A royal reburial not fit for a king

Rather than pomp and ceremony, the interment of Russia's last tsar will be a half-hearted affair, finds Phil Reeves
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VERA is a hard-working, middle-aged woman who usually talks a great deal of good sense. Yet when Moscow was ravaged by hurricane-force winds, which killed 10 people, knocked chunks out of the Kremlin's battlements and flattened tens of thousands of trees, she lost it.

The sudden storm last weekend had, in her view, absolutely nothing to do with the collision of hot and cold fronts above the capital, or El Nino, or global warning. No, the root cause lay in the acid-charred bones of the last emperor of Russia, Nicholas II. "Mess around with those remains and that is what you can expect," she said, with a despairing shake of the head, "They should have been left alone."

Risibly superstitious though this is, her sense of general unease about the fate of the Romanovs is far from exceptional here. In just under three weeks, the remains of Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, three of their four daughters, their doctor and three servants are to be reburied in St Petersburg in an event that ought to be a historical milestone, but is beginning to look like an uneasy, furtive, half-hearted fudge.

The Kremlin initially hoped that the ceremony, on the 80th anniversary of the imperial family's death before a Bolshevik firing squad, would instil a sense of national unity in this fractious land. That, and settle a nasty piece of unfinished history. Even last week they were thumping away, somewhat forlornly, at the same drum.

"We are witnesses to a historical event- a monarch being buried in a democratic Russian state," said Viktor Aksyuchits, adviser to Boris Nemstov - the minister who headed the government commission into the tsars' remains. It was "a chance for national accord and repentance"; a chance "to stop the civil war which has been smouldering in Russia since 1917".

It is not turning out like that. Rather, the event is being cobbled together by a reluctant state and an even more unwilling church. Far from unifying the country, it is adding stress to its fault lines.

It was always going to have its awkward moments. You might expect the Queen and Prince Philip to be represented at the service, in St Petersburg's Peter and Paul Cathedral, opposite the Winter Palace. They are, after all, relatives. But, acting on the advice of the Foreign Office, Buckingham Palace has decided not to send anyone. Prince Michael of Kent, a regular visitor to Russia, will attend, but in a private capacity. Britain will be officially represented by its ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood.

The Palace knows the royal family is not universally admired in Russia. Monarchists have yet to forget the role of the Queen's grandfather, George V, in the Romanovs' downfall. Although a first cousin to both Nicholas and Empress Alexandra, the king refused political asylum to the family in 1917, condemning them to exile in Siberia and, eventually, execution.

According to Robert Massie, author of The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, George's decision - which came amid the huge geopolitical upheavals of the First World War - was born of fear that the Romanovs' unpopularity would tarnish the British monarchy. Eighty years on, the king has yet to be forgiven, at least by some. "It remains a disgraceful historical fact," said Vladimir Osipov, head of the monarchist Union for Christian Revival, when asked about it last week.

Others are more conciliatory. "It was the greatest mistake in the whole of royal history," said Ivan Artsishevski, a member of the burial commission in St Petersburg, "But we are on the threshold of the 21st century, and our aim is not to reprimand the British court. Our aim is to restore pride and respect for Russia."

That goal is proving elusive. To be fair, the British royal family's decision to stay away had more to do with matters of contemporary protocol - namely, the highly unusual fact that Boris Yeltsin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II, will also not be attending the imperial family's reburial. In the absence of the head of state, most European royal families are not expected to take part, save 54 members of the divided branches of the Russian imperial family itself.

The Kremlin's reasoning is easy to fathom. It has almost certainly decided that an extravagant spectacle would only deepen the tensions within a country that is grappling with a fiscal crisis, amid a groundswell of resentment over the millions of unpaid workers and prolonged poverty. The sight of President Yeltsin - already dubbed "Tsar Boris" - moving among the world's gilded royals would only make him look even more out of touch. "It shows Russia's shaky state at the moment," said Alexei Pushkov, a Moscow political analyst. "If there had been a higher level of stability, the President would have naturally taken part in this ceremony."

Similar concerns lie behind the decision by Russia's TV channels not to broadcast the whole service live nationwide (they say they plan to run extracts only). It is also why the government says it is spending less than $1m (pounds 600,000) on the event. It has not even declared a national holiday on 17 July: Russia will finally inter its last emperor on a normal working Friday.

But there is another factor. At the heart of the issue stands the conflicted, conservative ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church. The church has long harboured doubts over the authenticity of the Romanov remains, nine skeletons exhumed from a shallow grave near Yekaterinburg in 1991, despite confirmation by the best of Russian, British and American DNA scientists. Its ruling synod has decided that neither the Patriarch nor any bishops can take part. Instead the Romanovs will be buried by a St Petersburg priest in a service which - because the church doesn't acknowledge it is burying the royal family - is inherently ambiguous.

A spokesman told the Independent on Sunday that the ceremony will be "for the souls of those executed in 1918 in Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg", where the Romanovs and their servants were gunned down in the cellar. The site of the house, razed on Moscow's orders by Boris Yeltsin when he was the region's party boss, is now sealed off, after a bombing. It seems the service will not expressly acknowledge the identity of the bones themselves.

Evidence of the church's attempts to muddy the issue abounds. The tombstones which will mark the resting place of the Romanovs will be temporary, and made of wood and plastic, although they will be engraved. The government says these will eventually be replaced by Italian marble gravestones, and claims the use of temporary headstones is commonplace. Yet it looks suspiciously like a concession to the clergy, a tacit admission that the argument over the remains is not yet settled.

But is this plausible? Does the Orthodox Church really believe that the remains may not be those of the Romanovs? It defies belief that Russia's Patriarch Alexy II, a shrewd and pragmatic figure who for years deftly co-existed with the atheist Soviet state, genuinely doubts the findings of the world's best scientists. "There have been no doubts expressed either by the Patriarch or the Synod about the authenticity of the bones," said Viktor Aksyuchits, the government's man.

More probably Alexy II is entwined in church politics. He wants to narrow the rift between the Moscow hierarchy and its former entity in exile, the Orthodox Church Abroad. The latter venerates other Romanov relics, and adamantly refuses to accept the validity of the Yekarinburg remains. If the Patriarch confirms the bones' legitimacy, all hope of reconciliation will be over. He also knows that many of his own churchmen worked closely with the Soviet system and share its mentality, complete with disdain for Russia's tsarist legacy. Significantly, the Russian Orthodox Church has yet to renounce its declaration of support, made in 1927, to the Communists.

While the Patriarch continues to dodge and weave, the issue of the tsar's relics will remain open. More scientific tests - however futile - on the bones will be held. Most of the country, weary of all this, will look the other way. Thus, Russia will fumble the Romanovs into their final grave, in a ceremony not fit for a king.