A protracted exit.
We have been waiting for two hours, but the Russian people have been waiting for eighty years to bury Czar Nicholas II. Behind me, to the tight, is the entrance to the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Multilingual guides hold up numbered signs or closed umbrellas as they lead tour parades up the steps into the museum. In front of me are four rows of people, the back of a Russian soldier dressed in army fatigues, an empty boulevard, and the River Neva. Across the river I can see Petersburg Island. The tall brick wall of the Peter-Paul Fortress partially hides the structure of a tiny island. Rising above the wall, topped by two domes and a soaring spire, is Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Most warm July days bring sunbathers out to the island. They stand below the fortress wall along the riverbank. They have to stand on this "beach" because, at this northern latitude, even a midsummer sun will not readily tan a horizontal body. But today is July 16, 1998, and the "beach" is closed. The two bridges accessing the island are gated and guarded by soldiers. A police boat patrols the river traffic. This well-guarded island is the burial place of Russia's Romanov czars.
The sky is bright blue, and the enormous puffy clouds create a postcard scene. The temperature is about seventy-five degrees. A brisk wind billows the flags of St. Petersburg and Russia that have sprouted from the lampposts overnight. Each flag is topped with a long, black funeral ribbon. Alla, a researcher at the Hermitage State Museum, says she began to cry when she turned the corner this morning and saw the flags flying along the palace embankment. But she does not like the weather. "It does not seem right that it should be such a beautiful day. It should be raining on such a day," she says.
Finally some action. A drummer leads a parade of soldiers and sailors from the right end of the boulevard. The military men halt on the far side of the boulevard, wheel left, and stand at attention. A half hour passes. The stiff military shoulders begin to droop.
"Nothing is ever simple in Russia," says Valentina, sighing. Valentina is a smart, energetic woman who gives English-language tours of her native St. Petersburg. "We must bury the czar. We are Christians, and Christians bury their dead. Russia has been unlucky this century. We are cursed because we have not buried these people. Next we must bury Lenin. [No longer on view to the public, Lenin's "mummified" body remains in its red granite mausoleum on Moscow's Red Square.] Then Russia may be lucky again."
An officer moves up and down in front of the soldiers. He says he does not know why there is a delay. A man with a cell phone announces that the plane carrying the remains to St. Petersburg from Yekaterinburg left two hours late. Today is not a holiday and many workers must return to their offices, but the majority of us continue to wait. Carefully placed newspaper sheets provide clean seats on the curb. A shoeless boy arrives and scopes out the crowd. My husband transfers his wallet to an inner pocket.
Another cell phone tings. The military band begins to play, but sounds are muted by the whirring of the helicopter hovering above the cortege. Three police cars drive by slowly. Next come three huge purple buses, their sides emblazoned with white, blue, and red letters reading Baltic Travel Bus. A girl on my left points a bright blue fingernail at the buses and asks, "Are those the Romanovs?" A photographer, who has brought along his own stepladder for a better view, tells her these buses are for the honor guard. The family members are in the buses following the cortege.
The first of the nine identical Russian hearses turns the comer. The crowd is quiet. The hearses are small, dark green vans on which black ribbons outlined in gold have been painted. The order of procession is to be in the inverse of rank; servants first, then the daughters, the czarina, and finally the czar.
Newspaper reports had said that the cortege would pause in front of the Hermitage. Part of the present museum was once the czar's winter home, and it was where the family was arrested. A stand of flags and garlands of fragrant evergreens have been erected on a grassy square near the museum entrance. But the procession never hesitates and is past the Hermitage in minutes. The Russians and tourists around us are disappointed. Three more garish purple buses carrying the Romanovs pass by, and the procession is over. Several people fiddle with the small flags that they forgot to wave.
"A government nonevent," grumbles Lev, who used to drive official cars under the Soviet regime. He now finds part-time work chauffeuring business executives and tourists. He is holding a Russian best-seller, a comical book about a Russian cat that travels to the United States. The highlight of the plot is the meeting between this Russian cat and Socks in the White House. "I'm staying home tomorrow. The funeral service will be on CNN," he says. As the soldiers march away, onlookers spill onto the Palace Embankment Boulevard.
Across the Neva, the bells of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral begin to chime as the cortege reaches the fortress. These bells were installed by Czar Nicholas II at the beginning of this century. When the czar's coffin is positioned on the newly erected catafalque, the ringing ceases.
The next day the weather is again beautiful but with less wind. Today, July 17, marks the eightieth anniversary of the execution of the czar, his family, and four servants. After much vacillation, the government finally settled on this date for the memorial service and burial. The service itself has been a subject of great controversy. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church refused to recognize the scientific DNA evidence that identifies the bodies. Therefore, only a local priest will officiate and the names of the deceased will never actually be mentioned in the service.
Today, we stand on the opposite riverbank and look back across the Neva at the Hermitage. To our left is the bridge leading to the main entrance of the Peter-Paul Fortress. The three shiny purple buses appear. Their protruding rearview mirrors extend antennae-like, making them resemble huge beetles. The Romanov family members are indistinguishable black figures as they walk over the bridge decorated with an evergreen garland looped with black ribbon. Nonfamily members and other guests must walk across the bridge on our right and in through the back entrance to the fortress. Invitations are smartly inspected by an officer, but lower-ranking soldiers relax along the guardrails.
Although the government has not declared today a holiday, the sidewalks are crowded with people. Cherub-faced uniformed boys line the edge of the street and face the crowd. I ask my Russian friend what military force these boys represent. I am surprised when he tells me they are from the Interior Ministry, what used to be the KGB. I watch the young man in front of me. He is about sixteen, and he has a dreadful cold. He smiles shyly but declines when a lady offers him a tissue.
Today, I hear only Russian being spoken. Several people have asked me the time in Russian, and I just show them my watch. I am not sure how these people feel about their last czar. Am I, a non Russian tourist, intruding? Fortunately my camera does not identify me, since many of the locals have cameras too. No one seems particularly emotional about the czar. The people are more interested in how the current government deals with the ceremony. President Boris Yeltsin had announced that he would not attend the funeral, but yesterday he changed his mind. Just before noon, two police cars lead his black and dark-glassed limousine over the bridge at the main entrance. The car is easily identified by the two flags on the front fenders. The Russians are quiet when the limo passes, but someone be hind me mutters, "Czar Boris."
Three gunshots are fired, and the cathedral bells chime to mark the commencement of the service. Out here, on the street, small clusters form around those who were clever enough to bring transistor radios. Many actively participate in prayers and songs. Others simply stand and watch. The service is scheduled to last more than two hours. It is some comfort to remember that those attending the church service in the cathedral are standing also, as is the custom of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Two priests, who object to the burial, attract a small crowd. There is a lively exchange, but voices sound curious, not angry. Two boys play quietly on a large field gun that is part of the Artillery Museum across the street. A woman passes by selling small Russian and St. Petersburg flags. Winding through to the far edge of the crowd, we look up the street. Half a block away, a wedding party enters a church. In a few minutes, the bride and groom emerge married and drive off in a car decorated with ribbons and two large intertwined rings mounted on the hood.
Ninety minutes pass and then the cathedral bells begin to peal. A cannon fires across the water. No one speaks. Each day at noon a cannon is fired from the fortress, but this noise is much louder. The echo rumbles and thunders back across the river at us. Fifteen seconds pass, twenty. A second boom. The long pause is obviously caused by the time it takes to reload, but the effect is stunning. A young woman wipes away a tear. A man gets out of his car to fully absorb the sound. Boom. The city pauses. We cannot see the cannon, so people gaze up at the gold angel on the cathedral steeple. It turns in the wind. Boom. Silence. Boom. Silence. The sequence repeats over and over. I have lost count, but finally the pause is too long. Supposedly there are nineteen shots, since the czar gave up his right to a twenty-one-gun salute when he abdicated in 1917.
Through the fortress gate, I can see people moving about at a reception under the cream-colored tent. Wordlessly, we cross the bridges toward the heart of the modem city. The noise of the gunfire still fills my head. We pass an old woman crying. Are her tears for the czar? Or does she remember the noise of German artillery fire during the 900-day siege of the city? As many as one million perished of cold and hunger during the blockade, which lasted from September 8, 1941, to January 27, 1944.
We walk to the Church of the Resurrection (more commonly called the Church of the Spilt Blood because it commemorates the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881). Several hundred people are gathered. Priests raise colorful religious banners, secular leaders support flags of various designs, but the principal color is the Romanov imperial yellow. Men circulate through the crowd with pictures of Czar Nicholas II. People cross themselves and kiss the image. A woman handing out pamphlets tells me that the czar's humble and Christian death qualifies him to be canonized as a "passion bearer." She explains that priests here (some are actually defrocked priests) do not believe the bones buried today are those of the royal family. For the next hour they conduct a church service to protest the "sacrilegious" rites held in the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
That evening we attend a ballet, Don Quixote, at the Mariinsky Theater. During the intermission, I can hear the word "Romanov" buzz through the audience. People point toward and take flash pictures of the royal box. Xenia, a Russian schoolteacher and ballet connoisseur, tells me that the man with the beard is a Romanov prince. But she is not sure which one.
Xenia is not pleased with the burial today. "If these are really the bones of the czar's family, why are there still two bodies missing?" I repeat that experts have said that two of the bodies were burned to ashes and then the rest buried. This means nothing to Xenia. "Who are these experts? Members of the government?" She waves her hand dismissively. An English-speaking woman behind me expounds on the psychological benefits of "closure" for the Russian people.
After the performance, we go to a late supper. The menu has been altered to include a special "Romanov meal."
The next day is Saturday. The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul opens for the public at 11:00 A.M. Alla, the Hermitage researcher, must be pleased; it is raining heavily. There is an unusually long queue by 10:00 A.M., but the length of the line does not correlate with the waiting time. When a large bus arrives, the tour leader buys the tickets and maneuvers to the front of the line. When the leader reaches the entrance gate, he frantically waves the signaling umbrella and seventy dry bus-dwellers push in front. We wait for one hour and forty-five minutes. Most of us are tourists, but a few are Russians clutching soggy flowers.
Entering the cathedral, I notice that the rubbery smell of my raincoat is overpowered by the strong odor of lilies, roses, and lingering traces of incense. The remains have been buffed in St. Catherine's Chapel, a small chamber to the right of the main entrance. At the close of the service yesterday, the nine miniature oak coffins (just 47 by 19.5 inches, since they house only bones) were stacked in a hole dug out of the chapel floor. The location is marked by scaled-down faux marble tomb that is further dwarfed by the flowers and wreaths propped up around it. Professional photographers crowd the room and straddle flowers strewn about the floor like cushions. Camera flashes spotlight the gold letters of the victims' names painted on plaques lining the chapel wall. The wooden plaques are painted to look like marble, and they are supposed to be temporary until money is found for real stone.
Leaving the chapel, we move into the main sanctuary. Here are the tombs of Nicholas II's ancestors, the Romanovs, who ruled Russia for 304 years. Against the front right wall is the marble tomb of Peter the Great. To the left is the similar tomb of Catherine the Great. How could such a dynasty topple? It is easy now to disparage Nicholas II, but Winston Churchill was closer to the events when he wrote in the decade following the czar's death:
Exit Czar. Deliver him and all he loved to wounds and death. Belittle his efforts, asperse his conduct, insult his memory; but pause then to tell us who was capable. Who or what could guide the Russian State? Men gifted and daring; men ambitious and fierce, spirits audacious and commanding--of these there were no lack. But none could answer the few plain questions on which the life and fame of Russia turned.
Judith A. Tabler is a freelance writer based in McLean, Virginia
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|Title Annotation:||formal burial of Czar Nicholas II of Russia|
|Author:||Tabler, Judith A.|
|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1998|
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