First Posted 10:41:00 07/13/2008
MOSCOW--Orthodox faithful and surviving royals are expected to flock this week to commemorate last tsar Nicholas II and his family, whose slaying 90 years ago still touches a nerve in post-Soviet Russia.
From Sunday the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains will echo to the sound of choirs, bell-ringing and prayers as the faithful recall the murders that sealed the fall of a centuries-old dynasty and its replacement by the Soviet Union.
Church officials said ceremonies would culminate on Thursday at the spot where on July 17, 1918, Bolshevik agents shot Nicholas, his wife, their five children, three servants and a doctor.
"If in the past, and in the Soviet period especially, people voiced pride that here, in Yekaterinburg, we killed the tsar, now it's the opposite," Archbishop Vikenty of Yekaterinburg told a local newspaper last month, reflecting on changed attitudes and the Church's revived role.
"People realize it was a tragedy," he told the newspaper, Yekaterinburgskaya Initsiativa.
A church on the site of the "special purpose house," as it was called by the Bolsheviks, provides the backdrop for this week's commemorations. The original building was pulled down in 1977 by local party boss Boris Yeltsin, later Russia's first post-Soviet leader.
After an all-night vigil, pilgrims will process 18-kilometers (11-miles) to a disused mine where the bodies were first dumped, before they were later retrieved, doused in acid and reburied at another site for more effective concealment.
More commemorations take place the next night in the town of Alapayevsk, 150 kilometers (95 miles) to the north, on the anniversary of the killing there of six more royals plus their servants.
Joining the commemorations will be a Romanov descendant, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, who lives in Madrid and claims to be Nicholas' rightful heir.
Reflecting continued sensitivities, she last week lodged two new court appeals in a long-running battle to get formal state recognition that her ancestors were victims of political repression and not of a random attack.
The refusal to "rehabilitate" the Romanovs suggests "some political forces want to maintain elements of the Communist regime, the worst elements," said an aide to Maria Vladimirovna, Alexander Zakatov, insisting that expressions of regret by post-Soviet leaders such as Yeltsin were not enough.
Meanwhile another branch of the family, the Romanov Family Association, said on its website it would mark the anniversary not in Yekaterinburg but in Saint Petersburg.
The choice reflects split opinion over the reburial 10 years ago in Saint Petersburg of remains dug up in 1991 and thought to be of Nicholas, his wife, three of the children and the royal servants and doctor.
While DNA tests confirmed their authenticity, both the Orthodox Church and Maria Vladimirovna refused to accept the evidence as foolproof, amid doubts over which of the five children were dug up and whether one, Anastasiya, might have survived.
Russian officials now claim all doubts have been settled after the discovery last summer of two more sets of remains, said after testing to be irrefutably those of Nicholas' son and heir Alexei and daughter Maria.
With significant numbers of Orthodox priests keen to restore the monarchy, the Romanovs' fate remains highly sensitive and the role of the Church a delicate one, said religions expert Sergei Filatov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Noting the virtual "cult" that has grown up around Nicholas in Yekaterinburg, he said the Church as a whole "behaves very carefully, so monarchist ideas are not so publicly declared."
The head of respected Russian human rights organisation Memorial criticised the Church, saying it had failed to draw the right lessons from the horrors of 1918, particularly as it rejected the notion of universal human rights.
"It's important to preserve this memory but also to draw conclusions relevant to today and tomorrow," said Memorial's chairman, Arseny Roginsky.
"We respect the Church's position but such commemorations are inadequate," he said.
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