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Western Press Review: Russia Buries Tsar Amid Controversy

By Elizabeth Weinstein and Dora Slaba

Prague, 17 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In 1918 a Bolshevik murder squad shot Russia's last reigning tsar, Nicholas II, along with his wife, daughters, and servants. Today Russia will bury Nicholas's remains in the former imperial capital of St. Petersburg, 80 years to the day after his murder.

The burial comes amid major controversy -- the Russian Orthodox Church disputes the authenticity of the remains despite scientific tests confirming their validity, while many Russians say the real reason for the Church's resistance is that it cannot deal with the memories of its own collusion with the Communists nor the fact that the exiled Russian church had already canonized the tsar.

And after publically wavering about whether to attend the funeral or not, Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided at the last minute to attend the event. Western press today describes the emotional, religious and political meaning behind the solemn event.


An International Herald Tribune news analysis by Daniel Williams describes the scene in St. Petersburg and introduces Russian President Boris Yeltsin's connection to the tsar. Williams writes, "Yellow imperial banners draped the oak coffins holding the bones of Nicholas and his wife, Aleksandra. Caskets adorned with golden handles encased the remains of their three daughters, Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia."

He continues, "Ironies abounded. The city that Communist overseers stripped of its status as capital and renamed Leningrad, after Nicholas's tormentor, flew red, white, and blue flags and black ribbons of mourning. On Moscow Avenue, the fast-moving motorcade passed a giant statue of Lenin. Cadets at the Winter Palace dipped flags as a show of respect as the procession passed."

"In a sense, President Yeltsin's lightning decision was an act of personal repentance. In 1977, when he was Communist party boss in Yekaterinburg, Mr. Yeltsin carried out orders to destroy the merchant's house where Nicholas and the others were murdered."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The church is unhappy with the funeral

A Los Angeles Times editorial describes the controversy behind the burial in more detail: "The church is unhappy with the funeral because it says it doubts the accuracy of the DNA tests that identified Nicholas and his family members, whose bodies were burned and doused with acid. The Communists, still a powerful political bloc, see the ceremony as a dark plot to discredit the country's Soviet period. Russian emigres who are loyal to the monarchy smell a different kind of plot, as does the Orthodox Church Abroad, which split from the Moscow church after the revolution."

"The Orthodox Church Abroad has accused the Moscow church of collaborating with the Communists during the Soviet era. It sees the funeral as a trick by Yeltsin and other former Communists to curry popular support by bolstering their nationalist credentials."

INDEPENDENT: Yeltsin's attendance is a unifying gesture

Yeltsin's last-minute decision Thursday to attend the funeral was a bold move, writes Phil Reeves for The Independent. Yeltsin, who called for truth and reconciliation surrounding the killings, said it was the "just and human" thing to do to take part in the funeral. Reeves says Yeltsin's attendance is a unifying gesture for Russians who are weighed down by economic crises rocking the country.

He writes, "The President's decision amounts to a significant gesture of independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, whose synod has distanced itself from the event because of divisions within Orthodoxy over the authenticity of the remains. Mr. Yeltsin, keen to be seen to be trying to unify the country, said he had taken the decision after long thought and many conversations with fellow Russians.

He continues, "His move also means that, at the eleventh hour, the reburial of the Romanovs has acquired at least some of the weight and formal endorsement that history demands."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Today's burials are indeed a symbolic occasion

British writer John Casey of the Daily Telegraph, personifies the death of Nicholas and his family, saying that "a special symbolism has always been attached to the remains of kings and rulers."

He writes, "No one -- except the hardline Russian Communists -- will begrudge Nicholas II the earth that covers his bones, and those of his wife and daughters. There is an exhibition in Moscow of snapshots taken by Nicholas and members of his family. You see the tsar holding the sickly heir, Aleksis, in his arms; the princesses in work clothes sitting on the ground by some farm building; Nicholas bathing naked in the Gulf of Finland."

Casey continues, "These were the simple, gentle, not very intelligent people, who obviously could have no understanding of the forces that were to sweep them away. But they look like normal human beings, hardly from the same planet as the grim monsters who were to rule after them."

He concludes, "Today's burials in St. Petersburg are indeed a symbolic occasion in modern history. How sad that the Russian Orthodox Church has so shamefully botched it."

TIMES: Honor for the Tsar is the final renunciation of the Revolution

An editorial in The Times of London also decries the controversy surrounding what should be a peaceful burial of the past. It says, "Church and State honor for the tsar is the final renunciation of the Revolution and the Leninist state it created. It implies that the regicides were not only butchers but also blasphemers. It strengthens the argument that the murders opened the way to the mass killings and repression that followed. And it makes the removal of Lenin from his mausoleum almost inevitable."

It continues, "The Communists are still a strong, though waning, force, and Mr. Yeltsin was anxious not to humiliate them at a time when he needs their votes in the Duma as never before. He also did not want to upset Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, who lobbied to have the remains interred in the grandiose copy of the former cathedral that he has erected. To his chagrin, his symbol of civic pride has failed to draw the crowds, and when it was decided to inter them in St. Petersburg he promptly declared the bones a fake."

It concludes, "At the last moment, Mr. Yeltsin has shown something of his old courage and principle. In defiance of the Church, he will attend -- and others are now hastening to follow him. It is too late to stage a grand occasion. But his presence will lend weight and legitimacy to the ceremony. The drama will grip most Russians. It is only sad that the weak, all too human and misguided tsar still stirs such discord so long after his violent death."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE: History has a tendency to repeat itself

Final commentary comes from Werner Adam of Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine. He says that even though Yeltsin and his country are burying Nicholas, the tsarist influence still permeates politics. He also warns that history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Adam writes, "On the one hand he (Yeltsin) wanted to forget as quickly as possible the Soviet society when he moved into the Kremlin in 1991 and instead find links with the tsarist tradition. But since then he has learned that the Communists have not given up by far, and that he cannot release himself entirely from his political origin"

He concludes, "In looking to Russia's future one has to pose the question whether this is all not wishful thinking, whether history could not be repeated. A weak government with an unstable head of state, Byzantine power intrigues with the collaboration of the Church: Moscow in 1998 is not so unlike St. Petersburg in 1916."