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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Immortalizing 'Russia's Golgotha'

YEKATERINBURG, Ural Mountains -- On a nondescript plot of land on Voznesensky Prospekt, 120 skull-sized stones forming a perfect square indicate the boundaries of the cellar of the house where the last Russian tsar and his family were killed by the Bolsheviks in July 1918.

Despite grand plans to build a church on the site including a year-long architectural competition and the international collection of a construction fund, the rocks and a skeletal frame of a small, wooden chapel are still all there is on a spot that marks a decisive turn in 20th century history.

"It is our Russian Golgotha," local Russian Orthodox Bishop Vladimir Zyazov said. "The church must be a symbol of our penitence, a visible act of penitence."

But while the Orthodox Church is considering claiming Tsar Nicholas II's family as saints, the project to build a church in their memory has all but been forgotten. "No one will pay that project any more attention. After all the planning, there's nothing. No money, no church and no answers," Vladimir Bykodorov, a former city council deputy, said with disappointment in his voice.

The council organized the architectural competition for the planned church in 1991, after the probable remains of the tsar and his family were discovered in an unmarked grave outside the city.

"The plans were done, we were ready to build," said city architect Gennady Belyankin. "The electrical wiring, the plumbing, everything -- it was all ready."

According to Belyankin, by early 1993 a fund worth about 500 million rubles (at the time roughly $1 million) had been amassed, mostly from Russians living abroad, for the construction of the stone structure. Others familiar with the project say the fund was much smaller, as little as $10,000.

Local church officials won't comment on such money matters, perhaps because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the fund's disappearance. Bishop Zyazov, at the time the assistant director of the project, said his predecessor as bishop was relocated to Voronezh and another priest working with the fund is now "who knows where." He declined to comment further. For its part, the Moscow Patriarchate was unable to give specific information as to the clerics' whereabouts.

Overseas, where the most successful fund-raising took place, what was once a high-profile project now attracts little attention. Several calls to New York emigr?s active in the Russian community yielded surprise at the news of the project's halt.

"I had heard about the fund, but I never knew about it disappearing," said Militsa Holodny, editor of Russkoye Vozrozhdeniye, a journal edited by emigr?s in New York and published in Moscow.

Some back in Yekaterinburg worry that the bungled fund-raising will jeopardize any future efforts to build a church on the site.

"People, Russian immigrants, have said that they are finished with us. They gave money and they see that there is still no church. And they say, 'This, we don't understand.' It's humiliating for me as a Russian," said historian Vadim Venir, head of the city's branch of the Center for the Investigations of the Circumstances of the Romanov Family's Death. The center, Venir said, is dedicated to setting history straight and showing through research that the supposed remains of the tsar's family are really those of his servants.

The Orthodox Church hasn't given up, but "right now the bishopric doesn't have the [financial] strength for this project," Zyazov said. Architects are now working on a new, less expensive design. But this time there will be no fund. As Zyazov explained, "We don't want to deal with that again."

The church is only one tiny project in the eparchy's grand blueprints to rebuild the region's religion. Of the region's 4.5 million people, about 10 percent are Orthodox believers. But their strength will grow as the church grows, Zyazov said. Five years ago there were 17 working churches in the region, and today there are 180. Just as this rebirth is important, so too is the eventual construction of a church memorializing the Romanovs, Zyazov said.

In 1977, the house in which the Romanovs were assassinated, called Dom Ipatyeva after its owner Nikolai Ipatyev, was torn down by Boris Yeltsin when he was the region's party chief. For the 30 years since then, the monuments to the tsar's family were weeds and a wooden cross. Now, almost every day under the waving flags of the monarchy and the Orthodox Church, a few religious believers work -- slowly and without pay -- to build a small wooden chapel dedicated to Nicholas' murdered sister, Yekaterina.

"This is purely political," said one of the volunteers, Alexander Bryulakov, while rolling up a monarchist flag at the end of a day's work. "Let democracy be yours, but monarchy is ours. It was as it should have been and should be again."