Out of Russia: Hatred still lingers where Romanovs met their fate

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The Independent Online
YEKATERINBURG - It is a miserable place for a murder: a patch of gravel bordered on one side by stained slabs of concrete facing Ascension Prospekt and on the other by a tangle of weeds and rubbish. Across the road, next to the local headquarters of the Soviet gas monopoly, Gazprom, stands a statue in honour of the Urals Komsomol, the defunct Communist Youth League. It has a stone plinth surmounted by a young man with a banner and a young woman, arms and legs taut with discipline and vigour, striding with terrifying purposefulness towards the precise spot where, on the night of 16 July 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and their family were killed.

It has taken all these 75 years - and samples of blood from Prince Philip and others - to determine, as the Forensic Science Laboratory at Aldermaston did last week, that the murders did indeed take place. There was never much doubt, but this never prevented a long procession of pretenders and cranks from staking a claim to the identity of the victims.

Some riddles remain. Next to the pavement along Ascension Prospekt lies a slab of granite painted, in old Slavonic script, with the names of seven family members. The scientists can account for only five. The bodies of two, including Alexei, the Tsar's haemophiliac son and heir, are still missing.

But what of the murderers? Their identity or at least their cause never admitted of any real doubt , though there have been disputes about whether Lenin himself signed the execution order. With the crime now confirmed by the scientists, though, the question of guilt has somehow become more urgent. This is an altogether murkier territory, inhabited by old demons that no amount of DNA finger-printing or futuristic forensic science can calm. Their sick verdict has already been daubed in thick black paint across the concrete slabs around the murder site: 'Here the Jews Killed the Tsar's Family'. Next to it in slightly smaller letters and in green paint but apparently by the same hand is a second message: 'We will not forgive the Jews'.

A Russian Orthodox cross stands nearby. It is supposed to mark the spot where the royal family perished and is piled at its base with wilting roses, put there by brides for whom a wedding-day visit to this grim place is an essential part of marriage ritual in Yekaterinburg.

Behind the Komsomol zealots across the road broods the Ascension Cathedral. A wooden shed outside sells souvenirs: pictures of the Tsar and his family; monarchist pamphlets and a hagiographic celebration of Grand Duke Georgy Mikhailovich, a pudgy 12-year-old normally resident in Spain but whose pushy mother would like very much for him to be Tsar of Russia. Grainy black and white pictures suggest that, 75 years ago, it may have been a slightly more pleasant place to die. Contemporary accounts, including those of the murderers themselves, remember a blossoming, fragrant garden. On the rubble-strewn site where brides come today then stood the substantial brick and stone house of one N N Ipatiev.

The Romanovs were murdered in his basement, bringing to an end a dynastic line begun three centuries earlier in a monastery by the same name of Ipatiev. The coincidence is one of the many mysteries nurtured by Russian monarchists keen for signs of divine intervention. The Ipatiev house was pulled down in 1977, bulldozed under the supervision of Boris Yeltsin, then local party boss but now deeply regretful for having obeyed orders he insists came from Moscow.

To make amends he helped transfer the land to the eparchy (equivalent of diocese) of Yekaterinburg and Kurgan. A local trading company has built a small wooden building to one side, stuffed with yet more tsarist knick-knacks, and a candle-lit chapel celebrating the Tsar's deeply pious sister. And one day, when the money can be found, there will rise a massive domed memorial, a grand building with a grand name: The Cathedral Monument on Blood in the Name of All Saints on the Land of Russia. Alexei II, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, has declared it must serve as an 'eternal monument to all the victims'.

I doubt, though, it will ever capture the sordid misery of what really happened on this spot and what, because of some hatred such as the anti-Semitic sentiments daubed in black paint, can still happen.