Russian church wants czar's burial site
Visitors from around the world have turned an isolated ravine in central Russia into a pilgrimage site in recent years. They arrive to gaze at the unadorned earth where the Bolsheviks, in one final act to defile the dynasty that they toppled, are believed to have dumped the remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family in July 1918.
The New York Times
MOSCOW — Visitors from around the world have turned an isolated ravine in central Russia into a pilgrimage site in recent years. They arrive to gaze at the unadorned earth where the Bolsheviks, in one final act to defile the dynasty that they toppled, are believed to have dumped the remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family in July 1918.
But now the site is being threatened by an unlikely opponent: the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which to this day has not acknowledged that the bones retrieved there over the last two decades are those of the royals.
The church wants to build a large Russian Orthodox cemetery and cathedral at the site, effectively obliterating its historic and archaeological value, according to professionals who have worked at the site and experts on the royal family.
The church hopes to begin construction in April, when its leader, Patriarch Kirill I, visits for a groundbreaking ceremony in Yekaterinburg, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains.
No memorials planned
The project will not include memorials or other references to the remains because the church does not believe they are genuine, a position that flies in the face of an overwhelming scientific consensus based on extensive DNA testing by major laboratories in Russia, Europe and North America.
"The results of our studies provide unequivocal evidence that the remains of Nicholas II and his entire family, including all five children, have been identified," a team of prominent Russian, American and Canadian researchers wrote last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
After conducting its own inquiry, the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory reached the same conclusion last year.
The church's seemingly inexplicable stance has bewildered the experts, particularly because the remains have been so closely scrutinized by so many.
But it is a long-standing conflict. In 1998, for example, when the bones of Nicholas and most of his family were interred in the crypt of the czars in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, the church would not endorse the ceremony because of its concerns.
The most recent DNA studies have been aided by a surprising breakthrough. In 2008, investigators came across a bloodstained shirt that Nicholas wore when he was attacked during an attempted assassination in Japan in 1891. The shirt had been stored in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the blood provided samples of his DNA.
Nevertheless, scientists and archaeologists said the church seemed determined to move forward with the project and that there was little chance of stopping it.
"The church hates these remains and wants to destroy any evidence of them," said Vladimir Solovyov, one of the Russian government's most famous criminologists, who has long spearheaded the research into the bones.
Solovyov and other experts said that while bones had been removed from the site, it was highly likely that other remains, as well as artifacts related to the royal family, were still buried there.
Family's bloody end
The dispute over the site is an unanticipated twist in the tale of the demise of the Romanov family at the end of the Russian Revolution.
Bolshevik guards knifed and shot to death the czar, his wife, five children, a doctor and three servants in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow, where they were held after the czar abdicated.
To prevent royalists from discovering the graves and making martyrs of the family, the guards first discarded the mutilated bodies in a mine shaft, then moved them to a ravine off a main road.
The remains lay there untouched for decades. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, it was announced that they had been located.
Church officials immediately expressed skepticism. They questioned why the bones of only nine people were found at the site, when 11 were killed. The remains of the czar's son, Aleksei, and one sister were missing.
In 2007, a group of amateurs located the remains of Aleksei and his sister in a separate spot at the site. Recent DNA inquires have confirmed those findings, though there is some debate about whether the sister is Maria or Anastasia.
Church officials nevertheless said questions persisted about whether the bones were authentic.
The church canonized the Romanovs in 2000. Russia's Supreme Court formally rehabilitated them in 2008, declaring them victims of "unfounded repression."
Currently, there are crosses and small memorials at the ravine to mark where bones were found.
"This site will be destroyed as a place of any significance," said Sergei Pogorelov, an archaeologist who has long worked there. "This is the history of our country, and it will be ruined."
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