ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Under the majestic golden dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral, several thousand Russians paid their final respects Wednesday to Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, the heir to the Romanov throne, in the country's first royal funeral service in more than seven decades.
Alexi II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, led the five-hour memorial rite, replete with heavy incense and hundreds of tapers. The coffin, initially draped in a blue, white and red Russian flag and bearing the double-headed eagle of the czarist crest, was left open according to Russian Orthodox custom.
The patriarch, robed and mitered in glittering white, praised the late grand duke for having "always been sharply conscious of his integral belonging to the people of Russia. He was never the citizen or subject of any other state."
In the 74 years he lived, however, Vladimir Kirillovich walked on Russian soil only once--when he visited St. Petersburg last fall after the final collapse of the Communist regime. Born in Finland in 1917, he lived out his life in exile, mainly in France.
He died in Miami last week, leaving his 38-year-old daughter, Maria Vladimirovna, as the ranking member of the royal family. Also attending the service were his widow, Leonida, and his 11-year-old grandson, Georgy, along with an array of Russian and foreign aristocrats.
Although there is a thriving monarchist movement in Russia, the Romanovs have made no active moves toward reclaiming the throne, and city officials were quick to declare that their support for the funeral does not mean they acknowledge any legitimacy for what remains of the Romanov dynasty.
Preparations for the funeral service were marred somewhat by a controversy over where the grand duke should be interred.
Church and city officials had reportedly offered a spot in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St. Petersburg's main functioning church, but the family insisted on a spot in the cathedral of the golden-steepled Peter and Paul Fortress, where czars had been buried since Peter the Great founded the city.
In an apparent compromise, it was announced Wednesday that the body would be buried in the family tomb of the Grand Dukes' Vault of the Peter and Paul Fortress--but only after 40 days, to give workers time to convert the chapel back from a museum depicting the history of the city mint.
The black-garbed family was flanked at the service by an honor guard of Cossacks seeking a return to their old traditions of protecting the royal families.
"We came to pay our last tribute to the head of the czarist family," said Yevgeny Polyakov, a Cossack chieftain. "I feel sad that one more of the Romanovs is leaving Russia for good."
The last czar, Nicholas II, and his entire family were slaughtered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Vladimir Kirillovich's father was Nicholas' cousin and a direct descendant of Alexander II, who ruled Russia in the mid-19th Century.
Special correspondent Shulyakovskaya reported from St. Petersburg and Times staff writer Goldberg from Moscow.