Turnout for 13 -mile walk suggests image of Nicholas II, demonised as the final ruler in a brutal system, is undergoing a renaissance

Holding aloft icons, crossings and portraits of Russias last tsar, thousands and thousands of pilgrims have made a 13 -mile walk near the Russian city of Ekaterinburg to mark the anniversary of the execution of Nicholas II.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the pilgrims strolled to the spot where Nicholas and his family were executed 99 years ago.

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and debates are surfacing about how modern Russia should view the events of 1917, in which the February Revolution deposed the deeply unpopular Nicholas.

After the Bolsheviks confiscated power afterward in the year, the tsars household were kept under guard, and in July 1918, as the White Army were advancing on Ekaterinburg during the civil war, the royal family was executed.

The image of Nicholas II, whom historians have criticised as an ineffective leader and who was demonised as the final ruler in a brutal, repressive system by Soviet ideology is undergoing a renaissance, as the turnout for Mondays pilgrimage demonstrates.

The walk began at 3am from the centre of Ekaterinburg, accompanied by a childrens choir singing God save the tsar. Streets were closed off in the centre of the city to allow the column to pass.

The pilgrims strolled for four hours until they arrived at the site of the executions, where a cathedral now stands. A religious service was held at the site.

A woman at the Ganina Yama monastery after a religion procession celebrating Nicholas II. Photograph: Donat Sorokin/ Tass

In 2000, the Russian Orthodox church canonised Nicholas, his wife Alexandra and their children.

However, in a sign of how Russia is still dealing with the conflicts created by a tumultuous century of political change, Moscow still has a metro station named after Petr Voikov, the Bolshevik who arranged the execution of the family. There have been a number of petitions to change the name of the station.

New those in favour of Nicholas II include Natalia Poklonskaya, formerly the prosecutor of Russian-annexed Crimea, and now an MP, who has a portrait of the last tsar in her office.

This is a love that lives in our spirits and hearts for our saintly ruler and for our motherland, she said in Ekaterinburg, where she was taking part in the procession.

Poklonskaya has led protests against a movie by Russian director Alexei Uchitel, which portrays an affair between Nicholas and the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, due out soon. Poklonskaya and other conservative Russian legislators have called for the cinema to be banned, saying it disrespects the memory of Russias last tsar.

A small minority of patriotic Russians have even floated the idea of reintroducing empire to Russia. The ultra-religious financier Konstantin Malofeyev has set up a special school on the outskirts of Moscow where children are given extra lessons in tsarist history and prepared to be the elite in a future tsarist Russia. Malofeyev believes Russia could return to monarchy soon, and has even suggested the idea of constructing Vladimir Putin tsar.

Putin has attempted to carve out a continuous line of Russian history that his countrymen can be proud of, condemning the 1917 revolutions but lauding the achievements of both the tsarist and Soviet countries, while overlooking darker episodes.

Vaunting stability, Putin has spoken many times about the dangers of political upheaval, both historically and in contemporary Russia.

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