A man holds an icon next to a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II during a pro-Tsarist rally in St. Petersburg.
► A century ago, on July 16-17, 1918, the Bolsheviks executed the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. How is this event being commemorated in today’s Russia? Maria Lipman describes the circumstances of the assassination and speaks with Aleksey Makarkin, vice-president of the Center of Political Technologies (Russia), about the reasons for the Russian Orthodox Church’s stance on the issue, relations between the Church and the state in today’s Russia, and the various constituencies of believers.
By early 1917, Russia had suffered a series of defeats in WWI. Popular unrest was sweeping the country. Riots, antiwar rallies, and workers’ strikes were ubiquitous. And in February, a revolution put an end to the Romanov empire. The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, abdicated the throne in early March, was promptly arrested by the Provisional government, and confined to a palace near St. Petersburg. In August, he was transferred to the city of Tobolsk in western Siberia. Two months later the Bolsheviks seized power and the resistance of their adversaries, collectively referred to as the White Movement, plunged Russia into a long and bloody Civil War. In spring 2018, the Red leaders ordered the transfer of the emperor and his family to Yekaterinburg. Soon, however, the Reds were retreating all over Russia, and the Whites approached Yekaterinburg. Faced with the risk of the Whites liberating the royal captives, the Bolsheviks executed the Tsar and his family on the night of July 16, 1918.
The execution was not only exceptionally brutal, it was also terribly messy. The Tsar, his wife, children, and a few of their servants, were gathered in a room and the verdict was read out to them. Almost instantly the soldiers opened fire. Crammed together in a small space, they could not aim properly and had to finish off the victims with their bayonets. The next task the executioners faced was to get rid of the bodies. They tried first to burn them, then dissolve them with acid, but failed to destroy the bodies completely. So, they frantically looked for a secret place to bury what was left.
These and many other details were documented by Nikolay Sokolov, who conducted an investigation on the order of Admiral Kolchak, leader of the White movement, immediately after the Whites took Yekaterinburg. But then the Reds began to prevail, and by the early 1920s, the Whites had been fully defeated. Kolchak, along with other White commanders, was executed, but Sokolov managed to flee abroad and take the materials from his investigation with him.
In the Soviet Union, the circumstances and even the very fact of the execution of the Romanovs were not publicly discussed. While the demise of the аncien régime became the founding myth of the Soviet state and the main national holiday, the brutal murder of the august children was hardly a cause for pride.
“The Russian Orthodox Church canonized Emperor Nicholas II, his wife, Empress Alexandra, and their five children as strastoterptsy (passion-bearers), or martyrs, but it has always refused to recognize the authenticity of the remains, referring to them as “the Yekaterinburg remains.”
It was only in 1991, when the Communist regime collapsed, that the Russian government opened a new investigation. The remains of all but two members of the royal family were found. DNA and other examinations were conducted, and in 1998 a special government commission announced that the remains had been identified as belonging to the Romanov family. They were buried in a solemn ceremony, attended by President Boris Yeltsin, in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg – the burial place of earlier rulers of the Romanov dynasty.
Soon afterward, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Emperor Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra, and their five children as strastoterptsy (passion-bearers), or martyrs, but it has always refused to recognize the authenticity of the remains, referring to them as “the Yekaterinburg remains.”
In 2007, the remains of the two missing bodies, Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria, were discovered. Various scientific examinations confirmed that they were indeed the son and daughter of Nicholas II, but the Church was not convinced. So the remains were stored in the State Archive for several years and then moved to the Moscow Novospassky Monastery under the auspices of the Church. The approaching centenary of the execution on July 16-17 2018 could be an appropriate occasion to draw a line under the authenticity dispute and bury the remains of Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria with the other royals in the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
In the words of Sergey Mironenko, a Russian archivist, and historian who has done a great deal of work on the history of the execution, this would be “a humane tribute to the memory of the victims of the Bolshevik Revolution.” The Kremlin may also be eager to reconcile the discord and bury the royal remains next to those of their ancestors. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly emphasized the need for “reconciliation” when speaking about the Bolshevik revolution and the collapse of the Russian empire and has shown respect for earlier monarchs. In recent years, he has attended the inauguration of new statues to several rulers of the Romanov dynasty. But the Church has remained intractable and demands that more examinations be conducted.
“The Kremlin will most likely avoid commemorating the centenary of the Tsar’s execution just as it did last year for the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution.”
On July 9, about two weeks after my conversation with Aleksey Makarkin (below) Vladimir Legoida, the official spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church finally made a statement that the Church would not recognize the authenticity of the remains in time for the centenary of the execution. The burial of the remains of the two Romanov children is apparently impossible without formal recognition by the Church that the “Yekaterinburg remains” are indeed those of the Romanovs family. Yeltsin could have done it in 1998, but Putin is apparently unwilling to disappoint the Church. And he chose not to be in Russia on the dates that mark the centenary of the assassination: on , Putin will be meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Finland. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church has officially announced that Patriarch Kirill will take part in the annual sacred procession to Yekaterinburg sites associated with the execution.
The Kremlin will most likely avoid commemorating the centenary of the Tsar’s execution just as it did last year for the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution, when it left the stage to those (from the Communists who celebrated the Revolution to the Church that condemned it) who sought to convey their ideological messages to the public. It was hardly a scene of reconciliation with the past that Putin likes to talk about.
Pilgrims at Ganina Yama (Ganya’s Pit) where the remains were originally (mistakenly) located.
Maria Lipman: Is it your impression, Aleksey, that the authenticity of the royal family remains will not be recognized in time for the 100th anniversary of the execution?
Aleksey Makarkin: The government would like for the authenticity of the royal family remains to be recognized in time for the centenary, so that the remains of Prince Alexey and Grand Duchess Maria can be buried alongside them in the Peter and Paul Cathedral. This would be a symbolic act signifying the end of the Civil War, of reconciliation, etc. However, there are several problems involved here. To begin with, there is no reconciliation. For example, a group of communists in Irkutsk has recently filed a suit demanding that the monument to Admiral Kolchak erected in 2004 be torn down. The court dismissed their case. At around the same time in St. Petersburg, a Kolchak memorial plaque was dismantled, following a court ruling. Both suits drew on the fact that Kolchak, unlike other figures of the White movement, had not been rehabilitated. Formally speaking, he is still a criminal. So as we see, emotions are still raw even though it has been almost a hundred years since the Civil War. For some, the “White-Red” division still exists and cannot be reconciled by any symbolic acts.
“Emotions are still raw even though it has been almost a hundred years since the Civil War.”
Secondly, in order for the remains of Prince Alexey and Grand Duchess Maria to be buried next to the other Romanovs, the so-called “Yekaterinburg remains” have to be identified as the remains of the royal family. Numerous teams of professional experts certified that the remains were authentic as far back as the 1990s, but the Russian Orthodox Church never recognized that they were indeed the remains of the Romanov family. More recently, even more precise examinations based on state-of-the-art technologies have provided additional evidence for the authenticity of the remains. In general, however, even 20 years ago it was clear that the remains were authentic.
Lipman: Why won’t the Church recognize that these are the remains of the Romanovs?
Makarkin: There is a large number of clergy and laymen within the Church who are convinced that the remains are fake. The problem is that neither the Bishops’ Council nor even the Patriarch have the authority over the final say – unlike the Catholic Church, which draws on Papal Infallibility as it applies to the Pope’s pronouncements on theological issues.
Lipman: The Bishops’ Council held in the fall of 2017, contrary to expectations, failed to reach a conclusion on the authenticity…
President Yeltsin at the burial ceremony of the royal remains in the St. Petersburg Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998.
Makarkin: That is correct. The bishops said they needed more time to consider and to wait for the results of all the expert examinations. But even if the Patriarch says that the remains are authentic, and the Bishops’ Council confirms this based on the results of yet one more examination, will this be mandatory for all believers? Will they accept it? Many probably won’t.
Lipman: Why not?
Makarkin: Because from the standpoint of many believers these remains simply could not have been discovered during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, with Boris Nemtsov, then his first deputy prime minister, as the head of the government commission entrusted with the identification of the remains. This constituency believes that the truth about the remains could only have been revealed to an Orthodox monarch, or at least to an Orthodox president, whose course was based on Orthodox Christianity – but certainly not to democratic politicians.
Besides, as soon as the government made its first announcement that the remains had been found, many Church figures, both clergymen, and laymen, declared that they were fake. So should they now admit that Yeltsin and Nemtsov were right, and the Church figures and pious activists were wrong?!
Lipman: Why are they so intractable?
Makarkin: For the vast majority in Russia, this issue is insignificant. People, in general, are not very concerned about history. But there is a phenomenon of practicing believers, that is, people who attend church at least once a month. They constitute a small minority. According to a Levada Center survey in 2013, about 14 percent in Russia attend a religious service at least once a month. This number, of course, includes not just Orthodox Christians, but also Muslims and other denominations. (Those who attend church more frequently are an even smaller minority). Among those 14 percent, the proportion of those who care strongly whether the remains are indeed the holy relics of the Romanovs family is much higher. [Since the executed members of the royal family were canonized by the Russian Orthodoх Church, their remains should be treated as holy relics in the eyes of the Church. -ML] The more frequently one attends, the more important this issue becomes.
“From the standpoint of many believers these remains simply could not have been discovered during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, with Boris Nemtsov, then his first deputy prime minister, as the head of the government commission entrusted with the identification of the remains.”
Of course, practicing believers are not all alike, and not all of them are reactionaries. But there are still certain important groups for whom this is a highly significant issue. These people cannot, under current conditions, accept that the remains are indeed the relics of the Romanovs, the holy martyrs.
Lipman: Who are these people?
Makarkin: They can be classified into several groups. The first is made up of the “old” believers, those who came to the church even before perestroika. Some members of this group share the traditional “internal” antisemitism inherent in the Russian Orthodox Church.
One of the earlier circulating versions of the execution of Nicholas II was that the Tsar and his family had been killed by Jews for their ritual sacrifice – a version related to the ancient anti-Semitic allegation known as the “blood libel.” People in this category see Yeltsin’s government as “Jewish” – because it was pro-Western and liberal. And since the identification and burial of the remains in the Peter and Paul Cathedral were conducted under the aegis of that government, this constituency simply cannot accept their authenticity.
Another group includes those who joined the Church in the late 1980s- early 90s – of course, also not all, but only part of them – the ones who took very hard the disintegration of the USSR. For them, joining the Church was, in a sense, a substitute for their membership in the Communist Party or the Komsomol, etc. They shared an imperial attitude, and since the Soviet government and Communism had failed, they thought, let’s see if Orthodox Christianity can do better. This is the origin of the current “military-patriotic Orthodoxy,” which focuses, first and foremost, on the patriotic role of the Church. These people were radical opponents of the Russian government of the 1990s – because of the shock they had experienced when they lost their habitual lifestyle, their habitual employment, their great country and international prestige… they joined the Church simply because they sought consolation. An important part of this group consists of retired military officers whose lives, dreams, their very country, had all crashed, and so later they found themselves in the role of Orthodox activists. To them, anything that stemmed from Yeltsin and his team was unacceptable.
Nikolay Sokolov, who investigated the execution in 1918 on Kolchak’s order, was an Orthodox Christian, a conservative, and a monarchist. Sokolov located the site where the bodies were first taken to be destroyed in Ganina Yama [Ganya’s Pit]. It turned out later, however, that Ganina Yama was just one of the places associated with the execution of the Tsar’s family. The executioners meant to get rid of the bodies there, but they failed and moved the bodies elsewhere, to a place called Porosenkov Log [Piglet’s Ravine] and buried them there. This raises two questions: first, how is it possible for the Orthodox investigator, Sokolov, to have been mistaken and for today’s experts, as well as the experts of the 1990s, to be right?! And there is also another issue: the monastery built on the Ganina Yama site in 2001 has since become a place of pilgrimage. [Patriarch Kirill will lead this year’s sacred procession there after celebrating a liturgy in Yekaterinburg. -ML] Huge numbers of pilgrims come to the site. What should be done with the pilgrimage now? This pilgrimage has become a religious tradition, a tradition associated with miracles, on top of that. And in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, there have been no miracles. Meanwhile, for churchgoers, the notion of miracles is of tremendous importance.
The Church hierarchy is in a difficult position. If the top clergy recognizes the authenticity of the remains, they may face an organized opposition or even schism. Especially since, as I have said, the Patriarch does not enjoy unconditional authority. In these circles, the Patriarch is seen as a politician, not as a spiritual authority.
“If the top clergy recognizes the authenticity of the remains, they may face an organized opposition or even schism.”
These people are not convinced by scientific arguments. To them, piety is of much more importance. If a pious person says that scientific arguments regarding the Tsar’s remains are meaningless, then that’s how it is. Besides, it is always possible to find a pious expert. And even if twenty experts tell them that their opinion is wrong, they will find a twenty-first. And if they fail to find a twenty-first, they will become their own authority. And since this is the case, the Church is concerned that it may lead to a serious conflict.
Among those believers whose lives revolve around the church, the proportion who share this intractable attitude is significant. If the Church rejects them, who will be left? Of course, there will still be believers, many of them. But the number of Church activists will significantly decrease. They may distance themselves. Or they may feel offended. And the Church is unwilling to offend this constituency by demonstrating that their opinion is not very important to the Church hierarchy.
Here is a noteworthy episode. Prior to the 2017 Bishops’ Council, a conference on the Tsar’s remains or relics was organized. Tikhon Shevkunov, then an Archimandrite and now a Metropolitan, suddenly raised the issue of “ritual murder.” This was unexpected, but, in fact, was highly meaningful.
For Russian society as a whole, the topic of “ritual murder” is completely irrelevant. Just as, more generally, the topic of relations with Jews is of little, if any, concern. But in the Church, there are people for whom this topic is relevant, and among the constituency of practicing believers, the proportion of such people is relatively high. Archimandrite Tikhon was, in fact, addressing them, his message being: “we take your opinion into account; we’re ready to talk with you; we respect you; and we’re willing to persuade you. And if you have questions regarding the ‘ritual murder,’ we are ready to invite more experts to look seriously into this matter as well.” This means that for the Church, this constituency is an important factor.
So, in the end, what we’re facing is an interesting phenomenon – a discord. For society as a whole, the mention of “ritual murder’ is like a dinosaur suddenly emerging from the depths of history. Yet in the practicing believers’ milieu, it is rather important, and these people are rather important for the Church. It is noteworthy that quite a number of church commentators and columnists point out that the Church does not care about liberals and that if a liberal joins the Church, he should show humility and accept the Church’s teaching. He should not try to stick out, demonstrate his individualism, etc. Meanwhile, conservative groups within the Church are treated with much greater respect, as a buttress and a resource.
Lipman: A recent media publication cited an opinion that the authenticity of the remains is a unique point of radical discord between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state. However, what you are talking about implies that this is an internal discord within the Church, not between the Church and secular authorities.
Makarkin: Yes, I think that is true.
Lipman: Is it fair to say that the government authorities find themselves a hostage, as it were, of this discord?
Makarkin: Yes, the government is also in doubt about whether it should further aggravate the existing discord. The state clearly prefers to avoid irritating the Church or its conservative constituencies.
Lipman: Does this mean that for the state per se the issue of the remains is less relevant?
Makarkin: To the state, the Church is not a partner; the state regards the Church as a resource. But there is also another important aspect involved here: government officials not infrequently turn to the Church as a spiritual institution. They pick their own confessors and look for them among the monks or especially pious clergymen, who are, as a rule, deeply conservative. And if you have a close bond with your confessor, it becomes part of your life, if not the most important one. And your confessor’s opinion about the recognition of the remains becomes relevant to you.
Lipman: You said earlier that neither the Patriarch nor the Bishops’ Council enjoys undisputed authority, but there is an undisputed authority in the secular political realm, right?
Makarkin: You mean the president? Of course, Putin is an authority, but I would question just how “undisputed” his authority is. Of course, the president’s authority has risen dramatically since Crimea was incorporated into the Russian Federation, and this was followed by the confrontation with the West and a sense of the rebirth of Russia as a great power, etc.
“For the church constituency we are talking about, the president is not such an undisputed authority.”
But for the church constituency we are talking about, the president is not such an undisputed authority. They support, of course, the fact that Crimea has been made part of Russia, but they think that the president is not enough of an Orthodox Christian. They are not shouting about it on every corner, but this sense is shared in these circles and sometimes even breaks out into the open.
In the circles close to the Church the perception of the president may vary. Of course, on the one hand, they were pleased to see Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested, but they were displeased when Putin later pardoned him. And they were displeased that Abramovich and other oligarchs were not locked up, too – or that Putin did not ban abortions. A majority in Russia think that abortions are acceptable. But, for the constituency we are talking about, abortion is murder. This is why their perception of Putin varies. There are some things in his policies that they like and some things that they dislike, but, as a whole, they tend to be distanced from, and somewhat suspicious of, Putin. He is an authority for a majority of Russians. So if he says that these are indeed the royal remains, the majority will accept that as a fact. But we are talking about a relatively small group for whom Putin is not an authority, and it is these people that the Church does not want to lose.
Lipman: Putin has repeatedly demonstrated that he is highly interested in history. He attended and spoke at the openings of several monuments to Russian Tsars – Alexander I, Alexander III, and to Stolypin (not a Tsar, but a very important statesman in late imperial Russia). None of these figures has been canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. On the other hand, Nicholas II has been canonized, but no monuments to him have been erected in Moscow. Is it true that Nicholas II holds no attraction for Putin? Perhaps because he was a failure and not an achiever? At any rate, it seems that the problem of the remains has been imposed upon the government by the developments of the post-Communist period?
Makarkin: Putin’s attitude to the Church and its traditions is complicated. Remember what he said about Boris and Gleb? [11th-century Russian princes, who were murdered during internecine wars and promptly canonized as “strastoterptsy” (passion-bearers) for not resisting evil with violence. -ML] As Putin said, “Boris and Gleb are saints, that’s clear. But they gave up without a fight. That cannot serve as an example for us. They lay down and waited to be killed.”
“Putin is, in fact, a secular person, not a practicing believer.”
For Putin, such behavior cannot be a model. He is, in fact, a secular person, not a practicing believer. He respects the Church as part of history, part of tradition. To him, the Church is important in two contexts: as a political structure, a resource, and, on the other hand, as something human, personal. This includes spending time and having conversations with monks and visits to monasteries. I think these are important to him as a kind of pilgrimage.
Yet, a significant number of these “church people” – though they think better of Putin than of Gorbachev or Yeltsin – still do not accept him unquestioningly. They would like to have a Christian Orthodox Tsar or at least an “Orthodox General Franco.” To these people, the president’s opinion does not go unchallenged.
Lipman: Putin must not like being forced to deal with the problem of the remains because of these divisions within the Church.
Makarkin: No, I don’t think he enjoys it. I think he has a sense that the Church has certain problems which may not be solvable today, but this does not mean that they can never be solved. He likes to return to certain themes. So if a problem is postponed, it does not mean that it has been taken off the agenda.
The state may not be concerned about offending those people who frequently attend church services, dislike “aliens” and dream of an Orthodox Christian Tsar in a generalissimo uniform. Their opinion may be of much less interest to the state than to the Church. And yet the government would also like to avoid internal cleavages. (Patriarch) Kirill most likely persuaded the Kremlin that they should not antagonize this group.
The words “No to fake graves” on a wall in St. Petersburg illustrate the controversy around the last Tsar’s remains.
Aleksey Makarkin is the First Vice-President of the Center of Political Technologies. He has cooperated with the Center since 1995 and been a staff member since 2001. In the 1990s he worked for Segodnia Daily as a columnist (and more). He has contributed op-ed columns to a number of Russian media outlets, such as RBC, Moskovsky Komsomolets, and Republic.ru. His professional interests include Russian political history and politics of today, Russian political parties, and religious organizations.
Maria Lipman is a Russian political analyst and commentator. She is Co-Editor of Point & Counterpoint, published by the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES). She was Editor-in-Chief of Counterpoint (2015-18) and the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Pro et Contra (2003-14). Her main research interests include Russian media, state-society relations, and the politics of symbols.
Images credits: Shutterstock; image of the Tsar and his family: Wikimedia.