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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nicholas II Clears Sainthood Hurdle

As early as next year, Russians could be venerating the last tsar, Nicholas II, as a saint on icons and in their prayers, following a decision by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to start the process of canonization.

The synod's decision, made last week but announced by church officials Wednesday, sets the stage for a nationwide polling of church opinion on the issue and for the church's highest council to make a final resolution as soon as early 1997.

A decision to add Nicholas, his wife and five children to Russian Orthodoxy's roughly 10,000 saints would dramatically reverse the official dogma of the past 70 years, which viewed the last tsar as a bloody tyrant. It would also be certain to prove politically divisive.

Church officials said if canonization were approved, sainthood could be bestowed on Nicholas as early as late next year, The Associated Press reported.

Historians, clerics and even the tsar's family acknowledged Wednesday that most of Nicholas II's life was not particularly saintly. But they said it is the manner of his death the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. Their bodies were dismembered, burned and then thrown down a mine shaft.

But while the Romanovs appear to have borne imprisonment with courage and piety, they did not die voluntarily and would therefore not be considered martyrs by the Catholic church, for example.

"He's not your most obvious candidate for martyrdom. You or I could have been killed like this," said Dominic Lieven, a historian who has published a recent biography of Nicholas. "He was not in any sense a martyr for his faith. He was a martyr because he got in Lenin's way."

Romanov had a rather different way of putting it.

"I think he died for his country," he said. "His faith was never challenged. He died as a sacrificial lamb for Russia."

While the Catholic church has traditionally associated sainthood with "the heroic practice of virtue," Orthodox sanctity can depend as much on external events that are beyond the saint's control, said Father Alexander Fostiropoulos, a priest at the Russian Cathedral in London.

"The church recognizes the holiness of a person not necessarily for what they've done but for what's happened to them," Fostiropoulos said.

While Nicholas abdicated as tsar in March 1917, following the February uprising, he remained head of the Russian Orthodox Church and many saw his execution as a symbol of attempts to destroy the church's role in Russian society.

"Nicholas' death stood as a sign of his times. Something sacred was destroyed -- I don't mean the monarchy but the belief in God," Fostiropoulos said. "This is not so much about Nicholas himself as it is a statement about what was said by his death."

Nicholas II, who ruled from 1895 to 1917, was by historical consensus a weak and indecisive ruler. Heavily influenced by his wife, Alexandra, he sought the advice of spiritualists and faith healers, including the infamous priest Grigory Rasputin. He frequently rejected advice he did not want to hear and believed he had a sacred duty to keep his hold on power intact.

But according to one contemporary account, Nicholas inspired visions of holiness in his wife as early as his coronation.

"When Nicholas II went up the altar steps the chain of the order of Saint Andrew fell to the ground -- a bad omen to superstitious eyes," wrote Alexandra's lady-in-waiting, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden. "But the Empress was not troubled by this. She saw the sunbeam that fell at that moment on his head, and felt it to be a kind of halo."

Nicholas' descendants also believe he had a premonition of martyrdom.

"He always considered himself as a sacrificial person. He said he was there to suffer, and he knew many years before his death that he would be sacrificed one day," Romanov said.

But Fostiropoulos and Romanov both warned that the family's canonization could be exploited by right wing extremists, while it is inevitable that Nicholas' canonization, like the mummified Lenin's continued public display, will draw sharply opposing reactions.

Communist spokeswoman Irina Makaveyeva has made clear her position on the issue, describing Nicholas as "one of the most bloody tsars of all," and asking why he should be canonized if Ivan the Terrible was not.

Crossing Alexandrovsky Sad on her way to work, Wednesday morning, Nadya Kolumbegova looked fondly toward Cathedral Square as she considered the canonization.

"The always kill the good people in this country," said Kolumbegova, 37, a saleswoman. "But God loves the good, and now finally we might see some justice."

Almost 80 years after their death, the Romanovs' reburial in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg is still being delayed pending the final result of DNA tests on the charred bones found at the mine in Yekaterinburg in 1991.