By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY Published: August 3, 2008
THE scene was both moving and slightly surreal. On an overcast day in mid-May, a group of Russian tourists — families, fashionably dressed students, ruddy-cheeked, middle-aged men — milled around the Holy Royal Passion-Bearers Monastery, a collection of log churches set among birch trees on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg. The mood was somber. A few people made the Sign of the Cross; others bowed reverently, whispering the words “how awful” as they took in the sights. This tour group, having come minutes earlier from the Yekaterinburg train station, was bearing witness to one of the most notorious events in Russian history: the slaughter on July 17, 1918, of Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children.
The monastery, also known as Ganina Yama, is built on the grounds surrounding the mine shaft where bones of the Romanovs were found in the 1970s (though not revealed by the authorities until the 1990s), having been doused in acid decades earlier.
Ninety years after the execution of the royal family (along with their doctor and servants) came to symbolize the Russian Revolution — the anniversary was marked in July with services and processions at Yekaterinburg’s shrines — the Romanovs still have a powerful hold on the public consciousness.
In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized them as “passion-bearers” for steadfast faith in the face of death. And Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.3 million in Russia’s Urals region, has become a center of religious pilgrimage and a somewhat unlikely tourism destination for growing numbers of Russians.
“Reds and Whites, they were a broken family,” Galina Yermoshina, our guide to Ganina Yama, told me after our tour. “We are all one Russian family.”
In Soviet times, Yekaterinburg was a military-industrial center called Sverdlovsk, off limits to foreigners and adamant about not acknowledging its Romanov link, both because of the notoriety of the murders and out of fears that the city could become a haven for monarchists. Later, in the 1990s, it was a violent outpost of the Russian mafia.
Now, it is not only one of the wealthiest cities in the new Russia, but it is also a busy tourist spot, thanks in part to its connection to the Romanovs.
Among the city’s most popular attractions is the gold-domed Khram na Krovi, or Church on the Blood, built on the site of the Ipatiev House, where the Romanovs were imprisoned and executed. (Ipatiev House was razed in 1977 by Boris N. Yeltsin, a native of the Sverdlovsk region, on orders from Moscow when he was regional Communist Party chief. He later regretted the action and in 1998 attended the Romanov’s belated funeral in St. Petersburg.)
Flower-decked limousines pulled up to the Church on the Blood during my weekend visit in May. The complex’s upper church is Yekaterinburg’s most prestigious church-wedding site, while the lower church has a crypt said to be on the exact spot where Bolshevik executioners gunned down the Romanovs.
Luminous icons portraying the Romanovs surround the crypt. Simple marble plaques below each icon give their names and date of death in a chilling, repetitive recitation. When I visited, poignant photographs of the imperial family were displayed in an adjacent room.
Of course, not everything is so reverent. In modern Russia, commerce shares equal billing with nostalgia. Souvenirs sold at the Church on the Blood include reproduction monogrammed imperial family pillows and commemorative plates and mugs of the Romanovs, while at Ganina Yama, thirsty visitors can buy plastic bottles of Tsar’s Water drawn from an onsite spring.
But there is also heartfelt pain over those events 90 years ago. Tourists are forbidden from photographing inside the church, but Galina Krotova, an earth-motherly dynamo who runs a collection stand near the crypt — she’s raising money to rebuild a ruined, forgotten monastery — has special dispensation and snapped me on her digital camera after positioning me in front of a particular icon of the Virgin Mary.
The ray of light piercing the photo did not indicate a bad shot, said Galina. “This is a holy place,” she said.