I walked amid thousands of pilgrims carrying icons and clutching crosses close to their breasts in the shadow of the bell tower of the Bolshoi Zlatoust church. The magnificent Russo-Byzantine edifice, now bathed in silver starlight, having been so faithfully reconstructed in 2010 after the communists had blasted Saint Maximian’s holy place with dynamite some eighty years before to make way for a statue to their new gods, Lenin and Stalin.
And with each sonorous step the solemn procession was accompanied by a children’s choir singing ‘God Save the Tzar’. A rolling line of supplicants stretching as far as the eye could see. Snaking past the Vysotsky skyscraper on the banks of the Iset, towards the Cathedral on the Blood, a shrine to the Romanov Passion Bearers. Consecrated by the Metropolitan Bishop Yuvenaly under the direction of Patriarch Alexy II in the presence of Orthodox clergy from all over the Russian Federation. The commemoration marking the 99th anniversary of the Bolshevik’s murder of Nicholas II and his family in the basement of the Ipatiev house on the orders of Yakov Sverdlov (Yankel Solomon), the bloodthirsty former commander of The Battle Squad of the People’s Weapons, a Red terrorist group that had ruthlessly assassinated both opponents and innocent bystanders the length and breadth of the snowy Urals.
Surrounded by sympathizers of Anton Bakov’s Monarchist Party of the Russian Federation who were passing copies of Bakov and Matveev’s book Idols of Power (2013) back and forth; devotees of Our Lady Derzhavnaya, an icon previously venerated in the Ascension Convent near the Moscow Kremlin prior to its removal for safe-keeping when Napoleon’s Grande Armee threatened the city in 1812; members of Leonid Reshetnikov’s Double-headed Eagle Society; and a contingent of supporters of the Other Russia who refrained on this occasion from displaying their flags and armbands with the tell-tale symbol of a grenade, I was only too conscious that this former fortress city, officially founded in November 1723 and named after Peter The Great’s second wife, the Empress regnant Catherine the 1st, still sat on the very frontier between Asia and Europe.
A front-line scarred by centuries of smoldering racial and religious resentment, willful Soviet despoliation of an environment rich in natural resources and a socio-economic system mired in corruption like that practiced by the white collar tsekhoviks, the Uralmash Gang and the tattooed blues of the vory v zakone, a hard-core criminal fraternity spawned by the Gulag system. Each and all paying or collecting the obshchak from the shadow economy. Which explains why it was easy for the firebrand orator Alexei Navalny to muster over 3000 citizens here in March 2017 to call for an end to the systemic illegality paralyzing Russia.
So I find myself treading once more on one of history’s hottest geopolitical fault lines. My mind filling with memories of standing under an umbrella kissing a grey-eyed girl while the pitter-patter of rain washed over the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow. That soft moist mouth quoting Gogol so assuredly to me: ‘A state without a hard working monarch is like an orchestra without a kapellmeister’. Her younger brother already enrolled in the elite Saint Basil the Great School, housed in a complex of refined buildings surrounding yet another recently constructed Orthodox cathedral, funded this time by Konstantin Malofeev, owner of the Tsargrad television channel who says the school’s mission is: ‘To ensure our graduates will be Orthodox patriots, who will carry forward the thousand year old traditions of Russia’. And juxtaposed with such recollections and still running through my head is the swirling cinematography of Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 movie Russian Ark, a historical drama shot entirely in the cavernous and breathtaking galleries of the Winter Palace of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. An experience superbly rendered in a single ninety-six-minute steadicam sequence that so beautifully encapsulates the glory of Russia’s imperial past. And just like that heartfelt homage to the glories and inequities of those times, today’s event in the centre of Yekaterinburg, like Sokurov’s film, did not require splicing, stitching together or editing in anyway. For unlike the Soviet propagandists who recognized and perverted the power of the visual image so effectively in movies like Sergei Eisenstein’s epic Alexander Nevsky (1938) to inculcate their ideas into the populace, what you get with Sokurov, and what I feel as I accompany my Russian friends and colleagues on this very symbolic occasion, is a natural unfolding of cathartic emotion. Which is fitting, for it was to Yekaterinburg that most of the sublime art of the great masters that provides the backdrop to the dream-like imagery of Russian Ark was brought during the siege of Leningrad in World War Two.
The past and the present symbolically unified. While the ghosts of Pushkin and Catherine the Great walk together once more on the silver screen in the nearby Kosmos movie theatre, today, we too walk hand in hand along the thoroughfare of the Tsarskaya Ulitsa. Drawn to the sound of the bells has we make our way slowly and respectfully along moon-dappled streets towards the gold-banded belfry of the church which marks the spot where Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and their five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei were martyred in that gun-smoke filled basement nearly a century ago.