Just as Boris N. Yeltsin's career was taking off - his first career, that is, as a Communist Party functionary - he received an order from Moscow that would tie him, however indirectly, to the one great crime that overshadowed all of Soviet history. Czar Nicholas II and his family had been murdered by their Bolshevik captors in the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg, back on the night of July 16, 1918, and 59 years later, Mr. Yeltsin was ordered to destroy the house where that had happened. In three days, the deed was done. But he later came to regret it, bitterly.
When Mr. Yeltsin became party secretary for the city of Sverdlovsk - the name given to Yekaterinburg by the Soviets in 1924, in honor of the Bolshevik who led the execution team - he was an ambitious, knock-heads-together sort of leader, certainly unmoved by the winds of dissent that were just then starting to swirl. It's hard to believe the Politburo really feared a monarchist revival, though that's what they told him - yet the mid-1970s was when two of the regime's greatest critics achieved prominence at home, and then were forced or hounded into exile in the West. They were the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his champion, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who died yesterday at age 80, in Moscow, just four days after Mr. Yeltsin.
Within a decade, in any case, the Soviet landscape was shifting beyond recognition. Mr. Yeltsin had gone to Moscow, become a reformer, been drummed out of the Communist Party, turned rebel, and taken the first steps toward becoming president of Russia. Mr. Rostropovich was offered the chance to return in 1990, and on a luminous snowy evening, he conducted a passionate, flower-strewn concert at the Moscow Conservatory.
In August 1991, when Mr. Yeltsin stood on a tank and defied the hard-line Communist coup, "Slava" Rostropovich - so different in background and temperament - flew in from Paris to be with him and his supporters. Someone handed the cellist a Kalashnikov, but he put it down gently and picked up his instrument instead. Then he provided the soundtrack to Russia's sterling moment of democratic defiance.
The 1990s in Russia was an era of many questions, and among them was the question of what Russians should make of their long and very painful history. Mr. Yeltsin sought to restore and build upon Russia's pre-Communist foundation, and it's plain that the gory fate of Nicholas - whose remains had been unearthed, along with those of his family - weighed upon him.
In 1998, the government decided to give them a proper burial in St. Petersburg. But the Russian church had qualms - in part because of its long and compromised relationship with the Communists - and Alexi, the patriarch, boycotted the funeral. Mr. Yeltsin said that out of deference to Alexi, he, too, would stay away. What had been promoted as an act of reconciliation and historical justice was in danger of becoming a divisive embarrassment.
But on the afternoon before the funeral, lobbied by the 91-year-old historian Dmitri Likhachev - who could remember seeing the young Alexis Romanov on a street in St. Petersburg in the years before the revolution - Mr. Yeltsin relented.
Mr. Rostropovich had come that day to pay his respects to the czar. When he emerged into the bright sunlight, and was told that Mr. Yeltsin was coming after all, he burst into tears of joy.
"Finally, we are doing what we should have done so long ago," he said. "When we let the sin of the heart go, then Russia can revive."
The next day, 80 years exactly since the killings, Mr. Yeltsin spoke at the service. It was a powerful and heartfelt address, an attempt by an aging leader to atone for the years of Soviet rule and for his own early role in upholding it.
"We have long been silent about this monstrous crime," he said. "By burying the remains of innocent victims, we want to expiate the sins of our ancestors. Guilty are those who committed this heinous crime, and those who have been justifying it for decades, all of us."