Inside Russia’s secretive cult of Tsar worship: How royalism is thriving 100 years after murder of Nicholas II
Thousands of Russians arrive every year to pay homage at the grisly scene in western Siberia where the Romanov dynasty was wiped out in 1918. But when you scratch beneath the surface of this seemingly benign historical site, things get very strange indeed
The Sredneuralsk monastery boasts one of the largest followings of any in Russia. Every week, hundreds of pilgrims come here, all seeking the healing guidance of its secretive 62-year-old leader; a priest going by the name of Father Sergei.
In real life, Father Sergei is Nikolai Romanov – he changed his name to match the tsar, of course. He has a colourful past. A former policeman, he has several criminal convictions, and has spent 13 years in a prison colony – the documents say for murder, though his supporters dispute this.
After being released at the end of the 1990s, Father Sergei claims to have traversed the 140km from the Nizhny Tagil colony to Yekaterinburg on foot, wondering deep thoughts about his future.
From there, the biography becomes hazy. Little is known about how Father Sergei got to know church leaders, how he rose so remarkably fast in the hierarchy, or how, in 2002, he came to be the man who built the Ganina Yama complex
What isn’t disputed is his role as confessor to the prominent Russian politician and former Crimean attorney general Natalya Poklonskaya.
Ms Poklonskaya, who married in the monastery, has played a leading role in the radical religious reaction against Matilda. She has also frequently appeared alongside Father Sergei, including when the priest made a televised trip to Crimea in July 2014, three months after the disputed annexation.
Set inside woodlands, the Sredneuralsk monastery is by now a well-developed set of living quarters and temples. There are three active temples – one, naturally with a cellar room in homage to the Romanovs – and a huge, brick temple with golden domes that is currently under construction. There are JCBs, heavy machinery and a fatigued Kamaz army truck at the entrance. A graveyard extends down into the birch forest.
Fifteen years ago, things were very different. The only residents in the area were farmers Sergei Krekov and his wife Daniya Suleimenova, who set up a small farmstead in 1989, alongside the site of the future monastery. Speaking with The Independent in Moscow, Ms Suleimenova says the family were never rich, and the post-Soviet 1990s were hard. But they produced enough eggs, meat and milk to sell locally and scrape a living.
The farmers’ world changed on 3 June 2002, the day when Father Sergei and future monastery managers arrived on the territory. First, they noticed subtle changes; the locks on the main gates had been switched. By evening, they were under little doubt about the strange future that lay ahead. Washing up after dinner, Ms Sulemeinova looked up from the sink to find two dozen nuns standing in front of her window.
“They stood there, staring at me, with their icons, crossing themselves, reading prayers,” she says. “They circled around the house; devil this, devil that. And then they put a cross outside our toilet.”
The ritual became a daily event, says Ms Suleimenova. She tried to negotiate. Every few weeks, there would be a visit, they would agree to be friends, but the pressure would be ratcheted up again. Soon, the already elderly couple began to experience sporadic problems with electricity and water supply; in 2008, it was cut off completely. Ms Suleimenova says she and her husband have been forced to abandon the property.
“I understand it’s funny, bizarre,” she says. “I’d be laughing too if I didn’t have to live through it.”
The Church seems no more ready to accept the weight of the Romanov burial fate. For historian Neuimin, its leaders are too “scared” to entertain a major climbdown. “If they recognise the remains, and hit at the heart of this movement, they will show themselves to be idiots,” he says.
Another complicating factor is the extent to which local business has been supporting the movement. Whether in the Ganina Yama complex, constructed so obviously on a historical untruth, or in support for Father Sergei’s activities in Sredneuralsk, or in the riches of the Temple on the Blood, or in any number of advertising boards declaring the “redemption” of the Romanovs that have been displayed around the city in recent years, it is clear that local businessmen have been a major pillar of support for the tsar worshippers.
What seems less clear is why they are doing it. Perhaps, here, the scale of the movement might offer clues. This year’s nocturnal pilgrimage to Ganina Yama was attended by no less than 25,000. The number of tsar worshippers is likely to be many times more.
Deacon Kurayev suggests that control might also be at the heart of the church’s thinking.
“The church is taking a cynical, manipulative stand,” he says. “The Patriarch wants to be the leader of all Russia’s angry people. He wants to keep them his own.”
A schemamonk is a rare step taken in monastic life and is seldom approved by the abbot or bishop. The schema goes beyond carrying the Cross of Christ. Like our Lord Jesus Christ, he must be willing to surrender his life to totally save people's souls. He must in fact be willing to be nailed to the cross he has been carrying. The schemamonk is in essence an elder among the monastic community. He is a monk who has aspired to a spiritual level that transcends worldly desires. It is a life of constant prayer. He is a walking icon of our Lord Jesus Christ. A schemamonk is sought after by religious of all ranks, monastic and lay people for spiritual advice and comfort, as well as other spiritual and religious matters. The schemamonk will again take a new name in Christ to show he has totally given up his worldly life.