Sunday, 30 September 2007
Update in Anthropology, and an Editorial
Bones of the Romanovs.
The BBC have reported that Russian scientists have made preliminary identification of remains found in July, stating that they were highly probably those of Alexei and Maria, children of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.
The remains were found in Ekaterinburg, the location of the execution of the Royal Family. The remains of the family, along with their servants, were found in 1991, in a concealed pit north of the city. Two individuals were missing from the original site, however: the Tsarevich Alexei, and one of his sisters.
The identity of the remains was aided by DNA testing from members of the British royal family. Recall that the Tsarina Alexandra was Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is the grandson of Alexandra's elder sister Victoria, Marchioness of Milford-Haven; Philip provided the DNA sample for comparison.
The new finding should bring some closure to this question, that of the missing Tsarevich and his sister. In 1998, the then-identified members of the family were laid to rest in the St Catherine Chapel in the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia may now be joined by their lost kin.
For a Caledonian readership, perhaps more well-versed in the names and faces of the British Empire, a few points of reference are in order. Queen Victoria's progeny were found throughout the European noble houses; one of the well-known manifestations was the spread of haemophilia from her gene defect.
Several extant photographs show the Queen with her granddaughter Alix and Nicholas Romanov.
Alix in Coburg Summer 1894 with (left, seated) Kaiser Wilhelm; her fiancé the Tsarevitch Nicholas; Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria, Tsar Nicholas II, Alix and Olga, Prince of Wales, Balmoral 1896
After word spread of the execution of the Tsar, a popular cultus that developed around Nicholas. The so-called Tsar-Martyr was invoked in prayer and featured on icons. A hagiography is detailed here, with numerous accounts of supernatural events associated with Nicholas.
In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (one of the portions of the Church formed in exile after the Bolshevik revolution) elevated the Tsar and his family to sainthood, as 'passion-bearers' (страстотéрпец, strastoterpets) -- not martyrs in the Western sense, but rather ones who faced their end with faith. After 8 years of further debate, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate recognised the family as passion-bearers as well. This was not without some dissension; Nicholas' legacy of rule was not entirely glowing, and arguably contributed to the downfall of the Russian Empire. Proponents argue that, his policies notwithstanding, his personal piety was exemplary.
Somewhat out-of-character, I will offer a few thoughts on this recent update to the Romanov history. There are a few historical events which, when I learned of them in childhood, seemed to have a particular indelible and resonating quality. The murder of the Romanovs was one of those. No one wishes to dwell on disaster or evil, but there was just something about the story that begged for re-telling and re-reflection.* The tragic ending of the lives of the Tsar and his innocent family in a cellar at the hands of a Bolshevik firing squad is one of those pieces of history that cannot be un-seen, once seen in the mind's eye. Part of me has always been deeply moved and troubled by the image of the haemophiliac Tsarevich, the innocent Grand Duchesses, and the non-Russian-born Tsarina sharing the fate of the head of the Empire. Even if one reckons the Tsar's fate to be similar to that of a captain of a sinking ship, the fate of the rest of the family was an unusually cruel one.
So, on to the canonisation, and the associated difficulties. The despicable slaughter of the Romanovs holds just as much weight as that of all the nameless who suffered during and after the revolution. There were many more Anastasias than the Grand Duchess killed by the Bolsheviks and the Soviets. Does one slight the nameless when one reverences the now-sainted Romanovs? I would like to think the two are separated, the so-called New Martyrs and the royal passion bearers. Certainly they are separated theologically**, but on a humanist level, perhaps the Romanovs serve as a touchstone, a symbol, of the brutality of one group against another.
Regardless of my reader's spiritual and/or religious beliefs, I would put forward that, with this new reminder of the events of 1918 in Ekaterinburg, we strive to remember all such victims of violence -- and there are no lack of examples, from one's doorstep out to the ends of the earth.
I appreciate the reader's indulgence in matters more philosophic than scientific in this editorial, and will return the Proceedings towards more science in the near future.
* Note the particular interest in the stories surrounding the loss of 1490 lives in the North Atlantic when Titanic sank.
** Theology is quite beyond the scope of this periodical. Interested readers may contact me directly for references to the appropriate sources.