What is the position of the Russian Imperial House on the Ekaterinburg Remains?
A great deal of media attention has been placed on the decisions of the Russian Orthodox Church and, consequently, those of the Head of the Russian Imperial House, concerning the identification and disposition of the bones likely to be those of Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, and their children, recovered from the two burial sites in Ekaterinburg between 1979 and 2007.
This media attention is against the backdrop of 20 years of scientific testing, extensive theological debates, and an enormous public outcry for resolution, As Head of the Russian Imperial House, Grand Duchess Maria believes that the dynasty must defer completely to the Russian Orthodox Church in this matter, given the fact that her murdered relatives have been canonized. Any remains of the murdered Imperial Family are ipso facto religious relics, and therefore the internal procedures of the Russian Orthodox Church in completely satisfying itself of their genuineness must be followed. The Russian Orthodox Church wants to address any remaining doubts about the remains, given the fact that, once accepted by the Church as the remains of Emperor Nicholas II and his family, they will become relics venerated by the faithful.
In the early 1990s, Grand Duchess Maria’s mother, the late Grand Duchess Leonida, made several pilgrimages to Ekaterinburg to pray at the site of the Imperial Family’s death. While in Ekaterinburg, she was shown the bones, then on shelves in the office of the Ekaterinburg medical examiner. Deeply upset at the way the bones were displayed, as medical exhibits, and that practically anybody could get access to them, she took immediate action to see that the remains were treated more respectfully, and asked the Church for help. At the same time Grand Duchess Maria made the request that the Russian Government start an investigation of the authenticity of these remains, and that it be conducted promptly, both by Russian and foreign scientists.
What follows is a brief history of the involvement of the dynasty during the post-revolutionary investigations, canonization, and burials of the bones believed to be the remains of the martyred Russian Imperial Family.
The position of the Imperial House on the murder of The Imperial Family
Since 1924, it has been the firmly established position of the Russian Imperial House that on the night of the 4/17 July, 1918, the entire Imperial Family were murdered at Ekaterinburg.
The Emperor Nicholas II, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the four Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, as well as the Heir-Tsesarevich and Grand Duke Alexis were assassinated together on the orders of Lenin and the Ural Soviet. No member of the Imperial Family or any of the servants whothat were with them survived the murder. In 1939, H.I.H. Grand Duke Wladimir wrote about this in the afterward to his august father’s memoirs:
“[In 1926]…the legend which was widely believed by many Russians, namely, that the Emperor Nicholas II and his family had not been massacred and that the life of the Grand Duke Michael had been saved, was finally disproved. M. Sokoloff, the examining magistrate who had been charged by Admiral Koltchak, the head of the White Government of Russia, to investigate the murder of the Imperial Family, had returned from the Far East and brought with him all his findings, as well as material proof of the disaster.
Sokoloff paid a number of visits to my parents, and acquainted them with his findings in every detail. They never really doubted the fact that the Imperial Family had been murdered. Now, with the findings and proofs before them, they were convinced that there could be no longer any hope that the Imperial Family had been saved. From Bolshevik sources came the confirmation that the Grand Duke Michael too, had perished."
It is important to understand that discovering the burial site of the remains and giving them an Orthodox burial has long been the hope of the Russian Imperial House.
The Imperial House and the Canonization of the Imperial Family: 1981
Almost from the first days after the murder of the Imperial Family, there was a groundswell of support among Russian Orthodox Christians for the canonization of the murdered members of the Imperial Family. For those who are not Orthodox, this is a difficult process to understand. In the west, people are familiar with the Roman Catholic Church’s process, in which candidates are “proposed” for sainthood. Commissions are called to investigate reports of miracles — and ultimately, there are various stages in an established process through which candidates must pass before they are “made” saints and entered into the Church Calendar.
In the Orthodox Church, the process is organic, and happens very differently. A local remembrance and veneration of holy people may first spring up. This initial phenomenon amongst the faithful spreads, sometimes gradually, sometimes quickly, among Orthodox believers. Soon, this regional veneration results in direct appeals of the faithful to their bishops, requesting that the subject of veneration be officially considered a Saint, as they are already considered one “unofficially". In the Orthodox Church, it is recognized that only God makes saints, and with canonization, the Hierarchs of the Orthodox Churches merely confirm what God has already done.
In 1981, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) agreed that the members of the Imperial Family would be recognized as Holy New-Martyrs. There was a Holy Service of Canonization held in New York, which Grand Duke Wladimir attended as the Head of the Russian Imperial House. Also present were H.H. Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia and several descendants of deceased dynasts. The last pannikhida, or service for the dead, was held for the departed members of the Imperial Family, and following that was the Service of Canonization. The first icon of the Imperial Family was blessed, and then venerated by Grand Duke Wladimir Kirillovich and the others present. From that moment forward, the Imperial Family were officially recognized as Saints and Holy New-Martyrs.
It is vital to emphasize again that since 1981, the position of the Russian Imperial House has always been that should the remains of members of the Imperial Family be recovered, what would be found would not be considered “mortal remains” but would be considered Holy Relics of the Orthodox Church. Relics cannot be handled or treated as if they were simply mortal remains.
The discovery of the Imperial Relics and the Imperial “Burial”: 1979-1998
Unbeknownst to the Russian Imperial House at the time, in 1979 a burial site believed to be that of the Imperial Martyrs was discovered. In 1989 and again in 1991 after the fall of communism, the archeologists Ryabov and Avdonin had made their discovery known to the new government of the Russian Federation. Between 1992 and 1997 multiple DNA studies were carried out on the remains that had been discovered, and it was disclosed that scientifically it was probable that the bones were those of the Imperial Family, and that two, believed to be the Grand Duchess Maria and the Tsesarevich Alexis, were still missing. There was immediate friction between Civil and Church authorities over what was to be done. President Boris Yeltsin, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, and the civil authorities wished to organize an “Imperial Funeral” for the bones at hand, to satisfy the public demand for closure on this dark page in Russian history.
His Holiness Patriarch Alexey II of Moscow and All Russia, understanding that any remains were already recognized as Holy Relics by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and aware that the canonical status of the Imperial Family still had not been addressed in Russia, requested that the Grand Duchess Maria Wladimirovna not participate in the “burial.” Faced with an incomplete and contested scientific investigation, as well as her understanding of the important theological issue that the relics of the Holy Imperial Martyrs could not be buried as if they were mortal remains, the Grand Duchess and her son acceded to the request of the Church, and withdrew from participation.
Faced with the absence of the legitimate Head of the Imperial House at the burial, the Russian Government treated the many non-dynastic descendants of the Russian Imperial House present as the representatives of the family. Viewing the burial plans as premature, it was the wish of Patriarch Alexey II that these descendants also absent themselves from the burial.
The Canonization of the Imperial Family by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the subsequent Act of Canonical Reconciliation: 2000-2007
Two years later, in the summer of 2000, the Moscow Patriarchate canonized the Imperial Martyrs as Saints and "Royal Passion-Bearers.”
In 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church was made whole again through the “Act of Canonical Reconciliation,” in which the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia reunited itself with the Moscow Patriarchate. The division within the Russian Orthodox Church that began with the Revolution began to heal.
The universal canonization of the Imperial Family and the reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church brought great hope to the Russian Imperial House and to the Russian Orthodox faithful everywhere.
The Discovery of the Missing Relics: 2007
In 2007, two more sets of bones were found near the original burial site, and further DNA testing revealed that these were likely to be the bones of the Imperial Martyr Grand Duchess Maria and the Imperial Martyr Tsesarevich Alexei.
Since their discovery, these relics have remained in a bureaucratic limbo in the State Archives of the Russian Federation.
Recently, a commission was formed to investigate the possibility of interring these bones with those buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
Grand Duchess Maria, as a faithful daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church, remains firm in her commitment to honour the wishes of the Most Holy Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in these important matters.