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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Morgue to Cathedral by Truck and Jet

YEKATERINBURG, Ural Mountains and ST. PETERSBURG -- Russia began its solemn and modest final farewell to the tsarist era Thursday.

The remains of Russia's emperor Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, three of their five children and four servants made the long journey from their place of execution in Yekaterinburg exactly 80 years ago Friday to the final resting place of the Romanov emperors and empresses in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

The nine 1.2-meter-long coffins spent Thursday night stacked on a three-tiered podium in the main hall of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, awaiting final burial at noon Friday.

"It is difficult to dry my tears, because today and tomorrow is the greatest day in 20th-century Russian history," Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the world's leading conductors and cellists, who was exiled from Russia during the Soviet era, said in St. Petersburg.

"We will leave here and understand that a great sin was committed in Russia, and that this sin caused us great suffering," he said, referring to the execution of the tsar's family and the ensuing suffering and terror caused by the communists during their 70-year rule over Russia.

The journey of the remains started early in the morning on the city outskirts, where the remains have spent the past six years on the shelves of the morgue in the regional forensic laboratory. At 8 a.m., as a military band played a funeral march, cadets of the Yekaterinburg Artillery School carried the nine decorated coffins down the steps of the building and loaded them on five Gazelle minibuses. The coffins of Nicholas II and empress Alexandra, covered with Russian imperial standards, lay side by side in the first bus that led the procession.

Half an hour later, the escort arrived at the Ascension Church near the Ipatiev house -- the place where the tsar and his family were murdered 80 years before. During the last months of their lives, the Romanovs could see the dome of this church from their captivity.

Reporters outside the church at first outnumbered the rest of the crowd, but over the next two hours, a quiet line of men and women, some of them clutching flowers, grew to exceed 2,000 people.

Perhaps some of them were drawn here by mere curiosity, others, by a general sense of history, but many who came to pay their respects and passed by the nine caskets standing in front of the iconostasis had profound feelings of reverence and even repentance.

In line with church policy, which does not recognize the authenticity of the Yekaterinburg remains, the royal family members were not mentioned by name during the litanies -- short Orthodox Christian requiem services -- that were performed at the farewell ceremonies.

The weather was changeable and unseasonable, provoking some to speak of a mystical portent. As the cadets took the caskets down the steps out of the church at noon to be transported by truck to the airport, the sunny weather turned gloomy, rain fell in torrents and the air was convulsed by thunder and lightning.

Then at 2 p.m., just as the caskets were loaded onto the transport plane for St. Petersburg, the sun returned.

When the remains arrived in St. Petersburg, they were greeted by a bright azure sky, lightly patched with clouds.

The funeral procession started at the city's Pulkovo airport, travelling down city streets to the old city, past St. Isaac's Square and the Hermitage, and finally reached the fortress

by 4:30 p.m.

Three sleek, purple buses, emblazoned on their sides with the name "Baltic Travel" in big letters, carried the Russian military honor guard and the surviving Romanov family members. The buses were rented in a sign of the lack of funds provided for the ceremony.

Behind them pulled up nine Russian-made, green GAZ minivans. In each was a coffin of the one of the nine royal and common victims of the Bolshevik atrocity.

Security was tight. OMON troops and military special forces patrolled the river in boats, walked the beach in front of the fortress and stood on lookout on the fortress ramparts.

Once inside the fortress, the cathedral's bells began to peel a 16th-century funeral chime.

Passing through the fortress gates, the funeral procession slowly

approached the cathedral, stopping just outside. The small coffins were then removed from the vans and carried into the cathedral by the Russian military honor guard.

Four representatives of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards were also on hand to play the pipe and drums as the coffins were escorted into the cathedral. They took part in the ceremony because in 1894, Nicholas II became Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Scots Greys as a present from his maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Despite the tight security, one protestor from the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Sergei Kinayev, managed to slip past the guards and held up a picture of Nicholas II that said "the Church Abroad protests this blasphemy." OMON troops quickly spirited him out of the fortress.

The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad believes that the bodies of the murdered Romanovs were entirely destroyed with acid by the Bolsheviks immediately after the execution, and accuses the government of putting on a political show.

Once inside the cathedral, the coffins -- those of the royals were laced with gold-colored trimming, and the servants with silver-colored -- were laid on a three-tiered podium.

The emperor and empress were placed on the highest tier, followed by the children, and finally, the servants on the lowest.

In front of the podium stood the St. Petersburg Male Choir, which sang Orthodox liturgical hymns. Behind them towered the cathedral's iconostasis, with large gaping holes as a number of icons have been under restoration for years.

The 50 surviving Romanovs, most dressed in black and some in grey, kept a stiff upper lip and filed solemnly into the cathedral and past the coffins to pay their respects. The coffins will be placed in a special crypt at a ceremony to be attended by President Boris Yeltsin at noon Friday.