MOSCOW -- In an old office downtown, a streetwise detective is working to close a very cold murder case in Yekaterinburg, halfway across the country.
For two years Vladimir Solovyev has worked to prove that the bones found in a shallow grave in Yekaterinburg in 1991 are the remains of Czar Nicholas II, his family and loyal servants, who were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1919.
Mr. Solovyev, and most other criminal, scientific and government authorities, have little doubt that the much picked-over bones are indeed those of Russia's last imperial family. But niggling doubts -- the kind promulgated by rumor, sensational tabloid journals and pretenders to the throne -- are keeping Mr. Solovyev on the job long after he considered the case closed.
A government commission has quietly decided to postpone burial of the bones, which had long been planned for today in a St. Petersburg cathedral. They will not be laid to rest any time soon. The bones are controversial, and they raise questions no politician wants to confront in this presidential election year.
They remain in the Yekaterinburg morgue, where they can be viewed by appointment.
Government investigators, after interviews with surviving executioners, detailed study of the notes of earlier investigators and DNA analysis, consider the case closed. Nevertheless, they are being asked to follow up leads that Mr. Solovyev calls "stupid," but clearly enjoys being paid to study because he's become so obsessed with the case.
Everyone has something to say about the bones.
For example, Mr. Solovyev says, there are at least one or two people every week who say they are inhabited by the spirit of one Romanov or another who can direct them to the real bones. There's the popular legend that the czar's severed head is in a jar in the mausoleum holding the body of Vladimir Lenin. There's the strange script on the wall of the Romanovs' prison that has inspired theories that they were killed in a "Jewish ritualistic murder."
"What we are doing now contradicts opinions they [the commission] already have," says Mr. Solovyev, surrounded in his office with the handwritten documents of early investigations of the case and photos of the proud executioners posing at the grave where the bones were buried.
But the government's Commission for Identification and Reburial of the Last Imperial Family wants any doubts proven wrong, not just ignored.
Commission Secretary Andrei Sebentsov confesses that he thinks that the doubts and questions will never stop. "Look at the pharaohs of Egypt -- 2,000 years later they're fascinating people," he says.
And in the context of Russia's long history, he says, the execution of the czar and innocents like his wife and children "were the first useless, cruel political killings which started a whole era in which tens of millions perished, so for Russia to reconcile with its past, these bones -- this case -- is important."
The imperial relics have become a gruesome national symbol for matters of faith, politics, conscience and morbid curiosity here.
There are thousands of Russians who pray at night to icons of the Romanovs, whom they consider saints -- and they burn with the desire to see the bones given a Christian burial. Others, not so religious perhaps, just want to see the government bury the bones as a symbolic burial of Bolshevism. And still others would simply like to be one of the VIPs who can make an appointment with the morgue to gawk at the bullet holes and stab marks.
DNA tests have shown -- with certainties in the high 90 percent range -- that the bones are of Romanovs. But that isn't certain enough for the Russian Orthodox Church, possibly because church officials want to put off the much harder question of whether the czar and his family should be canonized.
In Russian Orthodox practice, believers can be canonized for how they died as well as how they lived -- the theory by which Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra, their five children and several loyal aides (one of whom was a Catholic) were declared saints by the Russian Orthodox Church in exile long ago.
The two arms of the church split at the time of the Revolution, along much the same lines that the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks split in the Revolution. The exiled church has accused the church in Russia of complicity with the former Soviet government.
Neither church officially accepts that the bones in Yekaterinburg are the czar's -- but both qualify their opinions.
"Officially we don't think they are the czar's bones -- we could be wrong," says Father George Larin, a prominent official of the church in exile. Even the fragment of a bone of a martyr is a "tangible link to heaven" that isn't taken lightly, he adds.
The church cannot provide an imperial funeral ceremony if there are any doubts about whom the bones belonged to, says Andrei Ilisayev, a spokesman for the church in Russia.
He said that the church has asked the reburial commission to put off the burial until several issues are addressed. They include discrepancies among investigators in the amount of sulfuric acid used by the executioners to dissolve the bodies, comparisons of one of the princess' smiles in a photograph to dental charts from a skeleton, the Jewish ritual murder rumors, and the question of what happened to the bodies of Crown Prince Alexei and his sister Anastasia, which have not been clearly identified.
Meanwhile, political momentum for the burial has slowed, too. Politicians -- including President Boris N. Yeltsin -- have often used the issue of a dignified reburial of the Romanovs to pound home the reform theme of righting Communist wrongs. Now they are facing a new political climate. The Communist Party -- descended from the Bolsheviks who murdered the czar -- are on a popular comeback after December parliamentary victories.
The commission secretary, Mr. Sebentsov, says he recalls that when the commission was formed by Mr. Yeltsin three years ago, there was the naive thought among panel members that the investigation and burial could happen within two months.
He tosses a hefty 13-generation Romanov family tree on the table and explains that just the legal verification and notification of living relatives -- who number in the hundreds -- are still going on three years later.
Mr. Sebentsov, whose panel met this week without any public retraction or explanation of its announcement last September that the burial would be on Atonement Sunday -- today -- says he thinks the event could still happen within the year.
Even that could prove optimistic. The czar will not be laid to rest until the government puts to rest the myths and controversies surrounding the bloody end of the 300-year Romanov dynasty.