Taking Responsibility for Russia's Past
On Friday, July 17, 1998, exactly 80 years to the day since the Romanov
family and its retinue were shot to death by Communist Party functionaries,
Czar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra, and three of their five
children were buried in the crypt of the 18th century Cathedral of Saint
Peter and Saint Paul in St. Petersburg, Russia. The bloody murder of the
imperial family, which took place in Yekaterinburg, a Ural Mountains city
where the royal family was held captive, was done on direct orders from
Vladimir Lenin and, for this reason, the re-burial ceremony was viewed
as a politically explosive event.
After considerable vacillation, President Boris Yeltsin agreed to attend
the burial service. When the coffins were lowered into a common crypt,
Yeltsin held his right hand to his heart and bowed three times before
In the presence of more than 50 members of the Romanov family, as well
as many Russian government leaders and dignitaries -- with the notable
exception of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church -- Yeltsin expressed
profound regret for the shooting and asked for forgiveness.
President Yeltsin's "Confession"
President Yeltsin's address, which is reproduced here in its entirety,
is of great significance because of its uniqueness in Russian history.
In a thousand years of Russian history, there is no known record of any
Russian ruler ever apologizing for anything. The only Russian leader to
apologize to the people was President Yeltsin at another funeral, the
funeral for the three young men who were killed during the August 1991
coup attempt. During the funeral service for these three men, Yeltsin
asked their families to forgive him for his failure as President to protect
them. That was Yeltsin's first public confession, a radical act in a volatile
context. The Romanov burial was the occasion for his second request for
The following is the text of President Yeltsin's short, but powerful,
Dear fellow citizens:
It's a historic day for Russia. Eighty years have passed since the slaying
of the last Russian emperor and his family. We have long been silent
about this monstrous crime. We must say the truth: The Yekaterinburg
massacre has become one of the most shameful episodes in our history.By
burying the remains of innocent victims, we want to atone for the sins
of our ancestors.Those who committed this crime are as guilty as are
those who approved of it for decades. We are all guilty.
It is impossible to lie to ourselves by justifying senseless cruelty
on political grounds. The shooting of the Romanov family is a result
of an uncompromising split in Russian society into "us" and "them."
The results of this split can be seen even now.
The burial of the remains of Yekaterinburg is, first of all, an act
of human justice. It's a symbol of unity of the nation, an atonement
of common guilt. We all bear responsibility for the historical memory
of the nation. And that's why I could not fail to come here. I must
be here as both an individual and the president. I bow my head before
the victims of the merciless slaying.
While building a new Russia, we must rely on its historical experience.
Many glorious pages of Russian history were connected with the Romanovs.
But with this name is connected one of the most bitter lessons: Any
attempt to change life by violence is condemned to failure. We must
end the century, which has been an age of blood and violence in Russia,
with repentance and peace, regardless of political views, ethnic or
religious belonging. This is our historic chance. On the eve of the
third millennium, we must do it for the sake of our generation and those
to come. Let's remember those innocent victims who have fallen to hatred
and violence. May they rest in peace. (New York Times, July 18, 1998,
Open Eyes and Repentant Hearts
In the last one hundred years of Russia's history, many revolutionary
voices have been heard calling for violence and assassination. Michael
Bakunin, a fiery 19th century revolutionary agitator, argued that the
entire rotten structure of Russia must be razed to the ground before something
new could be built in its place. What was to follow was not his concern.
Bakunin's only concern was to destroy what existed.
In sharp contrast, Alexander Herzen, in a letter written in 1869, warned
that "great revolutions are not achieved by the unleashing of evil passions."
He then articulated a phrase that was forgotten as Russia experienced
many violent political struggles at the end of the 19th and the beginning
of the 20th century, including the murder of the Romanov imperial family
in 1918: "One must open eyes, not tear them out."
President Yeltsin's speech was an important effort to open the eyes of
his fellow citizens to the failure of violence as a tool in Russian politics
and to confess the guilt that all Russians bear for these atrocities.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote many years earlier, repentance is "the
clearing of the ground" for reform. Hopefully, Yeltsin's courageous speech
will encourage other efforts to open the eyes of the Russian people, address
the pain of the past, and move forward at last.
Dr. John A. Bernbaum
Russian-American Christian University/US Office, P. O. Box 2007, Wheaton,