August 3, 2008
Heads Up | Yekaterinburg, Russia
Where the Romanovs Became Holy Martyrs
By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY
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 Yekaterinburgs 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 Russias 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 citys 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 Romanovs belated funeral in St. Petersburg.)
Flower-decked limousines pulled up to the Church
on the Blood during my weekend visit in May. The
complexs upper church is Yekaterinburgs 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 Tsars 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 shes 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.
FROM AUTOCRAT TO ICON
HOW TO GET THERE
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.
WHERE TO STAY
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.
WHERE TO EAT
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
Dont 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
Yekaterinburgs train station (be careful of the
tour departures; theyre 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.)