The Last Tsar: Bones of contention over Nicholas's final resting place

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The Independent Online
Preparations have begun in St Petersburg to bury the remains of Russia's last emperor, Nicholas 11, despite ferocious wrangling over the site of his final resting place. The site is kept locked but our Moscow correspondent, Phil Reeves, has been inside.

A shaft of pale winter light stretches through a window down on to a line of oblong concrete blocks inlaid into the floor. It illuminates the place which is now being prepared to receive the remains of Russia's last imperial ruler, burying a painful chunk of history.

The surrounding room, no bigger than a large sitting-room, is being decorated in a style that befits royalty and Orthodoxy. There are blues and golds, cherubs and deities, mouldings and murals. But there is nothing grand about the stark burial spot under the window.

There appear to be five blocks in all, each fitted with metal lifting rings. The body of the son and haemophiliac heir of Nicholas II, Alexei, was not found in the pit of acid-doused bones dug up in a forest outside the Ural city of Yekaterinburg. The remains of one of the tsar's daughters, probably Maria, are also missing. But the bones of Nicholas himself, his wife Alexandra and three daughters, Olga, Tatyana and Anastasia, were recovered. It appears plans are now underway to bury them here, side by side.

Few outsiders have been allowed to see this hushed place, which - if the Romanovs do end up here, as many expect - will become a shrine for Russian monarchists. It is a chapel, just inside the entrance to the traditional tomb of the tsars, the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which stands on an island in the River Neva at St Petersburg.

Visitors regularly come here to inspect the tombs of Peter the Great, Catherine II, and others, including Nicholas II's brother Georgy, who was dug up in 1994 for tests to check the authenticity of the last tsar's bones. They lie in the main cathedral itself, but this particular room has been kept away from prying eyes; its huge wooden double doors are usually locked.

"We are getting ready for the Romanov remains, " said our official guide, Maya Lazutkina, after we had persuaded a police officer to make an exception, and open the chapel doors. "Those people who think that they should be buried somewhere else simply don't know their history. St Petersburg has always been the city of the tsars, and it always will be."

The conviction that the remains should be, and will be, laid to rest here is strongly felt in Russia's former imperial capital, which still smoulders with resentment at the second-class status conferred on it by Communism. History is on their side: most of the tsars lie in the city.

And yet there is a chance that they may be disappointed. A tug-of-war is raging over the remains of Nicholas II, who was shot with his family by a Bolshevik firing squad in July 1918. St Petersburg faces competition from Moscow whose pugnacious mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, would like nothing better than to grab them for his newly reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the banks of the Moscow River. The third bidder is Yekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were executed. It is also lobbying hard, through its regional governor, Eduard Rossel. Anxious to attract visitors to his grim industrial region, he wants the bones to be placed in a church at the spot where the the Romanovs were shot, to be called the Church of the Spilt Blood. After all, he argues, people should be buried where they die.

Ever since they were recovered in 1991, the bones have been the subject of an intense debate over whether they are real and, if so, where they should be kept. After several years of tests - including DNA comparisons with samples from the Duke of Edinburgh, Nicholas's relative - the first issue appears settled.

A Russian government commission considering how and when to bury the Romanovs has declared itself certain that the remains are authentic. Despite this, it has decided to hold two months of further tests to sort and identify the parts. Only after that will it decide on recommendations for a burial place.

The final round of tests has exposed the inter-city wrangling over the bones in all its ugliness. Mr Rossel refused to allow some of the bones to be taken to labs in Moscow from Yekaterinburg, where they were being kept in a morgue, arguing that they were too fragile, and too easily stolen (one of Nicholas's vertebrae has already vanished).

This month he appeared to back down after Boris Yeltsin, the President, intervened, and allowed 150 bones to be sent to the capital by special train. However, scientists in Moscow have - doubtless, to their fury - discovered that the bones they have been sent are not the emperor's. They are either those of one of his servants or unidentified remains.

St Petersburg is watching the debate with haughty distaste. "This issue is very unfortunate," said Ivan Artsishevski, head of the monarchist organisation, the All-World Congress of Compatriots. "We are witnessing the Soviet habit of people thinking only of how they can benefit from the situation."

Complicating matters is the Orthodox Church which, despite Nicholas's dismal record, is considering making him a saint. Were this to happen, his bones would be deemed to have miraculous powers; tradition dictates that they go on display.