Russia's last tsar canonised as an Orthodox martyr

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The Russian Orthodox church yesterday canonised as martyrs the last tsar and his family for bravery when they were executed by a Bolshevik firing squad 82 years ago.

The Russian Orthodox church yesterday canonised as martyrs the last tsar and his family for bravery when they were executed by a Bolshevik firing squad 82 years ago.

The decision by the church's Bishop's Council, meeting in Moscow, crowns a process that led to the lifting of the official silence surrounding the deaths of Nicholas II and his family, and the burial of their remains in St Petersburg beside the other tsars.

The fortunes of the Orthodox church and the Imperial family have enjoyed a revival since the collapse of Communism in 1991. "The Council sanctified as bearers of suffering among a throng of new martyrs and carriers of the faith, the Russian Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, Tsarevitch Alexei, Princesses Olga, Tatyana, Maria and Anastasia," a church statement said yesterday.

But a radio poll carried out by Ekho Moskvy radio showed that Russian society was split on the move: exactly half of the 2,000 respondents opposed the tsar's canonisation, while the other half supported it.

Soviet authorities denied for years that the Imperial family was shot with their doctor and three servants outside Ipatiev House, their prison in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, on 17 July 1918 on the orders of the Bolshevik leaders in Moscow.

Their bodies were burned, doused in acid and buried in a pit outside the city. The building was demolished in 1977 by the local Communist party boss, Boris Yeltsin. But as Russian president, he lifted the veil on their mysterious death by agreeing to the exhumation of their remains for DNA testing.

They were buried in St Petersburg, Russia's Imperial capital, in the presence of European royals amid great pomp in 1998, although the head of the Orthodox church, Patriarch Alexiy II, stayed away because of a dispute over the bones' authenticity.

The remains of Anastasia were never found. Her story inspired books and films, and gave rise to impostors and unsubstantiated claims that the youngest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra was still alive.

The church, bowing to the mounting public pressure in favour of canonising the family, yesterday decided that Nicholas II, his wife and five children would be placed on the lowest rung of the sainthood ladder, as "passion-bearers".

Before the decision was announced, the patriarch said the church had to proceed cautiously, in a society still impregnated by the legacy of atheist Communism. "It is not worth foisting one's opinion about this matter on to anyone else," he told Itar-Tass news agency.

"I propose that we will very cautiously discuss and think about how to handle this complicated question according to God's will, so the discussion and decision do not lead to dangerous divisions among us."

Church officials have recorded miracles associated with the tsar, including icon portraits of him that "weep" beads of fragrant liquid. Such miracles are an important step on the way to being declared a saint.

But historians have a dim view of Nicholas, seen as an ineffectual ruler, uninterested in politics, whose abdication in 1917 is widely seen as paving the way for the Bolshevik revolution and 70 years of Communism. In 1905, he notoriously allowed the St Petersburg city governor to fire on thousands of peaceful demonstrators carrying his portrait.

Members of the church commission said the deeply religious tsar qualified for sainthood for the bravery with which he faced his martyr's death rather than for the achievements of his reign.

The bishops have also approved the names of 860 other martyrs.