Requiem for the Romanovs

ROBERT MOYNIHAN

Russia today called to mind the events of July 17, 1918 -- 90 years ago -- when the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their children were executed.

A single tear. It welled up, then fell from the corner of one of the principal soloist's eyes, glistening as it ran down her cheek.

She was a young Russian woman, dressed in a white gown, and she was performing here tonight at the world premiere of a "Requiem Concert" in Russia's largest church, Christ the Savior, in a commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the execution of the last Russian Czar and his family -- Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatyana, Maria, and Anastasia, and their son, Alexei -- on the night of July 17, 1918.

In her weeping, the soloist was not alone. Many of the more than 2,000 people who filled into the concert hall of the largest basilica in Russia, the Church of Christ the Savior, bombed by Stalin and rebuilt in the 1990s, wept openly as they listened and watched the tragedy of the last Romanovs unfold.

Outside, a summer rain fell.

The story of the last days of the Romanovs is well known. Czar Nicholas II, embroiled in a terrible war with Germany and Austro-Hungary, decided to abdicate his throne on March 15, 1917. Without a single strong leader, Russia was soon in political turmoil. Out of the turmoil, the tiny but compact and single-minded Bolsheviks emerged as Russia's new rulers toward the end of 1917.

Nicholas and his family were soon placed under house arrest. They gardened, read books, prayed. Then, in the summer of 1918, on the evening of July 17, they were taken to the basement room of their prison, and shot to death. Their bodies were then burned.

Russia had made a clean break with its monarchical, and Christian, past.

The age of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and of anti-Christian state atheism had begun.

For almost two hours this evening, a Russian orchestra and choir alternated with historical and scriptural readings, accompanied by a skillfully done video documentary containing never-before-seen footage from the time of the Russian Revolution, to meditate on the Romanovs, and on the communist persecution of religion in Russia which followed for 73 years (1918-1991).


The Russian voices soared majestically, filling the hall. The images projected on the screen showed the last days of the Romanovs -- and moved the soloist to shed a tear...


The historical texts and music were by the Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, bishop of Vienna, Austria, for the Russian Orthodox in central Europe. Alfeyev also participated in the performance, reading Scriptural passages in which the sufferings of Christ seemed to foreshadow the sufferings of his followers in communist Russia.

The Russian voices soared majestically, filling the hall. The images projected on the screen showed the last days of the Romanovs -- and moved the soloist to shed a tear...

The Vatican's current representative in Russia, Papal Nuncio Antonio Mennini, an affable career Church diplomat who has labored for the past two years in Moscow to build a relationship of trust between Rome and the Russian Orthodox, was present in the front row throughout the performance. Also present were a number of Russian political leaders, but not the counrty's highest leadership.

I sat next to Mennini, and when the final crescendo, a cry of faith transcending all suffering and death entitled "Come, let us worship," concluded, in the quiet instant before the crowd erupted with applause, Mennini, who had seemed hesitant about the whole affair at the outset of the performance, turned slightly toward me and spoke a single word: "Bella!" ("Beautiful!").

That is sufficient commentary: the performance was beautiful.

But it was more than that.

It was a cultural and socio-political watershed for the Russian Orthodox Church in post-communist Russia, stating the case more forcefully and persuasively than ever before that Russia needs to acknowledge, and repent, of the crimes of her communist past in order to build a new, post-Soviet Russia.

The performance was woven of somewhat contrasting elements, containing aspects of a concert (that is, a purely cultural event) and of a religious service (the Scripture readings, the location -- inside the largest church in Russia).

But there are two things which especially stand out about tonight's performance.

The first: the sheer density of the emotion.

No one can contemplate the bloody murder of four lovely, educated, refined, innocent girls, and their young brother, without a shudder. This sense of horror is multiplied by the sense that the children in some way represented the nation itself. The czar "incarnated" the "essence" of the Russian nation, according to the monarchical thinking of the age, and his children were thus the "future" of the nation. To see them live so vibrantly, and then see their lives snuffed out so brutally, would bring a tear to many Russian, and non-Russian, eyes, and did.


The performance was woven of somewhat contrasting elements, containing aspects of a concert (that is, a purely cultural event) and of a religious service (the Scripture readings, the location -- inside the largest church in Russia).


Sound, sight, and moments of silence tonight combined to create a sense of being transported back in time, back to the World War I period, of being "eyewitnesses" to acts of terrific brutality and terrible barbarism. (There were moments in the film footage showing the actual execution of prisoners by pistol shots to the head.)

So this was not simply a musical performance, but a multi-media "tour de force."

The archival material uncovered by a team of Russian researches in recent months concerning the life and last hours of the Romanov family includes rare century-old photographs and film footage.

These images, particularly the smiling or pensive faces of the four daughters and the frail son, displayed on a enormous screen behind the orchestra, seemed to bring the viewer into direct contact with Olga, Tatyana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.

The orchestral music, the voice solos and choruses, and the photos and films gripped the audience.

This meditation on the murder of a family became a first-hand experience of a tragic injustice which unfolded inexorably before the audience, ending with shocking images of the children's lifeless bodies being burned and buried.

The second remarkable thing about this Requiem: the meditation does not end with the death of the Romanovs in 1918.

It is not focused on the last Czar alone, and on his family, though the anniversary of their deaths provided the occasion for the Requiem.

Rather, the performance continues after the deaths of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, right through the 1920s and 1930s, examining the tragic consequences for religious faith in Russia of the victory of the communists: the hundreds and thousands of Orthodox priest, nuns and laypeople imprisoned and executed -- and the many Catholics also arrested and killed. (This was mentioned in the performance.)

Thus, this performance transcends Russia's royal family, and takes up in a compelling way the "great question" of Russia's choice and and destiny and suffering during the 20th century.

In this sense, the Requiem is far from a "nostalgic recollection" of the "good old days of the czars."

Instead, it is a searing socio-political critique of the atheism and persecution of religious belief central to Russia's communist regime.

In this performance, therefore, the Russian Orthodox Church sets forth a powerful, emotionally compelling case for public recognition on Russia of the crimes of the Soviet period (the performance was blessed by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexi II, although he did not personally attend, reportedly because of meetings with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Cyprus, who is visiting Moscow in these days).

The orchestra was directed by a Russian general, Valery Khalilov, and was comprised of musicians from the Russian Armed Forces. This suggests that the Russian government gave its blessing to this Church Requiem for the last czar.

But Russia, like every country, is not simple, and Russia today remains deeply divided about the course it should take in the 21st century. And many around the world are watching with interest and concern as Russia seeks its way.

Though the Russian Orthodox Church is resurgent (near the end of the performance are the words: "We believe that Russia today is recovering by the prayers of all the new Russian martyrs, both named and nameless, and that faith is being restored on the whole territory of our great country"), there still remains a strong communist current in Russia, at least 15% of the population.

The communists tend to be defensive about the "Soviet time" and resist calls to "close the book"  on that period of Russian history (as some Church spokesman have urged).

I spoke today about the concert, and about Russia, with the head of the Publishing Council of the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Vladimir Soloviev, the principal sponsor of the event.


Rather, the performance continues after the deaths of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, right through the 1920s and 1930s, examining the tragic consequences for religious faith in Russia of the victory of the communists: the hundreds and thousands of Orthodox priest, nuns and laypeople imprisoned and executed -- and the many Catholics also arrested and killed.


"Russia stands at a crossroads," Father Vladimir told me. "We are struggling to decide what our national attitude will be toward our communist past. For example, there are some who argue that we should remove Lenin's body from his mausoleum beneath Red Square, at the center of Russia, and re-name those streets and subway stations in our cities which commemorate communist leaders.

"I personally think we should do this. We cannot fully celebrate our great national festivals on Red Square as long as Lenin's mausoleum stays in Red Square. Let it stay anywhere else, but not in Red Square.

"But not everyone in Russia agrees with us," Father Vladimir continued. "There are many who remain nostalgic for the communist time, many who were trained in Marxist doctrine to disdain and hate the Church.

"Russia is not a unified society, not yet. We are divided.

"This is why we chose to organize this Requiem Concert. This is not a liturgy, not a Church celebration, but a cultural event. We want to participate in the cultural debate in Russia today, and make our case.

"And that is a case we feel we can win. It is the case for Christ, for Christian values, for family values.

"Among the primary aims of the communists was the destruction of the family. Lenin was opposed to the family.

"And as we proceeded forward with this project, we realized that the suffering of one family, the family of Nicholas and Alexandra, the father, mother, son and daughters, all executed, could remind us of all families, and that recalling the death of the Romanovs could be an important moment for Russian society. All families need the Church, and the Church needs all families. And we think the members of the royal family, in their martyrdom, should become the official patrons of the family in Russia."

Father Vladimir said his Publishing Council is now preparing a number of new projects in defense of traditional Christian and family values, and he stressed that the Russian Orthodox Church is open to collaboration on these projects with Catholics, Protestants and all men and women of good will.

"The Russian Orthodox Church has never been closed in on itself," Father Vladimir said. "We have always been open to the outside world, to sharing our faith with others and to receiving from others the gifts of their insight and faith."

The Moscow Patriarchate, in preparing tonight's Requiem Concert, was supported by two American groups: the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Urbi et Orbi Communications, the publisher of "Inside the Vatican" magazine. To support this concert, Urbi et Orbi received donations from Cardinal William Keeler, the retired archbishop of Baltimore, Maryland, and two American Catholic laymen, Lawrence Neuhoff of Dallas, Texas, and Charles Parlato of New York, New York.

At a reception after the Requiem, Russian Orthodox Church officials publicly thanked the Bradley Foundation and Urbi et Orbi for their support, and awarded representatives of both the highest award the Russian Orthodox Church can bestow on any layman, the Order of St. Daniel.

Bishop Hilarion concluded tonight's Requiem for the Romanovs with these words: "The horror of a national tragedy could not destroy the hope for a breakthrough to light and the inspired certainty that the triumph of evil would be fleeting, and would be followed by a bright future, by growth in spiritual perfection, by restoration and revival. The heroism of the martyrs of the 20th century contains a reflection of the future Kingdom which is transfiguring everyone and everything to live in peace through Christ."

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert Moynihan. "Requiem for the Romanovs." Inside the Vatican, July 16, 2008.

Reprinted with permission of Inside the Vatican. Published ten times a year, Inside the Vatican provides a comprehensive, independent report on Vatican affairs with occasional special supplements.

THE AUTHOR

 

Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, a monthly journal on Church and world affairs from Rome. He is regarded as one of the world’s leading Vatican analysts and has interviewed Pope Benedict XVI more than twenty times. He received his Ph.D. in medieval studies from Yale University and divides his time between Rome and Annapolis, Maryland. He is married and has two sons, Christopher, fifteen, and Luke, twelve, who are both excellent soccer players. He is the author of Let God's Light Shine.

Copyright © 2008 Inside the Vatican




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