MOSCOW -- They came from all corners of a land they still describe as the Holy Russian Empire: officers in czarist uniforms, black-robed monks, dispossessed aristocrats, even members of "the shock women's battalion of death," with silver skull and crossbones embroidered on their caps.
"I swear before Almighty God to faithfully and loyally serve His Imperial Highness, the Great Lord Emperor Vladimir Kirilovich, autocrat of all the Russias, successor to the imperial throne, without regard for my own life and to the last drop of my blood," intoned the throng gathered for a ceremony in the graveyard of Moscow's historic Donski monastery earlier this month. Then they sang "God Save the Czar," the czarist anthem banned since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
The revival of interest in the monarchy represents the rupture of one of the Soviet Union's last political taboos. With the exception of the personality cult surrounding Vladimir I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, no other theme in Soviet history has been wrapped up in so much ideological mystique as the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty.
Members of the Soviet leadership gathered on top of Lenin's tomb on May Day got the shock of their lives when they saw demonstrators carrying a portrait of Nicholas II through Red Square. The last Russian czar has long been derided by official Soviet historians as "bloody Nicholas" because of his suppression of revolutionary demonstrations.
The number of dyed-in-the-wool monarchists prepared to wave a czar's portrait at a Communist Party general secretary is relatively small. Roughly 100 delegates from more than 60 cities attended the founding congress of the Orthodox Monarchist Party this month in a Moscow movie theater, swearing allegiance to Grand Duke Vladimir, the pretender to the Russian throne now in exile in France. But the number of people who want to find out more about the Romanovs and their times is vast.
"Russians are looking for a way out of the present catastrophic situation. They want to find out about the way of life that was destroyed by the Bolshevik Revolution, before all those promises of the bright, shining future that were never kept. Perhaps it was not as bad as we were all led to believe," said Edward Radzinsky, a prominent Soviet playwright who is writing a book about the life and death of Nicholas II.
Soviet writers and journalists have been churning out a stream of newspaper articles, novels and films about the czars to meet public demand. A play depicting the last days of the Romanov dynasty is playing to packed houses at Moscow's venerable Maly theater. The audience reacts with stunned silence as the royal family is led away to its execution.
"I know what I was taught about Nicholas in school. Now I want to find out what I was not taught. And I am not alone," said Yuri Solomin, who plays the role of Nicholas in "I Will Repay."
"We are for socialism, but not the way it has turned out," said factory worker Valentina Kaminskaya after watching the play. "Our parents had wonderful dreams, but their dreams were never realized. Perhaps things started going wrong when Nicholas and his family were shot."
"The world will never know what we have done," says one of the executioners of the czarist family in the final scene of "I Will Repay." The attempt to cover up what happened in the Ural town of Ekaterinburg on July 16-17, 1918, began immediately after the killings.
Most historians now believe that the killing of the czar was ordered by Lenin to make it clear to the Russian people that there could be no going back. This is sharply at odds with the official version, which asserts that the decision to shoot the Romanovs was made by local commissars frightened that the city was about to fall to monarchist forces in the civil war.
Every effort was taken to destroy the physical evidence of the crime. The 11-man firing squad was sworn to secrecy. It is thus remarkable that it is possible, more than seven decades after the event, to reconstruct exactly what happened in the hours and days immediately before and after the executions.
"Documents do not simply disappear. Whatever is done to them, they always turn up in the end," says Radzinsky, whose search through archives has enabled him to establish the precise weapon used to kill the last Russian czar. It was a Colt revolver, serial number 7195.
Radzinsky's major find was a long memorandum dictated by the commander of the execution squad, Yakov Mikhailovich Yurovsky, to an official Communist historian. The memorandum reads like a piece of black humor.
Practically everything that could have gone wrong with the disposal of the bodies did go wrong. The burial squad repeatedly tried to pilfer the corpses -- and was persuaded to desist only by the threat of summary execution. Nobody knew where the bodies were to be buried. Trucks either didn't show up or broke down at crucial moments. At one point, Yurovsky fell off his horse, badly injuring himself.
As it turned out, the fiasco helped to blur the executioners' traces. Monarchist troops who occupied Ekaterinburg some weeks later falsely concluded that they had found the czar's burial place when they came across a human finger, the body of a dog belonging to one of the princesses, and czarist memorabilia. What they actually found were parts of the corpses accidentally blown up by a hand grenade in a temporary burial site.
The bodies were to have been thrown down an old mine shaft some five miles out of town. But the carts got stuck in the mud. So a common grave, roughly 8 feet square and 6 feet deep, was dug instead. Orders were given to burn the bodies of the principal members of the family, but someone mistook a maid of honor for the czarina. Finally, the bodies of Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, their five children and four close retainers were drenched with sulfuric acid, and the hole was leveled and covered with slabs.
Yurovsky's account locates the unmarked burial place half a verst (500 yards) from a railway line on the Moscow road. A Soviet detective writer, Gely Ryabov, last year claimed he had opened the grave and found the skull of Nicholas II. Both he and Radzinsky are now campaigning for the czarist family to be given a proper Christian burial. Radzinsky wants the bodies to be transferred to the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Leningrad, the final resting place of most of the Romanov czars.
The house in Sverdlovsk where the family was shot was bulldozed and covered with asphalt in 1977. Its destruction was supervised by the provincial Communist Party boss, one Boris Yeltsin, who has since become the Soviet Union's leading populist politician. In his recently published memoirs, Yeltsin says that the ruling Politburo was scared that the house was turning into a destination of pilgrimages.
Foreigners living in the Soviet Union are frequently struck by the parallels between the power of the czars and the power of Communist Party general secretaries. Most general secretaries, like most czars, have been autocrats by conviction. To maintain control over a vast empire, they have relied on three huge institutions: the state administration, the army and the secret police.
Hard-core monarchists are offended by the comparison between czar and general secretary. A czar, they say, is chosen by God. A general secretary is appointed by the Communist Party. A czar rules in the name of religion. A Communist Party chief is the instrument of dialectical materialism.
"The alternative to monarchy is Communist Party dictatorship," insists Sergei Yurkov Engelhardt, the founder of the Orthodox Monarchist Party. "All other forms of government inevitably lead to chaos. It is better to have a czar, who acts within the framework of the orthodox religion, than a communist dictator like Stalin, who was a kind of illegitimate monarch."
The monarchist argument is that Russia is so vast and so diverse that it can only be united by an autocrat. It is the only empire in history in which there are no recognized geographical boundaries dividing the metropolis and the colonies. Millions of Russians live outside the narrow confines of Russia proper. Any attempt to give the colonies their freedom would result in civil war.
The monarchists who took part in the May 19 ceremony in the Donski monastery on the 122nd birthday of Nicholas II expressed different views about the form in which the monarchy should be restored. Some insisted that an all-Russian sobor, or assembly of noblemen, should be convened to elect a new monarch. Others insisted mysteriously that the final choice could be made only by God.
"I am for an absolute monarchy," said Father Evmagen, a monk from Zagorsk, clutching a picture of the "martyred" Nicholas and kissing it with alarming frequency. "If you are free to decide what czar to choose, or whether or not to obey his orders, it's not a real monarchy."
Several vans full of policemen showed up outside the monastery after the monarchists, some in czarist uniforms, started singing "God Save the Czar" and other anthems. But the police watched from a distance and did not interfere. "We have glasnost here," shrugged one plainclothes policeman. "They can do what they like as long as they don't create a disturbance."
Passersby also seemed more amused than alarmed at the sight of their fellow citizens praying for the return of the Romanovs. "It's impossible, just utopia," was a typical comment. A more sophisticated reaction was that Russia has suffered enough from autocracy and it was time for democracy.
"We don't need another strong personality to rule over us," said Evgeni Miterkov, the head of a motor pool at a factory. "Lenin was a strong personality. So was Stalin. All we have gotten out of this kind of rule is a ruined economy. We need a strong parliament, not a strong ruler."
For the moment, the monarchists are operating at the margins of mainstream Soviet politics. Their chances of winning an election, let alone restoring the Romanov dynasty, seem remote. But Russia is a strange and capricious land.
"Only a fool would predict the future," said Radzinsky. "We are already getting rid of many of the things that were introduced by the Bolsheviks. The restoration of some kind of constitutional monarchy is also a theoretical possibility.
"There's clearly a need for some kind of force capable of making himself president. But perhaps he will not succeed. Then there will be calls for the establishment of a new authority based on religion. Anything can happen. Russia is a country of miracles."