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 the grave.

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 forgiveness.

The following is the text of President Yeltsin’s short, but powerful, speech:

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, p. A4.)

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.