Reviving Old Lies to Unite a New Russia

Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov at the opening session of the Bishops Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in November at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Credit Artyom Geodakyan\TASS, via Getty Images
Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov at the opening session of the Bishops Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in November at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Credit Artyom Geodakyan\TASS, via Getty Images

On the night of July 16, 1918, Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, was murdered with his wife and five children in a basement in Yekaterinburg, where they had been detained by the Bolsheviks for four months. On orders from Moscow, they were shot and bayoneted, and their mutilated bodies were set afire.

That much has been generally agreed on, based on overwhelming evidence gathered by numerous experts. Yet the Russian Orthodox Church continues to pose more questions, hinting at the darkest of conspiracies: Were the remains that were later exhumed really those of the imperial family? If not, how many were murdered, and where were they buried?

Late last year, church officials added another twist with dark implications, suggesting that the execution of the Romanovs was “a ritual murder” — a phrase evoking calumnies directed against Russia’s Jews as part of their persecution in czarist times.

Now those words have come from Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, during a speech on Nov. 27 at a church-sponsored conference convened to re-examine the circumstances of the Romanovs’ murder. Sitting next to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the church, the bishop insisted that his claim was shared by many members of a committee that has been investigating the czar’s murder since 2015. A representative of the President’s Investigative Committee, the government’s top crime agency, quickly agreed to seek out more expert opinions and “to conduct a psychological and historical analysis” of the matter.

The incident could have been dismissed as a fantasy from some anti-Semitic members of the church who have close links to ultraright Russian groups. But Bishop Tikhon is no ordinary churchman. Besides being a top aide of Patriarch Kirill, he is widely thought to be a spiritual adviser to President Vladimir V. Putin. And the suggestion of a ritual murder is so laden with traditional anti-Semitism that the next day, the spokesman for the Federation of Russia’s Jewish Communities, Borukh Gorin, said it was reminiscent of “the darkest ages.”

Many Russians, especially among radical nationalist groups, accept the charge of ritual murder as part of a vicious conspiracy theory: that rather than a Bolshevik crime, the Romanovs’ murder was the product of a Judeo-Masonic plot to sacrifice the czar’s family in a religious ritual intended to symbolize a murder of the Russian people.

The accusation of ritual murder, of course, has a much longer history. In the violent anti-Semitism that pervaded the czarist empire, the murder of a Christian child in murky circumstances would typically be attributed to Jews, who were falsely accused of needing the blood of a child for religious rituals — the infamous “blood libel.”

Such pernicious lies helped provoke particularly brutal eruptions against Jews in Russia, making the word “pogrom” part of a gruesome universal vocabulary. One of the most notorious pogroms broke out in Kishinev (now Chisinau, Moldova) on the Easter Sunday of April 17, 1903, after anti-Semitic groups accused Jews there of committing a “ritual murder.” For two days, the authorities did nothing to stop the rampage of a drunken mob; 49 Jews were killed, over 500 wounded and an unknown number of women raped.

Three weeks later, Russia’s great writer and humanist Leo Tolstoy accused the Russian government of relying on lies and violence. The United States State Department and the British Foreign Office sent notes of protest, and President Theodore Roosevelt personally chastised Czar Nicholas. But Nicholas stayed silent even when waves of pogroms continued, claiming the lives of more than 2,000 Jews between 1903 and 1905. Tens of thousands of Russian Jews fled, mostly to the United States or to Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

Why resurrect the idea of ritual murder now? Has Bishop Tikhon become President Putin’s Rasputin? In today’s Russia, where transparency is rare, speculation abounds. One possibility is that reigniting traditional anti-Semitism is a Kremlin ploy intended to tap into ultraright Russian nationalism ahead of the presidential elections in March. After all, stoking Russian nationalism worked well for Mr. Putin during the 2012 presidential campaign. Why not try again?

The fact is that the Kremlin has been relying on the church more than ever, unleashing fundamentalist forces and turning a political campaign into a moral crusade. And at the center of the Kremlin’s efforts, promoting patriotic causes, is Bishop Tikhon, the chairman of the Patriarchal Council for Culture and a member of the Presidential Council for Culture.

In recent years he organized exhibitions glorifying Russia’s imperial past at the legendary Manege exhibition hall in the center of Moscow. The last one, “From the Great Troubles to a Great Victory,” opened in 2015 and presented a positive image of Stalin as a victorious leader who made the Soviet Union a great power. Given the timing — in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military meddling in Ukraine — the unspoken message that Mr. Putin was a similar national champion was unmistakable.

Recently, Bishop Tikhon took charge of a mega-project titled “Russia — My History,” a network of centers for patriotic history aimed at “strengthening traditional values and forging a single approach to Russian history.” Generously sponsored by Russia’s gas and media giant, Gazprom, the project has opened such centers in several Russian cities, most recently Kazan.

Why open a temple to propaganda that presents an ethnic Russian version of history in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan — the most populous region in the Russian Federation in which the majority population is not ethnic Russian? Instead, it is Muslim, and that fits a trend.

Last June, Moscow let expire a 1994 agreement that provided Tatarstan with significant autonomy. It also limited Tatar language instruction in schools to two hours a week.

Other non-Russian regions have experienced similar changes, making it clear that the Kremlin and the church, which face a declining ethnic Russian population and rising numbers of Muslims, are on a Russification campaign to make the multiethnic Russian Federation a more homogeneous nation-state united by Russian people and the Orthodox Church.

An obvious alternative is available — making Russia a genuine federation by giving the non-Russian regions real power and voices in politics. But that would take power away from Mr. Putin’s increasingly autocratic Kremlin. Instead, Mr. Putin seems determined to ride a wave of Russian nationalism, Christian fundamentalism and anti-Semitism like the one 100 years ago that helped bring the Russian empire to the cataclysm of war and revolution.

Turning their backs to the lessons of the past, church and state are again unleashing sinister forces of right-wing extremism and marching hand in hand into a dark unknown.

Michael Khodarkovsky, a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, is at work on a book about Russia in the 20th century.

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