In the Towns of the Upper Volga, It's the Early 1600s All Over Again

Russia's current crises remind some of an earlier, equally chaotic era: the Time of Troubles

VERA IVANOVNA, a 75-year-old pensioner, gingerly puts down her rickety cart, slowly sharpens her scythe, and then begins feebly swinging the tool in the knee-high grass.

Asked why she is cutting grass, she says it is part of her plan to buy a goat as a hedge against the uncertain future. Russia's political and economic collapse has left citizens to fend for themselves - regardless of their age.

"I hope to buy a goat next year, and if I do, I'll need hay. I can't remain idle when I still have the strength to do something," Vera explains, adding that she struggles to survive on a meager pension of 13,000 rubles (about $13) per month.

"I don't understand what's happened to Russia," Vera says. "It's as if we're living through another Time of Troubles."

Vera is not the only one in this sleepy town, as well as others all along the Upper Volga River, comparing the present tumult to the Time of Troubles - an era of political and social upheaval in Russia during the early 17th century.

And the residents of Uglich should know a thing or two about the Time of Troubles.

The town may be a provincial Volga backwater of wooden homes, where traffic lights only flash yellow. But four centuries ago it was the city where Dmitry, the last surviving son of Ivan the Terrible, was murdered.

Dmitry's death in 1591 ended the Rurik line of Russia's rulers. Thus deprived of a natural line of succession, Russia plunged into an extended power struggle culminating in the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty in 1613.

The church of Dmitry on the Blood now stands on the supposed riverside site of the nine-year-old's murder. The assassination was widely believed to be ordered by Boris Godunov, a political strongman who wanted the throne for himself. Godunov eventually ascended to the throne in 1598, but his reign lasted only seven years. Upon Godunov's death in 1605, an invading Polish army briefly occupied Moscow, and a series of short-lived pretenders claiming to be Dmitry ruled until stability was restored by the Rom anovs.

"Right now it's accurate to say that we are living through another Time of Troubles. There's no one in charge. There's a threat to our statehood. And no one knows how it will all end," says Antonina Mazerina, director of the Ipatiev Monastery museum in Kostroma, a provincial capital on the Volga about 200 miles northeast of Moscow. Mikhail Romanov was living in the monastery in 1613 when he was elected the first Romanov czar by a gathering of Russian nobles.

As in the 17th century, Russia's present-day politicians are struggling to agree on a course of national revival, having several vastly disparate development models to choose from. One of those revival blueprints, appealing to significant segments of society, calls for the revival of Russia's pre-communist culture.

And Mikhail Romanov's descendants are trying to take the lead in the rejuvenation of the traditional Russia that disappeared after the Bolsheviks replaced the last Romanov czar, Nicholas II, in 1917.

Since the collapse of communism, the Romanov "heirs to the throne" have made several trips to Russia from their exile homes in France and Spain, propagating the revival of traditional values.

In May, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, the head of the House of Romanov and daughter of Nicholas's second cousin, and her 12-year-old son Georgi Mikhailovich, toured Volga River cities. In July they returned to Russia, visiting the Ural city of Yekaterinburg, site of the assassination of Nicholas II and his family 75 years ago.

At each stop Ms. Vladimirovna's message was basically the same: The restoration of a monarchy - along with the revival of Russia's traditions of a communal work ethic, belief in the Russian Orthodox Church, and respect for authority - is the best way to foster Russia's renewal.

"Today a great path for our motherland is opening," the grand duchess said in Kostroma about the potential traditionalist revival, speaking before a sparse crowd in strongly accented Russian. She was in Kostroma for opening ceremonies of a May festival devoted to Nicholas's memory.

Several organizations inside Russia are promoting the idea of a Romanov restoration, particularly the Russian Nobility Assembly, which comprises the descendants of the ancien regime's aristocrats.

The restoration effort centers around the rehabilitation of Nicholas II. Under the Communists, information about his reign was suppressed because the party wanted to build a new order. What little information that was available emphasized his "Nicholas the Bloody" image. Of late, however, the veil of secrecy has lifted, as museum exhibits and other events portray the human side of the czar and his family.

For example, a display at the Ipatiev Monastery museum features love letters from Nicholas, written in English, to his German-born fiancee, the future Empress Alexandra. "Your sweet letter - Number 25 - made me so happy," "Niki" wrote in one, commenting about "Alix's" attempt to write in Russian. "The Russian you used was perfect. I showed Papa [Czar Alexander III] the envelope, and he was very pleased."

The examination of Nicholas's reign is the first step in the traditionalist revival, says Andrei Golitsin, head of the Nobility Assembly. The more that is known about the past, he adds, the more readily the population will accept old Russian values.

"I'm convinced a great Russia is ahead - that Russia will return to its historical roots," Mr. Golitsin said at the Kostroma festival. "There may be troubles now, but we hope that, as in the 17th century, they will pass."

Many segments of society - from the Cossacks and Orthodox Church to ultranationalist, neo-Nazi organizations - appear to support the traditionalist revival. But few, apart from the Romanovs and their small following, favor a restoration. And no major political figure has come out strongly for constitutional monarchy. Even if one were established, few think a Romanov would sit on the throne.

"She is not one of us," Ms. Mazerina, the Ipatiev museum director, says of Vladimirovna. "She's spent her entire life abroad and has no understanding of our present situation, our people, language, and history."

A more viable possibility, many say, is the reemergence of strong authority - possibly in the form of a ruling strongman - based on essentially the same values espoused by monarchists.

"A lot will depend on the personality of a potential ruler," Mazerina says. "The Romanovs don't have a great personality among them. Maybe there's someone else who is a great personality, only we don't see that person yet."

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