THE commemoration could have been a great and solemn moment of truth, a time to reflect on the passage from one era of Russia’s tragic history to another.
As it was, the proceedings were impressive enough: tens of thousands people gathered in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains for a nocturnal act of worship to recall the killings which had taken place there exactly 100 years ago. The victims were Tsar Nicholas, the Empress Alexandra and their five children, along with their doctor and three servants. Many worshippers trudged for miles between the spot where the killings took place and the mineshaft where the bodies, doused in acid, were thrown.
But in one important respect, this was a flawed act of remembrance which disappointed some people, including quite a few surviving relatives of the Romanov family. In defiance of overwhelming scientific evidence, the Russian Orthodox church is still refusing to accept as genuine the remains of the royal family, most of whom were solemnly buried in St Petersburg in 1998. The two bodies which were discovered only in 2007, those of the crown prince Alexei and his sister Maria, have yet to receive a decent interment, in part because of the church leadership’s unwillingness to settle the matter.
It was widely hoped any remaining doubts over the identity of the remains could be cleared up in time for this month’s centenary. This nearly happened, but not quite. On the eve of the anniversary, the secular authority which was responsible for probing the evidence made its clearest statement to date that the remains were all genuine. As one Russian news report put it, a spokeswoman for the investigative committee said:
the findings of comprehensive DNA tests confirmed that the remains found outside Yekaterinburg were those of former Emperor Nicholas II, his family members and people close to them. The molecular and genetic tests have shown that seven of the 11…remains are of members of one family: mother, father, four daughters and a son.
This unambiguous verdict from secular experts could have been a good moment for the church, at the 11th hour, to overcome its professed doubts, but the cue was not taken. Instead, a church spokesman merely said the Patriarchate of Moscow had “taken note” of the new findings but it would plod on with its own analysis of the evidence.
The reasons for the Patriarchate’s reluctance to accept the scientific data have been something of a mystery, even to close observers of Russia’s religious scene. But some light on the matter has been shed by Sergei Chapnin, a Russian Orthodox journalist who was editor of the Patriarchate’s journal until his dismissal in December 2015.
Mr Chapnin told The Economist that as far as he was aware, all the scientific information presented over the years to senior members of the church affirms the authenticity of the remains. If there had been any tiny shred of doubt over the remains buried in 1998, it had been cleared up after the discovery of Alexei and Maria in 2007, who were swiftly identified as part of the same family as the previously interred bodies, thanks to laboratory techniques which were growing ever more sophisticated.
Why then the reluctance to accept these conclusions? Mr Chapnin believes the church leadership is unwilling to confront, or disappoint, a contingent of 100,000 or so fervent royalists who have long been nostalgic not just for the martyrs of 1918 but for the general principle of divinely appointed, absolute monarchy.
People in this ultra-conservative camp were sceptical, back in 1998, when the first set of bodies were interred; that was partly because of their antipathy for the liberal government of the day, headed by President Boris Yeltsin, which organised the interment. In the face of this scepticism, the late Patriarch Alexy was obliged to profess agnosticism over the identity of the bodies, as a way to avoid massive internal rifts within the church.
Over the years since, being sceptical about the identity of the Romanov relics has become a sort of touchstone of zealous religious nationalism. In Mr Chapnin’s view, the church leadership is nervous about contradicting this group, and above all it is unwilling to admit that its own reluctance to accept the relics has been a mistake.
Perhaps there are also some deeper reasons why July 2018 is not a good moment for Russia’s political and religious leaders to reflect honestly on the tragedy of the royal murders, or on the millions of humbler folk who would be killed in the years that followed.
It helps to remember how much has changed in Russian thinking about the past since July 1998, when most of the Romanov family was interred in St Petersburg. At that time, President Yeltsin made a moving speech, drafted by one of Russia’s most respected liberal thinkers, the historian and camp survivor Dimitry Likhachev. He said the Russian people should reflect on the killings, and on the orgy of slaughter which the Bolsheviks carried out, in a spirit of self-questioning and repentance.
But self-doubt and repentance are not popular sentiments in today’s Russia. Blaming the wickedness of outsiders for the nation’s woes, and trumpeting one’s own moral superiority, have become much more fashionable, and that new spirit of the times affects everybody, in high and low places. In an ideal world the church would rise above these fluctuating intellectual currents. But it seems unable to do that—and this is unfortunate. A religious leadership which cannot bring itself to accept the conclusions of a scientific laboratory, for fear of acknowledging its own fallibility, will surely have difficulty speaking truth about other, even more painful episodes of 20th-century history.