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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Will Attend Tsar's Burial

On the eve of the long-awaited burial ceremony for Russia's last tsar in St. Petersburg, President Boris Yeltsin announced Thursday that he will be among the guests after all.

"I thought about this for a long time, talked with many Russian citizens, notably those in the world of the arts, and I came to the conclusion that I should go tomorrow to St. Petersburg," he said in a special address broadcast on Russian television.

"The truth was concealed for 80 years. The truth has to be told tomorrow, and I have to take part. That would be the right thing to do from the human point of view," he said.

Yeltsin had earlier made clear he would not attend, apparently in deference to the decision by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, to boycott the funeral. The burial of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, three of their children and four servants has been shrouded in controversy since the Orthodox Church said that, despite scientific assurances based on DNA testing, it could not be sure of the authenticity of the remains.

It was unclear what exactly prompted Yeltsin's change of heart, but most commentators agreed that it was entirely in keeping with his mercurial temperament, and with his habit of catching out his detractors when they least expect it.

Yeltsin informed Alexy II of his decision by telephone on Thursday morning. A statement released by the Moscow Patriarchate hours later stated that the church "completely respected the moral nature of President Yeltsin's decision."

Yeltsin's sudden about-face though, left many politicians who had earlier followed his lead and pulled out of the ceremony, in an embarrassing situation.

Yegor Stroyev, speaker of the Federation Council said earlier this week that the upper house of parliament would not be sending a delegation, arguing that "we do not know who we are burying." But a sheepish spokesman for Stroyev said Thursday a delegation would now be going, led by St. Petersburg governor Vladimir Yakovlev.

Stroyev himself was staying in Moscow because he had to chair Friday's session of the Council, the spokesman added.

Moscow mayor and presidential hopeful Yury Luzhkov, however, stood by his principles and said he would stay in Moscow Friday to supervise the World Youth Games. "The decision to hold this ceremony was taken in haste and will not bring peace to society," Interfax quoted him as saying.

The Communist Party slammed Yeltsin's decision to attend the burial, saying Tsar Nicholas II had been a brutal autocrat.

Gennady Seleznyov, speaker of the State Duma, which voted against sending an official representative earlier this week, said the opposition-dominated lower house stood by its decision. "We made our decision and [the president] made his," he said.

Some analysts said Yeltsin's eleventh-hour decision to attend was prompted by political considerations. "This is the highest level of political intrigue," said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst at the INDEM think tank. "Yeltsin is again showing who is master of the house."

"Yeltsin wants to show he is a decisive leader," said Alexander Pikayev, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "That he is an independent character who is controlled by no-one -- not even the church."

However, Yeltsin may have been motivated more by a sense of moral responsibility.

Yeltsin has long viewed burial of Russia's last Imperial family as crucial to breaking with Russia's bloody, communist past.

In the 1977, Yeltsin, then Communist Party Chief in the Sverdlovsk region, ordered the demolition of the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg. The Tsar, his wife Alexandra and their five children were murdered there in 1918. Two decades later, it was Yeltsin who first proposed laying the Romanov's to rest with their ancestors in the imperial crypt in St Petersburg.

In a separate statement issued by the Kremlin Thursday, Yeltsin was quoted as saying, "Putting to rest the remains of innocent people who were murdered, the present generation of Russians is striving to atone for the sins of their predecessors."

Yeltsin, 67, will fly to St Petersburg Friday morning. He will return to Moscow the same day before heading off to the northwestern province of Karelia for his summer vacation.

He weighed in at a time when the funeral's guest list was looking increasingly sparse and many said the ceremony was beginning to look like a farce.

Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who headed the controversial Commission on the Tsars Bones, was the only top-ranking government official attending the burial, until Yeltsin's surprise announcement.

He called Yeltsin's decision "absolutely correct," and historic," adding, "Those politicians who used the opportunity to earn political dividends now find themselves in an equivocal position."

Members of the Romanov family, in St. Petersburg for the ceremony, reacted positively to the announcement, but added that Yeltsin's attendance would not change the nature of the ceremony in any way.

"I've just found out, I'm very glad, I can only be glad," said Nikolai Romanov in an interview Thursday at the city's Astoria Hotel. "I said it wouldn't make any difference. It doesn't make any difference. But it's a good thing he's coming.

"I don't know if he has changed his mind. I'm not inside his head. Perhaps he always wished to come and didn't say so," Romanov added. Asked if Yeltsin's surprise decision changes the nature of the event, he said, "No, it is a Romanov burial."

Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, for his part, called Yeltsin's decision "a wise political step" that was not unexpected.

"The governor expected this decision and always believed that the president would participate," said Alexander Potekhin, chairman of Yakovlev's Mass Media and Public Relations Committee. "The governor thinks this is a wise political step."

***Staff Writer Brian Whitmore in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.***