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Federal investigators have reopened the Tsar Nicholas II murder case, and the Russian Orthodox Church wants them to consider a notoriously anti-Semitic conspiracy theory

Meduza
Tsar Nicholas II and his family, Livadia, 1913
Tsar Nicholas II and his family, Livadia, 1913
Boasson and Eggler / Wikimedia Commons

Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee says the criminal investigation into the murder of Tsar Nicholas II, his family, and entourage — reopened in 2015 — will review the theory that it may have been a “ritual killing.” Speculation that the tsar's family was murdered in a “Jewish conspiracy” (which is precisely what is implied by the term “ritual killing”) dates back to the execution’s immediate aftermath, and the theory was popular among Russian emigres in the early 20th century. Twice before, in the mid-1990s and late 2000s, Russian investigators already reviewed and completely rejected the possibility that Nicholas II died in a ritual killing. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, refuses to recognize the results of this latter investigation, arguing that its representatives weren’t allowed to question the forensic experts. In 2015, the Investigative Committee reopened the murder case, and this time it’s involving the church, which is pressing the government to investigate the “ritual killing” theory. Meduza reviews the history of accusations that Jews murdered the Romanovs, and looks at why this conspiracy theory has become popular again.

Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee says it will investigate the theory that Tsar Nicholas II, his family, and retinue were murdered in a “ritual killing,” according to an announcement on November 27 by special cases senior investigator Marina Molodtsova, who said her agency will appoint “psychological-historical forensic experts,” without explaining what exactly this means.

Molodtsova’s announcement came at a conference dedicated to “new expertise and evidence” on the tsar’s murder, where Patriarch Kirill led a delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church. At the end of the conference, Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, Vladimir Putin’s rumored confessor, stated, “We are treating the ritual killing theory with the utmost seriousness. Moreover, a significant part of the church commission [working with federal investigators on the reopened murder case] has no doubts that this is precisely what happened.”

For more about Putin and Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov

The very next day, however, Shevkunov tried to moderate his remark, saying, “Even after renouncing the throne, the emperor remained a symbolic, sacred figure. The murder of the tsar and his family, which put an end to the Romanov dynasty, so hated by the new authorities, was a special act that for many people carries ritual, symbolic meaning.”

The Ipatiev House, 1928
The Ipatiev House, 1928
Wikimedia Commons

On July 17, 1918, Nicholas II, six members of his family, and four servants were shot and killed in Yekaterinburg. Historians widely believe that the execution order, which was formally issued by the Ural Regional Council of Workers', Peasants', and Soldiers' Deputies, was orchestrated from Moscow.

What does the term “ritual killing” mean when talking about the murder of the tsar and his family?

The practice of killing a person during a religious or occult ritual dates back to ancient societies and is based on the belief that blood has supernatural properties. When talking about the “ritual killing” of the tsar and his family, the term has clear anti-Semitic overtones. Supporters of this theory allege that the Bolsheviks who committed the murder also performed some kind of Jewish blood ritual, as part of a supposed “worldwide Jewish conspiracy.”

Anna Shmaina-Velikanova, a scholar of cultural, biblical, and Jewish studies, told Meduza that theories about “ritual killings” supposedly committed by Jews were widespread in medieval Europe. “This belief appeared in the 11th-12th centuries in Germany, claiming that Jews kill a child before Easter in some special way, drain his blood, and mix it into matzo,” says Shmaina-Velikanova, adding that these ideas didn’t reach Russian Orthodoxy until the late 17th century. In 1913, a murder trial against Menahem Mendel Beilis sparked worldwide condemnation of anti-Semitic policies in the Russian Empire. Beilis, a Russian-Jewish man living in Kiev, was charged with killing a Ukrainian boy in a Jewish ritual. After more than two years in pretrial detention, Beilis was ultimately acquitted.

After the Investigative Committee’s announcement, Alexander Boroda, the chairman of Russia’s Jewish Communities Federation, said, “As one of the first religions to abolish human sacrifices at the very dawn of its origin, Judaism fundamentally lacks any concept of ‘ritual killing,’ and accusing Jews of ‘ritual killings’ is one of history’s oldest anti-Semitic smears.”

How did the “ritual killing” theory get tied up with the tsar’s execution?

With the tsar’s murder, the “ritual killing” theory first emerged in an investigation carried out by the anti-Bolshevik White Army, headed by special cases investigator Nikolai Sokolov, who thought the plan to murder the tsar and his family “originated many years before the revolution,” identifying self-proclaimed holy man Grigory Rasputin as a proponent of the scheme and as a secret German intelligence agent.

“In circles close to Sokolov, [General Michael] Dieterichs [who took part in the investigation], and [British journalist] Robert Wilton, Jewish influence was attributed to the decision to execute the tsar’s family,” wrote forensic investigator Vladimir Solovyov, who headed the 1993 reopened investigation into Nicholas II’s murder.

“Jews savagely destroyed the Royal Family. The Jews are responsible for all the evils that have befallen Russia,” wrote Dieterichs in his book, “The Murder of the Royal Family and Romanov House in the Urals.” Dieterichs is considered the author of a particular “ritual killing” theory about the Romanovs that claims the Bolsheviks beheaded three of the Romanovs, including Nicholas II. Later, according to Dieterichs’ theory, one of the executioners, Filipp Goloshchekin (real name Shaya Itsikovich), delivered the heads to Moscow in barrels of alcohol. Solovyov determined that Dieterichs’ theory relied on “rumors spread among low-ranking public servants” about Goloshchekin’s arrival in Moscow.

In the 1920s, British journalist Robert Wilton wrote several books defending the theory that the Romanovs were murdered in a “ritual killing.” According to his work, Sokolov inspected the Ipatiev House, where the executions took place, and discovered a German phrase inscribed on one of the walls that read: “Belsatzar ward in seibier Nacht / Von seinen Knechten umgebracht.” It was a quote from German poet Heinrich Heine’s ballad “Belsatzar” (“Belsatzar was killed this night by his own servants”), referring to Babylonian king Belshazzar, who is known in the Talmud as a tyrannical oppressor of Jews. Beside the passage from Heine, Wilton said Sokolov discovered four incomprehensible symbols that he described as “cabalistic.”

The basement of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where the tsar and his family were shot
The basement of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where the tsar and his family were shot
Wikimedia Commons

According to Anna Shmaina-Velikanova, Russia’s diaspora in Europe continued to promote the “ritual killing” theory, even printing brochures about it. During the Second World War, Russian emigres who cooperated with the fascists, especially in France, eagerly discussed the conspiracy theory, she says. The theory fell out of favor after the war, only to return in the early 1990s.

Why has the “ritual killing” theory made another comeback?

Russian investigators have twice rejected conspiracy theories about the murder of the Romanov family, reopening the case in 1993 and again in 2007. In 1991, seven skeletons were discovered outside Yekaterinburg that were very likely the remains of the tsar’s entire family (except for heir apparent Tsarevich Alexey and Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, whose bodies weren’t found until later).

During the examination of the bones, the Russian Orthodox Church was permitted to raise specific questions, and investigators even prolonged their analysis to address the church’s concerns, which was meant to remove any doubt that the Romanovs’ remains had finally been discovered. The Russian Orthodox Church wanted to know if there was any forensic evidence of a “ritual killing,” and asked if there were any signs that Nicholas II had been decapitated.

Experts found no evidence of a “ritual killing” or decapitation. According to lead investigator Solovyov, the murder was carried out by local atheist security officials, almost none of whom were Jewish. The killers’ efforts to “conceal and dispose of the bodies,” Solovyov concluded, were “improvised and hurried.”

In 2007, not far from where the Romanovs’ remains were discovered in 1991, researchers unearthed more bones that likely belonged to the last missing members of the Royal Family. As a result, Russia’s Attorney General reopened the murder case and conducted another forensic examination of the remains, which confirmed the results of the analysis a decade earlier. Officials later concluded that the skeletons discovered in 2007 belonged to Tsarevich Alexey and Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, and the case was closed in 2008.

The Russian Orthodox Church, however, rejected the results of this second investigation, protesting the fact that its representatives weren’t admitted to the forensic examination. The church has also refused to accept that the bones discovered in 2007 belong to Tsarevich Alexey and Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna. In 2015, the Federal Investigative Committee granted the church’s request for an additional investigation, and the Russian government reopened the murder case for a third time. The remains were exhumed and sent for another forensic review.

In the new case, two high-ranking church officials were present when experts took new bone tissue samples from the remains discovered in 2007, and representatives from the church have also been allowed to question the forensic experts, who will have to respond to a total of 76 questions, some of which were discussed at the November 27, 2016, conference. The Russian Orthodox Church is again asking experts to say if it’s likely the Romanovs were murdered in a “ritual killing,” and if “the fact that the beds disappeared from the Ipatiev House” is related to the ritual nature of the murder. (Despite speaking to several experts on the case, Meduza was unable to learn what “beds” the church is asking about.)

Forensic experts will also have to answer questions from “representatives of a patriotic community that’s spent many years investigating the murder of the Royal Family,” though it’s unclear what organization this is. The questions submitted by this group are the following: “It’s known that a large amount of alcohol was removed [from the premises], which became some of the circumstantial evidence suggesting that the heads of the tsar and his heir were dismembered, so they could be displayed to Soviet leaders. Is there any other explanation for the disappearance of this alcohol?” “Can the investigation offer any explanation for the ‘kabbalistic markings’? Has there been any expert examination of these symbols?”

In his report from the 1990s on the Romanovs’ murder, lead investigator Vladimir Solovyov dismissed the “ritual killing” theory as “absolutely sensationalist, obscene information.” In an interview with the television network Dozhd, Sergey Mironenko (a history professor and State Archives academic advisor who took part in the 1990s investigation) said, “It’s impossible to raise [the question of ritual killing in the Romanovs’ case] either scientifically or morally. It was proven long ago that Jews never committed ritual killings. [Why] investigate this all over again? The good news is that the current investigation basically confirms all our previous conclusions.”

Mironenko refused to discuss the matter with Meduza. “‘Ritual killing’ is such nonsensical garbage that it’s embarrassing just talking about it,” he explained.

Story by Evgeny Berg, translation by Kevin Rothrock