Unearthing the Past, Burying the Truth

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The authorities were silent as the grave when a group of American and Russian scientists made the sensational announcement last year that the remains of the woman who had been buried with all pomp in the cathedral of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg were in fact not the bones of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. If this skeleton was indeed improperly identified during initial studies, it is highly likely the other remains, said to be those of Tsar Nicholas II himself and his four daughters, are also someone else's.

It was only seven years ago that then-President Boris Yeltsin presided over a ceremony to inter the remains of the tsar and his family in St. Petersburg. These remains had been discovered in Yekaterinburg back in 1979. For years, the discovery was kept a strict secret until the amateur sleuths who uncovered the bodies officially announced their grisly find in 1991.

For almost seven years, the remains of nine skeletons were studied and genetic tests conducted. The final verdict was pronounced by Western biologists: The skeletons were all that was left of Nicholas, wife Alexandra Fyodorovna, their four daughters and their personal physician, all of whom had been shot.

The government decided to bury the remains in the Romanov family crypt, not far from the resting places of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and other Russian rulers. At least 90 million Russians watched the live broadcast of this incredible funeral.

But then, several years later, scientists from Stanford University, Eastern Michigan University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics decided to conduct a new study. And they concluded that the DNA of the executed empress' sister, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, did not match the DNA of the woman buried in the cathedral who was supposedly the empress.

When the study was released, many people in Russia suddenly recalled that there had always been doubts about the identity of the bones found near Yekaterinburg. First, the skull, which was supposedly that of the tsar, did not have any signs of the wound he received as a young man when he was struck square on the head by a fanatical Japanese man's sword. Moreover, Yakov Yurovsky, the Bolshevik who shot Nicholas, boasted in his memoirs that he shot the tsar at point-blank range, right in the head.Yet there was no trace of this wound on the skull.

Still others recalled the account of the investigator Nikolai Sokolov, who arrived in Yekaterinburg hot on the trail of the tsar's executioners after pro-tsarist forces retook the city in 1918. He reported that the bodies had been painstakingly reduced to ashes and scattered in a nearby forest.

Finally, people remembered that the Russian Orthodox Church had not officially recognized the remains as those of the tsar and his family. During the funeral, priests had refrained from reciting their names and simply said that their names were "known only to the Lord."

While Yeltsin might have been in a hurry to put the last nail in the Soviet Communist Party's coffin, God only knows who is actually buried in the tsar's place of honor. Probably ordinary victims of the brutal Civil War.

In the end, the identity of the bodies is not important. The American scientists' discovery will not change anything. No one is about to take the false bones out of the cathedral. If the authorities have decided that this was the tsar's family, then that's exactly what it is.

Unfortunately, the truth is of minor significance when official history is being written. This kind of history, especially in Russia, does not acknowledge the facts. It prefers to dwell on the legends and myths. This history implies that readers are not critically examining the past but rather lapping it up like little children. They are supposed to take pride in their country, delight in Russia's tsars, armies and brave field commanders, and revel in the nation's scientific discoveries and success stories.

This is more important than knowing the truth or what actually happened. This distortion of the past can become so absurd that even the nightmarish days of Stalinist repressions are hidden behind the era's great achievements in expanding heavy industry or behind the Moscow metro's beauty, crafted by the hands of countless prisoners.

This approach is deeply rooted in the Russian national character. Russians long for miracles and wonders. They love the breadth of the battlefield and the commanding heights of huge statues. They know, of course, that this is all just an image and not the truth of the past. But they yearn to be deluded, as dramatically and effectively as possible.

This amazement and pride offers people a basis for satisfying their ambitions. Russia would like to set an example for the rest of the world. The Soviet era allowed people to imagine themselves in this most flattering light.

After the Bolsheviks came to power, one of the first construction projects in Soviet Moscow was an exhibition detailing the achievements of agriculture. It was built on the site of today's Gorky Park in a time of extreme hunger. The exhibition hall was built of planks and boards by men using hammers and saws.

People wanted to prove to themselves that the victims of the Civil War had not died for nothing. Thousands of people came to see the exhibition, as if determined to be happy in defiance of everything around them.

Not long thereafter, the authorities decided to build a new exhibition, but this time out of granite instead of wood. The Exhibition of the People's Economic Achievements, or VDNKh, sprung up at the edge of Moscow. It became an entire city of palaces, fountains, parks and shaded avenues. It was opium for the masses carved in marble, a backdrop for bliss.

I can still remember how as a young boy, I came to Moscow from the distant Urals with my mother and how amazed I was at this city of happiness. I thought that soon the whole country would be just like it, an example for the whole world.

This is where the roots of our desire to sacrifice historical truth for self-deception lie. History has become a fairy-tale city made of marble. Only a small circle of professors, historians and experts care about the truth. This truth is not for popular consumption. The public has no interest in discovering it.

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer based in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.