Ghosts of Revolution Serve as Political Brakes in Russia

Posted February 18th, 2012 at 1:02 pm (UTC+0)

Century old portraits of Czar Nicholas II and his family stand in front of Yekaterinburg's Church on the Blood, built in 2003 on the 1918 execution site of the Imperial family. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.

For many modern Russians, the fate of the Romanov family personifies the excesses that killed millions during the Russia's communist era. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.

Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Nikolaevna rest in the spring sunshine in 1917, while in captivity at Tsarskoe Selo, the Czarist estate south of St. Petersburg. About one year after this photo was taken, a Bolshevik squad shot and bayoneted the girls to death in a basement in Yekaterinburg.

“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.

In 1927, Communist authorities erected a statue to Yakov Sverdlov, the Bolshevik leader who signed the telegram from Moscow carrying out Vladimir Lenin's orders to execute the Czar and his family. Photo: Sandrine

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.

Yakov Sverdlov, president of the Russian Soviet Republic, sits at his desk in Moscow in a photo taken a few months after ordering the execution of the Romanovs.

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.

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James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

4 responses to “Ghosts of Revolution Serve as Political Brakes in Russia”

  1. Observer says:

    Honestly to say I still try to find a reasonable answer for the question in my mind for a long time is this. Why ? Russia a country has one of the biggest territory with massive of resources and intelligent peoples , It should be a happiest place to live in but, it seem to be in struggling in its’ striving to gain it’s respectable spot.
    The only reasonable answer I have come up with it not covers all but it is an explanation ; Because Russian peoples were born with an Ideology of Communism society with an imagination of a Perfect socialism life , on the ways to build the socialist dream they wasted time and energies to a revolution, repelling obstacles eliminating enemies (it better over kill than missed ) to archive goal with any price , the rules of laws was absented only the rules power exist to suppress any actions as it see differences,and lying and cheating is the way of life to gain , it become normal and necessary to survive.Human nature always resists unwelcome forces. when the communism exhausted and collapsed majority of the Russian peoples get lost as they were so in printed with the communist ways of life and even with the leaders they are changing themselves to new ways of governing.
    when this old generation gone Russia will be a shinning star again.

  2. Gennady says:

    1. PM Putin’s henchmen gagged me when the Internet Provider JSC “Rostelecom” switched me off the official Internet without any reasons. So in “free” Putin’s Russia I’m an Internet dissident. They didn’t tolerate my sayings in “Russia Watch” and BBC. In “free” Putin’s Russia I forced to go underground for continuing the posting.
    I don’t think the remembrance of the imperial family will serve as political brakes for a number of reasons. The majority of Russians view the imperial court a colorful history and nothing more as they are more pro-republican and less pro-monarchists. The Romanovs tragedy was the first link in the chain of multimillion butchery of J.Stalin and his henchmen from VChK-OGPU-NKVD-KGB perpetrated with their people lately. The bloody trace leads into XXI century when FSB continues to rule Russia with dozens high-profile murders and maims of outspoken journalists, blasts of apartment houses, Litvinenko poisoning and Magnitsky death. The investigations mired in a dead-lock. Until now they follow Stalin’s cynical saying:”If there is a man, then there is a problem. No man – no problem”. Millions of these noble ghosts call for justice and retribution. All thinking Russians strive for the rule of law and excommunication from power those who hold their country hostage almost a hundred years.

    2. The Kremlin chooses to offense the public protest in many ways, calling it revolution, condoms, scatterbrained anarchists Bandar-log from The Jungle Book. It was the Kremlin that created what corresponded to the Marxists’ criterion of a revolutionary situation: people at grassroots don’t want the existing (dis)order with rulers being unable to go ahead. Isn’t it the case in nowadays Russia?

    3. Present day political rallies aren’t radical. They are exasperation of people about their stolen votes and unlawful mandates held by about 50 deputies in the State Duma from the discredited United Russia party. I wonder is it radicalism when someone asks a thief to return his stolen hardly earned cash? Is it right to let thieves go on stealing and unpunished?

    4. I disagree with the frustration of Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition leader, when the Kremlin doesn’t want negotiate. To the contrary, the opposition shouldn’t negotiate with the Kremlin but demand back what belongs to people: democracy, accountancy for broken promises, free and honest election to the State Duma, release of political prisoners. Gene Sharp, Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, famous for his writings on nonviolent struggle with authoritarian rulers, believes that the only thing that can be negotiated is the safe passage of the ruler to his jet on the way out of the country.

    5. Who can say the color and the wisdom of the man the nearest to Mr. Putin, Stanislav Govorukhin, geologist and film director, age 76? In the last 22 years he was an anticommunist (1990) and sidelined with A.Solzhenitsyn, shortly after that he became a national-communist (1993) and a supporter of the Communist Party (1996). In 2000 he reprimanded slavery psychology of Russian people who had voted for Mr. Putin, the new Tsar [ Прямая речь]. In heavily censored Russian Wikipedia the citation is recently cut out. In 2012 he is the Chief of Mr. Putin’s election campaign (!!!). He calls “poops” all of those people who oppose his 60 year old new employer’s ambition for the 3-d term in office, he blames the Internet for people’s awakening from doldrums and encourages President Medvedev to be more active in supporting Mr.Putin as the candidate.

  3. Pyotr says:

    Russians should have renamed all streets and squares named by communists along with banning the communist ideology all together after the SU had collapsed. One should do the business properly or one will have to do it twice or never at all. If you leave crumbs, you won’t wait for cockroaches for long!



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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