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ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—As I walked down the Griboedova Canal a few days ago, I gazed at the onion domes of the Church on Spilled Blood. The zig-zagging blues and stripes of gold on its seven cupolas glimmered in the sun, and no matter how many times I walk down Griboedova, their brilliance never fails to grab my attention. The domes, and the church they adorn, were built over the spot where leftist terrorists assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and have glimmered ever since as brilliant reminders of the old tsars in a city already filled with monuments to the Romanov line.
Indeed, big and expensive public spaces like the Church on Spilled Blood made St. Petersburg a showcase for the old Russian aristocracy. The Romanovs themselves erected statues, planted gardens and constructed enormous palaces in the city, leaving their permanent stamp on what was once a stinking, mosquito-infested swath of swampland. Enterprising nobles also helped build this neo-classical masterpiece of a city as they built huge homes on Nevsky Prospect, the Northern Capital’s main street. And except for a little crumbling, and some more recent renovation, the center of St. Petersburg hasn’t changed much for the last 150 years or so.
With these constant reminders of the despots of the old empire all around them, you would think that the average St. Petersburger would be all tsared-out. But it seems that even in Petersburg these days, Russians just can’t get enough of those Romanovs.
This really hit me after I took my eyes off the church’s domes. I was with a friend of mine, and as we went over to a nearby vendor’s stall to pick up a few gaudy, multi-colored matreshki (Russian nested dolls), we heard chanting behind us. We looked and saw throngs of people exiting the church and marching down the banks of the canal.
The procession started with a group of long-bearded Russian Orthodox clergymen dressed in their traditional black robes. They carried forked red banners as another led the chanting by speaking into a small microphone. Men in the back of the crowd carried racks of speakers to amplify the voice of the chant-leader. He would speak, and the long line of lay Russians would follow after his words. The chanting flowed beautifully back and forth among the crowd.
Then I saw what some of the others were carrying. Mixed in with the golden icons of Orthodoxy were framed pictures of Nicholas II—the last of the tsars. His image was unmistakable: thin brown hair, short beard, chest covered in medals with a pale blue sash around his shoulder.
When my friend told me that Nicholas II had been recently canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, it all seemed to make sense. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russians have been looking back more fondly on tsarist days. Old Russian typography is becoming increasingly popular in Russian advertising. Books on Nicholas that would have never made it to print 20 years ago now fill the history section of the city’s central book store, Dom Knigi (“House of Book”). Portraits of the last tsar are on sale a few floors up. And now he’s an Orthodox saint, if only of the lowest order.
As excited as I was to watch the crowd march down Griboedova, the exalted images of Nicholas II still bothered me. He was, as my best friend once put it, an amiable boob. He loved his family, but that didn’t make up for the fact that he ran his country poorly, trying to hold onto as much despotic power as he could. While most of Russia was barely emerging from the middle ages, he distributed jeweled Faberge eggs to his loved ones and held court in massive halls filled with gilded columns and polished marble. Of all rulers to canonize, why choose one of Russia’s weakest?
The answer, I think, is that, like every other nationality in the world, the Russian people need a history to cling to. The Soviet Union melted away more than a decade ago and since then the terrors of the country’s brave experiment with communism have finally been adequately unearthed. Many Russians can no longer take pride in their broken Soviet past. And as the Orthodoxy regains its centrality in Russian life, the values of old Russia—stressing faith, family and allegiance to one’s country—have begun to provide a new historical legacy to guide post-Soviet Russia. Nicholas, the loving and faithful father who was murdered with his wife and children, is the poster boy for those Russians who now cling to the values of the old tsarist regime.
I sighed and looked back up at the cupolas of the Church on Spilled Blood. Many have said that Russians need a tsar, that they want the certainty only a strong, powerful leader can provide. I only hope that the history Russians choose to guide them will not say the same thing.
Stephen W. Stromberg ’05, a Russian studies concentrator in Adams House, is an associate editorial chair of The Crimson. He is spending his summer pretending to be an amiable boob in St. Petersburg.
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