YEKATERINBURG, RUSSIA -- A few miles beyond the massive, belching defense plants that long epitomized Soviet power, a spare wooden cross in a lonely birch clearing has become a symbol of a different, and more sordid, side of Soviet rule.

This is the spot where Russian investigators have exhumed what they say are the bones of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, and members of his family, who were shot, maimed, burned and hastily buried 74 years ago by Bolshevik forces determined to exterminate all traces of the Romanov dynasty and create in its place a Communist state.

Long unaccounted for, the skulls and other skeletal remains pulled from a murky pit at the end of an overgrown, rutted road have helped spark a resurgence of long-suppressed interest in the czar. There is also a desire by many here to make amends for the cruel end he, his wife and five children met in this city, to somehow exorcise the sense of guilt engendered by an execution that foreshadowed millions more to come during the brutal decades of Soviet power.

"This is the place where the suffering of the Russian people began," declared the Russian Orthodox archbishop of Yekaterinburg, Melkhisedek. The Russian Orthodox Church is considering canonizing Nicholas II, who in death has assumed more of an aura of gentleness and intelligence than the monarch had in life.

Last week, on the anniversary of the July 17, 1918, execution, city and church officials of Yekaterinburg, a Ural Mountains city about 850 miles east of Moscow, staged a mournful theatrical production and religious service in honor of the last czar. They unveiled plans for a church on the site of the house where the family was executed. A huge cross now stands on that vacant lot, too, and visitors come daily to pray and gaze solemnly at the family photographs affixed to it.

Meanwhile, archaeologists and historians, eager to reclaim a part of history and solve the mystery of the royal family's remains, have been digging in the muddy earth for more skeletons and busily mapping the surroundings.

All of this activity comes after decades of enforced silence about the deaths. The Communist regime, after wiping out the family, decreed the incident a closed book, and made it personally perilous for anyone to examine what had happened.

Nevertheless, in the mid-1970s a group of residents of Yekaterinburg, then called Sverdlovsk, secretly began searching for the remains. In 1979, drawing on a loyalist officer's report of the execution published abroad six decades before, the group stumbled on the grave.

"We had looked and looked for the spot, but it seemed it had just disappeared," recalled Alexander Avdonin, a local geologist who headed the search for the remains.

Recognizing the danger and political impossibility of revealing its discovery, the group closed up the site. They swore to keep secret what they had found until the political conditions changed.

"If we had talked about the discovery, there is the strong possibility that we wouldn't be talking now, and then the place would still be secret," Avdonin said.

Indeed, for several years after the 1918 execution, the government denied that anyone other than the czar had been shot, and it did not discuss what had happened to his body. After World War II, a museum about the Russian Revolution, set up in the large white-washed house where the czar was killed, was shut. And in 1977, when Boris Yeltsin was the top Communist leader of the region, the building was leveled by order of the Politburo.

But under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness, in the late 1980s, new details of Nicholas's final days emerged. The czar and his family were imprisoned in the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg pending trial for crimes against the people.

But the times were turbulent, and Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, ordered the local secret police to get rid of the Romanovs.

At about 2 a.m. on July 17, Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, their five children and four others arrested with them were hurriedly ordered into the basement of the Ipatiev house. A few minutes later, without warning or a hearing, they were gunned down. Some of the victims who did not die right away were bayoneted.

The dead were taken away in a truck, buried in a mine shaft, then retrieved, burned, doused with acid and finally reburied in a shallow pit dug into a road where the truck carrying the bodies had gotten stuck. The corpses were covered with dirt, and some railroad ties were placed on top. The truck as driven back and forth over the spot to make the makeshift grave less visible.

There the Romanovs lay, undisturbed, until the day in 1979 when Avdonin and the rest of his group found them.

For 10 years no one said anything. Then, in 1989, one of the investigators, Gely Ryabov, broke the oath and announced that the bones had been found. But few people took him seriously, and the subject was dropped.

In 1991, amid the changing political climate under Gorbachev, Avdonin decided the time was ripe to reopen the matter, and he asked the Yekaterinburg city government to begin an official examination. On July 13, 1991, with the approval of Yeltsin, now president of Russia, the bones were exhumed, and an investigation of their authenticity began.

Avdonin said he agrees with the recently announced forensic analysis identifying the remains of at least three people: Nicholas, Alexandra and their personal doctor. In addition, he said, it is clear that the remains of three of their four daughters were found. American experts in DNA testing are expected to come here later this month to offer advice on further analyses.

But one mystery remains. The skeletons of two of the czar's children are missing -- his only son, Alexei, and one of his daughters. Failure to locate these last two sets of remains is certain to add to the already long list of people over the years who have claimed to be the czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, or the heir to the Romanov throne, Alexei. Avdonin said he believes that the missing skeleton is not that of Anastasia but of Nicholas's second daughter, Tatiana.

In Yekaterinburg, however, such mysteries no longer seem as important as the process of open atonement and reconciliation with the past.

"Regardless of our attitude toward the monarchy and Nicholas II, this tragedy of history should be preserved," said Gennadi Belyankin, chief architect of the Yekaterinburg city government and an anti-monarchist who secretly rescued a few items from the Ipatiev house before it was knocked down.

"As someone raised in a certain environment -- hostility to the monarchy -- I was taught that {the shooting of Nicholas} was the people's revenge for years of oppression," he said. "But reprisals against the children I could never understand."

Vyacheslau Zubov, 38, a lawyer, put it more simply as he stood in front of the huge cross at the Ipatiev site. "We come here sometimes and offer a prayer," he said. "But this is a sin you cannot pray out."