“That’s where the Tsar was buried,” K had told me.
“That” was a simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross set among snow-sprinkled trees. It was late 2001 and K and I were on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the city notorious as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and almost his entire family were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution.
I took a picture of the cross but I didn’t find out where it actually was. So nearly 15 years later it was still uncaptioned in the album. If I was going to do a proper job of writing up this trip, I decided, I really should find out where that picture was taken. I did, but I found out, too, a little about how Russia has changed in that decade and a half.
I started by doing an internet search for the burial place of Nicholas II. The top result was Ganina Yama, or “Ganya’s Pit”. There were lots of pictures, and countless reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. But that couldn’t be the place where my photograph was taken. Sure, there was a plain wooden cross, a slightly different style to ‘mine’, but seeing as wood rots it could easily be a replacement for the one in my picture. However, everything else was different too. Behind the cross in my photograph there is a low metal fence and beyond that, under the snow, what appears to be a depression in the earth. Around that are some slender trees, and just visible through them a shadow of what could be a largish building. There are no people in the picture because there was no one else there with us, nor did we see anyone on the road leading to the burial place.
There were lots of people in the pictures of Ganina Yama, though, lots and lots of people. There were some trees around the cross, but far fewer than in my photograph. There was also a depression, clearly visible, but running round the edge of it was a covered walkway, a rather substantial, obviously permanent structure. There were pictures, too, of the seven churches at Ganina Yama, one church for each murdered member of the Imperial family, who were canonised as saints by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981.
Nah, no way was that the place I had been to. So I (pardon the pun) dug a little deeper. I learned that, while the Orthodox Church still officially regards Ganina Yama as the place where the bodies of the Tsar and the people murdered with him were dumped and burned to nothing, it has now been established that this wasn’t the case. The remains, of the Tsar, members of his family and a couple of retainers, were indeed deposited at Ganina Yama within hours of the killings, but they were not cremated there. (Attempts may have been made, but burning 11 bodies to ash is almost impossible, especially in a wood in the middle of nowhere and without fuel to aid the blaze along.)
Within less than a day it was decided that Ganina Yama was just too public, too easy for the people of Yekaterinburg to find, so the bodies were moved to a place just a couple of miles away but less obvious, called “Pig’s Meadow” or “Piglet’s Meadow”. This fact was established in the mid-late 1970s by three local researchers, but they kept their discovery secret until the Soviet Union had collapsed and the political climate changed. The site was subsequently excavated and the remains comprehensively tested to confirm their identities. In 1998 the bones of the Imperial family members were re-interred at St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in a formal and very public ceremony. However, senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the event, as the Church was still insisting that the Romanov bodies had been burned to dust at Ganina Yama.
So, it must have been Pig’s Meadow that K had taken me to. But while there were countless pictures of Ganina Yama, there were hardly any of Pig’s Meadow, and most of what few there were dated from around the time of the killings and the first investigation into the fate of the Tsar. Eventually, though, I unearthed some modern(ish) pictures of Pig’s Meadow. The only marker was a simple cross, but in some kind of black stone. The immediate area was bare of trees – and any possible depression in the earth – and bore no trace of any fence, present or past. Plus, the topography was nothing like that in my picture, unlike that of Ganina Yama.
After a lot more searching, I found an article on a Russian Orthodox Church news website. It was about the then-Patriarch visiting Ganina Yama in October 2000 (ie a little over a year before my trip to Yekaterinburg) to give his blessing to the foundation of a monastery to honour the “Holy Royal Martyrs”. Apart from all the people on it, the cross and the setting looked just like those in my picture.
So my photo had been taken at Ganina Yama after all! Yet a decade and a half after I was there the place was all but unrecognisable.
It’s almost impossible to comprehend the change in attitudes towards the Romanovs in Russia over just, say, 25 years. For decades the mere existence of the Imperial family was such a sensitive subject that it was only in 1989/1990 that the discoverers of the remains in Pig’s Meadow had felt safe enough to report their discovery to the authorities in Moscow. Yet now, in 2015/16, Ganina Yama is an officially-recognised, openly-visited, substantial shrine to them. (Even if the bodies were only buried there for a matter of hours – despite the official Orthodox Church line.)
Of course it wasn’t just the Romanovs that the Soviets had a problem with – they weren’t too keen on the Church either, seeing it as a challenge to the ethos and authority of Communism. Put it this way, there’s a reason why the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church “in exile”. Now, though, in the 20-teens, Vladimir Putin is bezzie mates with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and tourists are posting selfies from the churches of Ganina Yama.
If you’re interested, the potted history of how the bodies came to be in Ganina Yama and Pig’s Meadow in the first place goes something like this:
At the time of the killings, in mid-1918, Russia was in the throes of what amounted to a civil war. The main protagonists were the Bolsheviks, or ‘Red Russians’, and the ‘White Russians’, who wanted change in Russia, but nothing as drastic as that sought by the Bolsheviks (some White Russians were actually monarchists). The Tsar abdicated in March 1917 and he and his family were taken into custody by the Bolsheviks. After several months the family was moved to Yekaterinburg. By July 1918 White forces were closing in on the city, and the Bolshevik leaders decided that rather than risk having the Tsar and his family ‘rescued’ by the White army, they should be disposed of. Which is what happened in the cellar of the Ipatiev House on 17 July. Within days the White forces had taken Yekaterinburg, and a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov, was tasked with establishing what had happened to the Romanovs. Just a few months later, though, the Bolsheviks re-took Yekaterinburg and Sokolov was forced to flee – but not before he had amassed a whole heap of evidence, which he managed to get out of Russia before he left the country in 1920. Although Sokolov never actually found physical proof of the fate of the Romanovs, the earlier story about the remains being totally destroyed at Ganina Yama stuck and no one sought to question it – especially as even mentioning the deaths would probably have led to a trip to a Gulag during Soviet times.
Despite the dangers, in the 1970s two local geologists, Alexander Avdonin and Michael Kochurov, and a filmmaker, Geli Ryabov, and their wives, set out to establish once and for all what had happened to the Imperial remains. Using the material Sokolov had gathered during his investigation, and a contemporaneous account of the murder and subsequent disposal of the bodies, they eventually located the real burial site – Pig’s Meadow.
(In 2007, two other sets of remains were uncovered in Pig’s Meadow. Tests confirmed that they are of the missing children, the Tsarevitch Alexei and his sister Maria, but as of October 2015, they had yet to be recognised by the Russian Patriarch.)
Ganina Yama isn’t the only site around St Petersburg that demonstrates how much attitudes to Russia’s Imperial past have changed. My picture of the site of the Ipatiev House – where the Romanovs and their courtiers were murdered – features a simple cross and a tiny wooden chapel. In 2016, while the cross appears to have gone, the chapel is still there, but now it is dwarfed by the newly-built, gleaming white Church on Blood, which commemorates the dead Romanovs. That said, I suppose the cross and chapel of my picture marked progress even in 2001: it was only a quarter of a century earlier that the house had been razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage for royalists. (The demolition was ordered by the then-Chairman of the local Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, although he claimed later he only did it because he had been told to by the Politburo.)
Note: I’ve re-published this blog to mark the Centenary of the deaths of the Tsar and his family. There are more posts about my trip along the Trans-Mongolian Railway on the Trans-Sib tab on the header menu.