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LAST RUSSIAN CZAR ALMOST CERTAIN TO BE CHURCH'S NEW SAINT

Uli Schmetzer, Tribune Staff Writer.
7511 Characters 10/16/96
(Copyright 1996)

Nearly 80 years after Russia's last royal family was murdered by Bolshevik assassins, Czar Nicholas II, his wife and children could soon be resurrected as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church, a canonization that would say as much about the New Russia as it does about the old.

A Holy Synod of church bishops recommended Tuesday that the czar and his family should join the ranks of about 10,000 recognized Russian Orthodox saints and martyrs. Final approval by the full Congregational Synod of the church is expected at a meeting in February.

The synod's decision capped five years of stormy internal debate over whether the imperial family qualified as martyrs of the faith or had, as the communists claimed throughout their reign, "sucked the blood" of the Russian people.

As a bellwether of Russian popular opinion, the decision is instructive. The Russian Orthodox Church survived for centuries first by serving the autocratic rule of the czars and then subjugating itself under the oppressively atheistic rule of the Soviet Communists.

Now, struggling to reinvent itself yet again in the new, free-market Russia, the church is tapping a popular, nationalist nostalgia for the tradition and order associated with Imperial Russia.

The time is right, the church appears to have concluded, to canonize Nicholas and his family.

The decision on sainthood reopens one of the most emotional chapters in Russian history.

It centers on the dramatic fate of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, among them the czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, and Prince Alexei, the sickly heir whose health came under the care of the wild and libidinous monk Rasputin.

Nicholas, Alexandra, son Alexei and four daughters--Olga, Tatyana, Anastasia and Marie--were shot and bayoneted at Yekaterinburg on July 16-17, 1918, on orders of the newly triumphant Bolshevik leadership.

The executioners then hurled the bodies into a mine shaft but, fearing that they might be discovered, later retrieved them and doused them with sulfuric acid, burying them in a shallow grave.

In deciding to canonize the royal family, the Russian Orthodox Church would actually be catching up to its counterpart in the U.S. Free of the shackles of Soviet atheism, the Orthodox Church in the U.S. unilaterally canonized the czar in 1981.

The Russian synod's statement Tuesday was hailed by surviving members of the old Russian nobility as a long overdue vindication.

"With this decision, Russia has made a full circle. This canonization will unite Russians all over the world," said nobleman Sergei Sapozhnik, vice president of the newly created Assembly of Russia's Nobility, some of whose members are demanding the return of their feudal lands.

Russian monarchists have hailed Nicholas II as one of Russia's greatest rulers, a czar who refused to leave the country after the Bolshevik Revolution forced him to abdicate.

Communists, on the other hand, insist Nicholas and his family--whose excesses and mistakes provided the tinder for the Russian Revolution--are being whitewashed for political purposes.

"He was one of the bloodiest czars of all," said Communist Party spokeswoman Irina Makaveyeva. "He was killed by Bolsheviks, so it is good for certain people to have a martyr of Bolshevism."

A church spokesman strongly rejected the criticism and suggested the extent to which church officials are determined to claim the last czar as a saint of their own.

"The imperial family was an example of purity. They were killed not as simple people but as representatives of Russia's Christian life," said Father Maxim, the spokesman.

Whether the communists like it or not, Nicholas II and his family are about to enter the pantheon of 10,000 saints, which in the Russian Orthodox Church is four times larger than the 2,500 canonized in the Roman Catholic Church.

By naming Anastasia among those murdered, the synod has short-circuited decades of speculation that the czar's youngest daughter escaped thanks to the compassion of one of the executioners. The legend has been perpetuated by Hollywood and nostalgic Russian royalists.

Tuesday's short statement by the Holy Synod, composed of bishops, said: "We have decided to approve the position of the commission on the canonization in connection with the martyrdom of the czar's family. Considering the major importance of the issue, the final decision should be adopted by the Congregational Synod."

That synod meets in February, and Father Maxim said its 130 members have never yet rejected a recommendation for canonization by the bishops.

The groundwork for canonization of the czar was laid in 1991, when the church canonized Veniamin of Petrograd, a pious man who was shot by Bolsheviks in 1917 when he stood up to mobs looting treasures from a local church.

If Veniamin was to be a saint, advocates of the czar's canonization argued, why not the czar and his family? Supporters noted that the Russian Orthodox Church does not require evidence that candidates for sainthood have performed miracles, as the Catholic Church demands--only evidence that they perished for the faith.

Father Maxim said that, once the czar's family was proposed for sainthood, a movement began to canonize en masse all victims killed by the Bolsheviks.

But the church circumvented that awesome undertaking with the excuse that many of those killed had not been in a state of grace, while others committed suicide and some were not even baptized.

In fact, many killed were communists on the wrong side of the power struggle.

The imperial sainthood case still has a few hitches, however.

Neither the bones of Prince Alexei nor his sister Marie were ever found, and under church rules the two royals cannot become saints unless there is some physical evidence remaining from their corpses.

Then there are the communists, who argue that the canonization comes at a time that ominously resembles the days before the czar was overthrown.

"There is no food and no wages, and unfortunately the situation at the end of this century is getting closer to the situation at the beginning of the century," Makaveyeva said.

To which Sapozhnik of the nobles assembly responded: "But if he is canonized, people can pray to him. And if they pray to him, they are praying for the whole of Russia."