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Jewish World Review / July 23, 1998 / 29 Tamuz, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Ghosts on the roof

PLEASE ACCEPT THIS IMAGINED REPORT from St. Petersburg, the one in Russia, with apologies to the late Whittaker Chambers.

Always the witness, Chambers reported the last rendezvous of the Russian royal family in 1945, when their ghosts materialized atop the Livadia Palace at Yalta. They had assembled to listen in on the Big Three divvying up the spoils at the end of the second world catastrophe in one century.

Romanov family remains on display.
Now, 50 years later, the site of the Romanov family reunion has been changed to St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, formerly Petrograd, formerly, yes, St. Petersburg. Who says history isn't cyclical?

Constantinople is Istanbul, and Sverdlovsk, where the royal remains were first interred with much less ceremony by simply being thrown down a mine shaft, is now Ekaterinburg. Again.

And still the Romanovs knew no rest, like the rest of the Russian nobility flittering between Monte Carlo and the old Russian Tea Room next to Carnegie Hall, or driving cabs around Paris in the 1920s.

Now, fluttering down softer than bats in the upper reaches of the 300-year-old Cathedral/Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, the members of the royal progress take their accepted places:

Nicholas II is seated rather uncomfortably atop a spire, in death as in life still trying to look regal. The tsarina is standing at his side, as always, adjusting his cap and wiping the dust from his impressive if self-awarded decorations. She keeps casting sidelong glances in hopes of spotting her favorite, Rasputin, lurking somewhere in the upper reaches of the cathedral, even though she knows full well that his abode is considerably lower.

A charming if overindulgent wife and mother, the empress Alexandra wears the bullet hole in her head like a beauty mark while fussing and cooing over the tsarevitch Alexei, who was pale even in life.

"Hush, my dearest,'' whispers the suddenly boyish tsar, head bent down to pick up what's being said at his funeral, eager to hear himself officially praised for the first time in 80 years. "Do be quiet, my pudding. I can't hear what Yeltsin is saying about me. For that matter, I can hardly see him, what with all this confounded smoke floating up to the rafters. Is the place on fire?'' "That's incense, Nikki,'' the tsarina replies with a show of being much put-upon. Actually she was enjoying her funeral, the first proper one she'd had. Though she thought it all a bit high-church. The priests sang a dirge as the coffins were lowered into place. "Oh, Nikki,'' said the tsarina, swaying softly to the refrains, "isn't this so much nicer than a mass grave?''

"Yes, but what confusion,'' complains Nicholas. "And where are the icons? I never did like this watered-down, westernized rite. We get fake marble and a cathedral that still hasn't been restored since the bolsheviks sacked it. Stalin would have handled the whole affair much better. What a tsar he would have made! I really would have preferred to be buried in Moscow, the real seat of the empire, though I suppose St. Petersburg will have to do, there not being an empire at present. I do miss it. Emperor of All the Russias, instead of just one, had a grand ring to it. You'll notice that they did have the decency to lower the servants first, so the royal caskets will be on top, just as in proper, imperial society."

"Please, darling, they'll hear,'' said the tsarina, nodding toward the royal retinue back in the shadows of the vaulted arches. The valet Alozi, to whom no emperor is a hero, smiled discreetly at the lady-in-waiting Anna Demidova. "Life or death, autocracy or democracy,'' whispered Anna to the cook Ivan, "some things never change. I see we're still the bottom layer. Ah well, it's better than some drafty mine shaft.''

Only the family doctor, Yevgeny Botkin, seemed bored. His services had not been required for 80 years, but no one had thought to dismiss him. "How Russian,'' he thought, "to have the funeral so late, and then in a cathedral that is really a fortress. We Russians always did have difficulty distinguishing between the two."

The tsarina sighed contentedly. "Oh, Nikki,'' she said. "It's so nice to have a proper burial at last. Why, even Boris Yeltsin is down there, and they said he wouldn't be. He even seems sober. I know he's only a commoner, but it was nice of him to show, even at the last minute. Don't you think so, darling? I know you don't approve of democracy and modern science, dearest, but thank goodness for DNA, or they might never have found us. And it does get tiresome being a ghost, lovely and ethereal as the experience is. Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me. Pascal said that, you know. Not a bad summary of the after-life for someone who was never liquidated. How do you suppose he knew?''

"Do be quiet," said the tsar. "I can barely hear my eulogy." A tear formed in the place where his eye would have been as the royal ghost heard Boris Yeltsin declaim, "... and that is why I could not have failed to appear here, as a human being and as a president. I bow my head to the victims of these merciless killings."

"Yes, yes," Nicholas agreed, mourning himself. He thought back on the last scenes of his life -- the shootings, the bludgeonings, the mutilations, the corpses doused in acid so no one would recognize them. He thought of Lenin, who had ordered it all, and smiled at the realization that the old bolshevik still hadn't got a proper burial. He thought with some satisfaction of Yakov Sverdlovsk, the commissar who had signed the telegram ordering the executions, and how Sverdlovsk's name now had been erased from the map.

The tsar thought of the wan little tsarevitch, and of his daughters. Oh, his daughters: Olga, Tatyana, Maria, Anastasia! He thought of this same Yeltsin when he had been Commissar Yeltsin of Sverdlovsk, razing the house where it all happened, lest it become a shrine ... and now mouthing words. He thought of his church, which was now giving him a nameless funeral in order to appease its exiled wing, which was still trying to make a holy relic of some other remains it insisted were his.

It was all too much to think about. Nicholas turned away. "Death is so much more peaceful," he told the tsarina. "Life hurts."

"Why, Nikki," said the tsarina, "I didn't know you were so sentimental. You never shed a tear when we heard about the pogroms -- the shootings, the bludgeonings, the mutilations, the desecration of the corpses, the mass graves. You never seemed to mind such things at all. Not till they happened to us."

Nicholas shrugged his epauleted shoulders. "I wasn't dead then," he explained. "I didn't understand.''

"Oh, Nikki," said the tsarina, with a gentle smile, "in a way you were."


7/21/98: The new elegance
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7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate