Tag Archives: Imperial Russia

1917: Tsar Nicholas II, Celebrity Autocrat

nicholas-ii-huntingNicholas II was crowned Tsar at the age of twenty-six in 1894, following the sudden death of Tsar Alexander III. Nicholas inherited a relatively stable regime that he was determined to sustain without change. He grew up believing he had been born simply to preserve the institution of God-granted Russian royalty, to maintain the status quo. Alexander, thinking he would live longer, had not trained Nicholas in diplomacy or politics. Living like a king was all Nicholas knew how to do.

His central policy was autocracy. Nicholas rigidly adhered to a particular image of Russia as ordered beneath and for him, and attacked anything that contradicted his sense of that order. He placed himself in the public eye regularly, but only filtered through artificial expressions of his status. This was clear in the 1913 Romanov Tercentenary, a national celebration of the Romanov dynasty. Virginia Rounding points out that “as many as one and a half million commemorative rubles were issued on the occasion of the tercentenary,” and that Nicholas appeared on numerous stamps and in over a hundred film reels (9-10). The monarchy also granted permission “for the production of scarves bearing a portrait of the Tsar, but only with the proviso that the scarves should not be of the right size to be used as handkerchiefs” (10), because Nicholas did not want anybody blowing their noses on images of him. He viewed himself in religious terms, and treated even petty disrespect as sacrilege.

The Romanov Tercentenary was an elaborate publicity stunt scheduled after numerous disasters under Nicholas’s rein. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 ended with an absolute Japanese victory, and was considered an unprecedented humiliation for Imperial Russia. In 1905, Russia’s political and economic problems proved that Nicholas II was not the carefree celebrity he wanted the world to believe he was. That year, strikes and protests formed in the capital amid widespread unrest. Nicholas responded to protestors by ordering police to fire on them on January 22, 1905, now known as Bloody Sunday. The Revolution of 1905 put enough pressure on the Tsar to allow for modest state reforms, including the formation of the Duma as a legislative body and the Russian Constitution of 1906. Nevertheless, Nicholas continued to rule as an authoritarian, dissolving the first Duma and manipulating the second. Entering he Great War in 1914 was just one more disastrous move.

The elaborate publicity displays were what Nicholas wanted the world to see of his empire. Instead, he met countless challenges to his authority, to which he responded with oppression or dismissal, sometimes removing ministers who disagreed with him and distrusting many others. By September of 1915, he had taken complete control of the military, leaving the capitol for the front. By 1916, unrest among soldiers had grown such that in April, “orders were issued forbidding free and open exchange between enlisted men and aid workers unless specifically allowed by the military leaders”  (Sanborn 170).

Nicholas was untrained for leadership and unwilling to admit his shortcomings. He took more interest in sports and his family than in political reforms, which he viewed as a threat to his sovereign, divine authority. He had been raised to live as a ruler, but not to rule, and he began ruling at a time when many Russians grew tired of aristocrats flaunting their inherited God-given wealth and silencing anyone who pointed out the problems in the system. When he abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917, Imperial Russia was a lost cause. With his extravagance and sweeping political abuses and abrasive leadership, Nicholas II exhausted Russian statehood to the breaking point.


Rounding, Virgina. Alix and Nicky, St, Martin’s Press, 2011.

Sanborn, Joshua. Imperial Apocalypse, Oxford University Press, 2014.

 

1917: Rasputin and the Great War

anna_theodora_krarup_portrait_of_rasputin_1916

Portrait of Rasputin by Anna Theodora Karup, December 1916.

“Dear friend, I will say again a menacing cloud is over Russia lots of sorrow and grief it is dark and there is no lightning to be seen. A sea of tears immeasurable and as to blood? What can I say? There are no words the horror of it is indescribable. . . they will conquer Germany and what about Russia? If one thinks verily there has not been a greater sufferer since the beginning of time she is all drowned in blood. Terrible is the destruction and without end the grief.” -Grigorii Rasputin, in a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, summer, 1914

In late December in 1916, the Russian mystic Grigorii Rasputin was assassinated, two and a half years into the Great War, two and a half months before the Russian Revolution took shape. Aristocrats in the Empire, notably Prince Felix Yusupov, who had grown to hate the holy man invited him to dinner in Moika Palace in Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg. For years, the Tsar had placed Rasputin closer to his family, or Rasputin inserted himself into the family by influence. In 1907, the Romanovs invited Rasputin to visit the royal family and heal Alexei, heir to the throne and ill with inherited hemophilia. Regardless of who pulled whose strings, he became a strange, alien force in the regime’s inner circles, a peasant-turned-occultist who joined the royal family.

Rasputin was an independent religious leader claiming metaphysical power and an extensive knowledge of the Bible, but he ignored the moral norms of Christianity through his abuse of alcohol and frequent sexual affairs. He was not a priest, but served the role of priest to a family that was just as much a facade as he was. He may have been a sophist or a lunatic, serving an incompetent autocrat to preserve the Romanov lineage, however doomed it was.

He could also be seen as a Shakespearean fool, the peasant-turned-entertainer who speaks candid truths to the audience and characters. Rasputin was a pacifist opposed to the Great War, though his graphic prophecy was not enough to prevent Russia from entering the conflict. His description of the war, noted above, was apocalyptic, and predicted the horror Russia would suffer as a result. Here, then, was a man willing to help the Tsar despite knowing the violence he could allow.

Russia lost approximately 1,997,500 soldiers in the First World War, with France trailing behind at 1,400,000, colonies and all. The brutal winters of the war years devastated armies and limited supplies for the Russian population. Military historian John Keegan points out that the “nature of these titanic battles on the Eastern Front is difficult to represent at a human or individual level. The Russian army, 80 per cent peasant when a majority of Russian peasants were still illiterate, left no literature to compare with that of the Western Front” (161). The majority of those who survived the Eastern Front, in other words, could not record their experiences.

However, a few written texts are telling. A Russian nurse named Lydia Zakharova, for instance, described a trench on the Eastern Front one winter as a “city of the dead, its inhabitants frozen in the most unlikely positions, as if a raging, deadly hurricane had just swept past them” (Storey 116). She adds, almost numbly, that “there is a limit, by the way, beyond which the human mind can perceive no more horrors, as a saturated sponge can soak up no more water” (117). Rasputin did not live to see the totality of the violence he predicted in 1914, but millions of Russian peasants experienced it.

Tsar Nicholas II shares much of the blame for the failures of the Great War. In 1914, he took personal control of the military, deeming himself a kind of commander-in-chief. Like many European leaders, Nicholas naively thought the war would end by Christmas of 1914. Instead it continued year after year after year.

Finally, in early 1917, starved of food and hope, bled of its population, and openly mocked by the Tsar’s aggressive displays of wealth and indifference, Russians began to protest. The Russian Revolution began only as a series of strikes. People were hungry; they couldn’t work anymore; they stopped until they got food. The Tsar, whose brutality was clear in 1905 when he ordered police to shoot protestors in Russia’s Bloody Sunday, ordered soldiers to fire into the crowds of strikers.

However, those who were meant to guard Petrograd consisted of wounded veterans or very young recruits. Healthy, loyal, and experienced soldiers were stationed on the Eastern Front, and those left behind revolted too and chose to protect the protestors. First, the holy fool protested, then soon after the workers, soldiers, guards, and even a few aristocrats realized that 1917 was an apocalypse year for Imperial Russia.

Rasputin’s place in the regime seems like an ill-fitting cog in a machine, but that might be a limited perspective because almost nobody in the regime was fit for rule. The Tsar was incompetent and disinterested, his children were sick with inherited hemophilia, his ministers were torn between the possibility of a democratic Russia or the Tsar’s brutal autocracy. The monarchy was a network of ill-fitting parts. Rasputin, for all his mysteries, might have had the last good idea for Russia’s future: don’t go to war, it will be the end. Instead, Nicholas ignored the dissenting fool and plunged Russia into the sea of tears immeasurable Rasputin predicted.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.