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Russia seeks to lay history to rest with Romanov bones


By Jill Dougherty
CNN Correspondent

July 17, 1998
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT)

In this story:

A Russian Orthodox priest during a memorial service Thursday for Nicholas II and his family in Yekataterinburg   

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (CNN) -- As Russians lined the streets along St. Isaac's Square on Thursday, watching the funeral cortege of the last Romanov czar pass by, I looked at their faces.

Silent, respectful, but betraying little emotion. Is this what it would have been like 80 years ago, I asked myself, if Nicholas II had been publicly buried soon after he was shot?

At that time, many probably would have cheered that "Bloody Nicholas" was dead at last, that the man whose reign was marked by war and revolution was finally gone.

For many modern-day Russians, Nicholas is an afterthought, not someone a man who hasn't been paid in weeks or months thinks much about.

But politicians, religious leaders and members of the Romanov family are fixated on this burial. And they are very divided.

Past comes to light

No one disputes the brutality of the murders.

In the early hours of July 17, 1918, Bolshevik guards led Nicholas Romanov, his wife Alexandra, their five children and four members of their household staff into a basement of the house where they were being held in Yekaterinburg -- and opened fire.

One of the executioners, years later, told what happened:

"Nicholas had only time to say 'ah,' and he was cut down by a storm of gunfire. One ... two ... three ... but they were not shot to death all at once. It took some time to finish them off."

Their bodies were hastily buried in a secret grave.

Then, 73 years later, a sensational discovery: The bones of nine people, some of them still showing bullet wounds, were exhumed.

But for six and a half years, the bones languished in a laboratory, with an unanswered question: Were they really the remains of the Romanovs?

International experts finally determined the bones were indeed those of Nicholas, Alexandra, three daughters, their doctor, two servants and a cook.

The bodies of daughter Maria and son Aleksey are still missing. Investigators believe they were burned.

Doubts: Official, public and private

Despite the evidence, the Russian Orthodox Church -- anxious to avoid divisions among believers who want to canonize Nicholas as a martyr and saint -- says it still is not 100 percent sure the remains are authentic.

Taking their cue from the church, many Russian politicians declined to attend the burial.

For months, President Boris Yeltsin said he would not take part in the burial ceremony. Behind the scenes, his aides said he was caught in a difficult position, not wanting to alienate the church.

Suddenly, the day before the burial, Yeltsin announced he would go. The president known for abrupt, unexpected -- and populist -- decisions acted true to form.

The extended Romanov family now living abroad is split as well. One branch is boycotting the burial, calling its modest scale a travesty.

The main branch of the family -- some 50 members from Europe and the United States -- traveled to St. Petersburg to bid a final farewell to their relative, Russia's last czar.

Most Russians I have talked with say that regardless of the dispute, it's time to give Nicholas and his family a Christian burial.

Others contend Russia should pay less attention to a czar from the past -- and more to its own suffering citizens of today.

Paying respects, and lessons learned

Just before the caskets of the czar and his family were to arrive Thursday in St. Petersburg, members of the Romanov family gathered in the foyer of the Astoria Hotel. Most of them were elegantly dressed in black.

The head of this branch of the family, Nikolai Romanovich Romanov -- a tall, distinguished man with gray hair and an aquiline nose -- told me that perhaps this burial, which recalls the mistakes of Russia's past, will help it to avoid more mistakes in the future.

And, perhaps, this is the beginning of the end of Russia's bloodstained history.

As they watch the burial of their last czar, 80 years to the day since he was murdered, many Russians may be hoping the same thing.

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