Friday, July 18, 2008

A Shattered Dynasty Celebrated 90 Years On

Ninety years ago this week, the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for over 300 years, ended in the basement of an obscure merchant's house in Yekaterinburg. In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, Nicholas Romanov, who had abdicated in March 1917, was taken with his wife and five children into the basement, ordered to stand in a line, and executed. The princesses - Olga, Tatyana, Maria and Anastasia - were reportedly still alive when the Bolshevik executioners were removing their bodies. They were stabbed repeatedly with bayonets.
It turned out that the girls, the youngest of whom was just 17, were wearing several pounds of diamonds sewn into their corsets - the family believed until the last minute that there was hope of an escape.

That hope had been alive for over a year. Throughout the two revolutions - the first in February 1917, the second, which propelled the Bolsheviks to power, in October - the royal family was first kept under house arrest in Tsarskoye Selo and Tobolsk by the provisional government, then moved by the Bolsheviks to Yekaterinburg, one of their strongholds. The family was kept on soldier's rations, and all but one of their servants were dismissed. When their guards deprived them of their laundress, the girls, who were accustomed to a new change of clothes each day, reportedly ordered books and learned how to wash their clothes themselves.
"The lessons of the past must be firmly embedded in society so that they can serve as a basis for unity rather than schism," Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said on Wednesday in his address to the World Assembly of the Russian People.

This year the assembly, which was launched in 1993, was held for the first time in Yekaterinburg, where it was dedicated to the legacy of the Romanov dynasty. Gryzlov added that it would still take decades for society to grasp the full weight of this tragedy.

Gryzlov's speech at the assembly was just one of the series of events taking place this week as part of the "Days of the Tsar" in Yekaterinburg. Grand Duchess Maria Vladi­morovna Romanov flew to Yekaterinburg on Wednesday to take part in a prayer ceremony held at the Church on the Blood, which was erected during the last decade on the execution site.

The tragic events they are commemorating, however, remain shrouded in controversy as experts, Orthodox Church clerics, government officials and Romanov descendents try to account for all of the bodies.

In 1992 archaeologists uncovered the remains of the Tsar, the Empress and three of the daughters. After their authenticity was confirmed, the five bodies were laid to rest in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg, alongside other Russian emperors.

The Orthodox Church, meanwhile, had disputed the findings and held on to its skeptical stance when the remains of two more bodies were uncovered in 2007. As Yekaterinburg welcomed Vladimir Solovyev, who is investigating the murder with the Prosecutor General's Office, the office's genetic expertise committee confirmed that the new bodies did indeed belong to Tsarevich Alexei and his sister Maria. Solovyev made the announcement Wednesday in Yeka­terinburg.

While the remains have yet to undergo more tests, the legal status of the tragedy is also a mystery, highlighting tensions between the living Romanovs and the Russian government.
Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna had applied for rehabilitation of her ancestors with the Prosecutor General's Office in 2005, but the office is still denying her request. Prosecutors say that there are not enough documents confirming that Nicholas Romanov was a victim of political repression despite the published accounts of his executioner, Yakov Yurovsky.

The Romanovs, meanwhile, remain skeptical about the authenticity of the remains and question the finding of prosecutors.

"We think it's strange that members of Nicholas II's family are considered... criminals," Alexander Zakatov, the head of the Russian Imperial House's chancellery, was quoted by news agencies as saying. "It is important for us that the decision to rehabilitate the Royal Family be made in Russia, and that is why we are addressing the European Court."

But as officials, clerics and royal descendents gathered in Yekaterinburg for the Days of the Tsars, some of these differences were put aside, at least for now. "This is a tragic day for our country," Zakatov said. "But in the Orthodox Church we celebrate a martyr's death, and that is how we shall commemorate it. The citizens of our country should remember the lessons of the past and know that the family of the Emperor met their fate 90 years ago today with humility."

By Anna Arutunyan

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