Home at Last.(remains of the Romanov family are buried)

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Home at Last.(remains of the Romanov family are buried)

Powell, Bill, and Owen Matthews. "Home at Last.(remains of the Romanov family are buried)." Newsweek 20 July 1998: 30. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

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Full Text:COPYRIGHT 1998 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Any reuse, distribution or alteration without express written permission of Newsweek is prohibited. For permission: www.newsweek.com

Finally, the murdered Romanovs will be laid to rest. Their deaths were the real beginning of the 20th century. Their controversial burial marks its close.

THE ROMANOVS WILL COME home this week, their five three-and-a-half-foot wooden coffins borne through St. Petersburg to their final resting place in a dignified, if not quite grand, procession. For six years the remains of the last tsar, Nicholas II, head of one of Europe's most storied families, were kept in a setting that hardly evoked imperial grandeur: since being exhumed in 1991, his bones, along with those of his wife, Alexandra, three of their daughters and four servants, sat most of the time in polyethylene bags on a storeroom shelf in an old criminal morgue in Yekaterinburg. There lay the House of Romanov, the family that presided over imperial Russia for more than three centuries.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin personally ordered the assassination, in 1918, of the tsar and his family. (The assassins also murdered the cook, maid, valet and family physician.) The authorities of the Soviet Union had wanted Nicholas II, Alexandra and their family out of sight and out of mind. But in that, as in so much else, they failed. Thanks in part to Russian monarchists in exile, but mainly to the mythmaking power of Hollywood, the Romanov legend (if not the reality of their grim demise) endured, both at home and abroad.

In 1991 President Boris Yeltsin invited Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov, father of Maria Romanova, the current pretender to the throne, to St. Petersburg. He was greeted by a crowd of 60,000. At the time, in the flush of the latest Russian revolution, a poll showed 18 percent of the population supported a restoration of the monarchy. Six years later the few Romanovs interested in restoration had failed1 to capitalize on the sentiment, and the Yeltsin government filled the vacuum. Reassured by the new polling, Yeltsin last year began serious preparations to give the country's last imperial rulers a decent burial. After four years of deliberation, a government commission concluded that the remains discovered near Yekaterinburg in the late 1970s were those of the Romanovs. Yeltsin appointed his deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, to make the appropriate arrangements. And this week, 80 years to the day after their brutal murder in Ipatyev House (demolished in 1977 by an up-and-coming communist politician named Boris Yeltsin), Russia was to engage in a simple and honorable act of national healing. Five Romanovs were to be laid to rest in the Peter and Paul Cathedral next to Peter and Catherine the Great.

The ceremony will go on as scheduled, but not, as the government had hoped, in a spirit of reconciliation or healing. This is Russia, after all, and in Russia-imperial, communist or even new-nothing ever comes easily, not least an attempt to come to terms with a turbulent, haunted history. Aleksi II, the politically powerful patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. the institution most closely allied with the legacy of the Russian imperials. decided last month not to preside at the interment. The church said it's still not sure the remains are authentic. That virtually no one else has similar doubts evidently doesn't matter.

Boris Yeltsin, with an eye toward his own historical legacy, had wanted to attend the Romanov burial. But once the church balked, Yeltsin decided he couldn't take the political risk of defying it. And though nearly 50 Romanov descendants will be there, at least three outspoken members of the family will not, saying that the relative modesty of the planned ceremony is beneath their erstwhile imperial dignity. (According to 75year-old family head Nicholas, only one Romanov-Maria Vladimirovna, granddaughter of Nicholas II's first cousin- makes any claim to the throne.)

A funeral that was to have been a step toward political maturity for a Russia emerging from 70 years of darkness has instead turned into the latest chapter of the ongoing Romanov tragedy. "The country had a chance to obliterate a large historical blemish-the massacre of this family that they concealed and lied about for years." says Harvard University historian Richard Pipes. "Instead, it's an opportunity missed."

It may have been naive to think it could have been otherwise. Most ordinary Russians, struggling to make ends meet as their nation's transition to capitalism now flags dangerously, couldn't care less about the disposition of Nicholas and Alexandra's bones. But for the political and religious establishments in Moscow, the burial was destined to be excruciatingly complicated. The abdication and subsequent assassination of Nicholas, and the revolution to which he was sacrificed, are among the 20th century's seminal events. From them flow the heinous Terror in Russia, the second world war and the cold war. Touch the Romanov bones and you touch a part of a century s central nervous system. A powerful reaction was inevitable.

The fall of the Romanovs is a study in brutality. Robert K. Massie, author of "Nicholas and Alexandra," reports that they were awakened after midnight and were sent from their bedrooms to the basement of Ipatyev House. Nicholas carried his 13-year-old-son, Alexis, who was crippled by hemophilia. Alexandra was next, followed by her daughters, Olga, 22, Tatiana, 21, Maria, 19, and Anastasia, 17. In the rear came the family physician, the cook, the maid and the valet. Two chairs were brought, and the mother and the boy sat down. The others, told that they were to be photographed, arranged themselves in two lines behind the chairs.

Suddenly, 11 men burst into the room. Each held a revolver; each had been assigned a specific victim. After the first round of bullets, the three younger sisters and the maid remained alive - thanks in part to corsets of hidden jewels that deflected the gunfire. The sisters, pressing against the walls, died in a second round. One of the executioners stepped up to the writhing boy lying on the floor and kicked him in the head. The chief executioner put the muzzle of his revolver directly into the boy's ear and fired two shots.

Only the maid was still alive. Rather than reload, the executioners took rifles from the next room and pursued her with bayonets. Running back and forth along the wall. screaming, she tried to fend off the bayonets with her hands. She fell, and her body was pierced more than 30 times. Rifle butts crushed the victims' faces to render them unrecognizable. The bleeding bodies were wrapped in bedsheets, loaded into a truck and taken into the forest. There they were stripped and thrown down a mine shaft. Lenin, sitting in the Kremlin, was informed that it was over.

The nine skeletons, burned with acid and gasoline, were discovered in 1979 in a wooded, swampy spot 12 miles northwest of Yekaterinburg. Confident they had found the burial spot of the imperial family, geologist Aleksandr Avdonin and Gely Ryabov, a famous Moscow filmmaker, were nonetheless petrified as they dug. As Massie writes in "The Romanovs, The Final Chapter," Avdonin said later, "All my life I had searched for this ... and then, as we started to lift up the planking, I thought to myself, 'let me find nothing!'"

Fearful of the repercussions of their discovery, the two a year later returned the remains they'd unearthed to the same site. Then they vowed not to utter a word about their discovery until, Avdonin would later tell Massie, "the circumstances in our country changed." The bones of the tsar and his family remained buried in the woods for an additional 13 years, until, in 1991, they were officially exhumed from their shallow grave.

For the next six years, the remains were subjected to hundreds of forensic tests. Scientists compared the DNA with samples taken from Nicholas II's brother Georgy, who died in 1891 and is buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Alexandra's grandnephew, gave blood samples to be tested against the DNA of the skeleton thought to be Alexandra's. In cases, laboratories in Russia, the United States and Britain confirmed the genetic match. The investigators also electronically superimposed the photographs of the skulls on archive photographs of the family. They compared the skeletons' measurements with clothing known to have belonged to the tsar and his daughters. They matched the platinum dental bridgework on one skull's jaw to the empress's dental records. Again, every test came up with exact correlations.

Only two slight mysteries remained. Two of the family's children's bodies were missing: Alexis and the second youngest daughter, Maria. Investigators concluded that they had been burned to ash by the executioners, who did not have time to destory the rest of their victims. That notion matched the historical testimony of the chief executioner, Yakov Yurovsky, unearthed from a long-secret Moscow archive during glasnost in 1989.

The missing bodies have helped spawn a whole industry of Romanov rumor and myth. A variety of crackpots have turned up all over the world claiming either to be Romanovs who escaped execution or their direct descendants. In Moscow today Nikolai Dalsky parades around in an admiral's uniform convinced he's a direct descendant of Alexis, the tsarevich. Another man, Oleg Filatov, says he's also a direct descendant of the poor tsarevich-the hemophiliac who Filatov somehow believes survived several gunshot wounds.

The most powerful of the Romanov myths is, of course, Anastasia's. In 1920 a woman named Anna Anderson turned up in a Berlin hospital, claiming to be the heiress to the Romanov throne. In 1956 Hollywood got into the act with an Ingrid Bergman film. And today an animated version of "Anastasia" is attracting millions of young, impressionable viewers all over the world with an egregiously sweet story: that somehow the beautiful young princess survived to find romance and happiness. How many parents tell their children the truth? That Anastasia, after having been shot several times in the wee hours of July 17, 1918, quivered as she lay in her own blood in the dark basement. And that at some point, one of the 11 gunmen took his bayonet and stabbed that last bit of life out of her. As British historian Orlando Figes writes succinctly in his masterful book on the revolution, "it is inconceivable that any of the Romanovs survived this ordeal."

IT IS, IN FACT, THE SAVAGERY OF THE "ordeal" that is its most important historical legacy. It presaged the Terror that was to come in Russia, the moment when, as historian Pipes has written, a government assigned itself "the power to kill its citizens not for what they had done but because their death 'was needed'." That is a moment surely worth recognizing-and laying to rest-however belatedly. But as Yeltsin's government learned, in a country just seven years removed from Soviet communism, it is also obviously easier said than done-at least in so public a manner. One of the ironies about the controversy over the imperial interment is that Russia has actually made quiet progress in coming to terms with the revolutionary period. The more bitter irony is that it is the Russian Orthodox Church, to which the late tsar was so devoted, that has effectively tarnished what could have been a historic ceremony. The church remains a powerful but opaque institution in Russia, and its decision last month to undermine Yel tsin has triggered a fevered, but relatively uninformed, speculation that evokes Soviet-era Kremlinology.

The intrigue, circa 1998, cannot help but evoke, to some Russians, another era: "It's just like 1916," says Edvard Radzinsky, who wrote the first biography of Nicholas II using the primary materials first made available during glasnost. "A weak government, an invisible head of state, key issues blotted out by amazing, Byzantine intrigues ... and a hypocritical church looking after its own interests instead of taking an opportunity to unite society." Amid it all, the Romanov cortege will trundle through St. Petersburg this week, finally laying the last tsar and his family to rest. At home at least, if not yet in peace.

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