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An Execution Remembered

Eighty years ago, Russia's last czar and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks. Today, four elderly residents of St. Petersburg reflect on the years surrounding the execution of Nicholas II and his family.

When the Russian Revolution broke out, Georgy Lugovoi was 17, merely five years older than Alexei, the heir to the throne. Lugovoi grew up in St. Petersburg's central Nevsky Project, around the corner from the palace where Czar Nicholas II and the entire Romanov royal family lived. He remembers walking past the palace and seeing the czar's children at the windows, looking down at the street.

``We were very afraid, and we loved the czar's family and felt afraid for them,'' Lugovoi says. ``I spent all my time walking the streets. There were lots of people around, working people, peasants. ... The police were shooting from the roofs.''

After the turmoil, Lugovoi became a news photographer and recorded many of the country's great dramas. Although his family's large apartment was converted into a communal dwelling, he continued living there until two years ago, when his wife died and he moved in with his daughter.

Although his family ``very much loved, respected and valued the czar,'' Lugovoi believes Nicholas, as a leader, was too weak. ``He should have seized Russia and held her firmly in his hands.''

In 1913, the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty was celebrated in the town of Kostroma. Ilya Musin, 9 at this time, vividly remembers the town decorated to resemble a 17th-century village and the czar as he steamed in on a riverboat for the festivities. ``Various types of soldiers, which don't exist nowadays, came from different parts of Russia,'' he says. ``They were ... all on horseback in beautiful uniforms.''

Because the revolution originally had little impact on Kostroma , Musin, now 94, says his family had no sense of the impending political changes.

Musin moved to St. Petersburg in 1919 to study piano. By then, the Russian Civil War was under way. A lack of heat made the conservatory's practice rooms so cold that Musin permanently damaged the muscles in his hands, forcing him to switch to conducting. He eventually became a teacher and founded a new school of technique and nurturing generations of top conductors.

Musin still teaches at the conservatory and shares his three-room apartment with aspiring students. His memories of the old hardships and the Soviet-era informers still remain clear. ``Supposing I knew you and you knew me,'' he says. ``Then we could sit down together, lock ourselves away somewhere and have a cry.''

While she was growing up, Sofia Khvatskaya's mother often told her stories about Czar Nicholas II's coronation in 1896. ``She said there were very many people on the streets, and that there were many good things to eat sweets and pies and pastries. ``And there were presents from the czar. His assistants gave the out in the street.''

Khvatskaya's family owned about 10 acres of land near the central town of Yaroslavl, with both a winter house and a summer house, cows, horses, pigs and sheep. She spent her days digging potatoes, feeding chickens and carrying water from the river. Her comfortable family life immediately changed when the communists came to power. They lost everything.

While her husband, Alexander, spent more than a decade in Stalin's prisons and camps, Khvatskaya, now 92, became a dressmaker.

She says her family prayed for the safety of the czar and his family after he abdicated in 1917. When they heard that the royal family had been executed, people ``felt sick in their souls''. ``Nicholas was the one in charge,'' she says. ``So all right, shoot him. But why the family, the children? That was real blasphemy.''

Seven years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Lobodin still fears retaliation from authorities. But he's 96 now, and willing to take a few risks.

Lobodin was 15 and living in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don when the Bolsheviks took power over a regime he calls ``the rule of blood.''

``From October 1917, a new era of public life began,'' he says. ``A great evil came to pass. Millions died.''

Later, Lobodin became a lawyer, economist, and children's book writer. He finds it shameful that seven years have passed since the czar's bones were unearthed from a pit. Lobodin believes the funeral should be a time of reckoning for Russia. ``It should be done in a way that people remember what happened all their lives, and understand that what happened was a profound tragedy.''

By Alice Lagnado