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Russia: A Tsarist Past Haunts The Land

St. Petersburg, 14 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On July 17, Russia will write the last page in the final chapter of its Tsarist era by burying the remains of Tsar Nicholas II. But as in life, so in death, Nicholas II has served only to divide Russia.

While the Tsarist family's funeral has been billed by the government as an act of reconciliation and repentance, it has proved to be a source of division.

Most of Russia's political establishment will skip the burial. Less than half of Russia's population (47 percent) believes the remains are authentic, according to research made by the Russian public opinion research center, VTsIOM.

The root of this uncertainty is the Russian Orthodox Church's decision not to recognize the remains as authentic and not to send ranking officials to the burial.

"The burial has become a serious political problem," Yevgeny Volk, an analyst at the Moscow office of the Hermitage Foundation, told RFE/RL. "No one wants to quarrel with the Church."

The Church says it fears a division in the church and society if it recognizes the remains. It claims that many parishioners would defect to the dissident Orthodox Church Abroad, which holds that the Bolsheviks destroyed all the Romanov remains with acid shortly after the murder in 1918.

Also, the Church says the issue of sainthood for the Romanovs demands an even more thorough scientific investigation into the remains' authenticity than the one conducted by the government over the past seven years.

But some analysts believe that these arguments are just excuses for other, more sinister, problems.

"The problem about sainthood and the threat of a defection to the Church Abroad are not serious arguments," said Volk. "The Church Abroad is not that strong in Russia, and few Russians hold Nicholas in great esteem. The Orthodox Church's main consideration is not to open old wounds about its Soviet-era collaboration."

The Orthodox Church has never publicly repented over its close collaboration with the Soviet government, and has consistently prevented any discussion of the topic.

"The Church is one of the few remnants of the Soviet past, and one of society's most conservative institutions," adds Volk. "Recognizing the remains would raise many questions about the Church's past relationship with the government that executed Nicholas."

Father Gleb Yakunin, the dissident and defrocked Russian Orthodox priest, who often speaks out about the Church's past collaboration, has yet another idea.

Yesterday, at a press conference in Moscow, he said that the Church, "is deliberately casting doubt onto the remains authenticity, and has chosen not to attend so as not to incur the wrath of the Communists."

He adds that the Church has postponed discussion on canonization of the Romanovs until 2000 in order that it may first see whether or not Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov wins the presidential election. If he should win, the Romanovs will not be canonized, claims Yakunin.

Whether or not this is the case, Nicholas II is certainly a controversial figure, and the government's attempt to make him into a Bolshevik martyr has failed. History is not uniting Russia but splitting it, says Volk. People are still influenced by the Communist propaganda that the Tsar was Bloody Nicholas.

"It all boils down to the unwillingness of Russian society honestly to examine its past, and repent for past sins," said Volk. "It is easier to proclaim democracy than actually overcome the totalitarian mentality."

Many Russians have negative attitudes towards tsarism. And Nicholas II's incompetent leadership did lead the country to two disastrous wars and two bloody revolutions.

According to VTsIOM, a majority (56 percent) of respondents have a negative opinion of Nicholas II. Only 25 percent of the 1,600 polled think that Nicholas II was "an innocent victim of the Bolshevik regime."

This strong resentment is witnessed by incidents of vandalism, targeting places specific to Nicholas II.

Last year, the first monument to Nicholas II, located just beyond the Moscow city limits, was dynamited during the night only months after having been erected.

This past February, on Armed Forces Day, two bombs exploded at the site where the Romanovs were executed, damaging a newly-built wooden chapel and memorial cross on the site. The original chapel was burned down in 1996 on the anniversary of the Romanov's execution.

The St. Petersburg city government promises, however, that security will be tight for Thursday's funeral procession and Friday's burial.

Vice Governor Vladimir P. Yakovlev, the top city official in charge of overseeing the burial arrangements, told RFE/RL that, "we will take all necessary precautions." When pressed on what that entails, he stopped short of providing details.

In the end, if there really is a significance to the burial, it is simply that the monarchist idea is dead in Russia. Few Russians have sympathy for it. In Russia's quest for a national idea, the country's leaders will have to look elsewhere.