March 13, 2010

The Russian Church and the Romanov's Remains

Where Some Envision Czar’s End, Church Sees Building Site

March 12, 2010
The New York Times

MOSCOW — Visitors from around the world have turned an isolated ravine in central Russia into a pilgrimage site in recent years. They arrive to gaze at the unadorned earth where the Bolsheviks, in one final act to defile the dynasty that they toppled, are believed to have dumped the remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family in July 1918.

But now the site is being threatened by an unlikely opponent: the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which to this day has not acknowledged that the bones retrieved there over the last two decades are those of the royals.

The church wants to build a large Russian Orthodox cemetery and cathedral at the site, effectively obliterating its historic and archaeological value, according to professionals who have worked at the site and experts on the royal family. The church hopes to begin construction in April, when its leader, Patriarch Kirill I, visits for a groundbreaking for the project, in Yekaterinburg, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains.

The project will not include memorials or other references to the remains because the church does not believe they are genuine, a position that flies in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus based on extensive DNA testing by major laboratories in Russia, Europe and North America.

“The results of our studies provide unequivocal evidence that the remains of Nicholas II and his entire family, including all five children, have been identified,” a team of prominent Russian, American and Canadian researchers wrote last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

After conducting its own inquiry, the United States Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory reached the same conclusion last year.

The church’s seemingly inexplicable stance has bewildered the experts, particularly because the remains have been so closely scrutinized by so many.

But it is a longstanding conflict. In 1998, for example, when the bones of Nicholas and most of his family were interred in the crypt of the czars in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, the church would not endorse the ceremony because of its concerns.

The most recent DNA studies have been aided by a surprising breakthrough. In 2008, investigators came across a blood-stained shirt that Nicholas wore when he was attacked during an attempted assassination in Japan in 1891. The shirt had been stored in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the blood provided samples of his DNA.

Nevertheless, scientists and archaeologists said the church seemed determined to move forward with the project, and that there was little chance of stopping it.

“The church hates these remains and wants to destroy any evidence of them,” said Vladimir Solovyov, one of the Russian government’s most famous criminologists, who has long spearheaded the research into the bones. “It is difficult to understand how, two decades after they were first discovered, the church continues to deny them.”

Mr. Solovyov and other experts said that while bones had been removed from the site it was highly likely that other remains, as well as artifacts related to the royal family, were still buried at the site.

Local officials have declined to impede the project. Under Communism, the church was brutally persecuted, but since the Soviet Union’s fall it has grown increasingly influential, especially at the regional level.

The dispute over the site is an unanticipated twist in the tale of the demise of the Romanov family in the final days of the Russian Revolution.

Bolshevik guards knifed and shot to death the czar, his wife, five children, a doctor and three servants in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow, where they were held after the czar abdicated.

To prevent royalists from discovering the graves and making martyrs of the family, the guards first discarded the mutilated bodies in a mine shaft, then moved them to a ravine off a main road.

The remains lay there untouched for decades. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, it was announced that they had been located.

Church officials immediately expressed skepticism. They questioned why the bones of only 9 people were found at the site, when 11 were killed. The remains of the czar’s son, Aleksei, and one sister were missing.

In 2007, a group of amateurs located the remains of Aleksei and his sister in a separate spot at the site. Recent DNA inquires have confirmed those findings, though there is some debate about whether the sister is Maria or Anastasia.

Church officials nevertheless said questions persisted about whether the bones were authentic, as well as how the Romanov family was killed by the Bolsheviks. They said a church panel was conducting a new inquiry into the evidence.

The issue has become entangled in separate questions about whether the murders of the czar and his family have been adequately examined and whether they were a criminal act or one of political persecution. Church officials said the government had failed to delve properly into those matters.

The church canonized the czar and his family in 2000. Russia’s Supreme Court formally rehabilitated them in 2008, ruling that they were the victims of “unfounded repression.” Citing that decision, family heirs have called upon prosecutors to reopen an inquiry into the murders in order to establish exactly how they were carried out. Prosecutors refused last year, saying that too much time had passed.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for Patriarch Kirill I, said government officials and scientists needed to provide more information about their inquiries.

“Many people still have questions, the crime has not been completely investigated, the case was closed without detailed consideration of all the theories about the guilt or lack of guilt of a number of people,” Father Chaplin said.

“This is what causes many people to have doubts” about the authenticity of the remains, he said.

Scientists said they had disclosed all their work, stressing that recent inquiries had been published in widely respected journals, available on the Internet. They countered that the church’s refusal to acknowledge the remains stems from its resentment over not being asked to take part in the original excavation in the 1990s.

Currently, there are crosses and small memorials at the ravine to mark where bones were found.

Father Chaplin said the early stages of construction would not affect those exact spots.

“It is possible to carry out archaeological excavations quite fast on this territory, on this small part, so that in the future it can be used for the cemetery,” he said.

But Sergei Pogorelov, a government archaeologist who has long worked at the site, said the entire area should remain a preserve. He said it would take many years for archaeologists to ensure that they had examined all the surrounding land.

Mr. Pogorelov accused the church of clinging to its doubt about the bones because it did not want to concede that its suspicions in the 1990s were unwarranted.

“It is very hard for the church to admit its mistakes,” he said.

“This site will be destroyed as a place of any significance,” he said. “This is the history of our country, and it will be ruined.”