Bells Yet to Toll For Last Czar In Church Row

IF all had gone as planned, the bells of a St. Petersburg cathedral would have pealed yesterday, summoning the crowned heads of Europe to the funeral of Russia's last czar, Nicholas II.

Instead the final burial of the czar - 78 years after he and much of his family were killed by a Bolshevik firing squad - was held up by the Russian Orthodox Church.

A dispute over whether the czar deserves sainthood has made church leaders reluctant to acknowledge the identity of the bones.

Top forensic experts say bones unearthed five years ago belong to the czar and his family. That finding, they say, should have ended speculation about this particularly troubled chapter of Russia's past.

Orthodox leaders are wary of making 'Nicholas the Bloody' a saint.

The idea that a ruler known popularly as Nicholas the Bloody should be canonized strikes many Orthodox faithful as absurd.

His court dabbled heavily in the occult, he submitted to the mystic authority of the sinister Rasputin, and he died a victim of a political murder rather than as a martyr to his faith.

Second church's role

But the Orthodox Church Abroad, a breakaway exile body renowned for its extreme conservatism, has already canonized the whole royal family. And pressure is growing from more traditionalist and nationalist Russian quarters in the church here, where monarchist feelings are running high, to follow suit.

Church leaders have chosen to deal with this awkward question by dodging it, arguing that it has not yet been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the bones - which would be buried in the royal crypt in St. Petersburg, alongside the tomb of Peter the Great - do indeed belong to Czar Nicholas II.

This argument does not wash with the scientists on the Russian government commission that has been studying the question since 1993.

"There are no grounds to doubt the identity of the bones," says Dr. Vladislav Plakhsin, Russia's chief medical examiner. "All the people who did the work are completely convinced."

Vladimir Solovyov, the prosecutor in charge of the case of the czar's death, is equally adamant. "The truth of the bones' identity is proven," he says. "To do more research is simply a waste of time."

Since they were dug up in 1991, the remains of the eight bodies found have been subjected to minute and exhaustive anthropological, dental, and other forensic analysis, including DNA testing. That involved matching DNA from surviving relatives of the Romanov family, including the Queen of England's husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Almost 100 percent sure

The researchers concluded that there was a 98.5 percent likelihood that the remains they had studied were those of Nicholas II, his wife the Empress Alexandra, two of their daughters, and four family retainers, who had been shot with them in Yekaterinburg on the night of July 16, 1918. The bodies of Alexis, the heir apparent, and one of his sisters are still missing.

Those findings, however, contradict the conventional wisdom that has built up in monarchist Russian-exile circles, based on the findings of a White Russian investigation into the executions soon after they occurred.

That investigation concluded that all the royal remains had been utterly destroyed by fire and acid.

The new research also gives the lie to the widespread rumor, still given credence by such figures as Russia's deputy culture minister, Vyacheslav Bragin, that the czar's head was cut off after his death, and kept in the safe of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution.

Such accounts have assumed the status of truth in the minds of many Russians, especially outside the country, and even more especially among monarchists, who are well represented in the Orthodox church.

Even less savory versions of the royal family's death have also become current in such circles, including the idea that the czar was killed in a ritual Jewish slaying as part of an international Zionist plot aimed at world domination.

Politics or science?

This is one of the questions that the church says it wants cleared up before the commission winds up its work and the bones are buried. But with all the possible forensic work already done, says Dr. Plakhin, "this all smells more of politics than of science."

The politics have partly to do with the church's hostile and complex relationship with the US-based "church abroad," which refuses to accept the veracity of the commission's findings. Russian emigres in the United States are leading the campaign to discredit the identification.

They also have to do with the issue of canonization. For if the church officially acknowledged the bones to be those of the royal family, and sanctioned their burial in the royal crypt, believers from the nationalist wing of the church would undoubtedly begin venerating the tomb.

Since popular veneration is one of the most important criteria for granting sainthood in the Russian Orthodox tradition, this would put the church's hierarchy in a difficult situation.

"They don't know what the consequences of reburial would be, and they are afraid to do anything that could be interpreted as a church identification of the relics," explains Dmitri Shusharin, religion editor for the daily newspaper Sevodnya.

Closing the book on the past

One man at least is angered by this attitude - Alexander Avdonin, the geologist who first discovered the Romanov's gravesite in 1979 in the Ural Mountains, but who had to keep it a secret until 12 years later, when the Soviet Union began to collapse.

"It's a miracle these bones survived; scientists have made heroic efforts to make them speak, and now they [church leaders] say it's not enough," he fumes.

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