For decades, millions of Russians worshipped Soviet Communism. Now, there is a different kind of reverence – for those who were murdered by the regime. In a damp birch and pine forest outside the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, Prince Michael of Kent yesterday visited the place where his royal relatives, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, were murdered and then unceremoniously buried.
In the Communist era, these places were secret. Now, nobody can do enough to commemorate them. Here in the forest, a monastery is being built; in Yekaterinburg itself, at the site where the family were killed, a huge cathedral is under construction.
Bells rang out as the Prince arrived in the forest clearing, even as the hammering continued at the site of the new monastery, which will include seven traditional pine-log churches commemorating each member of the Romanov family who died.
Nicholas, his wife Alexandra and their five children were shot and bayonetted, together with their servants, in a cellar in Yekaterinburg in July 1918. The bodies were then taken for secret disposal – first in a mineshaft and then under some sleepers near a railway line, where they remained undiscovered for 60 years.
Even after six decades, the subject remained explosive. The Ipatiev house in central Yekaterinburg, where the family was killed, was destroyed by Boris Yeltsin, then the Communist Party leader in the region, in the 1970s, so that it should not become a focus of popular interest or nostalgia.
Alexander Avdonin, a geologist, located the bodies in the forest with the help of a friend in 1979 – but the knowledge was so dangerous that he swore never to reveal the site. Only 10 years later, with the arrival of glasnost, did he tell of the discovery.
Now, those who were once officially reviled are literally saints. In one of the new churches in the forest, an icon of the murdered royals is displayed – complete with haloes.
King George V, Prince Michael's grandfather, was Nicholas II's first cousin; Prince Michael looks so similar that he could almost be his murdered relative's twin.
He has taken an active interest in Russia, and in the fate of his family. It is, however, unclear whether the Prince was impressed by the mysticism that the rebirth of interest in the Tsar's family has now unleashed, including much talk by the local archbishop yesterday of magically altered photographs and miraculous weeping.
Prince Michael is understandably horrified by his relatives' fate – which Buckingham Palace helped to seal by showing an early resentment of asylum-seekers. In 1917, Lloyd George's Cabinet offered asylum to the Tsar's family, a move requested by the provisional government in St Petersburg. The Palace objected, pointing to "all sorts of difficulties" which could arise if the Tsar's family were allowed into Britain, and forced the Cabinet to withdraw the invitation.
The Prince – who speaks fluent if accented Russian, which he learnt in the Army – does not, however, seem eager to be co-opted by the monarchist movement here, which has often been highly nationalist. Nor did he seem obviously enthusiastic about the huge new Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the Spilt Blood, which is now being built on the site of the Ipatiev house.
Certainly, some are unimpressed. Mr Avdonin, who discovered the bones, said: "He [Nicholas II] was modest. He wouldn't allow the cathedral to be built so large. I'm not pleased."
The new reverence for the royals has become almost compulsory, with some remarkable turnarounds. The governor of the region, Eduard Rossel, who was a senior apparatchik before the collapse of Communism, was eager to emphasise to the Princehis enthusiasm for the new cathedral, and told how he personally set aside money for the building from his monthly salary. And Boris Yeltsin, who was responsible for destroying the Ipatiev house, attended the reburial in 1999 of the family bones in the imperial tomb in St Petersburg. The bones were positively identified after comparisons of the DNA with living relatives, including the Duke of Edinburgh.
The woodland site where the bodies were discovered – marked by a simple cross and a set of railway sleepers – includes an official plaque which, though brief, finds room to praise both Mr Rossel and Mr Yeltsin for ensuring that the Tsar and family are now remembered with reverence. Politics in Russia used to be murderously shameless; now, it is merely shameless.Reuse content