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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.
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."

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