St Petersburg beats Moscow in fight for tsar's bones

Years of ecclesiastical debate, secular wrangling and general soul-searching about the fate of the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family drew towards a close yesterday after a Russian government commission recommended that they should be buried in St Petersburg, the former imperial capital.

It said that the burial should take place on 17 July, the 80th anniversary of the family's murder by a Bolshevik firing squad. Although the final decision rests with Boris Yeltsin, he is considered unlikely to overturn the commission's findings, which follow a ferocious tug-of-war over the bones between the leadership of three cities, Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

St Petersburg has long argued that it has the right to the remains as it is the resting place of most of the tsars, including Peter the Great, who built the city, and Catherine II. Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, and three daughters are expected to be buried in a lady chapel at the entrance to the Peter and Paul Cathedral on an island in the River Neva. Work has been under way preparing their tomb for some months.

The decision by the commission, which was appointed by Boris Yeltsin, is a defeat for Moscow's pugnacious and powerful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who was keen to acquire prestigious relics for the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was levelled by Stalin but whose sparkling dome has risen anew on the banks of the Moscow River. Nor will it be welcomed by Yekaterinburg - Boris Yeltsin's former stamping ground, 1,000 miles east of Moscow - which was gunning hard to keep the bones, in the hope of attracting large numbers of Orthodox pilgrims and other sightseers.

The city's case was put by another political heavyweight, the regional governor, Eduard Rossel, who now claims to have found the bones of Nicholas's son, Alexei, and one of his daughters, Maria - remains that were not found when the rest of the acid-decayed Romanov remains were exhumed in 1991. The Yeltsin administration hopes that the burial will help to clarify post-Soviet Russia's relationship to its former monarchy - an ambiguity matched only by their view of Lenin, whose embalmed corpse still lies in Red Square, but whom - to the ire of Communists - President Boris Yeltsin has always wanted to bury.

As Russia struggles to find a new identity, opinions of the Romanovs vary from contempt, to indifference, to reverential awe. Showing little heed for his disastrously inept rule which ended in abdication, the Russian Orthodox Church is discussing canonising Nicholas, but it has said the burial can go ahead before it reaches a decision. The commission, under the reformer Boris Nemtsov, rejected proposals to bury the Romanovs on 1 March, although some regarded the date as apt: it is Orthodoxy's Forgiveness Sunday.

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