RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And from candidates to kings, or in Russia, czars. Russian investigators have opened the grave of Czar Alexander III in search of evidence that may help identify the remains of his murdered grandchildren. The powerful Russian Orthodox Church requested the exhumation to establish DNA records of the royal house that were destroyed in Russia's 1917 revolution. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: According to the church, the investigation should establish once and for all the identity of remains believed to be those of the last czar, Nicholas II, his wife and all their children. The family was murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918. But their burial place was a mystery until 1991, when remains were found in a forest near Yekaterinburg, Russia. It's a controversy that many people thought was resolved in 1998, when those remains were given an imperial funeral in a fortress in St. Petersburg.
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FLINTOFF: Coffins said to contain the remains of Czar Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, and three of their daughters were displayed on a dais as incense wafted through the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. Gold-clad priests led the prayers for the souls of the deceased, but the church itself wasn't convinced that the remains were genuine.
VAKHTANG KIPSHIDZE: The identification that was made in the '90s considering the czar and his wife and some of his children actually was not recognized by the church.
FLINTOFF: That's Vakhtang Kipshidze, a church spokesman. Among other things, he says the church didn't consider that the process of identifying the remains was transparent enough. The issue was complicated in 2007, with the discovery of two more skeletons identified as Nicholas' younger children, Crown Prince Alexei and his sister, the Grand Duchess Maria. Many Russian experts believed that there was no real doubt that the remains were authentic, based on documents from the time of the murder and DNA testing that was carried out after the remains were found. Some, like historian Yevgeny Pchelov, are uncomfortable with the idea of exhuming Nicholas' father in order to obtain DNA samples.
YEVGENY PCHELOV: (Through interpreter) Opening the tomb of Alexander III is, I would say, inappropriate. It's a cultural monument. It's the grave of an emperor. And to disturb the burial just to make sure, I think, is not quite justified.
FLINTOFF: But one thing that makes the issue so important to the Russian Orthodox Church is that the church canonized Nicholas and his family in 2007. Vakhtang Kipshidze says their remains are sacred objects to orthodox believers.
KIPSHIDZE: That means that they will be the holy relics from our point of view. And they will be put for worship in some of our churches.
FLINTOFF: He says the church especially wants the remains of the crown prince and his sister to be subjected to the most rigorous and transparent investigation. Historian Nikolai Svanidze says the investigation isn't really necessary from a historical perspective, since most historians believe that the identification of the remains has been satisfactorily settled.
NIKOLAI SVANIDZE: (Speaking Russian).
FLINTOFF: He says the question is mainly a political one about the church and its relationship to power - both the imperial power of the czars and the power of the current Russian government. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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