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Russia Buries Its Final Czar

July 17, 1998

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) _ Russia’s first president buried Russia’s last emperor Friday in a ceremony that many hoped would reach across eight decades to help the country make peace with its past.

``We want to expiate the sins of our ancestors,″ President Boris Yeltsin said, standing amid incense and gold near the coffins of the slain czar Nicholas II and his family. ``Guilty are those who committed this heinous crime, and those who have been justifying it for decades _ all of us.″

Yeltsin’s strong words echoed through the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, filled with gold-robed priests and black-suited descendants of the exiled Romanov dynasty, who held thin candles during a service they had awaited for many years.

The president’s message also reverberated farther, through the rest of the country, which has been bitterly divided over whether and how to bury the most prominent victims of Russia’s bloody 1917 revolution _ a chapter of history many Russians still hold sacred.

Yeltsin himself wavered over whether to attend the ceremony, first declining before changing his mind at the last minute. Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church decided not to take part.

Yeltsin insisted that it is time for his countrymen to let go of their ideologies and historical grievances.

``We must finish this century, which has become the century of blood and lawlessness for Russia, with repentance and reconciliation,″ he said.

The ceremony was anything but austere. A choir sang the long and melodic Orthodox requiem for the dead, priests filled the pink-and-blue cathedral with clouds of incense, and dozens of ambassadors and other dignitaries held lighted candles, symbolizing prayers for the eternal life of the departing souls.

At one point, Yeltsin could be seen, hand over his chest, bowing over the coffins.

About a dozen Romanov descendants followed the coffins into a small side chapel, and threw handfuls of white sand into the crypt. Among them was Prince Michael of Kent, representing the British royal family, which is closely related to the Romanovs and has been accused of doing too little to prevent their deaths.

Nicholas’ coffin was the last. When it was lowered in, cannons roared into a 10-minute salute that rattled the ground, reverberated off the palaces across the Neva River and startled swallows from their nests in the golden-spired belfry.

The czar was honored with 19 shots _ two less than the traditional 21 because he abdicated the throne.

Rostislav Romanov, whose grandmother was the czar’s sister, called the ceremonies ``beautiful.″

``It’s an end and it’s a beginning,″ he said. ``It means the unfinished business is ended and we can go forward.″

The burial came 80 years to the day after Nicholas II, his family and four attendants were gunned down by Bolshevik zealots who mutilated their bodies and tried to destroy what was left.

Two bodies have never been found _ those of the heir to the throne, Alexei, and his sister Maria.

The church, deeply split about its role in post-Soviet Russia, cited the missing corpses and questions over whether the recovered bones are really those of the royal family in its decision to scale down its participation in the ceremony.

Church leaders left the job of performing the rites to a local priest.

For the better part of the century, Russia’s Communist leaders held that the czar and his family deserved the fate that history had dealt them, and sought a complete break with the country’s royal past. Yeltsin’s statement was aimed at mending the break.

Yeltsin’s call for atonement had a personal element. He was Communist Party chief in Yekaterinburg in 1977 when he ordered officials to raze the Ipatiev House _ the czar’s last refuge and the house in which he and his family were killed. In his autobiography, Yeltsin said he was acting on orders from Moscow, and condemned the act as ``a piece of barbarism.″

In July 1991, the same month he took office as Russia’s first elected president, he ordered officials to exhume the bones, located in a roadside pit outside the city.

For Yeltsin, Friday’s burial brought such events full circle.

``I could not fail to come here,″ he said. ``I must be here both as an individual and as the president.″

Outside the Peter and Paul Fortress, which surrounds the cathedral, a group of about 40 protesters held posters of Nicholas II and banners protesting the ceremonies. Some cited the church’s concerns, others the country’s deep economic and political troubles.

But at least on this day and in this place, such views were in the minority. Most of the few thousand Russians who gathered outside the fortress said they would respond to Yeltsin’s call for atonement.

``I went to church today and prayed for the souls of the royal family,″ said Svetlana Gorovaya, a 43-year-old mechanic who came from her home in southern Russia to say goodbye to the czar. ``There must be peace now.″