Two of the greatest antagonists in Russian history once again are pitted against each other in an odd and passionate debate currently obsessing Russians: their burials.
The remains of Lenin, the father of the Russian Revolution, embalmed in a secret concoction, still lie in state in a grandiose mausoleum that dominates Red Square.
The remains of Czar Nicholas II, whose execution Lenin ordered in 1918, lie in a government pathology lab in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg.
There is a growing movement, at least among reformist politicians and members of the intelligentsia, to bury communism once and for all by interring Lenin in a less conspicuous place. President Boris Yeltsin stirred things up last month by suggesting that a referendum be held on the issue.
The remains of the czar, some members of his family, and four retainers, were discovered in 1991 in a mass grave in Yekaterinburg, the city where they were executed. Ever since, the Russian Orthodox Church, monarchists and other traditionalists have been slowly paving the way to bury Nicholas II and his family with due pomp and ceremony in the Romanov family crypt in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
But formal plans to bury the remains of the royal family have been postponed at least twice. There are powerful interest groups who fear the political symbolism. And many people remain rawly opposed to recognizing the last Romanov.
Those passions were vividly illustrated on April 1 when the only major statue honoring Nicholas II - put up last year on a barren field in northeastern Moscow - was blown up with powerful explosives.
“This is a precisely aimed action against Nicholas II and his memory,” its sculptor, Vyacheslav Klykov, said as he inspected the rubble. “Now it looks as if he has been killed twice.”
A previously unknown group, which calls itself the Workers-Peasants Red Army (apparently after the official name of the Soviet army until 1946), claimed responsibility, saying it was an act of retaliation against those who wanted to bury Lenin, who died in 1924.
Communist leaders disavowed the violence, but, not surprisingly, they are vehemently opposed to any move to bury either leader. But it is the notion of removing Lenin from his bulletproof glass case that has them most upset.
Curiously, while monarchists and church leaders are lobbying to have Czar Nicholas canonized, some Communists are refashioning the father of Bolshevism as a nobleman and even a secular saint to justify keeping him in his exalted position above ground on Red Square.
At a recent, rather heated news conference on the question of burying Lenin, the issue became tangled up in a discussion over whether embalming was contrary to the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Some Lenin supporters argued that since some Russian princes and saints were buried above ground, Lenin should be, too. Lenin’s niece, Olga Ulyanova, 74, who attended, was asked whether her revolutionary uncle would have minded his followers’ trading on his class rank or cult following to justify his presence on Red Square. “He himself had noble roots,” she replied loftily.
When one participant compared Lenin, an atheist of Russian Orthodox background, to Jesus, Ulyanova was not in the least offended. “It’s quite relevant,” she said. “It doesn’t degrade Lenin at all.”
Ever since a pile of bones were discovered in a mass grave in Yekaterinburg, Russians have been debating what to do with them. It took years to convince skeptics that the remains were those of the royal family.
The Russian Orthodox Church also created a separate church commission to determine whether the czar should be canonized as a martyr. Those deliberations could take years, but already icons of Nicholas II have popped up in markets around Moscow.
Most Russians have accepted the bones in Yekaterinburg as belonging to members of the royal family.
A British team of scientists, who compared DNA of the bones with that of Prince Philip of Britain, a relative of Czarina Alexandra, identified them in 1993 with “98.5 percent certainty.” Russian and American scientists confirmed those results with even greater conviction in 1995. But the commission has not reached a final conclusion.
“It’s the endless commission,” said Eduard Radzinsky, the historian and playwright, who has written biographies of the czar and Stalin and who has lobbied intensely to bury the czar. “It’s a symbol of Russia. Everybody wants it, but for everybody it is impossible.”
He said that some members still harbored doubts about the authenticity of the bones.
Radzinsky said that one priest had assured him the bones could not truly have belonged to the czar because no miracles had occurred since their recovery.
“I told him that the very fact that former Communist Party officials and Russian Orthodox priests are sitting on the same commission should be viewed as the miracle,” Radzinsky said.
But it is Lenin’s fate that seems to preoccupy ordinary Russians most.
Alexandra Kuzina, 45, a chemist who was waiting in line on Red Square to pay her respects to Lenin, deplored any change. “The mausoleum reminds me of a time when we were proud and strong,” she said. “It’s a symbol of all the good things embodied by the former Soviet Union.”
Directly across Red Square, Svetlana Portuva, 28, disagreed as she emerged from the GUM department store, now a looming symbol of Russian capitalism.
“It should have happened a long time ago,” she said. “I mean, this person died, so he should be buried underground. How long can this go on?”