Czar, Lenin Captivate Russians

What to do with leaders' remains forces a nation to confront its past, chart its future.

Only an outsider could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.

Taken out of context, the objects of contention are simply a collection of fragile bones and the preserved body of a man.

But in Russia, it is no small matter to discuss the unburied remains of two leading protagonists of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution - the last Romanov czar, Nicholas II, and the hero of the upheaval that toppled him, founding father of the Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin.

Instead of looking ahead to the next millennium, many Russians are transfixed by a revolution 80 years ago that ended a 300-year dynasty and introduced Communist rule. The debate over what to do with the remains of the two leaders is straining a country that seems unable to close this chapter in its history.

Until six years ago, the Soviet state allowed only its version of history to be told. But the collapse of the Soviet Union has opened a bewildering array of interpretations that feed an obsession with the past.

"There is an enormous fascination with history now, including by normal people," says Sergei Karpov, dean of the history department at Moscow Lomonosov State University. "They are trying to understand who they are. It is logical for a transitional period."

Everyone seems to have a view: diehard Communists and clergymen, monarchists and even street cleaners. Television is saturated with historical documentaries, including a soon-to-be-released series about important political assassinations of the past century. The State Historical Museum has been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of visitors, who often are turned away for lack of space.

Many of the exhibits are showing items banned under the Soviets, including a life-size portrait of Nicholas II and sacred Russian Orthodox wooden art.

Much of today's restlessness focuses on Lenin's remains, which were embalmed after his death in 1924 and displayed in a granite mausoleum at Moscow's Red Square. The body has become a mecca for socialist pilgrims and a disturbing fetish to nonbelievers.

Signaling a change in thinking, the government removed a round-the-clock honor guard in 1993. Last year, President Boris Yeltsin suggested what would have been heresy before: Remove Lenin's body and bury it next to his mother in the city of St. Petersburg.

This has opened a deluge of arguments. Stalwart Communists oppose taking the body from its place of reverence. A scientist who tended the body over the years recommended removing it because it is symbol of past repressions. Former President Mikhail Gorbachev has suggested a compromise - take no action until passions cool down.

"This will immediately split society. One should not make any haste," he told reporters recently.

Equally divisive are the identification and reburial of the bones of Czar Nicholas, his wife, and three of their children, including Anastasia. A 750-page report by the country's forensic department claims it has established with DNA tests the authenticity of the bones, recovered in Yekatarinburg in the Ural Mountains. The royal family was executed by the new Soviet government there in 1918.

The matter is of great interest to the Orthodox Church, which is considering canonizing the czar as a saint and wants to ensure the remains are his before declaring them religious relics. But antimonarchists say the remains should be awarded no special respect. And descendants of the royal family want them interred next to those of other czars in St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Cathedral.

A battle over the bones' tourism potential rages between St. Petersburg and Yekatarinburg, which are competing to be the final resting place. A government commission headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov recently favored the St. Petersburg option.

Alexander Shkurko, director of the State Historical Museum in Moscow, says the bones are receiving exaggerated attention. But such a reaction is inevitable as people re-evaluate everything they were taught for eight decades. "The current changes are akin to those after the revolution," he says. "All spheres of life are affected: social, economic, political, and religious."

Among those feeling confused is prominent filmmaker Vladimir Menshov. Mr. Menshov says he felt a sense of mission when he made his first historical film, "Yermak." The movie, released last year, concerns a Russian-style "Robin Hood" who lived several centuries ago, but addresses the modern-day angst.

"Our intent was to create the image of a strong Russian man who could make decisions," Menshov says. "We wanted to offset the sense of humiliation which has characterized the nation since the Soviet Union broke up."

Professor Karpov might not approve of such emotional approaches to history. He teaches his students to stick to "facts, fundamental facts" after years of ideological meddling. He says it's best to leave everything alone - the statues, bones, Lenin. Everything but the history books. "We probably [will] have to wait 20 years for divisions over the revolution to become less politicized," he says.

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