 descendents of the Romanov family, together with representatives of Danish royalty and top Russian and Danish officials.

Living History

The return of Maria Fyodorovna's body comes 140 years to the day after she first set foot in Russia to marry the future Tsar Aleksandr III, and 87 years after she fled the Bolshevik Revolution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to throw his weight behind the Romanovs' proposal to bring Maria Fyodorovna back to St. Petersburg.

Her son, Tsar Nicholas II, had been executed with his family a year before.

For Prince Dimitry Romanov, a descendent of Maria Fyodorovna who lives in Denmark, it was an emotional moment.

"This was the most important moment in my life," the 80-year-old Romanov said. "It is very important that Maria Fyodorovna has returned here. It is the most important thing. That is what she wanted, and thank God it has finally happened."

Last Wishes

The empress's coffin will lie in state at the Aleksandr Nevsky church in Peterhof until September 28, when her last wishes to be buried in St. Petersburg next to her husband will be fulfilled.

The interior of St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Cathedral (TASS file photo)

The Danish-born tsarina, who died in exile in Copenhagen in 1928, will be laid to rest in the Romanov vault in St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Cathedral. Patriarch Aleksy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, will officiate at the service.

The initiative to rebury Maria Fyodorovna in Russia came from descendents of the Romanov dynasty.

Ivan Artsishevsky, the head of the Romanov Family Association in Russia, told RFE/RL's Russian Service the ceremony is a fitting tribute to the former Princess Dagmar of Denmark.

"Russia is paying homage to the empress, to the Danish girl who came to Russia and became Russian empress in the full sense of this word, because Maria Fyodorovna loved Russia," he said. "She passed away loving Russia. She loved our people, she loved our land. This is why I think that it is necessary to pay homage to this woman."

Kremlin Support

Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to throw his weight behind the Romanovs' proposal to bring Maria Fyodorovna back to St. Petersburg.

Four years ago, he asked Denmark's Queen Margrethe for the tsarina's ashes to be handed over to Russia.

The reburial, however, was postponed several times after Denmark refused to extradite Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev to Russia and Putin canceled a planned visit to Denmark.

The decision to rebury Maria Fyodorovna in Russia is officially meant to turn a page on the Bolshevik execution of Nicholas II and his family after his forced abdication in 1917.

A series of exhibitions have opened across Russia to accompany the ceremonial reburial.

"A Good Thing"

Lyudmila, a pensioner, this week visited one such exhibit, a selection of drawings by Maria Fyodorovna and her children at the Kremlin. Nodding approvingly, she said it was "a very good thing" the former tsarina was being reburied in Russia.
"This is partly an attempt [by the Russian authorities] to present themselves as the successors of historical figures."

"She was a Russian empress and therefore she needs to be buried at home, in her motherland," she added.

Another visitor, Yelena, also expressed support for the initiative.

"She said she wanted to be buried with her husband," Yelena said. "Also, one needs to remember that in Russia, she was the Russian empress and that she ended her life like an ordinary elderly woman in Copenhagen. I think she wanted to return to the country where she had been an empress. This is a perfectly natural wish."

Nostalgia, Or Politics?

Some observers, however, say the Kremlin sees the reburial as an opportunity to score political points.

Members of the Romanov family escorting the empress's remains to St. Petersburg on September 26 (TASS)

"I don't notice any blatant nostalgia within the mainstream population," said Boris Dubin, a sociologist at Russia's respected Yury Levada Analytical Center. "Some groups belonging to the intelligentsia may have stronger feelings about this. The current authorities are the ones who are most concerned about the issue of reconciliation with the Soviet past, and by extension with the prerevolutionary past. This is partly an attempt to present themselves as the successors of historical figures."

Maria Fyodorovna's reburial is indeed not the first of its kind.

Nicholas II and his family were ceremoniously reburied in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998, after a painstaking international effort to identify their remains. They were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000.

And in October 2005, the Tsarist General Anton Denikin was reburied with full military honors in Moscow's Donskoi Monastery.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​