The prayers of the Romanovs

Among the few belongings that survived the Romanovs' last days, anti-Bolshevik troops found a book containing a poem given to the family that Grand Duchess Olga had hand-copied and hidden in its pages.

"Lord of the world, God of creation, give us Thy blessing through our prayer," it concluded. "Give peace of heart to us, O Master, this hour of utmost dread to bear. And on the threshold of the grave, breathe power divine into our clay, that we, Thy children, may find strength in meekness for our foes to pray."

Members of the royal family wrote prayers, spiritual questions and commentaries in the margins of many books. Their letters and diaries, and the testimony of their guards, yielded more evidence that their faith deepened as they suffered. Their executioners said the Romanovs died trying to pray and make the sign of the cross amid the barrage of bullets on July 17, 1918.

In his lifetime, Nicholas II was cursed as a bloody tyrant, while others said he was too weak. Today, many say he was merely inept or trapped in a tragic role -- an articulate, gentle man better suited to be a symbolic leader than an absolute monarch. But for some Russians, these temporal disputes have little or nothing to do with an larger, eternal question: Should the Romanovs be venerated as saints?

"Yes, Nicholas II was the czar. That's important and that made his death highly symbolic," said Father Alexander Lebedeff of Los Angeles, a Russian Orthodox Church Abroad historian. "But it really doesn't matter if he was a great czar. The important question is whether he died as a martyr for the faith. We believe that the Romanov family became an extraordinary example of piety and submission to the will of God. They died praying for Russia and for their persecutors."

The exiled church canonized the Romanovs in 1981, a step the Moscow hierarchy has declined to take. But settling the status of the czar may be simple, in comparison with answering questions about thousands of bishops, priests, monks and nuns who were jailed, tortured and killed. And what should be said about those who compromised, rather than die?

Meanwhile, the burial of the Romanovs sparked bitter debates among Russian historians, politicians, nationalists and the nation as a whole. Most scientists are convinced that the remains buried on the 80th anniversary of the Yekaterinburg massacre were those of the imperial family and its loyal servants. Others, especially Orthodox leaders, insist that they still have doubts

Russian President Boris Yeltsin bluntly talked about sin, innocence, redemption and guilt during the rites in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg.

"Those who committed this crime are guilty as are those who approved of it for decades. We are all guilty," he said. "We must end this century, which has been an age of blood and violence in Russia, with repentance and peace. ^E This is our historical chance."

Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, who refused to attend the rites, had earlier issued a national call for repentance for the sin of "apostasy and regicide."

"Repentance for it should become a sign of the unity of our people, which is reached not through indifferent acquiescence but thoughtful reflection on what happened to the country and the people. Only then it will be a unity not in form but in spirit," he said.

It may take a generation or more to find any unity in the soul of Russia. But Lebedeff noted that the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the Moscow Patriarchate have, ironically, found common ground on one issue -- perhaps the first time they've been united on anything.

"Both churches have strong doubts about whether these remains are, in fact, the bodies of the czar and his family," he said. "But beyond that, we just don't believe that this is the kind of issue that can be settled on a timetable set by the government. You simply cannot settle for the work of scientific commissions and DNA research when you are dealing with questions about what may or may not be the holy relics of martyrs."