The Russian Orthodox believers who treat the Tsar like a God

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His secular name is Georgy Alexandrovich Shevkunov. Chances are you have never heard of him. However, he is regularly listed as one of the most influential people in Russia – at least as far as the opaque world of what passes for politics in the country is concerned.

On July 17, 2018, it will be 100 years since the last Emperor, Nicholas II, his wife, children and servants, were brutally murdered by Bolshevik thugs in the cellar of a house in Yekaterinburg, an industrial city in the Urals. And His Eminence Tikhon, titular Bishop of Yegoryevsk and vicar of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’ (to use Shevkunov’s full title), is the official Church representative to an important commission, which includes prosecutors, forensic experts, historians and government investigators. It is charged with a task worthy of an Ionesco play: to verify whether the murder of the Imperial family was “ritualistic” (in plain language, they were killed by the Jews) or just what most people think it was – a lawless summary execution of innocents. In this capacity Bishop Tikhon has become a central figure in determining whether one of the most enduring 20th-century conspiracy theories will be finally debunked.

Despite his relatively young age of 59 and secular education (at the Moscow Institute of Cinematography scriptwriting faculty), Bishop Tikhon cuts a remarkable figure. He is an abbot of a rich monastery located 10 minutes’ walk from the Kremlin and is chairman of the patriarchal culture commission. He runs a very successful Christian publishing house and is a bestselling author himself. His book Saints Without Sainthood, depicting his religious experiences and full of stories of miracles occurring in daily life, has sold three million copies so far.

The bishop is rumoured to be President Putin’s personal confessor. He neither confirms nor denies it. But even if (as is likely) he isn’t, Tikhon’s close connections to Putin’s entourage, and his ability to raise funds from state-owned companies like Gazprom or Rosneft for different projects, are phenomenal. These projects – exhibitions, film screenings and books – mix Russian imperial pride, anti-Western themes and Orthodoxy in a patriotic amalgam favoured by the Putin regime. In short, the young, very conservative and connected Eminence is well positioned to tackle the weird Romanov murder problem.

Ever since the late 1920s the story that the tsar and his family were murdered by Jews has lived in émigré circles. Jews indeed were very active and prominent in the Bolshevik party, a logical consequence of nearly two centuries of the imperial government’s anti-Semitic policies. Two of the murderers – Yurovsky and Goloshchekin – came from the Jewish families but forsook their heritage by embracing communism’s godless creed.

Crime scene investigations conducted by the anti-communist White forces after they took Yekaterinburg from the Reds in 1918 showed several incongruities, as well as a mysterious inscription on one of the walls of the cellar which was interpreted as a cabbalistic cypher.

The house was demolished in 1977 on the orders of a then little-known regional party chief called Boris Yeltsin. The bodies were not found until 1979 and even then the discovery was not made public. It was a detective story writer turned amateur sleuth who dug them up and had to bury them again. The USSR never made this discovery official. The remains were publicly exhumed only in 1991.

This long absence of evidence and official silence fuelled the “ritualistic murder” conspiracy (in fact, just another version of the old blood libel). It was embellished by macabre rumours such as Lenin keeping the Tsar’s severed head in a formaldehyde-filled glass jar on his Kremlin desk. For many White Russians – and for the staunchly anti-communist émigré Russian Orthodox Church Abroad – anti-Semitism was an important element of their ideological outlook. “Jewish commissars” were blamed for destroying “Holy Rus” and killing the Emperor, who, as anointed absolute sovereign, was for them the embodiment of Russia itself.

In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad beatified the Emperor, Empress Alexandra, their children and all servants as martyrs and “passion bearers” (those who faced death in a Christ-like manner). Curiously, among them was a Catholic: the footman Aloise Trupp. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union the Orthodox Church in Russia proper followed suit in 2000 but omitted the servants altogether – a case of ecclesiastical snobbery so characteristic of all post-Soviet structures.

In the 1990s a government commission and a group of pathologists, geneticists, historians and investigators determined that the remains discovered near Yekaterinburg were indeed those of the imperial family – minus Alexei, an heir to the throne, and Grand Duchess Maria; they were authentic. The Duke of Edinburgh, a close relative of Nicholas II, participated in the DNA tests.

But the Church refused to recognise the results. When in 1998 the remains of Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatyana and Anastasia were solemnly interred in the Romanov crypt in St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress in the presence of Boris Yeltsin, the priests’ incantations did not mention the names of the buried, just “the victims of godless terror”.

Things haven’t changed since then, even after the bones of the two missing imperial children were discovered in 2007 not far from the first remains. A minority of Orthodox believers and clerics insist on the “ritualistic murder” explanation. These people have de facto deified the tsar. There is even a name for them in Russian – tsarebozhniki – literally translated as the “god-tsarists”. This has all the traits of a heresy, but Patriarch Kirill is shy about dealing with it. The problem for him is that tsarebozhniki form the most vocal, best organised and politicised part of the Russian Orthodox believers and clergy, including quite a few bishops.

The Church hierarchy has no one to blame for this state of affairs but itself. Staunchly anti-democratic and closely identifying with the imperial idea, it absorbed and magnified the defensiveness, the inferiority complex and lack of self-respect that Russian society has suffered from ever since the Soviet Union collapsed and the moral vacuum that this created became frighteningly evident. The nostalgia for a strong-arm regime in which all problems are solved by a benign autocrat grew only stronger with the economic difficulties of the post-communist transition.

The patriarch seems to be broadly in agreement with these sentiments – although not with the worship of the tsar. But he is disliked by the tsar-worshippers and broadly by the conservative elements in his own Church. To the outside world, Patriarch Kirill looks like one of Putin’s staunchest allies, as well as one of the most conservative major Church leaders. But to a significant part of his own flock he is a traitor who is in cahoots with Pope Francis to “sell the Russians to the Catholics”.

His meeting with the Pope in Havana in 2016 produced a wave of rumours of a “secret joint liturgy” and even “mutual Communion”. The patriarch is criticised for speaking to leaders of the other Christian churches (which are all “heretical”). His close relationship with big business means he is “in thrall to the Jewish billionaires” in ultra-conservatives’ eyes.

Kremlin officials in their turn found this brand of aggressive nostalgia conducive to their own agenda – which is to stay in power for as long as they wish. Putin, who is not so subtly presenting himself as a sovereign in a republican lounge suit instead of a mantle, likes to cater to the ultra-conservatives – but only among other constituencies. He also always likes things to be under his control. In his KGB-trained mind any independent initiative, even if it is loyalist and patriotic, is suspicious.

And things were getting slightly out of control in 2017. The tsar-worshippers launched an unprecedented campaign of intimidation and harassment against the creators of a film called Mathilde. It is a fantasy on the theme of a well-known love affair between the young Nicholas II, when he was heir to the throne, and the famous ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaya. The campaign included rallies and death threats against actors, crew and director (who happens to be partly Jewish). At least one cinema was firebombed.

This seems to have given the Kremlin pause and possibly led to a few phone calls to the patriarch to find out whether he could reason with the vigilantes. He evidently cannot. That is, if he doesn’t want to be portrayed not only as a slave to the Vatican but also as an accessory to “godless Jewish Freemasons spitting on the grave of our beloved tsar and saint” (to quote one of the tsarebozhniki blogs).

With the anniversary of the Yekaterinburg murder approaching, it is impossible to predict what will happen in 2018. Both Putin and Patriarch Kirill must mark the date, but ideally it should be solemn, controversy-free and conducive to their political goals.

This is especially true for Putin. He aspires to an image of a wise leader who gave the Russians back their glory and finally ended the civil war between the Reds and the Whites by creating a new historical narrative in which both camps were right and patriotic – thus washing the Soviet state of its multiple crimes. He is no fan of the gulag. But in Putin’s world the Russian state and its leaders – be it emperors, general secretaries or presidents – are always right and people should never question their actions.

Putin does not condone Stalin’s terror. What he does is laud the people for not rebelling against the communists even during the “great terror”. For the president, the Romanov murder anniversary and the burial of the Tsarevich and Grand Duchess Maria are events which will put him on a par with Yeltsin, the founder of modern Russia, a flawed but colossal figure. It will also solidify his image as someone who gave the Russians their new history: that of brilliant victories and shining achievements in which the state was always right and the people secure only when they followed their wise leaders.

For the patriarch, 2018 is a chance to put to rest the Romanov murder conspiracy and to showcase the strong bonds between his Church and the Kremlin.

For Bishop Tikhon, his new task is a way of showing that he can navigate the labyrinth of the Kremlin, the Orthodox hierarchy and public opinion. He is putting his so far impeccable ultraconservative credentials on the line. If the bishop ensures that at least some of the tsar-worshippers are content with the official report denying “ritualistic murder” (some will never be convinced) and the movement abates, he may well become a figure second in Church influence only to the patriarch himself.

Bishop Tikhon is said to harbour even higher hopes: to make good on the name he chose as monk. His namesake, St Tikhon (Vassily Bellavin), was elected as the first Patriarch of Moscow after Peter the Great abolished the position nearly 200 years earlier. It happened in the revolutionary year of 1917.

Konstantin von Eggert is a commentator and host for TV Dozhd (TV Rain), Russia’s independent television channel. He was the BBC Russian Service Moscow bureau editor from 2002 to 2009

This article first appeared in the December 22, 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald