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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gruesome Myth Clouds Tsar Debate

The question strikes those unfamiliar with right-wing Russian Orthodox monarchists as bizarre: Did Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, and his family perish in a "ritual murder" by a worldwide Judeo-Masonic conspiracy?

No matter how strange -- or repugnant -- the question might seem, it is listed on the agenda of the government commission charged with investigating the deaths and confirming the identity of the remains.

It is one of 10 questions submitted two years ago by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church -- even though church officials, joining historians, have denied that such murders have ever taken place.

Since then, the workings of the government commission had been in limbo until earlier this month, when its new chairman, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, revived its activities and said it must finish by January 1998. No date or place for burial has been set.

The church's bishops say they raised the question in hopes that the government will help them put an erroneous belief to rest among a certain segment of their flock. But that it even is raised at all is a testimony to the persistence of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories among some members of the Russian Orthodox Church's nationalist wing.

The belief in a conspiracy by Jews and Masons against Russia is held by some right-wing nationalist members of the Russian Orthodox Church, who already revere Nicholas and his family, killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, as saints and champion their official canonization, which is being decided by the church.

They refuse to believe that the bones exhumed in 1991 from an unmarked grave near Yekaterinburg are in fact those of the royal family, though forensic scientists say that DNA testing leaves no doubt. Moreover, these believers view the affair with the bones as a deception intended to hide the same conspiracy.

The myths alleging that Jews engage in a secretive "ritual murder" of Christians, sometimes to use their blood for various purposes, date back to 12th-century Europe, and has provoked anti-Semitic violence through the ages.

In Russia it was at the center of the Belis case, in which government prosecutors accused Mendel Beilis, a Jewish superintendent at a brick factory, of ritually murdering a Christian boy. The case was used by the extreme right and reactionary elements in the government as a rallying point against Russia's liberals, who were made scapegoats as Jewish infiltrators. Following a two-year trial, Beilis was acquitted in Kiev in 1913.

But extreme-right thinking has not changed.

Metropolitan Yuvenali, chairman of the Holy Synod's Commission on Canonization and official church representative on the government identification commission, said in a telephone interview this week the murder question was a response to "multiple publications on this matter, both immediately after the revolution and in our days," which have generated a following, he said.

"The church is concerned," Metropolitan Yuvenali said. "The very act of the funeral [of the royal family] should not turn into a wave of crazy anti-Semitic movements."

According to the files of chief investigator Nikolai Sokolov, the room in the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg where the family was killed, had a phrase written on the wall. It was a quotation from the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, written in German with mistakes and saying: "On this very night Balthazar was killed by his serfs."

Another document in Sokolov's files recorded marks on the window sill and the walls. Interpretations of these marks as secret signs and letters traveled from one monarchist emigre publication to another during the Soviet period until it reached the books and brochures published in Russia by extreme nationalists today.

One such book, "Tsarskoye Delo," or "The Case of the Tsar," by Leonid Bolotin, was published in Moscow in 1996 without identification of the publishers. According to Bolotin, a brochure under the pseudonym Enel, published in London in 1925, decodes the marks as "Here, with the orders of secret forces, the Tsar was sacrificed for the destruction of the State. Of this, all the nations are being informed."

The fact that there were many people of Jewish origin among the Bolsheviks, including chief executioner Yakov Yurovsky and the revolutionary leader Yakov Sverdlov, who reported the executions to Lenin, has long been fertile soil for such speculations.

Galina, 41, a psychologist who refused to give her last name, said that she began to revere Tsar Nicholas II after she read "various literature" about him. Gradually, she said, she came to believe that the revolution and the tsar's martyrdom were pre-determined by "forces of evil" which infiltrated Russia from abroad.

"From [early 19th-century nobility rebels] Decembrists to [mid 19th-century terrorist revolutionary] People's Will group, to Bolsheviks -- these were the movements, absolutely alien to the Russian spirit, which were bred in the depths of Freemasonry and implanted in Russia," Galina said. Masons are often lumped together with Jews in conspiracy theories.

The church attempted to dispel the "ritual murder" myths in the report of the commission examining Nicholas' potential canonization, released earlier this year. Scholars at the Moscow Theological Academy testified that "proceeding from the presumption of innocence ... the version of the ritual character of the murder in the Ipatiev house should not be considered proved."

The report, published by a low-circulation official church publication, did little to change in the minds of the conspiracy theorists, who have a longer tradition -- and much more literature -- at their disposal.

Metropolitan Yuvenali said that an official government document certifying that Jewish "ritual murders" do not exist, and explaining the mysterious marks, would help.