On Monday, flanked by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church at a press conference in Moscow, the influential Russian Orthodox Church Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov—who is closely linked to Vladimir Putin and serves as the titular chair of the commission charged with investigating the execution of the last Czar, his family, and retinue—called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Nicholas II in Yekaterinburg. He was particularly interested in finding out whether the slain monarch was killed in a ritual murder, reviving a widely held belief in the former Soviet Union that the Jews assassinated the Czar in a dark religious ceremony essential to ushering in Bolshevism. That theory had long been domain of ranting conspiracy mongers and eccentric babushkas, but now it appears to be taken seriously by the state itself: Following Shevkunov’s comments, the powerful Investigative Committee, Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, quickly announced that it would take part in such an investigation of alleged ritual killing. Needless to add, Russian Jewish community leaders were outraged.
The timing of Shevkunov’s comments isn’t accidental. The run-up to the Russian presidential elections in early March of next year has seen a heightening of both religious nationalism and a ratcheting up of Czarist nostalgia. Russia is currently in the midst of a bout of nostalgia for the Czarist epoch that has culminated in a surreal culture war over the banning of a film about Czar Nicholas’s romance with a ballerina, with Bishop Shevkunov also playing an active role in that scandal.
The myth of Jewish Bolshevik regicide, spawned by exiled and bitter monarchists, remains palpably alive in some quarters. That is certainly the case among a minority of the old guard of the more reactionary and conspiracy-minded Russian Orthodox clergy. For many Russians, the blood of the last Czar continues to stain the communal hands of Russian Jewry, binding them in an act of symbolic original sin against the body politic. For too many Russians, the butchering of the since-canonized and revered royal family by men commanded by a Jewish Bolshevik directly parallel that of the killing of Christ by the Jews. I doubt that I am the only Russian or Ukrainian Jew who has had the experience of being engaged in an impassioned argument with a nationalist-minded intellectual which concluded with him screaming that a “pack of Jews killed our Czar!” Such views are by no means widespread in either Russian or Ukrainian society, but I’ve encountered them often enough to know that they simmer beneath the surface.
As several commentators have noted, Putin’s government maintains a policy of selective philo-Semitism, which includes courteous relations with world Jewry and repeated assurances of security for the Russian Jewish community. Putin’s relationship with the Jews is one that the Russian leader has been extraordinarily careful to maintain, making this new turn of events a radical departure from previously established Kremlin policy. Although the Russian Orthodox Church has routinely been considered by observers to be a pliant institution of the state, it has traditionally refrained from engaging in anything approaching the level of politicking now on display, leading some to compare the the media-savvy and powerful Bishop Shevkunov to that other powerful Russian holy man, Rasputin. But the church, some Russian pundits argue, is far from being a mere puppet of the Kremlin: Konstantin von Eggert, a prominent conservative Russian journalist and a serious lay leader in the church, has theorized that Moscow’s newly empowered churchmen “threw down gauntlet to the Kremlin,” a plausible scenario considering the fact that the church considers the Romanovs saints and continues to consecrate churches to them. The recent evocation of the old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, Von Eggert suggested, may be just a step towards achieving a long-term goal of the church’s, a final burial of the remains of the Czar and his family.
Again, the timing here is right: While Russia neglected to commemorate the centennial of the Bolshevik revolution, marking the 100th anniversary of the Czar’s assassination next July is likely to be a much more lavish affair, and a somber funeral could constitute a symbolic transmission of the legacy and mantle of the Czars onto Putin. Whether the legal machinations to return Russia to its regnant monarchical state could also be implemented is a corollary speculation, but the symbolism of the convergence between the upcoming elections and the hundredth anniversary of the liquidation of the house of Romanov is an obvious one. When Putin was elected for his third six-year term in 2012, the Russian political system was quickly transmogrifying from a democracy, but it had not yet invaded Ukraine and Syria and had not yet returned to being a true global power player. One election cycle later, it has completed its transformation into what some have designated to be a “hybrid regime”: an authoritarian kleptocracy governed like a mafia estate under the guise of post-modern optics of “managed democracy.” The outcome of the upcoming spring elections is not seriously doubted by anyone. The elections are at best characterized by the presence of a pair of telegenic thirty something token women taking part in a scripted competition with Putin for the presidency. Thus, Russia’s first truly post-imperial elections may constitute Putin’s final coronation, with the Jews, as ever, suffering the consequences.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.