SHUVAKISH, Soviet Union — A small makeshift cross in a birch forest near this Urals village points to the end of one of Europe's great mysteries.
Here, in a small marshy clearing, lies a mass grave with nine bodies, believed to be those of Russia's last czar, Nicholas II; his wife, Alexandra; three of his four daughters and four servants--massacred by a Bolshevik execution squad in the heat of the Communist revolution 73 years ago.
Although the grave was discovered in 1979 by a pair of amateur historians, the find was suppressed for years by Soviet authorities, who discouraged interest in the murky events surrounding Nicholas' death.
Now, as awareness of the grave site is finally spreading, so is interest in Nicholas II, whose brutal murder in a cellar in the nearby city of Ekaterinburg (renamed Sverdlovsk by the Bolsheviks in 1924 and restored to its old name Monday) created a legend in death that the negligent, ineffectual czar never could have achieved in life.
Today, many Russians believe that the post-Communist era must begin with a search for traditional values that they believe also died in that Ekaterinburg cellar.
Locating the spot where a detachment of guards from the Bolshevik secret police dumped the royal bodies on the night of July 18, 1918, effectively removes one of the last shreds of mystery from a crime that both horrified and fascinated a continent and, in many ways, marked a watershed in its history.
Europeans had overthrown their royal rulers before and sentenced them to death. But the brutality of the murder of Czar Nicholas and his family was unique.
In a report found only last year, Yakov Yurovsky, commander of the execution squad, retold the crime in chilling detail. He described how the czar and his family were herded into the cellar of a home in Ekaterinburg and killed in an execution that required nearly 20 minutes to complete.
"What was surprising was how the bullets from the revolvers ricocheted and bounced around the room like hailstones," he recounted.
Yurovsky complained that jeweled corsets worn by the three young princesses had partially deflected the bullets aimed at them and that even the eventual solution of bayoneting them to death had proven hard work.
The bodies were supposed to have been dumped in an abandoned mine shaft about 12 miles north of the city. But according to Yurovsky's account, the carts carrying the remains became bogged in mud along a small railway track near Shuvakish, 500 yards west of a main rail line.
It is there that the mass grave was found.
Geologist Alexander Avdonin, one of those who found the burial site, says its location and the condition of the remains leave little doubt about the identities of those buried there.
He predicts that scientific testing of the grave, opened last year, "will remove any doubts that others might have."
The czar's other two children, sickly Crown Prince Alexei and one of the two younger daughters, Tanya or Anastasia, are buried in a separate grave that has not been found, Avdonin says. In the years after the massacre, several women turned up in the West claiming to be Anastasia, but no claim was ever proven.
The bullets that tore through the czar's family not only ended the three-century Romanov dynasty but also signaled the start of a campaign of indiscriminate Bolshevik terror that swept Russia and slammed the country's door to Europe for most of seven decades.
Now, with that door open again, many Russians are reaching back to Nicholas II in search of their pre-Communist roots.
Avdonin, who has launched a charity called Rediscovery, has local government backing for building a museum and center for the study of Russian culture and history in Ekaterinburg. He hopes that a small memorial park can be built at the grave site.
"It is not just a question of rediscovery but of finding a new historical justice," he says. "It's about finding a new Russian culture, a new morality."
Knowledge of the Romanov grave is likely to fuel interest in the czar, which has grown steadily in recent years as Communist power has faded.
The czar's portrait is sold by Moscow street vendors, his likeness appears on trinkets and he has become a hero to the recently founded Russian National Party, which advocates a constitutional monarchy.
His life--or, more accurately, the mystique surrounding his death--has been the stuff of endless newspaper and magazine articles, novels, plays and films, gripping the country much as the legend surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy preoccupies many Americans.
In Ekaterinburg, the Russian Orthodox Church has put up a large metal cross on the site where the murders took place. It conducts open-air services there and plans soon to replace the cross with a church.
In local schools, children have begun to study the Russian monarchy in depth for the first time this year and to learn what really happened in their city.