Controversy Over Burial Of Czar Divides Russians

Friday event for royal family reveals a nation's struggle for reconciliation.

It was meant to serve as a glorious reconciliation in a country still fractured by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Instead, it has descended into cheap political bickering.

The burial of the remains of Russia's last czar, Nicholas II, and his family tomorrow - exactly 80 years after their execution - was meant to close with style a cold-blooded chapter in history that still makes Russians uncomfortable.

More than six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians are still struggling to come to grips with their history. The newfound ability to publicly discuss issues and the opening of Soviet archives have encouraged Russians to debate its meaning.

Indeed, an upsurge of interest in Russia's recent history has been evident by its considerable coverage in movies, television, and books. The Bolshevik Revolution and the death of Nicholas II mark an important transition from Russia's czarist era to its communist one.

For a large number of citizens, decades of terrifying repression began the day Bolshevik executioners shot Nicholas, his family, and servants without a trial in a cellar in Yekaterinburg. The Russian Orthodox Church considers him a martyr of the 1917 Revolution.

For others, especially Communists, the czar was a decadent leader who plunged the country into needless war and does not deserve to be buried with dignity.

But political wrangling and petty jealousies mean that instead of pomp and ceremony worthy of an emperor, the burial intended to unite church and state will be a low-key affair boycotted by practically anybody who's anyone.

"We should have done it properly or not at all," says Stanislav Tyutyukin, director of the Revolutionary History Project at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

"Instead of a quiet and decent termination of this issue, games are being played around the funeral. This has transformed the whole thing into an indecent farce," he says.

Perhaps most insulting to organizers is the litany of personalities who are boycotting the event. They include the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, President Boris Yeltsin, and a leading Romanov descendant.

Church Patriarch Alexei II says he will not attend because it has not been proven that the bones are 100 percent authentic - despite DNA tests that scientists insist are trustworthy. Church insiders say the patriarch doesn't want to alienate the Orthodox Church abroad, headquartered in New York, which has already canonized Nicholas II and would look askance at the St. Petersburg ceremony.

Mr. Yeltsin, whose government ordered the burial, has decided to follow the patriarch's no-show example so as not to upset the powerful church. Instead, he plans to send Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

Yeltsin's nonattendance is likely to upset monarchists, still nostalgic for the old monarchy. They remember with bitterness that, as a Communist leader in Yekaterinburg, Yeltsin ordered the destruction of the house where the czar lived before his death.

More than 30 Romanov descendants are expected, but missing among them will be Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna, whose grandson Prince Georgy is a prominent aspirant to the throne. She says she is insulted by the modest attention paid to the event and will instead join an alternative memorial service in Zagorsk, 42 miles northeast of Moscow, which will be attended by the patriarch.

This disappoints the organizing committee in St. Petersburg, which complains that the federal government has allocated a paltry $830,000 for the event - but has yet to pay up.

"We haven't received even a single kopek," lamented committee member Vladimir Yakovlev, days before the event.

The bickering overshadows Friday's service at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, the traditional burial spot of czars.

The governor of St. Petersburg urged that pettiness be put aside so that the czar could be laid to rest with dignity.

"Unfortunately, this delicate subject was taken advantage of for selfish political reasons," he said in a statement issued this week.

"St. Petersburg had enough dignity not to take part in the political debates on the subject of the burial. I hope that on the 17th of July during the burial ceremony common sense will prevail over the political vanity."

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