People gather at the Church on the Blood to mark the 100th anniversary of the executions of Czar Nicholas II and his family. The church was built on the site in Yekaterinburg, Russia, where the killings took place. (AP Photo/Aleksandr Abramenkov)

On July 17, while the world evaluated the U.S.-Russia Helsinki summit, Russia marked a historic anniversary: 100 years since Red Army guards executed Russia’s imperial family in the basement of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, Russia. In 1917, a year earlier, Czar Nicholas II had been forced to abdicate and surrender to house arrest and later exile. The gruesome end of the Romanov dynasty solidified the finality of the Bolshevik Revolution.

A century on, the family’s deaths sit uneasily in the narrative of Russian history — an example of Russia’s violent past that the state has not reckoned with to this day.

Remembering and forgetting the Romanovs

The Soviet regime silenced any public reference to these murders  and ordered the Ipatiev House quietly demolished in 1977. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, strove to place Russia on a path to Western democracy, in part by promoting a culture of remembrance and reconciliation with Russia’s violent past.

In 1998, under Yeltsin, the Romanovs’ remains were given a state funeral. In a speech at the burial ceremony, which was attended by government officials, diplomats and Romanov descendants, Yeltsin called for Russian repentance for a century of “blood and violence.”

But by 1998, Yeltsin’s democratic experiment had failed, perceived to be imposed from the outside, by the Cold War’s apparent winner, the West. In the decade after the Soviet collapse, Russia’s internal tumult — crime, poverty, emigration — reflected a loss of Russia’s prestige and international status.

Succeeding Yeltsin in 1998, and then elected in 2000, Vladimir Putin took a new political direction. Putin aimed to return Russia its status of a “great power” — equal to, rather than a student of, the West. Striving to project prestige at home and abroad, the Russian state shifted its politics of memory from atonement for violence to pride for a legacy of “greatness.”

Russia’s “greatness” became constructed from representations of czarist glamour from Russia’s imperial past and World War II heroism from its Soviet past. Nicholas II, Lenin and Stalin were cast as equivalent “great” leaders — even though the czar and the two Bolsheviks were on different sides of the Revolution. All three have been rising in popularity in the past decade, according to a poll by Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).

Putin’s strategy has apparently had some success. The Helsinki summit itself showed Russia being taken seriously as a great power equal to the United States.

The cult and politics of the czar-saint

The image of Russia’s “greatness” has been largely sanitized from its legacy of violence. It is perhaps no wonder that the 100th anniversary of the Romanovs’ deaths passed with little notice in Russia. No prominent state museums or venues hosted events to mark the anniversary. The few events organized were tellingly modest.

The largest commemorative event was held in Yekaterinburg, the city where the Romanovs were killed, and where the Russian Orthodox Church organized a 13-mile religious procession attended by 100,000 pilgrims and headed by Patriarch Kirill, primate of the Church. The remembrance of the Romanovs has been largely outsourced to the Church.

In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas II and his family, granting them sainthood as imperial “passion bearers” for enduring imprisonment and execution with “humbleness, patience and meekness.” Attendees of the Yekaterinburg procession could be seen bearing icons depicting the family.

The canonization of Nicholas obscures his lifetime identity as a powerful political decision-maker — and replaces it with a vacuous image of holiness, acquired at death. The academic consensus is that Nicholas’s inept governance fueled revolutionary turmoil. Nicholas stubbornly enforced his autocratic rule despite rising popular demands for representation.

The czarist government did not shy from violence to defend autocratic rule. In 1905, St. Petersburg police fired on a huge demonstration of workers, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries — an event known as Bloody Sunday.

Canonizing Nicholas absolves him of political responsibility for his reign and brushes aside the historical memory of violent repression of social freedoms. Moreover, the story of Romanov martyrdom stops just short of implicating the Red Army, which can still be lauded as having defeated the Nazis in World War II. The rising popularity of Nicholas, Lenin and Stalin signals a wider difficulty — the reluctance to recognize the violent legacies of both regimes, czarist and revolutionary. Yet this recognition holds valuable lessons for Russia’s civic development.

The Russian Orthodox Church suggests these were “ritual killings”

For the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanov memory and their martyrdom offers an opportunity to tap into Russians’ rising national sentiment. Since 2015, the Orthodox Church has been building a case to reopen the investigation into the Romanovs’ murders, arguing that they were in fact “ritual killings.” In 2017, Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee — the state’s main investigative bureau — reopened the case.

Historically, the term “ritual killings” in Russia has referred to the blood libel, or the false accusation that Jews kill Christian children for ritual purposes. The Church’s 2017 case for “ritual murder” has been widely understood in reference to the fact that Yakov Yurovsky, the Red Army soldier in charge of Romanovs’ execution, was Jewish. The spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, Boruch Gorin, told the Times of Israel, “When they say ‘ritual murder,’ the meaning is not ambiguous; we know what they mean.”

The Orthodox Church has dismissed accusations of anti-Semitism while maintaining that the Romanovs’ deaths were ritual killings. Since the case was reopened in 2017, little has been heard of the investigation, but it nonetheless presents a historically familiar brand of nationalism.

The Yekaterinburg commemoration shows the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, protected even in the face of civic critique. In 2011, for example, the punk group Pussy Riot staged a “punk prayer” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The group was arrested, convicted of hooliganism and given a two-year sentence in a penal colony.

A century after their deaths, the memory of the Romanovs and their murders remains uneasy and reflective of the vector of Russia’s politics. Outsourcing the commemoration of the imperial family to the Russian Orthodox Church has already taken a perilous turn, not least for the Church itself. Further, the constructed image of the Romanovs’ glamour and greatness might project a desired ideal, but it buries a historical legacy that Russia’s civil society can ill afford to neglect today.

Ala Creciun Graff (@AC_Graff) is a PhD candidate in Russian history at the University of Maryland at College Park.