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The time of difficult decisions





The time of difficult decisions

The Time Of Difficult Decisions     

Nicholas II in the uniform of the Life-Guards Cavalry Regiment. St Petersburg. 19101914.

The year 1905 was a milestone of change in both Russian history and the life of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. The beginning of the year was tragically marred by the events of 9 January in St Petersburg - the "Bloody Sunday" that shook the monarchy to its very foundation, unleashing the destructive forces of national revolution. At its end came another event, little noted at the time, but no less fatal in the long run for the dynasty and the empire - the "man of God" Grigory Rasputin first came into contact with the imperial family.

The Emperor - living in constant fear over the health of his son, and weighed down by the depressing news from the theatre of the Russo-Japanese War (in February the Battle of Mukden was lost; in May Russia was stunned by Tsushima which demolished the country's naval might) - received daily reports of outbursts of revolutionary violence, a tremendous wave of strikes, armed uprisings with fighting on the barricades, and mutinous army units. A certain share of the responsibility for this sinister chronicle lay directly with Nicholas - the beginning had come with the shooting down of thousands of St Petersburg workers who on that January Sunday sought to present a peaceful petition at the Winter Palace.

Much still remains unclear about the events leading up to the tragedy of Bloody Sunday - first and foremost, perhaps, the degree of actual danger that might have been presented by an enormous procession of people, up to 140,000 strong. The measures taken by the authorities in advance of 9 January were, however, more like preparations to repulse an enemy army from the administrative districts of the capital than ordinary efforts to maintain law and order. The troops who blocked the streets leading to the centre of St Petersburg had orders to open fire if the demonstrators continued their march despite a ban. Whether a tragic misunderstanding or a deliberate provocation, the actions to stop the workers' demonstrations at the Narva Gate, on the Petersburg Side, and on Palace Square itself turned into a bloody massacre. By some reckonings more than 1,200 people died on that day and about 5,000 more were injured. Among the victims were women and children.

The tragedy of Bloody Sunday roused the country and became the detonator for the first Russian revolutionary explosion. As the pro-monarchist historian S.S. Oldenburg wrote: "on 9 January it emerged that not only the intelligentsia, but also the common people' - at least in the cities - were to a considerable extent in the ranks of the opponents of the existing order." Workers' strikes gripped the industrial centres: in January 1905 alone the number of strikers amounted to over 440,000 - more than in the whole of the preceding decade. The influence of extreme left-wing parties calling for an open armed struggle with those in power increased sharply. With the spring a rapid rise of the peasant movement began, frequently spilling over into the robbery and burning of estate manor houses, the murder of representatives of the authorities, and the spontaneous seizure and redistribution of land.

"The police on the spot were in panic. From all the provinces there arose cries for help and requests to send guards units or Cossacks. So many governors were killed that an appointment to that post was tantamount to a death sentence," a contemporary remembered. Anti-governmental, and in many instances overtly separatist actions seized the non-Russian fringes of the Empire, most notably Finland, the Kingdom of Poland, the Baltic lands and the Caucasian provinces. Particularly threatening for the future of the monarchy was the rapid growth of mutinous thinking in the forces, which became obvious after the uprising on the battleship Potemkin in June 1905 that echoed like thunder across the whole of Russia.

In a situation where revolution had spread across the country, autocratic power was left effectively in complete isolation. Demands for the implementation of "popular representation" could be heard everywhere in that period - at the political banquets of the liberal intelligentsia and in the revolutionary strike committees of the mines and factories. Even such newspapers as Sankt-Peterburgskiye Vedemosti, Svet and Novoye Vremya until recently loyal to the government, even the conservative Russian Assembly and one of its ideologists, the courtier General Kireyev, advocated the summoning of a zemsky sobor - a kind of general assembly last seen in the seventeenth century - as "a national form of representation". In the new circumstances resisting claims that were by now almost universal became ever harder. Two weeks after the death of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, one of the most implacable advocates of firm autocracy, killed in Moscow on 4 February by the Socialist Revolutionary Kaliayev, the Emperor began to make concessions.

On 19 February the government published instructions, signed by Nicholas the day before, to the new Minister of the Interior Bulygin, that referred to the intention "to involve the men most worthy of the people's trust, empowered and elected by the population in the preliminary drafting and discussion of legislative proposals." The idea was to establish an elected consultative chamber, whose rights and powers would be similar to the functions of the State Council of years past.

The plan for the State Duma drawn up under Bulygin's direction by July 1905 was examined at the meetings that took place at Peterhof between 18 and 26 July with the Emperor himself chairing. Involved in the discussions were the grand dukes, ministers, prominent members of the State Council and senators, as well as the outstanding historian Professor Vasily Kliuchevksy. But the draft law approved at that time and published on 6 August failed to satisfy almost everybody: in the incandescent atmosphere of revolutionary disturbances the proposal to create a consultative Duma looked like a document from the historical archives, a relic of the remote past.

The political crisis in the country continued to deepen: in October Russia was seized by another wave of strikes that advanced two main demands - an eight-hour working day and the summoning of a constituent assembly. The stoppages on the railways that began on 15 October developed into a general strike involving over two million people in almost all branches of industry. The situation was becoming ever more threatening.

As many close to the Emperor later testified in that October he was faced with a difficult choice between two possible courses of action. The first consisted, in the words of Prince Obolensky, in "granting unlimited dictatorial powers to some trusted person so as to suppress energetically and irrevocably at the root any hint of the appearance of any resistance to the government, albeit at the expense of mass bloodshed." Such an approach was psychologically acceptable to Nicholas and the majority of the men around him. They must, however, have been aware of the extreme danger of such a decision - direct military suppression of the revolution required the unswerving reliability of the army, and the former conviction that that was the case had been lost. It is no coincidence that not one of the "strongmen" in the Emperor's milieu - neither his close associate General Dmitry Trepov, appointed Governor-General of St Petersburg in 1905, nor Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich - accepted the role of military dictator in a campaign against the revolution. The latter even threatened to "put a bullet through his head" according to the account of Vladimir Fredericks, the Minister of the Imperial Court, who called on him to lead a dictatorship.

Failing that, it was necessary to "go over to making concessions to public opinion and to outline for the future cabinet instructions to embark on a constitutional course." This was the variant insisted upon by Witte who had recently returned from representing Russia at the peace talks with Japan held in the USA. The Treaty of Portsmouth signed on 21 August was relatively favourable for the defeated Empire - territorial losses in the Far East were slight and the inevitable blow to the prestige of the state less than might have been expected. For his services Witte was made a count and during the October crisis he proved probably the only political figure in the ruling camp with a far-reaching plan of action.

In the report presented to the Emperor on 9 October, Witte tried to demonstrate that the state authorities should again, as in the time of Alexander II, take the initiative of transformations into their own hands. "The goal has been set by society; its significance is great and wholly invincible, because there is truth in that goal. The government should therefore adopt it. The slogan "Freedom" should become the slogan of government actions. There is no other way in which the state can be saved The course of historical progress is unstoppable There is no choice: either assume the leadership of the movement that has gripped the country or abandon it to be torn apart by elemental forces. Executions and rivers of blood will only hasten the explosion."

The next few days in autumnal Peterhof passed in endless discussion. The Emperor felt a profound distrust of both Witte personally and his programme, sticking to the convictions that he had expressed in December 1904, on the eve of the revolutionary disturbances: "The peasant won't understand a constitution, but he'll understand only one thing: that the Tsar's hands have been tied, and then - my congratulations, gentlemen!" Yet it was not only Witte or his fellow-thinker Prince Obolensky, who produced the draft manifesto "on improving the state system", but also that long-time opponent of the former Minister of Finance Ivan Goremykin, who also discussed the issue with the Emperor, and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich, and even his foreign friend Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ten years before had hailed the young autocrat's "excellent speech" on the "impossible dreams" of the Tver zemstvo - everyone around was calling on him to give way, predicting an inevitable catastrophe otherwise. Having submitted to the general pressure the Emperor wrote to General Trepov on 16 October: "Yes, Russia is being granted a constitution. We were few in number who fought against it. But support was not forthcoming from any quarter in this struggle, every day an even greater number of people turned away from us and in the end the inevitable happened Nevertheless, following my conscience I prefer to grant everything at once than to be obliged in the near future to make concessions on minor matters and arrive at the same point anyway." Vladimir Gurko wrote later of Nicholas that "throughout the whole of his reign he only once took an important decision in defiance of his inner desires, under pressure from one of his ministers, and that was on 17 October 1905 with the establishment of representation of the people."

The Manifesto of 17 October marked an extremely important turning-point in the political history of Russia. While legally remaining an autocratic monarch, Nicholas in actual fact lost his former unlimited power and, most importantly, his unaccountability.. Elections to a State Duma meant the creation of popular representation in Russia. Although the first attempts at "parliamentarism" proved unsuccessfully - both the First and Second Dumas were dissolved in quick succession because of the dominance of the opposition parties that had formed in the few brief months of the revolution, the Russian Empire from that moment turned irrevocably into a representative monarchy.

The Third Duma, formed in 1907 on the basis of a new electoral law, became a reliable partner for the government headed by a new "strongman", Piotr Stolypin, who advanced a wide-ranging programme of reforms vital to the country. His famous statement that for regeneration all Russia needed was "twenty years of peace at home and abroad" is evidence of his grasp of the immense potential for step-by-step reform in the country.

 

Nicholas undoubtedly respected Stolypin as a man who by firm, energetic measures had managed to restore order to an Empire gripped by revolution. He also acknowledged his genuine understanding of the sore points of Russian reality and supported his activities aimed at resolving them in the quickest possible time. Without the aid of the Emperor, Stolypin would never have managed to carry out his key reforms that met with quite strong opposition in the upper echelons of Russian bureaucracy. Yet it is equally clear that Nicholas mentally resisted the over-insistent guidance of his premier whose powerful personality often overshadowed the figure of the head of state in this period. The majority of the Emperor's immediate circle was also set against Stolypin. As time went by, his influence declined appreciably and in the months before the tragic death of this last outstanding reformer in Tsarist Russia the inevitability of his early dismissal was widely mooted. On 1 September 1911, however, during the celebrations in Kiev to mark the unveiling of a monument to Alexander II, an event attended by the Emperor and senior officials, Stolypin was fatally wounded at the theatre by the police informer Bogrov.

The full story behind this murder has still not been established. At one time there were suggestions that the "court clique" was involved. It is hard to say whether that was really the case, but the fact that Nicholas chose not to attend Stolypin's funeral was seen by many as a sign of indifference towards his premier. The course of state policy did not, incidentally, change - the new chairman of the Council of Ministers was Vladimir Kokovtsov, a close associate of Stolypin, although lacking his predecessor's authority and energetic determination.

 

There was a certain foundation to the rumours going around the country about "shadowy influences" at court hostile to Stolypin. It was at just this time that the appearance of Grigory Rasputin close to the throne became fairly general knowledge and the most fantastic tales were circulating about his relationship with the imperial family. It was known that Stolypin had attempted to put an end to this, rightly believing that such a figure would inflict irreparable damage on the prestige of the ruling dynasty. In the spring of 1911 he had had a long talk with the Emperor, providing him with documentary evidence that blackened the image of the "man of God".

 II           ()    . . 1908Nicholas II during a walk on the shore of the Finnish Gulf together with his son Alexis (left) and the Grand Duchess Anastasia (right).  Peterhof. 1908

Nicholas's response is curious, indicating just how much he found himself a hostage to fate in this burning question: "I know and believe, Piotr Arkadyevich, that you are sincerely devoted to me. Perhaps everything you are telling me is the truth, but I ask you never to speak to me again about Rasputin. There is nothing that I can do anyway."

The imperial couple were introduced to Rasputin exactly two weeks after the signing of the Manifesto of 17 October at a hard, troubled time for Nicholas and his wife. The Emperor first mentioned him in his diary on 1 November 1905: "We drank tea with Militsa and Stana. Met a man of God Grigory from Tobolsk province." It was then Grand Duchesses Militsa and Anastasia, the wives of Piotr and Nicholas Nikolayevich, who introduced the Siberian starets to the imperial family. Such encounters and spiritual discussions with people marked out by divine grace were a common occurrence at court in this period. In contrast to many, many others, however, Rasputin managed to establish himself in a completely unique position with respect to the first family of Russia.

Nicholas and Alexandra lived in constant fear for their son, little Alexis, whose illness left practically no room for hope and they were prepared to believe and to open their hearts to anyone who might save him from the incessant danger. That was just what Rasputin became, as he undoubtedly possessed supernatural powers the nature of which is still a scientific mystery today.

    . 1910- .Tsesarevich Alexis in a navy uniform. 1910?

The phenomenon of Rasputin, a simple Siberian peasant of wild, indomitable character and inexhaustible vital energy, who by some unknown means managed to carve out a dizzying career for himself, still remains in many ways a conundrum. There are many gaps and grey areas in his biography. A horse-thief in his youth and a debauchee noted for his taste for wild excesses, beaten and hauled before the courts on several occasions on charges of stealing poles, he belonged wholly to that category of possessed people of whom Dostoyevsky wrote, "you never know ahead of time whether they will enter a monastery or set fire to the village." At some point in the Verhoturye Monastery, where Rasputin had fled to escape the rage of his fellow-villagers, he underwent a spiritual transformation. He gave up his former way of life, stopped drinking, smoking and eating meat, and learnt to read Church Slavonic. It was then that his travels around the holy sites of Russia began. He visited dozens of monasteries and even made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem about which he subsequently composed brief Meditations Through his natural intelligence, as well as numerous meetings and talks with both members of the regular clergy and various sect members, wanderers and holy fools, Rasputin, by numerous accounts, had a good command of Scripture and was capable of interpreting it in his own independent fashion. He was also quite often seen in a state of prayer-induced ecstasy. This was evidently one more manifestation of an unrestrained nature that was confirmed again and again in the material of the Extraordinary Investigative Commission of the Provisional Government that examined Rasputin's case: "Some of them say that Rasputin could dance for hours on end. Others, Filippov, for example, relate that in the last period of his life, the period of madness and orgies, Rasputin could drink and make merry from 12 noon to 4 a.m., then go off to matins, stand through the service until 8 a.m. and then, after going home and drinking tea, until 2 p.m. receive as if nothing had happened the petitioners [who came to him in droves practically every day]."

Apart from his powerful energy, Rasputin undoubtedly possessed a hypnotic gift and a truly unique talent for healing, which was essentially what determined his meteoric rise. While he was uneducated, he had a fairly extensive knowledge of folk remedies and made confident use of the medicinal properties of Siberian, Tibetan and Chinese herbs. Yet what he achieved without the use of any supplementary means bordered on the miraculous. "If anyone had a bad head and was feverish", his personal secretary Simanovich, for example, recalled, "Rasputin stood behind the patient, took his head in his hands, whispered something no one could understand, and pushed the patient with the words Be off!' The patient felt he had got better. I experienced the effect of Rasputin's incantation myself and must acknowledge that it was staggering." Literally one session with Rasputin was enough to put Simanovich's own son, considered incurably ill, back on his feet.

 II      ( ):   ,      , , . 1907.    Nicholas II and Alexandra Fiodorovna with their children: Grand Duchess Anastasia, Tsesarevich Alexis and Grand Duchess Anastasia (left), Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga (right). 1907. Photograph by Boason and Egger.

According to some sources, from late 1907 onwards Rasputin's intervention, in the form of "holy prayer" for Tsesarevich Alexis saved the boy's life on several occasions. Perhaps his many skills did include the ability to affect the behaviour of the blood, something beyond the power of the best medicine of the day.

Rasputin's gift revealed itself most strikingly in the autumn of 1912 when the Tsesarevich nearly died as the consequence of a minor knock that occurred while the family were at the hunting grounds in Poland. The internal bleeding that followed resulted in the formation of an enormous haematoma. The doctor's admitted that the boy's condition was extremely serious. Rasputin was not at hand, but a telegram he sent saved the situation the mysterious force could operate at a distance. Citing this incident in his book With the Tsar and Without the Tsar, the palace commandant General Voyeikov wrote: "If one adopts the viewpoint of the Empress and mother, who regarded Rasputin as a god-fearing starets, whose prayers had helped her sick son, much should be understood and pardoned The aid provided to the heir strengthened Rasputin's position at court so much that he no longer needed the support of the grand duchesses and members of the clergy."

The faith Nicholas and Alexandra Fiodorovna had in Rasputin grew even further when, some two years later, he saved from apparently certain death the Empress's intimate friend Anna Vyrubova, after a railway accident had left her with shattered legs, concussion and a fractured skull. This incident on 2 January 1915 made a powerful impression on those who witnessed it and became widely known. "When she was pulled out of the wreckage", Prince Andronnikov said, retelling under examination the story as he heard it from Yelizaveta Naryshkina, lady-in-waiting, head of the Empress's household, and, by the way, no friend of Rasputin, "the poor woman kept shouting Father, father, help me' (meaning Rasputin). She believed that he would help her And that's what did happen He dashed off to Tsarskoye Selo. When he arrived at Tsarskoye, the injured Vyrubova was surrounded by the former Tsar, the Tsarina, the whole royal family, the daughters I mean, and several doctors. Vyrubova was in a completely hopeless state. When Rasputin arrived, he bowed, came up to her and began making some kind of gestures and saying Annushka, can you hear me?' And she, after not saying anything to anyone, suddenly opened her eyes" It was said that afterwards in the next room Rasputin collapsed into a prolonged faint due to the effort of will he had exerted. Vyrubova rapidly began her path to recovery.

Rasputin, due to her boundless faith in him, was probably the only person close to Nicholas's family who was in reality capable of restraining and calming the Empress who had lived for years on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Alexandra Fiodorovna herself confessed on several occasions that the talks with "our Friend", as she called him, gave her strength and spiritual repose. "I always remember what our Friend says. How often we fail to give sufficient attention to his words" she wrote. All this undoubtedly endowed the "man of God" with tremendous influence that could not be harmed either by rumours of his scandalous escapades with women and revels in restaurants, or by the representations of ministers, or even by the friendly murmuring of the entire House of Romanov that developed a hatred of Rasputin.

Admittedly the tenacious idea of the omnipotence of this fateful individual whose semi-literate notes supposedly determined the entire policy of the Empire in the years immediately leading up to his death is far from the real truth of the matter. Power in the state lay in the hands of Nicholas and not Alexandra Fiodorovna and his attitude to both Rasputin and his advice was somewhat different. Although he listened to the opinions of his wife who always remained the person closest to him and although he undoubtedly valued and in his own way respected the starets, to whom he owed his son's life several times over, the Emperor was far from blindly executing his wishes in matters of state. Grigory did, of course, have a certain influence on him as well, but it could in no way compare with the awe in which Alexandra Fiodorovna held every word emanating from "our Friend". This difference in feelings between the Emperor and his spouse was precisely caught by the French ambassador Maurice Palologue, who believed that Nicholas had a fairly restrained attitude towards Rasputin. Many people who were openly hostile to the starets remained in the Tsar's close circle, and he reacted to Rasputin's death in December 1916 incomparably more calmly than the Empress.

Yet irrespective of such subtleties, the very presence of a Siberian peasant with a widely-known scandalous reputation among the royal family gave rise to gossip and at times to malevolent slander. There were, for example, rumours of a sexual relationship between Rasputin and Alexandra Fiodorovna and even her daughters that were subsequently eagerly seized upon by the printed "exposs" of the post-revolutionary years. This was a wicked slander on the royal family, but the fact that it was accepted both in the aristocratic salons of St Petersburg and among the provincial intelligentsia was an indication of how much the ancient tradition of the Russian monarchy had lost its charm and how low the prestige of the ruling dynasty had fallen in the eyes of all sections of the population. Even among the peasantry, even in the army that had always been marked by its loyalty to the throne, respect for autocratic power disappeared as it came under attack from all quarters.

 II   -      . Nicholas II in the uniform
of the Life-Guards Cavalry Regiment
with his son Alexis. St Petersburg.
1913

These were very dangerous signs and no amount of grand celebrations intended to glorify the monarchy, and there were a great number in the last years of old Russia, could alter the situation. Magnificent festivities celebrating great jubilees in the nation's history came one after another - the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava, 50 years since the liberation of the serfs in 1861, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino and, especially, the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov in 1913. Hidden behind the facade of official events was an obscure, yet ever more evident dissatisfaction and irritation among society.

Despite the fact that in this period Russia was experiencing unprecedented economic expansion, the country's industry acquired truly European scope and level, a well-to-do peasant class was growing in the countryside, and Russian culture was flourishing in what would become known as "the Silver Age" - nothing of that was reckoned to the credit of the authorities, whereas the slightest miscalculation, failing or error in that quarter was blown up with some malevolent delight.

For all the order superficially imposed in the Empire after the smashing of the first revolution, autocratic power found itself under a sort of psychological siege. A remarkable parallel to that was the great isolation and seclusion of the life led by the imperial family who had withdrawn for good from St Petersburg society and now spent most of their time in the small, unprepossessing Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. The purely geographical remoteness of that residence symbolised, as it were, the yearning to escape from a hostile world, to find a longed-for peace in cosy family pastimes.

The fast-changing times did not give the Emperor any peace and with every year his state duties became a greater burden to him in the new conditions of political life in Russia. He was irritated by the constant interference of the Third and Fourth Dumas in the day-to-day matters of administration, the harsh, and at times unjustified criticism of the existing powers from the platform of the Duma, the endless scandals and troubles with the grand dukes of the House of Romanov who did not recognise his authority as the head of the dynasty, the hidden, yet distinctly tangible animosity of the press and the intelligentsia, particularly on the non-Russian fringes of the Empire. The familiar orderly world of his childhood, in which his father's throne had towered above the country as its unshakeable summit, was lost beyond recall. For Nicholas all that was left was love and loyalty to his own small family.

International affairs became particularly alarming in this period, threatening the ever-so-fragile calm of the Empire. Revolutions in old monarchies of Asia that had seemed set in their ways for ever - Iran, Turkey and China; the Bosnian and Moroccan crises that nearly plunged Europe into a general war; the Italo-Turkish conflict of 1911 - all of them created a sense of an unstable existence, uncertainty in the future of Russia and of the dynasty.

In 1912 and 1913 public opinion was seriously shaken by the Balkan Wars that touched directly on Russian foreign policy tradition.

The Emperor regarded all this whirlwind of events with the same sense of doomed fatalism that had long become the psychological background to his existence. He did not try to challenge destiny, made no attempt to change the course things were taking. Only occasionally in his diary or in wholly private letters do we find suggestions that the Duma ought to be dissolved, that it ought to be turned into a purely consultative body, stripped of its legislative rights - but that all remained on paper, or the matter of rare conversations not intended for outsiders. Evidently Nicholas understood that time cannot be turned back.

And time was flowing ever faster. The shots fired at Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 heralded the final turning of the page for the old monarchic Europe. From the moment Franz Ferdinand bled to death, it plunged ever more rapidly towards its fatal finale - the First World War.

 

Many years later Sandro, Alexander Mikhailovich, called the day that the Great War broke out the day that European civilisation committed suicide. It did indeed mean the end not only of a system of international relations that had been decades in the making, but above all the beginning of the tremendous collapse of all the pillars of the world, the social and political foundations of the "old order", of a society that still lives by the precepts and traditions of the nineteenth century.

Emperor Nicholas had no desire for war. Apart from his innate abhorrence of military force, he knew that war could bring in its wake catastrophe for the world as he knew it. On the eve of the terrible events, in the spring of 1914, one of the most far-sighted Russian conservatives, the former Minister of Internal Affairs Piotr Durnovo, presented a memorandum to the Emperor in which he supported his main conclusion that the approaching war between Russia and Germany would not bring victory to either side, but would destroy the monarchic principle of old Europe.

Stopping the gigantic mechanism of a European war which was picking up speed with every hour proved beyond Nicholas's power, however. Although he was prepared to make far-reaching concessions for the sake of peace, the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia left him with no alternative. As back in 1876, the supreme power in Russia became hostage the public concern over fellow Orthodox Christians being oppressed in the Balkans. On 17 July 1914, after agonising vacillations, the Emperor confirmed the decision to begin a general mobilisation. That same day he telegraphed to the Kaiser in Berlin: "We are far from desiring war. While negotiations with Austria over the Serbian question continue, my forces will not undertake any military action. I give you my solemn word on that." Germany's response was an official ultimatum demanding that the mobilisation be halted within twelve hours. At 7.10 on 19 July 1914, the German ambassador in Russia, Count Pourtals, a convinced opponent of war, came to Sergei Sazonov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, with a reply. Having received only a repeat of the former assurance that Russian troops would not begin military action first, the ambassador twice reiterated his question, after which, performing a duty that was tragic to him, he handed over the declaration of war. He was in such a state that he mistakenly gave the minister two versions of the German response one for if Russia conceded to the ultimatum, the other if it did not. Leaving the office Count Pourtals was crying according to Sazonov and exclaimed: "Who could have envisaged that I would have to leave St Petersburg in such circumstances!"

Nicholas, on the contrary, having taken a decision he found incredibly difficult, felt relief. "I felt that everything was over for ever between Wilhelm and me," he later told Palologue. "I slept exceptionally soundly. When I woke up at my usual hour, it was as if a stone had slipped from my heart. My responsibility before God and the nation was enormous, but I at least knew what I had to do."

The Emperor travelled from Peterhof into the capital and after a solemn church service held in the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace he addressed representatives of the army and navy. When, immediately after that, he and Alexandra Fiodorovna showed themselves on the balcony of the Winter Palace, the many-thousand-strong crowd that had gathered on Palace Square felt to its knees as one.

As an extraordinary measure the State Council and the Duma which were in recess until the autumn were convened on 26 July and both legislative chambers quickly approved the laws required by the start of hostilities. There were also expressions of support from the non-Russian fringes of the Empire: even representatives of the provinces making up the Kingdom of Poland, traditionally unfriendly to Russia, formally declared their loyalty to the country and to the throne in the coming struggle with Germany. A similar declaration was made on behalf of Nicholas's subjects of German extraction. The upsurge of patriotism seen everywhere put an end to almost all partisan conflicts: yesterday's opponents of the government easily shifted to defensive positions, with the exception of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party. The fact that Germany had been first to declare war on Russia encouraged the escalation of an anti-German mood that was in any case strong. As early as 22 July a jingoistic crowd wrecked and set fire to the German embassy on St Isaac's Square. In cities across the country there were mass demonstrations under the slogan "To Berlin!" At this same time the capital of the Empire turned from the Teutonic-sounding St Petersburg into Petrograd. Life in the country swiftly shifted onto a war footing.

353@.jpg (16493 bytes)Nicholas II and Grand Duke
Nicholas Nikolayevich (junior) on
manoeuvres. Krasnoye Selo. 1913

Nicholas believed that at the hour of great trials he should personally lead the Russian army, but almost all the senior officials of the Empire came out against the idea: in the time since Peter the Great the autocrats had not usually been military commanders and the rare exceptions to the rule were associated with glaring failures. The man appointed commander-in-chief was Nicholas's first cousin once removed, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich who was popular in military circles and in the eyes of many possessed the appropriate abilities.

 

Reality rapidly wiped away the optimistic expectations of the war's first days when many looked forward to one victory after another. The advance by two Russian armies into East Prussia begun in August 1914 ended in encirclement and a resounding defeat. The commander, General Samsonov, shot himself. Russia was badly prepared for war in a military and economic sense. Industry could not provide the front with arms and ammunition in the quantities required for a world war. The situation became especially difficult in 1915 when Germany, transferring the main direction of its efforts to the East, struck a powerful blow against the Russian forces which were forced to withdraw everywhere. Under such circumstances the brief patriotic euphoria gave way to despondent disillusionment and a new outbreak of opposition.

Against a background of one failure after another at the front and growing dissent in the rear, the rumours circulating became particularly dangerous: that Rasputin held the reins of power, that the Empress was pro-German, that dubious people were up to all sorts of machinations, making their way into the court by shady routes and carrying out their treacherous intentions. Although as soon as war began Alexandra Fiodorovna and her elder daughters voluntarily began working as nurses caring for the wounded in the military hospitals of Tsarskoye Selo and performed those difficult duties with total self-sacrifice, although all talk of her treachery was deliberate lies, the public attitude towards the imperial family became openly hostile. The conviction that Rasputin, who did indeed oppose the war between Russia and Germany, was, to use the poet Alexander Blok's expression, "a convenient pedal for German spying" became very widespread in different circles.

 

In assuming the office of commander-in-chief on 23 August 1915, during a period of Russian defeats, Nicholas made a dangerous mistake. For his part it was the product of a profound conviction that he, the head of the Russian state, should take the tribulations of the war on his own shoulders, carrying the fighting forces with him. However, having made himself head of an army pulling back under enemy pressure, the Emperor also made himself responsible for the subsequent outcome of military operations. An even more undesirable consequence of that decision was Nicholas's move from Tsarskoye Selo to Stavka, the supreme headquarters, situated at Mogilev since 8 August. Absorbed in military concerns and the business of the front, Nicholas increasingly lost sight of how the political situation was developing in the country. Effectively his main source of information about the prevailing mood in the capital was the regular letters from Alexandra Fiodorovna in which she complained about the underhand plotting of deputies in the Duma and passed on blessings and advice from "our Friend". The Empress's highly individual perception of the world prevented her, however, from seeing the true danger.

 

In 1916, following a series of failures and short-lived ministerial appointments attributed to Rasputin's influence, the crisis of confidence in the country became obvious. After repeated attempts to make the Emperor see that such an obviously irregular state of affairs could not be allowed to continue proved futile, although they were made by Rodzianko, the chairman of the Duma, Elizabeth Fiodorovna, the Empress's elder sister, and even Nicholas's own mother Maria Fiodorovna, opponents of the "man of God" formed a conspiracy against his life. The first who tried to physically eliminate Rasputin, as early as 1915, turned out to be Alexei Khvostov, the Minister of Internal Affairs, whom ironically Rasputin had recommended for the post. He failed to carry the idea through, but in the autumn of 1916 a new group of people devoted themselves to the destruction of "our Friend".

Rasputin evoked particular hatred not so much among the opposition-minded liberals, still less among the parties of the left who saw him as a convenient target figure through whom to discredit autocratic rule, but among the last defenders of that rule the extreme right-wing monarchists. One of their leaders in the State Duma was Vladimir Purishkevich, who in a speech to that body in November 1916 pointed out the intolerable nature of the situation that had arisen: "Rasputin is at present more dangerous than ever the False Dmitry [a pretender to the throne at the turn of the seventeenth century] was Gentlemen ministers! If you are truly patriots, go there, to the royal Stavka, throw yourselves at the feet of the Tsar and plead for him to rid Russia of Rasputin and Rasputin's men, the great and the small."

Purishkevich's speech became the starting point for a new attempt to plan the murder of Rasputin. On the night of 16 December Purishkevich, Prince Felix Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and a small group of others managed to achieve their intention.

By the beginning of 1917 dissatisfaction with those in power in Russia had become almost universal. The war that had dragged on for two and a half years demanding incalculable sacrifices from the country and bringing nothing but defeats, the progressive breakdown of the transport system creating difficulties with supplies, an incredible pace of inflation all that caused growing weariness and exacerbation with the regime. The highest circles of society were much more strongly against the autocratic state and against the Emperor personally than the broad mass of the populace. The "influence of the court clique" was far more obvious to the St Petersburg aristocracy, the heads of the Duma and the capital's intelligentsia than to millions of private soldiers at the front or the peasants of provinces far in the rear. It was the Russian elite, its patience strained to breaking point by Rasputin's grasp on power in recent months, that became the breeding-ground for all kinds of conspiracies and secret alliances aimed at removing an Emperor who had become extremely unpopular, not to say hated. Autocracy stood charged with the worst crime for any authoritarian system: complete ineffectiveness, powerlessness and inability to act for all its obvious and universally infuriating despotism.

As 1916 closed and 1917 began, all overt and covert organisations in high places in Russia Duma factions, aristocratic clubs, high society salons, Masonic lodges and public committees were caught up in a feverish round of meetings, negotiations and agreements between people of the most different kinds connected in one way or another with the country's politics. "The present power is incapable of overcoming the chaos, because it is itself a source of the chaos. It is incapable of bringing Russia to victory in the war and therefore is inclined towards a separate peace, a humiliating capitulation to Germany" that was the general conclusion of all political forces and groupings in Russia by February 1917.

In the capitals of the Western members of the Entente too they were looking with growing alarm at the situation at the top of their "great Eastern ally". By that time, ruling circles in those countries already had grounds to believe that they had won the Great War an analysis of the objective balance of forces showed that Germany could not hold out more than two more years. The future of the Eastern front which had tied down a considerable part of Germany's forces was, however, an evident cause for concern. Russia's capacity to continue the war was now under serious question, and that above all, in the opinion of the allies' intelligence and diplomatic services, because of its own supreme authority. The West was therefore minded to avoid an undesirable (from its point of view) course of events by carrying out with the help of Russian friends a sort of "surgical operation": to replace those in power and the existing system of government so that a new "free Russia" might become a more reliable ally in the war, and a less demanding victor at the negotiating table after hostilities were over. The instrument for accomplishing these far-reaching plans were the numerous allied missions that by then had an exceptionally elaborate network of contacts in the Russian upper echelons.

Both Russian and foreign "friends of freedom" had nothing more in mind than a change of political regimes with the help of a coup within the ruling elite, and certainly not a revolution. Memories of 1905 were too fresh for anyone to desire a repetition of that period so terrible for "law-abiding citizens". As almost always occurs in history, however, reality very quickly upset all the calculations and within a few months the period of the first revolution could easily have seemed to some a blissful idyll.

The true mechanism by which the February Revolution came about is still obscure in many of its details. A thorough study of them must be left to today's historians and tomorrow's, the visible tip of the iceberg is, however, long familiar. On 23 February 1917 the first demonstrations began on the streets of Petrograd provoked by a wave of mass dismissals and the beginnings of disruptions to the bread supply. The military authorities in the capital were unable to take control of the situation immediately and within three days it was no longer possible: the troops refused to obey orders and fraternised with the demonstrators. The second Russian revolution had become a reality.

386@.jpg (13516 bytes)Demonstration on Liteiny Prospekt.
Petrograd. 1917

Emperor Nicholas, who was at Stavka, clearly missed the critical moment in the unfolding events. During those few decisive days when strikes and demonstrations were turning into a full-blown revolution, he continued to concern himself with the immediate affairs of the moment, failing to grasp the nature of what was taking place. When, on 27 February, the existing power in Petrograd effectively collapsed and the State Duma tried to take on the role of intermediary, putting forward a proposal for a "responsible government", the Emperor resolved to take harsh measures to restore order, not recognising that the time had irrevocably passed. As a result the expeditionary force that he despatched to the capital under the command of General Ivanov on 28 February could not get through because of the paralysis of the railways gripped by strikes and the mass disintegration of units that had even recently seemed reliable. The same fate befell the two trains in which Nicholas, accompanied by his suite, had set off for Tsarskoye Selo. They were forced to turn back to Pskov, where the headquarters of the Northern Front was situated. While the Emperor was wandering around the railway system, further irreversible changes took place in the situation.

By 1 March, the majority of generals who had command of armies realised that events had moved on: Rodzianko informed them from Petrograd that "responsible government" was no longer sufficient to calm the revolutionary storm. Circles in and around the Duma came to the conclusion that only Nicholas's immediate abdication could save the monarchy in Russia. With this aim a special mission of deputies Alexander Guchkov and Vasily Shulgin set off for Pskov on the morning of 2 March. That same day telegrams arrived in Pskov from the commanders of the various fronts. Almost unanimously they supported the call for Nicholas's abdication. Apart from a few people personally close to the Tsar, like the Count Fredericks, long-time Minister of the Court, everyone demanded that he went.

 

On the evening of that same day Nicholas handed the signed manifesto on the abdication to Guchkov and Shulgin. He renounced the throne on behalf of himself and his son Alexis. Subsequently many were surprised by the strange calm, even detachment, with which the Emperor laid down the supreme power that he had assumed almost a quarter of a century before. Some saw the reason as lying in his exceptional self-control; others in his profound indifference to the fate of the nation. It would seem, however, that Nicholas's calm had a different cause: as a sincere Christian he regarded the whole matter as the ineffable will of God that should be accepted with due humility. He had performed his duty with dignity and to the last, the rest did not depend on him. The best evidence that what had taken place was not a matter of indifference to him comes in the diary entry for 2 March which ends with words full of bitterness: "Left Pskov at 1 a.m. with a heavy feeling from the experience. Treachery and cowardice and deceit all around!"

Nicholas spent another week in Mogilev, in the familiar surroundings of Stavka. Dowager Empress Maria Fiodorovna came from Kiev for a few days to see her son. We shall never know now what they talked about in those March evenings passed drinking tea or playing cards. For all the apparent humdrum nature of those days they were full of hidden tragedy each of them was marked by meetings with close companions, relatives and assistants that were destined to be the last in his life. And his parting from his mother, as she returned to Kiev, proved to be for ever


Childhood and growing up Within the family circle Under the burden of power The time of difficult decisions

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