Regal pageantry returns to Russia

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MORE than four centuries after Queen Elizabeth I declined an offer of marriage from Ivan the Terrible, a more modest invitation to pay Russia a visit bears fruit next week with the first trip to the country by a reigning English monarch.

Queen Elizabeth II will stay for four days, starting on Monday in Moscow and St Petersburg, the former imperial capital from which her distant cousin, Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, fled in vain with his family in 1917.

It will be the country's re- introduction to regal pageantry - and features two Rolls-Royce Phantom VI limousines and the royal yacht - as well as its first head-on encounter with Fleet Street blitzkrieg.

The scandals afflicting the Royal Family receive only passing mention in the Russian media. The chief British royal-watcher, Viktor Popov, is a tactful former Soviet diplomat. The author of a book on Buckingham Palace, he says he received thanks from the British ambassador in Moscow for his 'warm tone' towards the Queen.

The Royal Family's travails pale next to the antics of Russia's own eccentric monarchist movement. An All-Russia Monarchist Conference, the biggest such gathering since the revolution, ended in disarray on Friday when fringe militants began shooting at each other with gas pistols in Moscow's Hall of Columns.

An opinion poll published last week in Sevodyna newspaper still suggested growing, albeit marginal, enthusiasm for a revival of Russia's own defunct monarchy. Eighteen per cent favour bringing back the tsar. 'The public is interested in Queen Elizabeth because it is bored with our politicians, their vendettas, their brawls,' said Mikhail Poltoranin, a member of the State Duma, who is a feisty political brawler and Kremlin adviser. 'The public wants to see a normal person. They wonder how she manages to keep calm.'

The memory of Russia's murdered monarch remains uncomfortable, however, for both the Queen and her host, President Boris Yeltsin. While Buckingham Palace declined to shelter Nicholas - or Nicky as George V called him - it was Mr Yeltsin who, as Communist Party boss in Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, who presided over the demolition of the Ipatiev House where the royal couple and their five children were murdered in July 1918.

Both sides want to put the matter to rest, though some of Russia's feuding monarchists criticise the visit as premature: 'She should not step on Russian soil when there is is no stability, no monarchy,' said the self-styled Nicholas III, one of a plethora of pretenders.

More welcoming are the supporters of another contender, 13-year-old Grand Duke Georgy Mikhailovich. 'Queen Elizabeth will help revive the spirit of monarchy in Russia,' said Alexander Zakatov, secretary general of the Russian Christian- Monarchist Union.

The Queen will most likely try to avoid Russia's quarrelling tsarists and their various claims, though it was a blood sample from Prince Philip which allowed scientists to expose some of the more outlandish imposters. DNA tests proved the tsar's five children almost certainly all perished in Yekaterinburg.

An address from the Queen to the Russian people, transmitted by Tass news agency at the weekend, spoke not of blood ties but trade links, referring to the first contacts under Queen Elizabeth I after the 'long winter of the Middle Ages'. The end of the Cold War, the message said, offers a parallel: 'After years of division and confrontation, Europe is entering another time of opportunity with peace and prosperity within our reach, provided only that we remember the lessons of the past and learn to live and work together.'

Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, chose the same theme at the opening ceremony yesterday for an exhibition at Moscow's Maly Theatre on Ango-Russian relations. 'We are going back to a natural relationship of partnership and alliance where our two great nations belong,' he said.

Such partnership, though, has its limits. The British Council display says that Ivan IV's 16th-century marriage proposal to Elizabeth I was 'graciously declined'.