PHOTO: remains of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, Ekaterinburg 1998
In 2018, the centenary of the murder of Russia’s last tsar reignited a long-running conflict between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) over what to do with the remains of the murdered Russian Imperial Family.
On the night of 16/17 July 2018, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’, led a cross procession in Ekaterinburg marking 100 years since the Bolsheviks shot dead Tsar Nicholas II, his family and four faithful retainers.
But the ROC — dominated by hard-liners — still remains divided over the authenticity of the remains of the family, whose members were all canonized by the Moscow Patriarchate on 20 August 2000 [Nicholas II and his family were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia on 1 November 1981].
Sadly, the Russian state failed to make any official commemorations of what is surely one of the darkest pages in 20th century Russian history. It was not until the following year, on 17th July 2019, that Russia’s State Duma for the first time observed a minute of silence in memory of the last Russian emperor Nicholas II and all those killed in the Civil War (1917-1922).
In 1998, then-president Boris Yeltsin’s government buried bone fragments, first found in 1979, that were identified as those of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra Feodorovna and three of their daughters: Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia. The burial, attended by more than 50 Romanov descendants, took place in St. Catherine’s Chapel [a side chapel in the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral] in St. Petersburg. But 23 years later, the ROC still refuses to accept DNA tests confirming their authenticity.
The ROC also does not recognize the remains of the tsar’s other children Alexei and Maria, whose bodies were separated from the others and found in 2007. The government has failed to reach an agreement with the ROC on burying them. For years, the boxes containing 44 bone fragments remained on dusty shelves in the Russian State Archives. In December 2015, their remains were transferred to the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow, where they remain to this day.
The ROC maintains that the Bolsheviks put the burnt bodies of their 11 victims in a pit in a forest in the Urals region, where the ROC has built a large monastery complex: the Monastery of the Holy Royal Martyrs at Ganina Yama.
In 1998, the late Patriarch Alexei II (1929-2008) snubbed a state funeral for Nicholas II’s bones in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. He sent a bishop to bury them as “unknown remains” instead.
Officially, the Patriarchate said there was not enough evidence to accept DNA test results and accused the government of sidelining the Church.
PHOTO: An unidentified specialist places the skull of Nicholas II in a coffin, on 15th July 1998, in Ekaterinburg
“Nobody really knows what happened because everyone who was involved is no longer here,” said Ksenia Luchenko, an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church, commenting on the dispute.
She speculates that tensions could stem from a “personal conflict” between the ROC and state officials.
Liberal-leaning priest Andrei Kurayev noted that the ROC opted to believe a version of the killings favoured by anti-Bolshevik forces during the Civil War in the wake of the revolution.
“Over 20 years, it grew into a huge conspiracy theory,” Luchenko said.
One version says that Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin kept Nicholas II’s head in his office, another that the tsar’s youngest children, Alexei and Maria, somehow survived and lived abroad.
Tikhon Shevkunov — the senior cleric put in charge of the ROC investigation who is reportedly close to President Vladimir Putin — raised the possibility of a “ritual killing,” implying that Jews murdered the ex-tsar. He denied anti-Semitism.
Father Kurayev said such interpretations are common inside a Church now dominated by ultra-conservatives.
“Church circles that had good relations with science were sidelined after the Pussy Riot scandal” in 2012, he said, referring to Russia’s jailing of two punk activists over an anti-Putin stunt in a Moscow church.
The case was a huge boost for the ROC, and its radical wing has been growing stronger “by the day” since, said Kurayev.
Patriarch Kirill is “scared” of recognizing the remains, fearing a backlash from ultra-conservatives, many of whom have not forgiven him for shaking hands with Pope Francis in 2016, Kurayev said.
Church issues — including the question of Nicholas II’s remains — have become “politicized” under Patriarch Kirill, said Roman Lunkin, a religion expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In 2017, “Matilda,” a Russian feature film about Nicholas’s pre-marital love affair with a ballerina, sparked a violent backlash from radical Orthodox activists.
PHOTO: Paul Gilbert (far right) joins 50 Romanov descendants, at the funeral of Nicholas II, in St. Petersburg on 17th July 1998
“It showed that Nicholas II is a figure who can divide Orthodox society,” something the Patriarch wants to avoid, Lunkin said.
Luchenko said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “less interested” in burying the ex-imperial family’s remains while his predecessor Yeltsin saw it as “personal repentance.”
Putin “does not worship Nicholas II. His heroes are Alexander III and Alexander Nevsky,” she said, referring to Nicholas II’s father and a 13th-century leader.
Nonetheless, she called the dispute an “uncomfortable situation” for Putin, who has positioned himself as a close ally of the ROC.
“It somehow frustrates (the Kremlin),” she said, adding that authorities want to “draw a line under this situation.”
In 2015, at the Church’s request, Russia reopened its criminal investigation into the remains of the Imperial Family, which included the exhumation of the remains of Emperor Alexander III.
Ahead of the centenary in 2018, some Russian newspapers were asking when Patriarch Kirill would finally recognize the remains.
On the eve of the centenary of the regicide, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation concluded that the so-called Ekaterinburg Remains, where indeed those of Nicholas II, his family and their retainers.
But six years on, the ROC have remain silent. “The ROC has not formulated a position on the results of the investigation,” Patriarch Kirill said.
Father Kurayev accused the Church of not wanting to make the results public, suggesting they match previous tests.
“They made a mistake with the science and now they are reluctant to take a step back,” he concluded.
© Paul Gilbert. 6 April 2021