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Where the Romanovs Became Holy Martyrs

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/travel/03heads.html?em August 3, 2008 Heads Up | Yekaterinburg, Russia Where the Romanovs Became Holy Martyrs By SOPHIA
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      August 3, 2008
      Heads Up | Yekaterinburg, Russia
      Where the Romanovs Became Holy Martyrs

      THE scene was both moving and slightly surreal.
      On an overcast day in mid-May, a group of Russian
      tourists — families, fashionably dressed
      students, ruddy-cheeked, middle-aged men — milled
      around the Holy Royal Passion-Bearers Monastery,
      a collection of log churches set among birch
      trees on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg. The mood
      was somber. A few people made the Sign of the
      Cross; others bowed reverently, whispering the
      words “how awful” as they took in the sights.
      This tour group, having come minutes earlier from
      the Yekaterinburg train station, was bearing
      witness to one of the most notorious events in
      Russian history: the slaughter on July 17, 1918,
      of Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their five children.

      The monastery, also known as Ganina Yama, is
      built on the grounds surrounding the mine shaft
      where bones of the Romanovs were found in the
      1970s (though not revealed by the authorities
      until the 1990s), having been doused in acid decades earlier.

      Ninety years after the execution of the royal
      family (along with their doctor and servants)
      came to symbolize the Russian Revolution — the
      anniversary was marked in July with services and
      processions at Yekaterinburg’s shrines — the
      Romanovs still have a powerful hold on the public consciousness.

      In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized
      them as “passion-bearers” for steadfast faith in
      the face of death. And Yekaterinburg, a city of
      1.3 million in Russia’s Urals region, has become
      a center of religious pilgrimage and a somewhat
      unlikely tourism destination for growing numbers of Russians.

      “Reds and Whites, they were a broken family,”
      Galina Yermoshina, our guide to Ganina Yama, told
      me after our tour. “We are all one Russian family.”

      In Soviet times, Yekaterinburg was a
      military-industrial center called Sverdlovsk, off
      limits to foreigners and adamant about not
      acknowledging its Romanov link, both because of
      the notoriety of the murders and out of fears
      that the city could become a haven for
      monarchists. Later, in the 1990s, it was a
      violent outpost of the Russian mafia.

      Now, it is not only one of the wealthiest cities
      in the new Russia, but it is also a busy tourist
      spot, thanks in part to its connection to the Romanovs.

      Among the city’s most popular attractions is the
      gold-domed Khram na Krovi, or Church on the
      Blood, built on the site of the Ipatiev House,
      where the Romanovs were imprisoned and executed.
      (Ipatiev House was razed in 1977 by Boris N.
      Yeltsin, a native of the Sverdlovsk region, on
      orders from Moscow when he was regional Communist
      Party chief. He later regretted the action and in
      1998 attended the Romanov’s belated funeral in St. Petersburg.)

      Flower-decked limousines pulled up to the Church
      on the Blood during my weekend visit in May. The
      complex’s upper church is Yekaterinburg’s most
      prestigious church-wedding site, while the lower
      church has a crypt said to be on the exact spot
      where Bolshevik executioners gunned down the Romanovs.

      Luminous icons portraying the Romanovs surround
      the crypt. Simple marble plaques below each icon
      give their names and date of death in a chilling,
      repetitive recitation. When I visited, poignant
      photographs of the imperial family were displayed in an adjacent room.

      Of course, not everything is so reverent. In
      modern Russia, commerce shares equal billing with
      nostalgia. Souvenirs sold at the Church on the
      Blood include reproduction monogrammed imperial
      family pillows and commemorative plates and mugs
      of the Romanovs, while at Ganina Yama, thirsty
      visitors can buy plastic bottles of Tsar’s Water drawn from an onsite spring.

      But there is also heartfelt pain over those
      events 90 years ago. Tourists are forbidden from
      photographing inside the church, but Galina
      Krotova, an earth-motherly dynamo who runs a
      collection stand near the crypt — she’s raising
      money to rebuild a ruined, forgotten monastery —
      has special dispensation and snapped me on her
      digital camera after positioning me in front of a
      particular icon of the Virgin Mary.

      The ray of light piercing the photo did not
      indicate a bad shot, said Galina. “This is a holy place,” she said.



      Austrian Airlines, Czech Airlines and Lufthansa
      all fly into Koltsovo Airport. Aeroflot offers
      several flights a day from Moscow, with prices
      starting at about 7,400 rubles, or roughly $315 at 23.7 rubles to the dollar.


      The Hotel Tsentralny has gone from “so Soviet” to
      “so chic,” and feels almost like a boutique hotel
      (Malysheva 74; 7-343-350-05-97;
      www.hotelcentr.ru). A double room is 4,600 rubles, including breakfast.


      Dacha (Prospekt Lenina 20a; 7-343-379-35-69) is a
      trendy take on country life, where a lunch of
      crab salad and an espresso will run about 570
      rubles, and the excellent piroshki — small
      Russian pies, both sweet and savory — cost 30
      rubles each. Bathroom walls are lined with 1937 newspapers (lots of Stalin).

      Serbsky Dvorik (Prospekt Lenina 53;
      7-343-350-34-57) specializes in huge, meaty
      Balkan meals. Dinner for two, with portions big
      enough for four, will run about 1,800 rubles,
      including a bottle of Serbian wine.

      WHAT TO DO

      Don’t miss Muzei Ikony (Ulitsa Tolmacheva 21;
      7-343-365-98-40), the small icon museum down the
      street from Khram na Krovi. Opened by Yevgeny
      Roizman, a local businessman and collector, it
      showcases a local treasure, beautiful icons from a town called Nevyansk.

      Tour group buses leave regularly from
      Yekaterinburg’s train station (be careful of the
      tour departures; they’re given in Moscow time).
      At 200 and 300 rubles respectively, the tours of
      the cathedral (part of a city tour) and Ganina
      Yama are a relative bargain and offer invaluable
      insights into Russians still wrestling with their
      past. (These tours are in Russian; tours in
      English offered by local hotels cost about 10 times as much.)
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