Thursday, October 2, 2008

Russia‘s last czar and his slain family were victims of political repression, the country’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that will help Russia move toward closing a chapter in its tortured history.

The decision by the court’s appeals panel is a victory for Czar Nicholas II’s descendants, who have been trying for years to get authorities to acknowledge that the family was executed for political reasons.

Nicholas abdicated in 1917 as revolutionary fervor swept Russia, and he and his family were detained. The czar, his wife Alexandra and their son and four daughters were fatally shot by a Bolshevik firing squad on July 17, 1918, in a basement room of a merchant’s house where they were held in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg.

Wednesday’s decision to “rehabilitate” the czar’s family won’t change many minds among Russians today: True Russian Orthodox believers share the church’s veneration of the family as saints, while die-hard communists see them as criminals, and millions of other Russians place them somewhere in between.

But it is a step in the direction of condemnation of the Bolsheviks who killed the family and, by extension, of the entire Soviet era. Critics say the Kremlin has glossed over the Soviet government’s crimes to justify its own retreat from democracy.

Some historians had speculated that the Russian government was reluctant to reclassify the czar’s killing out of fear that descendants would claim state property, such as the State Hermitage Museum, as compensation. The museum is housed in what used to be the royal Winter Palace.

Prosecutors, lower courts and even the Supreme Court’s main body had repeatedly rejected appeals, saying the Romanov family had not been executed for political reasons.

On Wednesday, Pavel Odintsov, a spokesman for the court, said the court’s presidium accepted the appeals of the Romanov descendants to “rehabilitate” the royal family, declaring them victims of “groundless repression.”

The presidium, the Supreme Court’s highest appeal panel, has the final word for legal appeals in Russia.

German Lukyanov, a lawyer for the Romanov family, said the decision was based on law and said no politics were involved.

“In the end this will help the country, this will help Russia understand its history, help the world to see that Russia observed its own laws, help Russia in its development to become a civilized country,” he said.

The remains of Nicholas, Alexandra and three of their children were unearthed in 1991 and reburied in the imperial resting place in St. Petersburg.

Meanwhile, Nicholas’ heir, Alexei, and his daughter, Grand Duchess Maria, remained missing for decades until bone shards were unearthed in 2007 in a forest outside Yekaterinburg, not far from the place where the rest of the family’s mutilated remains had been scattered.

Officials said earlier this year that DNA testing had confirmed the shards belonged to Alexei and Maria.

The Russian Orthodox Church made all seven of them saints in 2000.

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