The Times (UK) 19 February 1997

Russian bishops begin final steps to canonise last Tsar

TALKS began yesterday on making Nicholas II, the last Tsar, a saint in what would be a dramatic reversal of 70 years of Soviet ideology, which branded him a bloody tyrant.

Nearly 80 years after the Tsar was murdered with his family by the Bolsheviks in July 1918, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has opened deliberations on the issue. The Synod will put its final recommendation before the Assembly of Bishops, which is about to hold its two-yearly convocation. If, as expected, the Synod decides in favour, the Tsar, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children could be saints by the end of the year.

The first steps towards the canonisation of the Russian Royal Family were taken in October when the Synod ordered a nationwide survey of Church opinion after a two-year study. The move is certain to highlight the political divisions in a country where a large proportion of the population still hankers after its Communist past.

Tsar Nicholas abdicated in March 1917. After unsuccessful attempts to negotiate sanctuary with his cousin, King George V, the Russian Royal Family was moved to the Urals, eventually arriving at the city of Yekaterinburg where they were held in the house of a local merchant. On July 17 they were shot and bayoneted to death with three servants and the family doctor.

Supporters of canonisation argue that Russia would have been spared millions of deaths under the Communists if the Tsar's rule had continued and that, as a symbol of Russia, the Tsar's canonisation would be an act of faith for the entire country.

Last month the regional governor in Yekaterinburg ordered the construction of a memorial church to mark the murder spot. That order, by Eduard Rossel, was in response to long-standing calls from the Orthodox Church for a church on the site of the Ipatyev house, where the Royal Family spent their last weeks. The house was demolished in 1977 on the orders of Boris Yeltsin, then regional Communist chief.

In his memoirs President Yeltsin said he was acting on secret orders from the Politburo in Moscow to bulldoze the building, because of fears that it could become a destination for monarchist pilgrims. He said he had no choice but to carry out "this senseless decision".

The remains of the Royal Family were taken to nearby woods and buried. They lay undiscovered until the late 1980s and only in the last two years have their identities been confirmed through DNA testing. Now a bitter argument is being waged between the authorities in Yekaterinburg and in St Petersburg where previous Romanovs are buried over where they should finally be laid to rest. Mr Rossel's move to establish a church on the Ipatyev house site, which is now marked only by a crude wooden framework of a church, would add strength to his city's claim, although few doubt that St Petersburg will eventually prevail.

Over the past few months Russian interest in the monarchy has soared, while the debate over the possible restitution of a Tsar is frequently aired in the newspapers and on television. The idea has won strong support from the Orthodox Church, which would regard its own position as greatly strengthened if a Tsar were anointed by the Patriarch.

Mr Yeltsin has played a part in promoting the debate. Last year, soon after his re-election, he spoke of the need for Russia to find a new purpose and ideal, to fill the vacuum left by the discarded and discredited Communist ideology. The only clear idea to emerge from his proposal was that of restoring the monarchy.

There were even rumours that the President supported the idea and had drafted a secret decree inviting Grand Duke Georgi, considered to be the closest surviving relative of the Tsar, to come to Russia. The Kremlin issued a swift denial that any such secret decree existed.

While interest in the monarchy is clearly growing, it still seems inconceivable that Russia would be able to revert to a system that it rejected vehemently more than 70 years ago. The notion of a constitutional monarch in a country that has tended towards strong, or even authoritarian, leadership would seem very inappropriate.

(C)The Times (UK) 19 February 1997