Royal nostalgia blossoms for the murdered tsar

Steve Crawshaw in Ekaterinburg finds a city remembering a lost empire

It all happened three-quarters of a century ago. But these days fresh roses and gladioli are regularly laid at the spot. Bulldozers have been clearing the site on Ascension Avenue. The skeleton of a wooden church is beginning to be erected. In the city where they died, Russia's former imperial rulers are being remembered once more.

Ekaterinburg - until a few years ago the closed Soviet city of Sverdlovsk - is famous for its connections with two sets of Russian rulers. In recent decades it was Boris Yeltsin's power-base. Most famously of all, however, it was in a house on this spot that Tsar Nicholas II and his family were shot in July 1918.

The Communists later used the building - known as Ipatiev House, after the merchant who had built it - as an educational centre. But this political fumigation was not enough. Visitors continued to come to pay homage, even in the Brezhnev years. Eventually the authorities decided enough was enough. Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, asked the Politburo to authorise the destruction of the building. In 1977 Mr Yeltsin, the Communist Party boss in the region, duly arranged for it to disappear.

In the late 1980s, as taboos began to be chipped away, Ipatiev House began to be discussed once more. But it was not until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that public nostalgia was seriously revived.

Suddenly the fate of Nicholas II, the Empress Alexandra and their five children was treated with enormous reverence. The plaque at the site of Ipatiev House describes how the family was "villainously killed".

Now a tiny wooden chapel stands beside the church building-site. It is crammed with newly-executed paintings of the family. The chapel's warden talks of their saintliness in hushed tones. The wooden church being erected is itself only to be temporary: it is to be replaced by a brick Church of the Blood of All the Saints.

There is no sign that interest in the royal family is dying. Russian newspapers last week described as "sensational" the news from the United States that the bodies - buried near Ekaterinburg and exhumed a few years ago - had finally been established beyond all possible doubt as those of members of the family.

Meanwhile, the nostalgia for tsarist times is often combined with an insistence that others were to blame for everything that went wrong in Russia after 1917. A magazine on sale in the chapel emphasises that "persons of Jewish nationality" were "to one degree or another" responsible for the murders. In other words, Russians were not perpetrators of Communist brutality but innocent victims. It is a popular view. In Russia these days you can buy a newspaper called Black Hundreds, named after an organisation that organised pogroms in tsarist times. Unsurprisingly, Black Hundreds also argues that all Russia's woes should be blamed on the Jews.

For some, all the fuss about the tsars seems irrelevant today. But the nostalgia can sometimes be found in surprising quarters. Mikhail Legeyev, a geology student, is visiting Ekaterinburg from St Petersburg. "Of course it's good that they are building this church in memory.'' And as for the tsars? "I think it was a good system. Why not?"

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