Maria, mother of the last Tsar, is returned to St Petersburg

Andrew Osborn
Friday 29 September 2006 00:00

A 31-gun salute rippled across St Petersburg's tsarist-era skyline yesterday as Russians reclaimed a part of their history that they were told to forget for 70 years.

In an exercise branded as the righting of a historical injustice, the mother of the last Tsar, Empress-Dowager Maria Fedorovna, was reburied in Russia's former imperial capital 87 years after she fled the country in fear of her life.

Hers is the last body expected to be interred in the cathedral of St Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress barring a restoration of the monarchy - something that seems highly unlikely.

Her original funeral took place in 1928 in Denmark, where she died in exile and was buried, 1,000 miles away from the remains of her husband, Tsar Alexander III, and son, Tsar Nicholas II, in contravention of her final wishes.

Maria Fedorovna chose to live out her final years in Denmark because it was there that she was born as Princess Dagmar in 1847 before marrying into the Russian royal family, converting to the Russian Orthodox Church, and learning Russian.

President Vladimir Putin pushed for her remains to be posthumously repatriated in order to draw a line under one of the country's most tragic episodes - the murder of her son, Russia's last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his young family.

He stepped down in 1917 as revolution swept Russia and was executed by a Bolshevik firing squad with his family in the basement of a merchant's house in Yekaterinburg on 17 July 1918.

Remains thought to be those of the Tsar, his wife and three of his five children were found in 1991 and laid to rest in St Petersburg in 1998. Yesterday they were joined by those of Maria Fedorovna as her last wish was finally granted.

For the Romanovs, a family dynasty that ruled Russia for three centuries, and of which she was part, the ceremony was an emotional point of closure that they hope will foster a renewed sense of respect for an institution whose reputation was destroyed by the Bolsheviks.

For the Kremlin it was the latest in a long line of reburials of tsarist-era figures that are part of Russia's quest to forge itself a new identity that draws on its entire past as opposed to selective highlights. Maria Fedorovna was laid to rest alongside her husband and her son in the Romanovs' family vault.

The ceremony was grand: church bells rang out, a yellow standard emblazoned with the double-headed eagle of the Romanovs fluttered in the breeze, and a choir intoned Orthodox verse. A 31-gun salute thundered across St Petersburg after mourners, including descendants of the Romanovs, European royals, and government officials, had finished sprinkling earth on the Empress-Dowager's coffin.

In life her fate was tragic and she never fully admitted to herself and others that her son and his family had been murdered.

Indeed, she continued writing to him long after his death and, bizarrely, interviewed a number of women who claimed to be Anastasia, her son's murdered daughter, whose remains have never been recovered - stoking rumours that she somehow eluded her Bolshevik executioners.

Maria Fedorovna was famed for her devotion to charitable causes, her general kindness and her stoicism. Before she was evacuated on a British warship in 1919 she allegedly escaped being murdered at the hands of an angry mob of Bolshevik sympathisers by speaking English and ignoring them as they discussed whether to kill her or not.

Prince Michael of Kent, who bears a striking resemblance to her murdered son, Tsar Nicholas II, said her reburial was a moment of catharsis for Russia.

"What happened to them [Nicholas II] was unforgivable and I think the Russian people think that very strongly," he said. "In a sense this [her reburial] is a watershed. I suppose you can say this will be the final act. The mood in Russia has now softened and made a momentous occasion like this much easier than it might have been before."

Vladimir Titov, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, called the reburial "the restoration of justice" while Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II, who presided over the ceremony, said it was a sign that Russia was coming to terms with its brutal past.

"This is another sign," he said "that Russia is overcoming the enmity and divisions caused by the revolution and civil war."

But the Romanovs should not celebrate too soon. Their efforts to "rehabilitate" Nicholas II and have his murder classified as a political killing have so far come to nothing as the Kremlin fears such a move could allow his descendants to reclaim dozens of palaces and country estates formerly owned by the Romanovs.

Nor is support for the restoration of the monarchy strong; a recent poll showed that only nine per cent of Russians favour a return of the Romanovs.

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