Czar Nicholas II, seated third from left, and his wife Alexandra, center rear, pose with their family. (Associated Press)
From Monday's Globe and Mail
July 27, 2008 at 9:42 PM EDT
MOSCOW — In the basement of Moscow's most iconic church, levelled to dust by the Soviets and later rebuilt after communism collapsed, a new exhibit about the doomed Romanov family is drawing crowds.
“I want to know everything about them,” said 17-year-old Praskophya Chekmaryova, staring intently at a framed snapshot of the photogenic Romanov royal family during a seaside vacation. “I didn't have a lot of information so I decided to come here.”
This rosy portrayal of the Romanov family has prompted observations that Russia, particularly the Orthodox Church, has begun to deify the fallen czar, methodically airbrushing his faults from the public record just as aggressively as the Soviets demonized him.
Like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the refurbished church in which the popular exhibit now sits, the Romanov family reputation has been fully restored since the collapse of the Soviet Union 17 years ago.
But some say that this rehabilitation has drifted too far and that Russians are wrongly lionizing their former monarch, who abdicated in 1917 on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution. A year later, Nicholas and Alexandra and their five children were executed by firing squad in a Yekaterinburg cellar on the orders of Vladimir Lenin.
Ninety years later, with the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, which canonized the entire family in 2000, many Russians now view the czar as a martyred hero and great statesman.
In fact, Nicholas is now running neck and neck with Josef Stalin in popularity in a television program that is running a contest to judge Russia's greatest historical figures.
Some historians say the Orthodox Church is the driving force behind attempts to withhold negative publicity about the Romanovs.
Archivist Elena Chirkova, who helped with the current exhibit, said two photographs of the royal family pictured with Rasputin were ordered removed from the exhibit by church officials.
Ms. Chirkova said she believes church attempts to idealize the family are a mistake, every bit as misplaced as the Soviet efforts to denigrate them. She thinks the czar was just an ordinary man who made mistakes in office, but loved his wife and children.
“During Soviet times, they were depicted as bad people. For 70 years, that's what people were taught. Now it's the opposite – they are idealized. The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle. They were human beings.”
Previous exhibits in the 1990s, she said, provided more complete versions of the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra.
The current exhibit, entitled Crown of the Czar, is sponsored by the Orthodox Church's Yekaterinburg diocese, the Russian Archives and the Moscow Museum.
A spokesman for the Yekaterinburg diocese confirmed that the church nixed the Rasputin photos, but denied that it was censoring negative images from the exhibit.
In a telephone interview, Father Maxim said the photos were removed because they didn't fit the theme of the exhibit, which was to show the czar's political, social and military activities.
However, the priest stressed that he does not believe Nicholas II had any significant weaknesses and was a true “hero of Russia.” In the future, he said, the church will seek to further elevate the czar's status and accomplishments in office.
“He was a great emperor and he did a lot of good things for Russia,” Father Maxim said in a telephone interview from Yekaterinburg.
Despite the spat about the exclusion of some photos, the Russian appetite for all things Romanov is large. Nearly 40,000 people have visited the exhibit, which features some never-before-seen documents and artifacts, including the bayonets that were used to kill some family members and the yellowed telegrams from the Soviet executioners, ordering litres of acid, which they doused over the bodies before burying them.
There are also documents detailing a peace conference in The Hague which the czar initiated in 1899.
Earlier this month, thousands of pilgrims flocked to Yekaterinburg, the Urals city about 1,300 kilometres east of Moscow, to mark the 90th anniversary of the family's death. Interest in the royals was also buoyed by the recent discovery of the remains of Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria. Their parents and siblings' remains were discovered in a mass grave outside the city in 1991. Last summer, an amateur historian discovered the second gravesite and subsequent DNA tests have confirmed their identities.
Since their deaths in 1918, the lives and deaths of Russia's Romanov family have inspired books, films and pretenders to the throne the world over. The most infamous was a claim from a Polish peasant, Anna Anderson, who said she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the czar's youngest daughter. DNA tests after her death discredited her claims.
The official Soviet narrative, taught to schoolchildren, was that Nicholas II was a weak and violent ruler who destroyed Russia and deserved to die.
Western historians were kinder, although the consensus was that he was a naive leader, ill-equipped to steer a massive empire on the verge of a Bolshevik revolution.
Some older visitors to the Moscow exhibit seemed overwhelmed by the discrepancy between the czar's current reputation and the version that was drummed into them during the Soviet era.
“We were taught that all of them were enemies of the people,” said visitor Galina Glabokova, 52. “What we were told wasn't true. It was a tragedy. Our new society began with the blood of this family.”
Liudmila Mukhamedova, a curator with the Moscow Museum, went further. She described the doomed czar as a visionary leader who faced his death with “Christian humility.”
“He thought about his family, which he adored,” she said. “But I think he thought more about Russia's future. He was ready to sacrifice himself for his country.”
Her introduction to the lives of Russia's last imperial family may have been less complete than she knew. Absent from this exhibit are any traces of Czar Nicholas II's well-documented human foibles, including the family's infamous association with the manipulative mystic Rasputin, as well as his wife Alexandra's fondness for expensive jewels.