YEKATINERINBURG – In the gray twilight of a winter afternoon, the black and white photographs appear before the church walls like ghosts.
These ghosts may well inoculate Russia against revolution this spring, when political passions may rise with the temperatures.
The ghosts are Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, their son, Alexei, and their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Their portraits stand before a church erected on the site of the Ipatiev House, a mansion built in the 1880s for a wealthy Czarist merchant.
After the 1917 revolution, the house was confiscated by the Communists, surrounded by a high wooden wall, and designated “The House of Special Purpose.”
In April 1918, Bolshevik guards moved the Romanovs to live in the house in internal exile. On the night of July 16, 1918, as pro-Czarist forces neared Yekaterinburg, the Imperial family was told they were to be moved, and were gather in the half-basement to wait for a truck.
There, shortly after midnight, a nine-man Bolshevik squad entered the basement. They shot and bayoneted every family member to death.
For many in modern Russia, this was the original sin of their revolution.
In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Czar Nicholas II and his family as saints of the church, passion bearers for their faith. On July 16, 2003, 85 years to the day after their murders, Russian Orthodox clergy gathered from across Russia to consecrate on the site of the death house a soaring new church: The Church on Blood in Honor of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land.
Inside the church, under a vaulted dome, the central altar stands on the precise spot of the basement killings.
From the large photographs outside, the last Romanovs stare out across a century of Russian history.
In the eyes of this beholder, their reproachful gaze seem to offer Russians a reminder of the dangers of radicalism.
Communist leaders are often linked to the phrase: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
For many Russians, the fate of the Romanov family personifies the chaos and trauma associated with revolution.
Today, a middle class movement for change is underway in Russia. A daily drumbeat of mass demonstrations is planned for the week following the March 4 presidential election.
In advance, the Kremlin strains to present the reformists as revolutionaries. And the reformists strain to remain reformists.
“We Want Reforms, Not Revolution,” was the headline to an essay written last week by Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition leader.
“There is only one peaceful resolution to this standoff,” Ryzhkov wrote in The Moscow Times. “The authorities must hold real and sincere negotiations with the opposition. When authorities and Kremlin-friendly journalists and analysts label the opposition ‘radical,’ it is a clear attempt to demonize the protesters and delegitimize their legitimate complaints. The opposition is ready and willing to engage in substantial talks. It advocates reforms, not revolution.”
The Kremlin’s game plan is to try to demonize the opposition as dangerous revolutionaries. In this vein, ample funding is to flow next year for ceremonies marking the 400th anniversary of the founding of Romanov dynasty, in 1613.
For a few modern Russians, the solution to the nation’s brewing political confrontation is to restore the Romanovs.
“I would bring to Russia a descendant of Nicholas II, or Queen Victoria, a young Windsor, Hohenzollern or Romanov – and I would prepare him to one day occupy the Russian throne,” Dmitry Olchansky, a Moscow writer, said in an interview last month with Le Courier de Russie, a French publication.
But if the street names of this city are indicators, Russians remain divided over their history.
Founded in 1723 and named after Peter the Great’s widow, Czarina Catherine I, Yekaterinburg grew under the Soviets to become Russia’s fourth most populous city.
Today, the church and museum devoted to the Imperial family stands on Karl Liebknecht Street, named after the German Marxist who was murdered in Berlin, on January 15, 1919.
From the church, if you walk two blocks south on Karl Liebknecht, parallel to Proletarian Street and crossing First of May Street, you will reach Lenin Avenue. If you then walk one block east on Lenin, and cross Red Army Street, you will be in Paris Commune Square. There you find a heroic, early Soviet-era statue of Yakov Sverdlov.
In mid-July, 1918, as president of the Russian Soviet Republic, Sverdlov signed the telegram ordering the executions of the Czar and his family.
In Yekaterinburg today, only three city blocks separate memorials to the executioner and to the executed.
It is a history that many Russians do not want to revisit. It is a history that far fewer Russians want to repeat.
A footnote: Sverdlov only lasted eight months after ordering the execution of the Romanovs. On March 16, 1919, Sverdlov was visiting a Moscow factory, when a worker picked up a pipe and fatally beat him on the head. Fearing anti-Semitic outbursts, Communist officials hushed up circumstances of the death of Sverdlov, whose parents were Jewish. Sverdlov was accorded a full state funeral, winning the first individual tomb in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. This city and the surrounding region were renamed after him – Sverdlovsk.
In September, 1991, as the communist sytem was collapsing, authorities compromised. They restored the original Czarist name, Yekaterinburg, to the city, and retained the communist name, Sverdlovsk, for the region.