Donate to RNS

NEWS FEATURE: Last Russian Czar, Family, on Way to Orthodox Sainthood

c. 2000 Religion News Service YEKATERINBURG, Russia _ On a July night 82 years ago in a private home here, a Bolshevik squad escorted Russia’s last czar, his wife and five children into the cellar and shot them to death. The site of the house, now razed, is known locally as “Russia’s Golgotha.” By most […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

YEKATERINBURG, Russia _ On a July night 82 years ago in a private home here, a Bolshevik squad escorted Russia’s last czar, his wife and five children into the cellar and shot them to death. The site of the house, now razed, is known locally as “Russia’s Golgotha.”

By most accounts, the Romanov family faced months of captivity and ultimately execution with grace and humility. For this exemplary behavior, a Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church meeting in Moscow this month is almost certain to make saints out of Czar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their children, Olga, Tatyana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei.

In the opinion of the church commission recommending canonization, the family deserves sainthood for the Christian way in which they met death, not for the way they ruled the Russian empire.

It is an important distinction. Nicholas was a bungling, reactionary czar who believed in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Alexandra had a deep and peculiar attachment to Rasputin, the frisky mystic from Siberia.

But it is a distinction that may well be lost on the mass of Russian Orthodoxy’s 80 million members, many of whom already venerate Nicholas II as a saint with a special empathy for the problems of a country brutalized by 70 years of Communist Party rule.

“I am convinced that the fate of Russia depends on the recognition of his holiness,” said Marina Smelyanskaya, a 45-year-old Russian Orthodox believer, adding that her prayers to Nicholas II are often answered. “I personally think that the reason for the czar’s sacrifice is so that now, 80 years later, we can repent and begin to build again.”

Like other many other boosters of Nicholas II’s sainthood, Smelyanskaya believes Russia’s last czar was a talented ruler who was purposefully vilified by generations of Soviet historians keen on justifying the 1918 execution. Some supporters of canonization even go so far as to deny that deadly anti-Jewish pogroms took place from 1903 to 1906 and insist the Protocols of the Elders of Zion actually represent a Jewish plan for world domination rather than a fabrication by czarist police.

Because of the focus on the way Nicholas II and family met their deaths, the Russian Orthodox Church commission charged with considering the worthiness of the Romanovs need not deal with less-than-saintly aspects of the last czar, including his anti-Semitism, about which there is little question.

“He personally hated Jews,” said Alexander Lakshin, a Jewish historian in Moscow who specializes in 19th and early 20th century Russian history.

“By upbringing and by thought he was an anti-Semite,” Lakshin added, citing private correspondence between Nicholas II and his mother in which the czar refers to “zhids,” a hateful term for Jews.

Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, is succinct on the topic: “We would rather this not happen.

“It might give the wrong signal to (Christian) believers, especially in rural areas that are led by extreme nationalists,” the rabbi said in a telephone interview. “People may say that if a person was a saint then he can do nothing wrong, so if he was persecuting Jews then he must have been right to do that.”

In Yekaterinburg, that is precisely the thinking of the half-dozen or so monarchists, Cossacks and neo-fascists who gather frequently at the site of the 1918 execution to hawk ideas and souvenirs to the dozens of tourists who visit daily. Although church and city officials plan to construct a $12 million memorial worship complex, the site remains a scraggly plot of land with a black marble cross and a small wooden chapel.

When they are not meeting and greeting tourists, the men gather in the green construction trailer that overlooks the site where archaeologists are sifting through the remains of the house where the Romanovs were killed.

Alexander Vassiliech, 37, is a regular. An earnest man in a rumpled suit jacket, Vassiliech has tremendous faith in Nicholas II’s canonization.

“As soon as they canonize the czar, everything will change, in a spiritual way and, God willing, in a government way, too,” said Vassiliech, a monarchist who makes a living selling small metal trays with the Romanovs’ portrait for 50 rubles ($1.80) each.

Vassiliech grows indignant at the suggestion that Nicholas II’s bloody reign from 1894 to 1917 make him unworthy of sainthood. Rather than debate details, Alexander denies wholesale, for example, that the pogroms ever took place. He has no doubt the execution of the Romanovs was part of a Jewish ritual requiring the sacrifice of Christians.

The men who gather here daily are by no means representative of mainstream thought within Russian Orthodoxy. But, all the same, they function as de facto tour guides and the local hierarch, Bishop Vikenty, who has jurisdiction over the property, tolerates the posting of their anti-Semitic placards.

Father Vladimir Zyazev, the man in charge of building the memorial complex, said the church cannot control what signs are posted on the property. “All different kinds of people hang posters up there and, more often than not, they do it secretly,” he said.

Over a three-day period in July, however, the placards tacked up to a wooden fence near the marble cross remained unmolested. They included a collection of four signs trumpeting various ultranationalist causes along with a screed detailing the Jewish backgrounds of the czar’s executioners.

“In our times any noteworthy place is going to attract extremists and all kinds of people,” said Zyazev, 54, a burly man with striking red hair. “So all we can do is go on with our work.”

In this city of 1.4 million located two time zones east of Moscow, Zyazev acknowledged that some of the extremists’ views are quite widely held. Jews, for example, are held responsible for the execution.

“I can say that many people, Russian Orthodox people, figure it that way _ that it was a ritual murder,” he said, adding he has no personal opinion on the issue. “I can’t say whether it was a ritual murder or not. I know very little about ritual murders and the rituals of other faiths generally.”

Other churches, of course, are also wrestling with Jewish issues. During Lent of this year, Pope John Paul II apologized to the world’s Jews for 2,000 years of Christian hostility. The Russian Orthodox Church is unlikely to take such a step any time soon, said Alexander Verkhovsky, a Moscow scholar of Russian nationalism and the church.

“Our church is not ready to ask forgiveness for anything from anyone,” said Verkhovsky, explaining the Russian Orthodox Church is too conservative and still recovering from Soviet persecution.

All the same, if, as expected, the czarist family is canonized during the Aug. 13-20 Bishops’ Council, repentance will be a central theme. For Smelyanskaya, sainthood for the Romanovs is “the first step” toward Russians generally repenting for the sins of the Soviet regime.

“In principle, the Russian leaders are not repenting,” she said. “We must.”

DEA END BROWN