NOTE: This article was originally published on 17th March 2016, it was updated twice since, on 4th January 2017 and 7th March 2020. It has been expanded and further updated on 18th June 2021, based on new information from Russian media sources. Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are my own based on my own research and do not reflect those of the Russian Orthodox Church.
For the record, regarding my personal position on the Ekaterinburg remains, I have now and always believed the remains discovered near Ekaterinburg in 1991 and 2007 respectively, are those of Emperor Nicholas II, his wife, their five children, and four faithful retainers. Further, not only did I attend their interment on 17th July 1998 in St. Petersburg, I have visited both Ganina Yama and Porosenkov Log on several occasions, where I have offered prayers and left flowers. Memory Eternal! Вечная Память! – PG
Bones of Contention
On 17th July 1998, the remains of Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, three of their five children: Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and their four faithful retainers Dr. Eugene Botkin, Ivan Kharitonov, Alexei Trupp and Anna Demidova were interred in the Saint Catherine Chapel of the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
Not only was I both privileged and honoured to attend this historic event, I was also hopeful that the burial would bring some closure to what is considered one of the greatest tragedies of 20th century Russian history. Sadly, this was not to be.
The questions raised about the murders of the Russian Imperial family in 1918, the discovery of their remains in the vicinity of Ekaterinburg in 1991 and later those of Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich and Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna in 2007, as well as the recognition or non-recognition of their authenticity, have been unsettling both Russian and Western society ever since.
As a result, many people looked to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) for its verdict on the Ekaterinburg remains. But expressing an objective view required the Church to conduct a thorough examination of their own, of the historical records as well as the investigation materials and the results of scientific inquiries.
Over the course of the last few years, I have published nearly 100 news stories and articles on the subject, which included many first English translations from Russian media sources. Since that time, I have received numerous emails and telephone calls from readers frustrated by the ROC’s position on the Ekaterinburg remains. I cannot stress enough, that I do not represent the Russian Orthodox Church or His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. I do, however, hope that the contents of this article will help provide some answers.
In September of 2015, I published an article on my Royal Russia News blog announcing that the investigation into the Ekaterinburg remains had been reopened by the Russian Orthodox Church. The investigation would include a new series of genetic studies, and a comprehensive review of the evidence accumulated since 1918 into the murders of the last Russian Imperial family. With the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill and at his request to the Investigative Committee a new team of experts was formed. A complex examination would be carried out for the first time – a historical, anthropological and genetic one – one in which the ROC would be involved in all aspects of the investigation.
It is important to note, that had the ROC been invited to participate in the original investigation and forensic tests carried out by Western experts in the early 1990s, that this new investigation might not have been necessary.
Many viewed the 1991 investigation as a propaganda tool by then president Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007), who was anxious to bring closure to the century-long mystery, thus gaining favour with Western nations.
More than 50 descendants of the Romanov dynasty arrived in Russia for the interment in the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. The only descendants absent were Leonida Georgievna (1914-2010), her daughter Maria Vladimirovna (b. 1953) and her son George Mikhailovich (b. 1981), all of whom did not recognize the authenticity of the remains and declined to attend the reburial ceremony.
In the face of skepticism, the late Patriarch Alexei II (1929-2008) was obliged to profess agnosticism over the identity of the bodies, as a way to avoid massive internal rifts within the church.
Many Westerners believed that the ROC were obligated to accept the findings of the original Western led investigation, however, the Moscow Patriarchate were under no obligation to accept their findings, which they believe left a number of unanswered questions and concerns about the Ekaterinburg remains. The ROC wanted to confirm 100% that the remains were authentic, in order for them to be recognized as Holy Relics.
As Archpriest Oleg Mitrov points out in his essay The Investigation Into the Deaths of the Russian Royal Family and Persons of Their Entourage (first English translation published in Sovereign No. 2 Winter 2016, pg. 7-29), in the early 1990s, the Moscow Patriarchate had suggested “a temporary burial, then completing the investigation which, once it produced indisputable results, could stop all discord that this question created in society.” Their request fell on deaf ears, “the voice of our church wasn’t heard at the time,” added Mitrov.
More than 20 years of scientific testing, extensive theological debates, and the enormous public outcry for resolution on the issue failed to deter the Moscow Patriarchate’s decision to resolve the issue. In early January 2016, Bishop Tikhon of Yegoryevsk noted that the “examination of the Ekaterinburg remains may take several years.” This statement was later confirmed during the bishops’ council of the Russian Orthodox Church, when Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia announced at the opening ceremony that “the inquiry will last as long as is necessary in order to establish the truth”.
Non Orthodox Christians must understand the position of the ROC on the matter of both relics and canonization. The Russian Legitimist web site correctly notes: “Any remains of the murdered Imperial Family are ipso facto religious relics, and therefore the internal procedures of the Russian Orthodox Church in completely satisfying itself of their genuineness must be followed. The Russian Orthodox Church wants to address any remaining doubts about the remains, given the fact that, once accepted by the Church as the remains of Emperor Nicholas II and his family, they will become relics venerated by the faithful.”
It was hoped, that given the weight of evidence accumulated by experts in their respective fields since the early 1990s, that the Moscow Patriarchate would not dispute the remains recovered from the two burial sites in Ekaterinburg between 1979 and 2007 for much longer. A number of statements made in the Russian media offered some hope that they are moving in that direction:
“The re-examination of the criminal case is not an attempt to reconsider the evidence received earlier and established facts, but rather represents the necessity of additionally investigating the new facts, which was requested by the Russian Orthodox Church,” Russian Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin told the TASS News Agency (24 September, 2015).
Markin went on to say, “an interdepartmental working group for the study and burial of the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria (discovered in 2007) gave its consent to conducting additional identification studies of the objects previously inaccessible for investigators.” To this end, the investigators exhumed the remains of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Blood samples of Emperor Alexander II, Nicholas II’s grandfather who died in a terrorist act in 1881 and whose blood stains are found on his full-dress uniform, kept in the State Hermitage Museum, have also been taken. Additional DNA samples were extracted from Emperor Alexander III in November 2015, in a bid to conclusively answer questions about the fates of Nicholas II and his family.
Markin’s statements would suggest that the Moscow Patriarchate had already accepted the Ekaterinburg remains as authentic, although no official statement had been issued by the Church.
The Russian Orthodox Church also believed that it was necessary to continue the search for the remains of Nicholas II’s children. Only a small part of the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria had been found [44 pieces of their bones had been discovered at the site], therefore, the search must be continued, said a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. Some experts, however, believe that such a search would be in vain, and that given that any remaining bones would have been dug up and carried off by animals.
The investigation into the criminal case of the murder of the Imperial Family also included an examination of the remains found by Nikolai Sokolov in the 1920s and later transferred to St. Job’s Church in Brussels.
On 27th November 2017, the Sretensky Monastery and Seminary in Moscow hosted the conference “On the Murder of the Royal Family: New Evaluations and Materials. Discussion,” devoted to studying the results of the study of the Ekaterinburg remains.
In early 2018, the Russian media announced that Patriarch Kirill would be participating in the commemorative events marking the 100th anniversary of the Holy Royal Martyrs in Ekaterinburg in 2018. Many believed that Kirill’s attendance was significant, and fueled speculation that the Moscow Patriarchate was on the verge of officially recognizing the Ekaterinburg remains. Once again, this was not to be!
On the eve of the anniversary marking the regicide, the Investigation Committee announced that the remains were “authentic”. Despite the announcement, the ROC remained silent. The commemoration could have been a great and solemn moment of truth, a time to reflect on the passage from one era of Russia’s tragic history to another. Many (myself included) were hopeful that both the examination and investigation would conclude before the 2018 centenary.
Sadly, the 100th anniversary of the Romanovs’ deaths passed with little notice in Russia. The Russian government ignored the anniversary, as it surprisingly did the year before, when Russia marked the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution. None of the prominent state museums or venues hosted events to mark the anniversary. The few exhibitions and other events organized were tellingly modest.
The most significant event, took place on the night of 16/17 July 2018, when more than 100,000 people from across Russia, and around the world gathered at the Church on the Blood in Ekaterinburg for the Patriarchal Liturgy, followed by a Cross Procession to the Monastery of the Holy Royal Martyrs at Ganina Yama, a journey of 21 km. Porosenkov Log, where the Imperial Family’s remains were discovered was not included in the Cross Procession.
The Fate of the Ekaterinburg Remains
In the summer of 2000, the Moscow Patriarchate canonized Nicholas II, his wife, and five children as Royal Passion-Bearers. [Nicholas II, his wife, and five children were canonized as martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) in 1981] The ROC’s official recognition of the Ekaterinburg remains would result in an elaborate glorification ceremony headed by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia.
Many people continue to ask when the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei and his sister, Grand Duchess Maria will be interred with those of the rest of their family in the Saint Catherine Chapel of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. The ROC’s recognition of the Ekaterinburg remains would make this highly unlikely for a number of reasons.
Both the Saint Catherine Chapel and the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral are currently museums under the administration of the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg, in which visitors must pay an admission fee to gain entry to view the Romanov tombs as a tourist attraction. This is something that the ROC would vehemently oppose, and rightly so!
It seems highly likely that the remains of Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, Tsesarevich Alexei, and their four faithful retainers would be reinterred in another church. It is quite possible that a new church would be constructed in their honour, one which would allow Orthodox Christians to enter freely to venerate the Holy relics. During the past few years, there has been some speculation in the Russian media that such a church would be constructed in Ekaterinburg – possibly Porosenkov Log, where their remains were originally discovered in 1991 and 2007 respectively.
It is interesting to add, that one unconfirmed report claims that the remains of the last Imperial Family are no longer entombed in the St. Catherine Chapel of the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral. According to the report when their remains were exhumed for further testing by the new ROC commission a few years back, they were never returned to the tomb. It is believed that the Ekaterinburg remains are now in the possession of the ROC, in the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow, where the remains of Tsesarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria have been since 2015.
If there is any truth to this rumour, it only adds further speculation that the ROC have no plans to rebury the entire Imperial Family in the St. Catherine Chapel.
Should the ROC recognize the remains of the Imperial Family as Holy Relics, they cannot be returned to their tomb in St. Catherine’s Chapel, as relics cannot be returned to the earth. They must be placed in reliquaries above ground which allows the faithful to venerate them. This would be one very important reason why their remains would be interred in a new cathedral named in their honour.
It is important to add that by accepting the remains as authentic, the ROC will be forced to acknowledge that for more than 100 years, they were wrong. This in itself may be perceived by many as a great embarrassment and humiliation to the church.
Will the Imperial Family be reinterred in Ekaterinburg?
A number of rumours have circulated in the Russian media over the past few years that once the ROC have officially recognized the remains, that all of the members of the Imperial Family will be interred in an existing or a new cathedral in or near Ekaterinburg.
For some, one option would be the Church on the Blood, built on the site of the former Ipatiev House, where the Imperial Family met their martyrdom. For others, another possible option would be a new cathedral constructed at Porosenkov Log, where the Imperial Family’s remains were discovered by two amateur archaeologists in 1978.
It is interesting to note that in March 2016, the Ministry of Culture of the Sverdlovsk Region reported that if the ROC requests the transfer of the territory in and around Porosyonkov Log (added to the cultural heritage list in 2014), would be designated as sacred land and transferred to the ROC, where a memorial and monastery, similar to that at Ganina Yama would be constructed. This in itself suggests that perhaps the ROC has already come to a decision on the authenticity of the remains, and were making preparations.
There is also the possibility that the reconstruction of St. Catherine’s Cathedral (timed to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the founding of Ekaterinburg in 2023) is being considered?
While some may scoff at the idea of interring the remains of the Imperial Family in Ekaterinburg, it seems only logical that their remains should be interred in the place in which they met their death and martyrdom on 17th July 1918 or the final resting place where their remains were recovered.
Once a bastion of Bolshevism, Ekaterinburg has slowly shed its status as the “capital of atheism”. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Urals have experienced a revival of faith, with Ekaterinburg at the the center of Orthodox Russia in the Urals. It should also be noted, that Ekaterinburg has done more to honour Nicholas II and his family than any other city in Russia.
“Ekaterinburg was the last capital of the Russian Empire”
The Ural city of Ekaterinburg occupies an important place in the modern spiritual life of Russia. This conclusion was reached by Russian historian Peter Multatuli following the results of the International Festival of Orthodox Culture Tsar’s Days 2019. The historian is recognized as one of Russia’s leading authorities on the life and reign of Nicholas II, having published numerous books, articles, and a popular public speaker.
“On a spiritual level, Ekaterinburg is the last capital of the Russian Empire, because the residence of the Sovereign was always considered the capital in Russia. Peter the Great never officially transferred the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, but since he lived there, it was the capital,” said Multatuli.
He noted that in 1918, for 78 days, Emperor Nicholas II and his family lived in Ekaterinburg, and that is why the Ural capital can be considered the last capital of the Russian Empire. [It is important to note that many historians – myself included – firmly believe that the Tsar’s signing of the instrument of abdication, his status as Tsar remained inviolate and unassailable – PG]
“Petrograd and Moscow to one degree or another welcomed his overthrow, and they bear a greater responsibility in this than any other Russian city. No matter what anyone says, it was Ekaterinburg that served as the last Imperial residence, which, according to God’s special plan, became the Royal Golgotha,” added Multatuli.
According to him, in the near future, Ekaterinburg will play a great role in the history of Russia, because “the city named after St. Catherine and becoming the Royal Golgotha will be the city of Russian resurrection.”
The world awaits closure by the ROC
On 17th June 2021, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church met at Danilov Monastery in Moscow under the chairmanship of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. Among the many decisions made by the Synod, it was resolved to refer the results of the extensive examinations carried out on the remains in recent years to the upcoming Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, which will meet in Moscow in November of this year.
The Synod examined the report from His Eminence Metropolitan Tikhon of Pskov and Porkhov on the genetic examinations of the remains, as well as the information provided by the Investigative Committee of Russia on the various examinations (molecular-genetic, physical-chemical, trace evidence, ballistic, handwriting, historical-archival, soil science, forensic, anthropological studies, and more) appointed as part of the investigation of the criminal case of the murder of the Royal Family.
The experts have announced on more than one occasion that their examinations definitively prove that the remains belong to the Royal Martyrs. In an interview last July, senior investigator Marina Molodtsova repeated that the examinations have verified the authenticity of the remains, though investigations were continuing in order to “eliminate the slightest doubt.”
In accordance with the instructions of the Bishops’ Councils of 2016 and 2017, the Synod decided to publish information on the results of the examinations after their completion and to submit the results of the examinations for consideration by the next Bishops’ Council.
For more information about the this highly contentious issue, please refer to my book Bones of Contention: The Russian Orthodox Church and the Ekaterinburg Remains, published in 2020
© Paul Gilbert. 18 June 2021