Laid to Rest

updated 08/03/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/03/1998 01:00AM

Clouds of incense filled the gilded cathedral as a choir chanted the haunting Russian Orthodox funeral dirge. On July 17, Russian government officials, foreign dignitaries and some 50 exiled members of the Romanov family gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia, to officially bury that country's last monarch, the Romanov dynasty's Czar Nicholas II, 80 years to the day after his murder and subsequent secret burial by Communist revolutionaries. Even the city's notorious climate seemed to respond to the moment. "Two sunny days in St. Petersburg!" exclaimed biographer Edvard Radzinsky, one of more than 300 guests at the hour-long ceremony. "For our people, who long so for miracles, it was a miracle."

Not all Russians would agree. The belated reburial, proposed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin as a national act of contrition for the Romanov massacre, turned out to be a lightning rod for protest. "It is impossible to lie to ourselves by justifying senseless cruelty on political grounds," Yeltsin said at the $800,000 ceremony, where Romanov relatives, including Britain's Prince Michael of Kent, scattered sand over the oak coffins of the former czar, his wife, Alexandra, daughters Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia and four loyal servants who were killed with them in the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg on July 17, 1918. But dozens of government critics boycotted the proceedings, among them unreconstructed Communists and Alexy II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Like many devout Russians, who consider the Romanovs holy martyrs, Alexy challenged the authenticity of the remains—despite exhaustive DNA testing.

All in all, it was a decidedly down beat homecoming for Nicholas, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1868 and raised in the string of lavish palaces that dot the former imperial city. Whether out of opposition or indifference, few ordinary Russians turned out to watch the funeral procession as it passed from St. Petersburg airport to the ornate Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Ancient protocol precluded the burial of this czar in the area of the cathedral reserved just for royals, as his loyal servants—commoners—were being interred with him. And soldiers outside fired only 19 rounds of the traditional 21-gun salute, since the former czar abdicated the throne before his death.

Gentle by nature, Nicholas ascended to the throne in 1894 and quickly proved himself unequal to the task of one-man rule: In 1917, as World War I raged and food riots shook the empire, he reluctantly stepped down, ending three centuries of Romanov rule. For a time, Nicholas, Alexandra and their children—Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and son Alexei, a hemophiliac—lived peacefully under house arrest at their favorite palace outside St. Petersburg. But with the rise to power of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and the outbreak of civil war, the Romanovs were forced into internal exile, ending up in Yekaterinburg. At midnight on July 16, 1918, they were awakened, told to dress quickly and led to a basement room, ostensibly to pose for photographs. Instead, 11 armed men filed into the cramped room and opened fire. Yakov Yurovsky, the Red Army officer in charge, later wrote about the "strange vitality" of the 13-year-old heir, Alexei; it took an entire clip of ammunition to finish him off.

For decades, details of the family's murder remained hidden in Communist party archives in Moscow. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin, Russia's post-Communist leader, allowed the bones to be exhumed and tested for authenticity in 1991. Teams of scientists in the U.S., Britain and Russia compared the remains, which were kept at the Yekaterinburg morgue, with genetic samples collected from England's Prince Philip, who is a great-nephew of Alexandra, and a bloodstained handkerchief once used by Nicholas to bandage a wound after he had been attacked by a sword-wielding man during a tour of Japan in 1892. The remains of Maria and Alexei have yet to be found.

Skeptics continue to question the government-sponsored testing, and the battle over the imperial bones is likely to erupt again in 2000, when the Russian Orthodox Church plans to canonize the Romanovs. Ironically, Yeltsin has tried to put the matter to rest once before. As Communist party boss of Yekaterinburg in 1977, he oversaw the demolition of the house where the royal family was executed to prevent the place from becoming a pilgrimage site. But there he was in St. Petersburg, bowing before Nicholas's coffin. "My God!" said Palm Beach (Fla.) Mayor Paul Romanov Ilyinsky, who attended the funeral. "Seeing Boris Yeltsin with his hand over his heart and a tear in his eye—that's good stuff."

Patrick Rogers
Julia Solovyova in St. Petersburg

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