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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yekaterinburg Harbors Ghosts of Tsar's Death




YEKATERINBURG, Ural Mountains -- The remains of the last Russian tsar, his wife and three of their five children were flown from Yekaterinburg to St. Petersburg on Thursday, but the memory of their brutal death 80 years ago will forever stay in this industrial city on the border of European Russia and Siberia.


When the Bolsheviks turned the house of a local engineer called Ipatiev into a prison for the royal family in 1918, they put up a wooden fence around it. It was there that the tsar and his family were shot.


The house was demolished in 1977 on the orders of Boris Yeltsin, then local Communist Party secretary. Authorities wanted to destroy the site because it had become a place of clandestine pilgrimage in defiance of communist ideology.


Today the site is still surrounded by a tall fence, albeit a concrete one.


This time, it is a construction site. The Orthodox Church has just erected a new bronze memorial cross in front of a wooden chapel that marks the site of the murder. Work went on day and night to finish it for the anniversary.


"Bend, Russia, down on your knees at the foot of the tsar's cross," is written on its marble podium.


But Yekaterinburg's governor, Eduard Rossel, and the Russian Orthodox Church have more ambitious plans to build a new church called "Church on the Spilt Blood" -- the same name as the church in St. Petersburg that was built on the spot where Nicholas' grandfather, Alexander II, was killed.


Plans for the church have existed since the early 1990s, but a fund that attracted donations from Russian emigres was stolen and the priest who was in charge of it fled the city.


Rossel said at a news conference this week that he had taken personal charge of a new fund. The estimated total cost of the church project is 120 million rubles ($19 million), he said.


For some people in Yekaterinburg, Rossel's plans seem extravagant. "Why does one need it -- so many expenses," said Vladimir Tobolnitsky, 41, a driver. "Why don't they pay salaries to people first?" he asked.


One more puzzle that haunts Yekaterinburg is the fate of two murdered members of the tsar's family whose bodies were not unearthed in 1991 -- those of the heir apparent Alexy and his sister Maria. They were not found with the other nine bodies of the tsar, his family and servants. Earlier this year, geologist and amateur historian Alexander Avdonin, who in the late 1970s first discovered the remains of the royal family, announced he had a lead about the location of the bodies of Alexy and Maria.


Rossel said this week that he would start the search right after the tsar was buried. He said that some of the city's businesses had already pledged donations to fund the project.


But Avdonin said this week that he is not sure he wants to unearth these remains. He said that unlike the remains exhumed in 1991, whichwere more or less full skeletons, these remains are most likely just fragments of burned bones. The identification of the nine bodies of the tsar's family and their servants, which have already been discovered, took seven years and caused a lot of controversy. Identifying the remains of Alexy and Maria could be even more problematic.


"We will be simply considered adventurers," Avdonin said. "Maybe they should stay in the soil of Yekaterinburg."