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Requiem for the Romanovs

by Robert Moynihan

Moscow 17 July 2008.

Russia today called to mind the events of 17 July 1918 - 90 years ago - when the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their children were executed. The country still remains deeply divided about the Communist period. Will Lenin’s tomb be moved?

A single tear. It welled up, then fell from the corner of one of the principal soloist's eyes, glistening as it ran down her cheek.

She was a young Russian woman, dressed in a white gown, and she was performing here tonight at the world premiere of a ‘Requiem Concert’ in Russia’s largest church, Christ the Saviour, in a commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the execution of the last Russian Tsar and his family - Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and their son, Alexei - on the night of 17 July 1918.

In her weeping, the soloist was not alone. Many of the more than 2,000 people who filled into the concert hall of the largest Cathedral in Russia, the Church of Christ the Saviour, dynamited by Stalin and rebuilt in the 1990s, wept openly as they listened and watched the tragedy of the last Romanovs unfold.

Outside, summer rain fell.

The story of the last days of the Romanovs is well known. Tsar Nicholas II, embroiled in a terrible war started by Germany and Austro-Hungary, decided to abdicate his throne on 15 March 1917. Without a single strong leader, Russia was soon in political turmoil. Out of the turmoil, the tiny but compact and single-minded Bolsheviks emerged as Russia’s new rulers toward the end of 1917. Nicholas and his family had soon be placed under house arrest. They gardened, read books, prayed. Then, in the summer of 1918, on the evening of 17 July, they were taken to the basement room of their prison, and shot to death. Their bodies were then burned.

Russia had made a clean break with its monarchical and Christian, past. The age of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and of anti-Christian State atheism had begun.

For almost two hours this evening, a Russian orchestra and choir alternated with historical and scriptural readings, accompanied by a skilfully done video documentary containing never-before-seen footage from the time of the Russian Revolution, to meditate on the Romanovs and on the Communist persecution of religion in Russia which followed for 73 years (1918-1991).

The historical texts and music were by the Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion, Bishop of Vienna, for the Russian Orthodox in central Europe. He also participated in the performance, reading Scriptural passages in which the sufferings of Christ seemed to foreshadow the sufferings of his followers in Communist Russia.

The Russian voices soared majestically, filling the hall. The images projected on the screen showed the last days of the Romanovs – and moved the soloist to shed a tear...

It was a cultural and socio-political watershed for the Russian Orthodox Church in post-Communist Russia, stating the case more forcefully and persuasively than ever before that Russia needs to acknowledge and repent, of the crimes of her Communist past in order to build a new, post-Soviet Russia. The performance was woven of somewhat contrasting elements, containing aspects of a concert (that is, a purely cultural event) and of a religious service (the Scripture readings, the location – inside the largest church in Russia).

But there are two things which especially stand out about tonight’s performance

The first: the sheer density of the emotion.

No one can contemplate the bloody murder of four lovely, educated, refined, innocent girls, and their young brother, without a shudder. This sense of horror is multiplied by the sense that the children in some way represented the nation itself. The Tsar incarnated the essence of the Russian nation, according to the monarchical thinking of the age, and his children were thus the future of the nation. To see them live so vibrantly, and then see their lives snuffed out so brutally, would bring a tear to many Russian, and non-Russian, eyes, and did.

Sound, sight, and moments of silence tonight combined to create a sense of being transported back in time, back to the World War I period, of being ‘eyewitnesses’ to acts of terrific brutality and terrible barbarism. (There were moments in the film footage showing the actual execution of

Prisoners by pistol shots to the head). So this was not simply a musical performance, but a multi-media tour de force. The archival material uncovered by a team of Russian researchers in recent months concerning the life and last hours of the Romanov family includes rare century-old photographs and film footage.

These images, particularly the smiling or pensive faces of the four daughters and the frail son, displayed on a enormous screen behind the orchestra, seemed to bring the viewer into direct contact with Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexis. The orchestral music, the voice solos and choruses, and the photos and films gripped the audience. This meditation on the murder of a family became a first-hand experience of a tragic injustice which unfolded inexorably before the audience, ending with shocking images of the children's lifeless bodies being burned and buried.

The second remarkable thing about this Requiem: the meditation does not end with the death of the Romanovs in 1918.

It is not focused on the last Tsar alone, and on his family, though the anniversary of their deaths provided the occasion for the Requiem. Rather, the performance continues after the deaths of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, right through the 1920s and 1930s, examining the tragic consequences for religious faith in Russia of the victory of the Communists: the hundreds and thousands of Orthodox priests, monks, nuns and laypeople imprisoned and executed…

Thus, this performance transcends Russia's royal family, and takes up in a compelling way the great question of Russia’s choice and destiny and suffering during the 20th century. In this sense, the Requiem is far from a nostalgic recollection of the good old days of the Tsars. Instead, it is a searing socio-political critique of the atheism and persecution of religious belief central to Russia’s Communist regime. In this performance, therefore, the Russian Orthodox Church sets forth a powerful, emotionally compelling case for public recognition in Russia of the crimes of the Soviet period (the performance was blessed by Patriarch Alexis II, although he did not personally attend because of meetings with the Archbishop of Cyprus, who is visiting Moscow).

The orchestra was directed by a Russian general, Valery Khalilov, and was comprised of musicians from the Russian Armed Forces. This suggests that the Russian government gave its blessing to this Church Requiem for the last Tsar. But Russia, like every country, is not simple, and Russia today remains deeply divided about the course it should take in the 21st century. And many around the world are watching with interest and concern as Russia seeks its way.

Though the Russian Orthodox Church is resurgent (near the end of the performance are the words: ‘We believe that Russia today is recovering by the prayers of all the new Russian martyrs, both named and nameless, and that faith is being restored on the whole territory of our great country’), there still remains a strong (secularist and) anti-Church current in Russia.

I spoke today about the concert, and about Russia, with the head of the Publishing Council of the Moscow Patriarchate, Fr Vladimir Soloviev. ‘Russia stands at a crossroads’, Fr Vladimir told me. ‘We are struggling to decide what our national attitude will be towards our Communist past. For example, there are some who argue that we should remove Lenin’s body from his mausoleum beneath Red Square, at the centre of Russia, and re-name those streets and underground stations in our cities which commemorate Communist leaders. I personally think that we should do this. We cannot fully celebrate our great national festivals on Red Square as long as Lenin’s mausoleum stays in Red Square. Let it stay anywhere else, but not in Red Square. But not everyone in Russia agrees with us’, Fr Vladimir continued.

‘There are many who remain nostalgic for Communist times, many who were trained in Marxist doctrine to disdain and hate the Church. Russia is not a unified society, not yet. We are divided. This is why we chose to organise this Requiem Concert. This is not a liturgy, not a Church celebration, but a cultural event. We want to participate in the cultural debate in Russia today, and make our case. And that is a case we feel we can win. It is the case for Christ, for Christian values, for family values. Among the primary aims of the Communists was the destruction of the family. Lenin was opposed to the family. And as we proceeded forward with this project, we realised that the suffering of one family, the family of Nicholas and Alexandra, the father, mother, son and daughters, all executed, could remind us of all families, and that recalling the death of the Romanovs could be an important moment for Russian society. All families need the Church, and the Church needs all families. And we think the members of the Royal Family, in their martyrdom, should become the official patrons of the family in Russia’. Fr Vladimir said that his Publishing Council is now preparing a number of new projects in defence of traditional Christian and family values…

Bishop Hilarion concluded tonight’s Requiem for the Romanovs with these words: ‘The horror of a national tragedy could not destroy the hope for a breakthrough to light and the inspired certainty that the triumph of evil would be fleeting, and would be followed by a bright future, by growth in spiritual perfection, by restoration and revival. The heroism of the martyrs of the 20th century contains a reflection of the future Kingdom, which transfigures everyone and everything to live in peace through Christ’.

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