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By John Helmer, Moscow

Extracting guilty pleas from the innocent was the specialty of the Spanish Inquisition and its Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada (lead image, centre).

Extracting guilty pleas from the dead is the specialty of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (right), and Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov (left), head of the Church commission investigating the deaths of Tsar Nicholai II and the Romanov family. They were executed on July 17, 1918, by the revolutionary government.  Kirill has also declared that his inquisition has the backing of the Russian state, in the person of President Vladimir Putin with whom Kirill claims to have had a private conversation on the matter recently.

There followed last week the announcement from the General Prosecutor in Moscow that its department for special cases is conducting a new investigation of the charge that the execution of the tsar was a ritual killing carried out by Jews.

 “In discussing this subject with the President of our country, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” Kirill announced,    “I have formulated conditions under which the Church could seriously consider the results of examinations [of the evidence].  Our position was: the whole process must be repeated again from the beginning to the end, and the Church should not watch from the sidelines — it should be engaged in this process. The President was sympathetic to our position. [He has] given appropriate instructions to the investigating authorities.”


On the podium of a conference on November 27 on the tsar and his family (rear), from left to right in front row, Metropolitan Varsonofy, Patriarch Kirill, and Bishop Tikhon. Church sources say this troika are now the most powerful figures in the Church, with Varsonofy in control of finance and assets, Tikhon in charge of ideology, and Kirill responsible for the Kremlin.  Source: http://foto.patriarchia.ru/news/vtoroy-den-raboty-arkhiereyskogo-sobora-russkoy-pravoslavnoy-tserkvi-2017/

Colonel Marina Molodtsova  the head of the special case department at the Investigative Committee of the General Prosecutor, said last week  the new investigation is a “resumption” of earlier forensic examinations to produce “an indisputable identification of the victims. Before the experts the questions [to be considered are] questions about the cause of death and duration of burial, the definition of sex, racial type, age, height and their physical features. The establishment of possible family groups among the buried… For identification of the individuals and determination of their kinship in the case of a number of molecular-genetic examinations, the production of which at the moment is not over… It is planned to appoint a psycho-historical examination to resolve the issue associated with the possible ritual nature of the murder of the Royal Family.”

Molodtsova refused the request this week to confirm whether she is investigating the ritual murder charge.  


Left: Colonel Molodtsova speaking at the November 27 Church conference; behind her is displayed a slide of the tsar’s skull. Right: Tikhon briefs Putin. Church media publish reports that the 59-year old Tikhon is Putin’s confessor. Other Russian press reports indicate this is Tikhon’s version, and that although baptized and an adherent,  Putin has no confessor.

Tikhon, the patriarch’s appointee in charge of the new investigation, said in a speech in front of Kirill on November 27: “We pay the most serious attention  to the ritual murder interpretation [of the execution]. Moreover, a considerable part of the church commission has no doubt that this was what happened.  But everything should be proved, everything… All [the executioners] wanted to be regicides – this is already what one can say was for many of them a ritual. This is a serious question which is studied now by investigator Molodtsova, and I think we will present some serious developments on this subject at our next meeting.”

Kirill added in a remark at the same meeting of churchmen that despite a near-century of forensic and scientific investigations of the Romanov deaths,  the results remain  inconclusive. The final results, Kirill added,  will be up to the Church bishops to decide.  “The Church will decide the issues, not at scientific conferences but at the Synod of the Russian Church. There we will all be thinking and discussing. Now we are gathering the information we need… This is not just about the remains of ordinary people. We are talking about the phenomenon of Holy relics, and this already has direct relevance to the mysteries in the life of the Church. And only the Cathedral of our Church is competent to judge this.”

Asked on Monday to clarify what exactly Putin has agreed to investigate of the ritual murder allegation, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to answer. Asked again on Tuesday, there was no reply. No Russian reporter has asked Putin to clarify his undertakings with the patriarch. For details of other undertakings between Putin and Kirill on the transfer of state property to the Church, read this

Nicholas Romanov was canonized in the year 2000, four years after a Church commission headed by Metropolitan Yuvenaly (Vladimir Polyakov) reported that the tsar’s failures as a ruler, and the evidence of his death were too categorical to justify the conclusion that his life qualified as sainthood or his death as martyrdom. Since the former had been morally culpable, and the latter political-military, Yuvenaly recommended canonization for Nicholas as “passion bearer”, the Church’s lowest grade of saints.  That ruled out any religious motive in his execution.  Nicholas’s death  was an “heroic deed of non-resistance to violence”, Yuvenaly reported

For more details of Yuvenaly’s report and its consequences, read this

Yuvenaly had the backing of the patriarch at the time, Alexei II. Alexei died in December 2008, and in the succession contest, Kirill, then 62, bested Yuvenaly, 73. Their rivalry inside the Church can be followed here.  Since he took power, Kirill has eliminated Yuvenaly’s influence, as well as his faction of bishops in the Synod. A year ago, Putin presented Yuvenaly with a retirement gift — the Order of Merit to the Fatherland, Second Class.


Left: Putin flanked on his right by Yuvenaly and left by Kirill in a ceremony of May 6, 2012; right, Putin and Yuvenaly at the Kremlin award presentation, September 22, 2016.

Most of the evidence documenting the tsar’s death, including records of interrogations of the execution squad, witness testimony, and physical forensics have long been accessible in France and the US, where they were taken by the tsar’s supporters and White Army officers after the civil war.  Matching records of military and party communications between Moscow and Yekaterinburg are in state archives in Moscow. Forensic evidence for the identification of the remains, such as the menus of Nicholas’s last meals are in the US; in Russia there are recent dental examination records, indicating Nicholas’s mortal fear of dentists. The genetic testing data are accessible in Russia, as well as abroad. For the newest details, and the most recent assessment of what the accumulated evidence shows, read this

As patriarch until his death, Alexei II was reluctant to endorse fresh Church or state research. He publicly accepted that the remains of Nicholas and his family, which had been recovered, canonized and reburied in St. Petersburg,  were authentic, and that none of the family survived or escaped the execution. Alexei II also put in the record of the Church commissions of his time that there had been no ritual associated with the executions, no ritual murder of the tsar.

Krill has publicly claimed that in his conversation with Putin to restart the investigation he told the president “the only thing that stopped us from being able to recognize the results of examinations is the opacity of the research process and a complete unwillingness to engage the Church in this process.”  State prosecutors who participated in the investigations of the 1990s, including those for the Yuvenaly report, categorically deny this. They accuse Kirill of lying.

According to recent testimony by Vladimir Soloviev, an investigator from the General Prosecutor who worked on the case at the Investigative Committee for more than a decade, Yuvenaly’s commission received all the investigative files and evidence. According to Soloviev, in 1995 Alexei explicitly put to Yuvenaly’s commission the question of whether the execution had been ritual murder. Yuvenaly said no; Alexei drew the same conclusion.

In 2015 Kirill, and his two closest allies Varsonofy and Shevkunov, launched a fresh investigation. The new Church commission was chaired by Varsonofy, while Shevkunov ran the operation. At the time it started, Church media reported  the commission was focused on authenticating the remains.  The rationale at the time, also reported in Church media, was that insufficient interest, let alone veneration was  being shown by Russians at the Romanov tomb. The churchmen claimed that if they were able to authenticate with greater accuracy,  the genuineness of the bones would attract more devotees.

By last week, Kirill, Varsonofy and Shevkunov changed the focus of investigation from the tsar to his executioners, reviving the ritual murder charge. Days later, on the Vesti Saturday television show, Shevkunov repeated his ritual murder allegation, and attacked those who had criticized him for  reviving it. 


Follow the interview

Asked if the Synod had discussed the ritual murder issue, Shevkunov replied: “No, not discussed. We discussed only those issues on which there is definitive documentation of expert opinion. But, after all, if you go back to the ritual murder, this issue cannot go away.  At the conference, in the end it was mentioned that one of the issues to be assigned to the psychological-historical investigation includes, in particular, the variety of versions concerning ritual execution of this crime. Or, shall we say, what motivated the murderers.”

Shevkunov then claimed that the executioners were ritualists. “[They] all dreamed, dreamed to be a regicide. Ask what other rituals the Bolshevik-atheists had.  Indeed, they were atheists, but what of the Lenin mausoleum — it isn’t symbolic, nor sacred, but is it a ritual phenomenon?…That Bolshevik ceremonialism we researched and talked about at the conference.”

Shevkunov claimed there was “a dreadful noise when all of a sudden we were accused of xenophobia, anti-Semitism… you know, this is a terrible insult for the entire group of experts.”

But is the Church investigating ritual murder?  Shevkunov was asked again. “We are considering all versions without exclusion. But when suddenly some liberal journalists foaming at the mouth —  excuse that sharp expression – all but require us to examine all versions except the version of ritual murder, I think sometimes about their comprehension. How do they know [what happened]?”

Asked if the ritual murder charge was a codeword for Jewish involvement in the Bolshevik party, in the revolution, and in the execution, Shevkunov referred to Yakov Yurovsky (right, 1930), the chief of the regional Cheka and the official in charge of the imprisonment of the tsar, the firing squad and the disposal of the bodies.  “Even Yurovsky was not Jewish — he had been [born] Jewish, but left his faith, as did the other seven people [of the firing squad who] left their faith — among them four Russians and Poles. They were Bolsheviks-internationalists, they were driven by class hatred, confusion, human hatred. This is what we talked about…”

According to Shevkunov, there had been eight members of the execution party. All other records accumulated since1918,  in the Russian state archives in Moscow and in the US archives, identify twelve – five Russians, seven Latvians. Shevkunov told the Vesti interviewer: “You saw it, you saw that for the entire conference, and it lasted for nine hours, no one was ever identified by nationality. Yes, and there was no need to call someone by his nationality, [or by his] religious or former religious affiliation. It’s all there in the public domain. [It is] very unpleasant — that there is such irresponsible, demagogic pressure on the expert group, and on the investigation.”

To clarify what the secular Russian authorities understand from Shevkunov’s statements and from the proceedings of Shevkunov’s commission, two questions were asked:  Do you favour a new investigation by the Investigation Committee of the charge of ritual killing? Do you agree with Bishop Shevkunov?

The questions were telephoned to the Kremlin for Putin; to the White House for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev; to the Speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Voloshin; the Speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko; as well as the executives in charge of the two state media, Margarita Simonyan of RT, and Dmitry Kiselev of Sputnik News.


Left: Kirill with Valentina Matvienko and Vyacheslav Voloshin. Right: Dmitry Kiselev with Kirill.

The questions were requested by email, and were resubmitted.  Follow-up by telephone was carried out confirming the questions had been received. All refuse to answer.

The Russian media have also failed to get a state official to speak on the record in response to the Church’s pursuit of the ritual murder charge. Reporting by Meduza  and by MK   speculates that Kirill, Varsonofy and Shevkunov are trying to divert attention away from criticism of the financial mismanagement that has led to the bankruptcy of the Church’s principal banks. For that story, read this

Andrei Kuraev (right), a protodeacon of the Church in Moscow, academic theologian, and critic of Kirill’s policymaking,  said  in a radio interview this week the ritual murder charge is a public relations ploy by the patriarch’s faction. “Twenty years ago when you saw the first investigation,  the Synod made its request to the investigating commission — is there any reason to believe the murder was a ritual. The answer was – no. Now, in the new case we are talking about what Patriarch considers his policy – [he is] flirting with right-wing circles inside the Church.

The Patriarch is trying to make a revolution in their minds, He is pretending, you see. He is trying to say – really I can hear you, I am protecting your interests, I’m for tough talk with the government – you see how independent I am, and strong. This shows the PR of the Patriarch, nothing more.”

Kuraev believes this will backfire.  “In order to speak of the blood ritual version, you have to be a person who generates hatred and enjoys this hatred and misanthropy. It is very sad that these people call themselves my co-religionists, Orthodox Christians.”

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