The Romanovs, the royal family of the Russian Tsars were killed, and some would say martyred, by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
But now, almost a century later, President Vladimir Putin, appears to be slowly rehabilitating the royals.
And the Romanovs’ reemergence has implications for Putin, a quasi-Tsar as Russian head of state, emphasizing renewed collaboration between Church and State, long estranged during Soviet rule.
Here as in many other ways, Putin works in close association with his fellow ex-KGB hand, Patriarch Kirill II of Moscow. Forbes described him as more than a mere informer saying he was ‘an active officer’ of the spy organization.
And Putin’s friend the Patriarch too has a keen interest in the rehabilitation of the Romanovs.
In a 2013 television broadcast on the significance of the Romanov family, he said: ‘A solemn Divine Liturgy was celebrated on March 6 in Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin, during which we commemorated all Romanovs, beginning with Mikhail Fedorovich, Aleksei Mikhailovich – the great gatherer of the Russian land, Peter I, and down to the Holy Passion-Bearer Nicholas II. We commemorated these people with thanks to God for their efforts and with prayers beseeching the Lord to grant rest to their souls in the abode of the righteous.’
From The Holy Great Prince Vladimir, Equal of the Apostles, to the last Tsar, the Holy Passion-Bearer Nicholas II, the connection between worldly and spiritual princes has been a long and distinguished one.
Here’s an outline of the situation from an Australian geo-political think-tank piece: ‘Absent from Western reports of ‘re-Stalinization’ is the evidence for a much wider shift in Russians’ views on their country’s history. Particularly striking has been the rehabilitation of the pre-revolutionary regime.’
That’s quite a claim, but the writer backs it up with statistics adding: ‘The same survey that showed an increase in favourable perceptions of Stalin also revealed that since 1999 the number of Russians believing the reign of Nicholas II (1894-1917), Russia’s last tsar, ìbrought more good than badî had risen from 18% to 30%.
‘Also, the number believing the 1917 Revolution to have been a good thing fell from 27% in 1999 to 19% in 2016, while those believing it to have been for the worse rose from 38% to 48%.’
As the writer puts in, ‘with communism having withered, the contours of an older Russia have re-emerged’.
He then cites such events as the 2005 unveiling of a statue of Tsar Alexander II in the gardens of a restored Moscow Cathedral, and notes: ‘By the time of the dynasty’s 400th anniversary celebrations, monuments to Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II (1894-1917), and his pious father Alexander III (1881-94, formerly reviled as executioner of Lenin’s brother, a revolutionary) had appeared from Russia’s Baltic to Pacific coasts.’
Power and sanctity have been close companions in Christianity since the conversation of the Roman Emperor Constantine. And while many of the kings are little known, names such as St Vladimir I of Kiev, Alexander Nevsky, England’s St Edward the Confessor and Charles I, King and Martyr, France’s Louis IX and the carol’s ‘Good King Wenceslas’ all spring to mind.
Indeed, the principle of sacred kingship can be traced back to Old Testament times, its mythological precedents can be found in Sir JG Frazer’s great work of anthropology The Golden Bough, and remains central to the coronation of British monarchs at the anointing.
What, then, of the implications for today’s Russian ruler, President Vladimir Putin?
Would President Putin himself prefer to be seen as a second St Vladimir? A new Vlad the Impaler? Rasputin reborn? Tsar Vladimir?
There are many ways to play with Vladimir Putin’s name, and the man himself has no doubt toyed with their various implications.
Most impressive of the possibilities is a man Putin admires, a man revered as a saint in both Orthodox and Catholic churches, the man credited by the Russian church with that imposing title, The Holy Great Prince Vladimir, Equal of the Apostles.
He is a towering figure in Russian memory. President Putin was among those who celebrated the thousandth anniversary of his death in 2015 receiving an icon of St Vladimir from Patriarch Kirill in Moscow’s restored Church of St Vladimir.
As one Orthodox website puts it: ‘Few names in the annals of history can compare in significance with the name of St Vladimir who stands at the beginning of the spiritual destiny of the Russian Church and the Russian Orthodox people.’
He was in fact a prince of Kievan Rus, and those Ukrainians opposed to Putin’s recent takeover of the Crimea claim him as their own – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is considered heretical by the Moscow Patriarchy, in a split where political animosities extend deep into spirituality.
Let us not forget that Putin is an ex-KGB man – a fact which also evokes potent memories of Russian intrigue, and of the curious monk, healer and schemer known to history as Rasputin.
An article in Pravda in 2002 it is claimed ‘Vladimir Putin is a relative of all royal families of Europe’.
It traces his lineage back to his grandfather but before that the surname Putin is unknown.
Furthermore, George W Bush once referred to Putin as Rasputin, a suggestion that would tie in with the Russian practice of clipping the front off names.
Vlad the Impaler is another name to conjure with, though the original Dracula was a figure in Romanian and Bulgarian history – though like Vladimir the Great, he’s remembered as a defender of Christianity.
There is even a Russian cult that believes Putin is the reincarnation of both King Solomon and the Apostle Paul – and venerates an icon of the Russian president.
A saint, then? A great prince? A cunning schemer? A vicious warlord? There are traces of all of these in President Putin’s make-up, but it is Vladimir the Great, prince and saint, who towers above the rest.
And it is Vladimir the Great who represents in his person the unity of Church and State which President Putin is forging in close collaboration with Patriarch Kirill.