MOSCOW — The exact circumstances surrounding the deaths of Russia's last imperial family have long been shrouded in mystery.
But the confusion took a bizarre turn when the Russian Orthodox Church asked: Did Czar Nicholas II and his family perish in "a ritual murder" perpetrated by a Jewish conspiracy?
No matter how strange the question might seem, it is listed on the agenda of a Russian government commission charged with investigating the death of the czar and his family and identifying his remains.
The commission had been in limbo since 1995. But it was revived last month by its new chairman, Russia's first deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, who said he planned to complete the probe by January.
The question about a Jewish role in the imperial family's death in 1918 was one of 10 questions submitted to the commission in 1995 by the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Also on the list are questions related to the recently discovered remains of family members and to the whereabouts of Alexei, the teenage heir to Nicholas II, who abdicated on the eve of the Russian Revolution.
Church officials said they raised the question about a possible Jewish conspiracy in the hope that the government commission would help quell a myth still believed by a certain portion of the populace.
Metropolitan Yuvenali, a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church on the commission, said in an interview that the question was a response to "multiple publications on this matter, both immediately after the [1917 Bolshevik] revolution and in our days."
Yuvenali added that an official government document certifying that Jewish ritual murders have never taken place would be useful.
But the fact that the church raised the question at all could be seen as testimony to the persistence of anti-Semitic beliefs among some members of the church's nationalist wing.
Moscow's chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, said he was "very concerned" by this and would demand an apology from the Russian Orthodox Church.
"As the Russian Orthodox Church is trying to strengthen its stand as a state religion and to return to its old pre-revolutionary glory, certain movements within the church would like to return to the anti-Semitic views of the past," Goldschmidt said.
What happened to the royal family has long occupied the Russian people.
Czar Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, their children and servants were shot by a Bolshevik firing squad in the summer of 1918 in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains about 1,000 miles east of Moscow.
Acid-burned bones believed to belong to family members were discovered in 1991 in a pit near Yekaterinburg.
DNA tests appear to confirm that the remains are those of Nicholas and his family, but the issue remains emotional and disagreement over a burial site — Moscow, St. Petersburg or Yekaterinburg — remains an obstacle to resolving the issue.
The belief in a Jewish conspiracy against Russia is held by some right-wing nationalist members of the church, who revere Nicholas as a martyred saint and champion his official canonization, an issue still being decided by the church.
A church commission examining Nicholas' possible canonization issued a report earlier this year that dismissed the ritual murder myth. But that report was not widely disseminated and it remains virtually unknown in Russia.
Those church members who adhere to the conspiracy theory refuse to believe that the exhumed remains are those of the royal family — and they believe that discussion of burying the remains is a deception to hide01 the facts about the presumed ritual slaughter of the royal family.
The version of the czar's death that became widely accepted by Russian monarchists and others was that of White Army investigator Nikolai Sokolov, who said the royal family's bodies were destroyed and could not be found and that he had discovered kabbalistic "signs" in the room where the royal family was shot.
According to Sokolov, who inspected the site soon after the regicide took place, a quotation from Heinrich Heine, a German poet of Jewish background, was found on the wall in the room where the family was killed: "On this very night Balthazar was killed by his serfs."
Another document in Sokolov's files referred to other marks on the walls and windowsills.
Interpretations of these marks as secret "kabbalistic signs" were published in one monarchist publication after another outside the country during the Soviet period until they reached the books published now in Russia by ultranationalists.
According to one of these books, the "signs" are to be read as follows: "Here, with the orders of secret forces, the czar was sacrificed for the destruction of the state. Of this, all the nations are being informed."
The fact that many of the early Bolsheviks were of Jewish origin — including Yakov Yurovsky, head of the firing squad that shot the royal family, and Yakov Sverdlov, an early Soviet leader who reported the executions to Lenin — has long been fertile soil for anti-Semitic speculation among nationalists and far-right monarchists.