Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Last Tsar's Murder Probe Raises Divisive Questions About Bolshevik Crimes

Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family in one of the last pictures taken before the 1917 revolution.
Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family in one of the last pictures taken before the 1917 revolution.
By Claire Bigg
A Moscow court is due to start hearings today into a dispute pitting the self-proclaimed heir to Russia's imperial throne against the Prosecutor-General's Office.

Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, who styles herself as the head of the Romanov imperial line, filed suit last month after prosecutors closed a probe into the murder of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, shot dead by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

The lawsuit is part of her protracted standoff with Russian prosecutors, who have closed the investigation for the second time on the grounds that too much time has elapsed since the killing.

The 56-year-old Maria Vladimirovna, who was born in Madrid and divides her time between France and Spain, believes a resumption of the criminal case is essential for Russia to come to terms with its blood-soaked Soviet past.

At the heart of her legal battle is a question that continues to divide Russians more than 90 years after the Romanov dynasty's downfall: should the slaying of Nicholas and his family be considered a common crime or an act of political persecution?

"The Prosecutor-General's Office, in its decision to close the criminal case, continues to maintain that the imperial family was victim of a common crime," complains Aleksandr Zakatov, a spokesman for the Moscow-based chancellery of the so-called Russian Imperial House headed by Maria Vladimirovna.

Grisly Murder

Nicholas, his wife Aleksandra Fyodorovna, and their five children were shot and stabbed by a Bolshevik revolutionary firing squad in July 1918. The killers burned their bodies and doused them with acid in an attempt to mask their identity before dumping them in a pit.

Throughout the Soviet period, the late imperial family was branded as "enemies of the people," with Nicholas, in particular, singled out for ridicule as a weak and ineffectual leader.

Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna
The first Romanov remains were recovered outside the Urals city of Yekaterinburg in 1991, following the Soviet collapse. A probe into the murder was opened in 1993, but was quietly suspended in 1997. The royal remains were buried a year later at a lavish ceremony in St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Cathedral.

The investigation was reopened in 2007, after the discovery of two more bodies thought to be the remains of two of Nicholas's children.

Today, most Russians see the killing as part of a brutal campaign of repression by the Bolsheviks. But many still argue that Bolshevik rule had not been firmly established in the chaotic aftermath of the 1917 revolution and that the killers had not acted at the direct behest of revolutionary leaders. The murders, they argue, cannot constitute a politically motivated crime.

Zakatov, however, says the prosecutors' treatment of the murder as a common crime runs counter to a Supreme Court ruling that formally recognized the last tsar and his family as victims of political repression.

At the request of the Imperial House, the court in 2008 rehabilitated Nicholas and his family, who -- like millions of ordinary Russians who suffered Soviet persecution -- were never officially recognized as victims.

The combative Maria Vladimirovna is now seeking the rehabilitation of other members of the Romanov family slain in 1918, including Nicholas's brother Mikhail Aleksandrovich Romanov, gunned down by Bolsheviks in the city of Perm.

"The law on the rehabilitation of victims of political repression states that all victims of political repression must be rehabilitated," Zakatov says. "The law must be applied, regardless of whether we are talking about the tsar, peasants, or workers.

"The totalitarian regime killed millions of people and all of them must be rehabilitated. The Terror will not end until we rehabilitate every one of its victims."

A Divided Family

Of the dozens of Romanov descendants scattered across the United States and Europe, however, not all share such convictions.

Most of them oppose Maria Vladimirovna's rehabilitation drive and regard 87-year-old Prince Nikolai Romanovich, based in Switzerland, as the true head of the Romanov family. Nikolai Romanovich himself is against rehabilitating his murdered ancestors.

"Rehabilitate them from what? They were not convicted by a court. The tsar, the empress, and their children were brutally murdered," he says. "It's simply a waste of time. Everyone now knows what happened, but it no longer has any bearing on contemporary life. To live in peace, have a job, and know what future awaits their children -- that's what interests Russians."

Many descendents of the imperial family are also angry at Maria Vladimirovna's efforts to gain a stronger foothold in Russia.

The self-proclaimed titular empress regularly travels to Russia to meet with federal and regional officials, and her 28-year-old son, George Mikhailovich, who goes by the title "tsarevich," currently works for the Russian metal giant Norilsk Nickel as its EU representative.

The Imperial House last year said it wished to be granted a special official status that would allow it to play a greater role in Russian affairs. Spokesman Zakatov says this would allow Russians to "show respect" for the Romanov dynasty.

Reviving The Monarchy

In recent years, Russia's political elite has shown a willingness to accommodate the Romanovs. The Kremlin has often tapped into the country's prerevolutionary past in a bid to revive a sense of national identity and pride in post-Soviet Russia.

This has included steps such as canonizing the last imperial family in 2000 or reburying in St. Petersburg the tsar's mother, Empress Maria Fyodorovna, who died in exile in Denmark. Vladimir Putin, then president, attended the 2006 ceremony alongside descendants of the Romanov dynasty.

Members of the Romanov family attend the arrival ceremony of the coffin with remains of Empress Maria Fyodorovna, outside St.Petersburg, in 2006.
Whether Russia is ready for a full-fledged monarchist revival, however, remains in doubt. Maria Vladimirovna has said she is ready to step in as empress should Russians ever opt for the restoration of monarchy. So far, her overtures have remained unanswered.

Despite general sympathy for Nicholas and his family, public interest in the Romanovs is waning. "A lot more attention was paid to Nicholas II in the early days of perestroika, when there was a lively debate about possible paths for Russia and about the various leaders that could provide an alternative to Lenin and Stalin," says Boris Dubin, a sociologist at Russia's Levada polling center.

"By the end of the 1990s, other problems had come to the fore: social problems, problems of adaptation, the gap between rich and poor."

Dubin says efforts to break with the Soviet legacy came to an end with the advent of Putin, a former KGB officer who has overseen a revival of many Soviet-era symbols -- and who famously described the Soviet demise as the 20th century's "greatest geopolitical catastrophe."

According to the Levada Center, no more than 4 percent of the population currently support a return of the monarchy.

Time To Make Amends?

Nonetheless, a number of Russians would like to see the Romanovs make some kind of comeback and say it is time that Russia repents for the imperial family's horrific murder.

Andrei Zubov, a historian and professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, backs Maria Vladimirovna's efforts to shed light on the killing. Rehabilitating the imperial family is not enough, he says. Russia must now denounce the murderers.

"Those who killed the last imperial family and millions of others in Russia during the civil war will be shown to be the Bolshevik government and Lenin himself," he says. "Pursuing the investigation into the murder of Nicholas II and his family will force Russia to reevaluate its whole historical past and challenge its value system. That's something we absolutely need."

Zubov says Russia must go through what he calls a "decommunization" process, much like the one Germany went through to break with its Nazi legacy following World War II.

Post-Soviet Kremlin leaders have not entirely shied away from denouncing the last tsar's murder and the horrors of Soviet repression.

Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, speaking at the 1998 burial of Nicholas and his family, urged Russians to repent for a "bloody century." The current president, Dmitry Medvedev, likewise condemned those who still defend the Stalinist regime and warned against attempts to write the millions of Soviet repression victims "out of history."

These words, however, have yet to translate into any legal condemnation of Soviet-era criminals, including the killers of Nicholas, his wife, and children. Judging by the embattled probe into the Romanov massacre, the chances of that happening soon appear slim.

"The old communist elite has stayed, or rather the children of the former communist and communist security services elite," says historian Zubov. "That's why every Russian town still has a Lenin monument. That's also why prosecutors refuse to deal with the imperial family's killing or the Red Terror in general, because that would mean accusing their own fathers."

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 BiggC@rferl.org​


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Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 18, 2010 20:11
Don't want to defend the Bolsheviks, but the tsarist heirs might want to ponder the role that their royal ancestors played in establishing the ripe conditions for a revolution.

by: Knockout Puncher
February 19, 2010 10:22

What you suggest is the kind of left and/or anti-Russian BS that has predomimnated on this subject.

Had there been no WW I, the Bolshes wouldn't have likely prevailed, with Russia changing into something different and better than what occurred.

Keep in mind the demise of the Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs and Ottoman Empire as well.

Russia had much to be proud of prior to 1917. Consider what was evident at that point in history. It's not like Russia wasn't moving forward prior to 1917.

Concerning Russia, it's misguied at best and dishonest at worst to only focus on the negatives. This is true of the present as well as the past.

by: Clifford Marcus from: Oxford
February 19, 2010 12:13
The Tsar openly supported the Black Hundreds and the pogroms. When the whites took Ekaterinburg they promplty avenged the Tsar by murdering 2,000 Jews. Of all the Bolshevik atrocities, taking out the Tsar's family ranks pretty low on my list. To be honest I think the cannonisation/rehabilitation/building a church over site of the killings is all a ruse so that we can forget about the annexation of the Baltics, Gulag, brutal soviet sponsored eastern european regimes.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
February 19, 2010 18:41

Not unlike propaganda line of Russia since 1954-56, above is part true part not.

Neither and both.

Many things said in USSR about Nicolos were quite truthfull.
He and his family were self-proclamed German foreigners in Russia and even more so in occupied or invaded by Russian "Empire" countries - from Georgia through Finland and from Poland through Central Asia and Far East.
That very self-indulged bigotry of new Russia's false "Imperial Possessions" fuel Russian hate to the non-Russian nations and hypocritic "love for Romanovs".
While the descendents of the very "Bolshevics" that murdered family of Nicolos the Second invading CIS countries like Georgia, stealing toilet bolls in Georgian villages, grabbing Georgian properties for themselves and stealing most of CIS assets, they dragging on bord Romanovs, any Romanov they can get, to legitimize their new possessions as an "Imperial Pride" and blaiming Stalin for their own crimes of the past, present and future...

Sure, even Russian commoners must know that Throne is inherrited only by direct line of succession, that mean Nicolos The Third, not withstanding his role in and before WW2, unless he would abdicate through some traditional procedure.

But Russia do not care , Putin playing Crone Prince in "Pure Nastia",
New Double-Faced Vaulcher gass "Cheremushka dlya schastiya".
As Loyalists of Nocolos that with comming Revolutionary Tunder
Saved not Nocolos family, spending Kerenskiy's money under,
So is Russia - long live the Duchess for Bolshevic's dachas.


by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
February 19, 2010 20:08

They said that Murder of Nicolos family was forced on the Bolshevics
By Nicolos himself and, raining Europe, German Cousins-Emperors.
He and even his family refused to leave Russia: "They wouldn't dare!
No hair of German Royal will fall! Loyalists will return us our Throne!"

They refused to leave before and after Kerenskiy and they were killed.
When white armies came for riscue the Romanov's faith was sealed.
Still, white armies and interventions started bloody Russian Civil War,
Because of Lenin and Dzerzhinsky - illegal Dictatorship and red terror.

Still, Lenin did it because he was beaten and raped in German Police
Just before Revolution. His wife and telepaths did on his head a twist.
Still, Germans did it, using pact of the Cousins-Emperors - all too well.
Lenin, claiming be German, had to be killed by suicide - it was the rule.

Whell, one thing is for sure, millions were killed by will of the Cousins,
Most of them being dragged by history forces - to place of their killings.
Nicolos and his family were few of many, still Bolshevics responsible,
Concidering the ring above, as Nicolos responsible for many others...


by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 19, 2010 23:00
Dear KP,

Thanks for your comment. First, I admire deeply the Russians I have met and am amazed at their resilience and strong spirit. Second, agree, that the Russian people have much to be proud of, past, present and future. Third, as I’m not Russian, don’t know that I’m qualified to pontificate on their history. However, I certainly don’t think that commenting on crimes of the past qualifies as being dishonest or misguided. Are you advocating that Russians airbrush these ugly details from their past?

Let’s say that there’s a trial tomorrow and the CP is rightly found guilty of this and a million other crimes. Who will pay? Gennady Zuganov? The ex-KGB agents running the country? The Russian people themselves? Don’t count on it. Even though it is the Velikhy Post (Great Lent), there is no evidence of sincere repentance of the communist successors anywhere on the Russian horizon. Just the opposite. In a weird sort of way, the Kremlin authorities/people have shown themselves adept at deflecting any and all criticism and transforming it into someone else’s problem. Lots of crime, little punishment, and it’s rarely ever their fault. They love playing the role of aggrieved victim, even if the pain was all self-induced.

Yes, you are right, WW I certainly didn’t help matters. However, in 1918, despite the titles, it was Russian killing Russian.

Finally, though I’m sure that the grand duchess is only concerned about eternal justice, I would not be surprised to learn that she and her team of lawyers might also like to recover a portion of the family fortune.

by: Koba
February 20, 2010 15:35
Nicholas II"s main crime was being a completely incompetent leader. This created the conditions not for a revolution but a collapse. Kerensky's government was unable to withstand the relentless assaults of Lenin and the Bolsheviks who staged not so much a revolution as a coup.

Does that warrant the murder of an entire family? And untold millions more after that?

And it did not start with Stalin (the other Koba).

by: Nick from: DC
February 21, 2010 04:08
"Sure, even Russian commoners must know that Throne is inherrited only by direct line of succession, that mean Nicolos The Third, not withstanding his role in and before WW2, unless he would abdicate through some traditional procedure."

This isn't true. There were succession rules - it didn't have to be a direct descendant of the preceeding Tsar. Remember, Nicholas II advocated to his brother Grand Duke Mikhail. You would do well to look at the Romanov family tree. Nicholas II was not a male descendant of the first Romanov Tsar. According to the Russian rules of succession Grand Duchess is the head of the Romanov family, and the Romanov claimant to the non-existent Russian throne.

by: Knockout Puncher
February 22, 2010 17:01
Clifford Marcus

Your characterization of the pogroms is a bit off the mark. Did the American presidency openly or otherwise back the lynchings of Blacks during the same period in question? Some elements in the American government went along with such manner, while others didn't. Your note makes a series of broad claims that aren't so well connected and (for accuracy sake) require further elaboration.


The American Civil War was pretty brutal. Ditto the Yugoslav conflicts of WW II and the last decade.

I advocate consistency on approaching historical issues. When it comes to Russia, this seems to get muddied by a mix of anti-Russian and ideological elements whose biases distort/overlook certain particulars.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
February 23, 2010 04:56
Nick from DC, do not take it so sensetive, personally.
I beginning recognize true Russian - familliar, paintfully.
I am not an ethnic Russian to play intrigue of succession.
I just remembered general rule, without special exceptions.

You may be right, in history of Russia exceptions also ruled,
But to go that way, let's at least prudently show the reasons
For exceptions. Russia was backward and condemned.
Nephiew of Georgian King, Peter, agreed to build it on.

But he never succeded. If Ivan would die, in Peter's will
He named Ivans descendent Ioanna to succede Trone.
Tsars are archaic, but representation. Change one, still
Would be possible, as overthrow Nicolos. He was gone.

The cases you mentioned happened during Revolution.
Nicolos tried save Throne for brother, it wasn't accepted.
Other successions were illegal treachery, as Prussians
Were installed, or German line got Tsars assassinated.

One would wonder - why Grand Duchess on his mind?
Is Prince Vladimir from Pure Nastya play the game?
Is Maria Vladimirovna resonate his own name?
As Crossbearer, I wouldn't like gess the kind.

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