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Nicholas II, the last czar, is crowned ruler of Russia in the old Ouspensky Cathedral in Moscow.
Nicholas was neither trained nor inclined to rule, which did not help the autocracy he sought to preserve in an era desperate for change. Born in 1868, he succeeded to the Russian throne upon the death of his father, Czar Alexander III, in November 1894. That same month, the new czar married Alexandra, a German-born princess who came to have great influence over her husband. After a period of mourning for his late father, Nicholas and Alexandra were crowned czar and czarina in May 1896.
As the ruler of Russia, Nicholas resisted calls for reform and sought to maintain czarist absolutism; although he lacked the strength of will necessary for such a task. The disastrous outcome of the Russo-Japanese War led to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which Nicholas only diffused after approving a representative assembly–the Duma–and promising constitutional reforms. The czar soon retracted these concessions and repeatedly dissolved the Duma, contributing to the growing public support enjoyed by the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups.
In 1914, Nicholas led his country into another costly war–World War I–and discontent grew as food became scarce, soldiers became war-weary, and devastating defeats at the hands of Germany demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Russia under Nicholas. In 1915, the czar personally took over command of the army, leaving the Czarina Alexandra in control at home. Her unpopular court was dominated by the Russian mystic Rasputin, who replaced the czar’s competent ministers and officials with questionable nominees.
In March 1917, the army garrison at Petrograd joined striking workers in demanding socialist reforms, and Nicholas II was called on to abdicate. On March 15, he renounced the throne in favor of his brother Michael, whose refusal of the crown brought an end to the czarist autocracy in Russia. Nicholas, his wife, and children were held at the Czarskoye Selo palace by Russia’s Provincial Government and in August moved to Tobolsk in Western Siberia under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet, the powerful coalition of soldiers’ and workers’ councils that shared power with the Provincial Government in the first stage of the Russian Revolution.
In November 1917, the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin seized power in Russia and set about establishing the world’s first communist state. In April 1918, Nicholas and his family were transferred to Yekaterinburg in the Urals, which sealed their doom. Civil war broke out in Russia in June 1918, and in July the anti-Bolshevik “White” Russian forces advanced on Yekaterinburg during a campaign against the Bolshevik forces. Local authorities were ordered to prevent a rescue of the Romanovs, and after a secret meeting by the Yekaterinburg Soviet, a death sentence was passed on the imperial family.
Just after midnight on July 17, Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children, and four family retainers were ordered to dress quickly and go down to the cellar of the house in which they were being held. There, the family and servants were arranged in two rows for a photograph they were told was being taken to quell rumors that they had escaped. Suddenly, a dozen armed men burst into the room and gunned down the imperial family in a hail of gunfire.
The remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three of their children were excavated in a forest near Yekaterinburg in 1991 and positively identified two years later using mtDNA fingerprinting. The Crown Prince Alexei and one Romanov daughter were not accounted for, fueling the persistent legend that Anastasia, the youngest Romanov daughter, had survived the execution of her family. Of the several “Anastasias” that surfaced in Europe in the decade after the Russian Revolution, Anna Anderson, who died in the United States in 1984, was the most convincing. In 1994, however, scientists used mtDNA to prove that Anna Anderson was not Anastasia but a Polish woman named Franziska Schanzkowska.
READ MORE: Romanov Family
10 important facts about the murder of Russia’s royal family
Tsar Nicholas II with daughters (L-2nd R) Maria Romanov, Anastasia Romanov, Olga Romanov, Tatiana Romanov. The series of the unique pictures were taken by the Tsar Nicholas II himself or people close to the royal family.
1. Criminal investigation into imperial family&rsquos murder still continues
Yekaterinburg. Place, where the remains of Tsar's family were found, 1992 / Anatoly Semyokhin/TASS
The case was reopened in 2015 by request of the Russian Orthodox Church, which wanted to confirm the identity of the remains considered to be that of the imperial family. In 2000, they were canonized as martyrs for the faith.
The remains of Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, three of their children, and their servants were discovered in 1991 outside the city of Yekaterinburg where they were executed on July 17, 1918. The remains of Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria weren&rsquot found until 2007, not far from where the others had been discovered.
2. The investigation involved Queen Elizabeth&rsquos husband
Elizabeth II greets St. Petersburg residents on Palace Square during official visit by her and Prince Philip to Russia / Alexey Varfolomeev/RIA Novosti
Despite the doubts of the Orthodox Church, the identity of the remains was confirmed through a series of tests conducted in the early 1990s in Russia and abroad. According to the criminal investigator in charge of the case, Vladimir Solovyov, one of the tests involved taking a blood sample from the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is a distant relative of Tsarina Alexandra.
Read more about Solovyov's investigation here>>>
3. Crown Prince Alexei and his sister&rsquos remains have not been buried
Military men carrying the coffin with remains of Emperor Nicholas II at the burial of remains of him, his family members and servants in the St.Peter and Paul Cathedral / Igor Mikhalev/RIA Novosti
The remains of Nicolas II, Alexandra, and their three daughters were given a state funeral in July 1998 and buried at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, uniting them with the rest of their family. While President Boris Yeltsin attended the ceremony, Patriarch Alexei II refused to come.
The remains were exhumed in 2015 in order to take DNA samples as part of the new investigation. In October 2016, Patriarch Kirill said the tests would soon be completed. To this day, the remains of Crown Prince Alexei and his sister Maria have not been buried, and are held in the Russian State Archive.
4. The imperial family fled under the Japanese flag
Grand Duchesses Anastasia Nikolaevna and Tatiana Nikolaevna (L-R), daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo / TASS
After abdication in the February Revolution, the imperial family took refuge in their residence in Tsarskoe Selo. When they left in two trains, they allegedly travelled under the Japanese flag as a part of the Japanese mission of the Red Cross to avoid possible lynching by the mob. Later, the family was moved to the Siberian city of Tobolsk, not far from the village that was the birth place of the infamous Grigory Rasputin - &ldquoour dear friend,&rdquo as Tsarina Alexandra referred to him. Following the Bolshevik uprising in October, the communist authorities moved the family to Yekaterinburg in the Urals.
5. Official reason for execution was the approach of Bolshevik foes
Tsar Nicholas II just before he was shot, Yekaterinburg, July 1918 / Global Look Press
In Soviet times, the official version claimed that the imperial family was executed by order of the Ural Regional Soviet authorities, which said the murders were necessary because Czechoslovakian regiments, formed from World War I prisoners of war, were approaching the city. They had revolted against the Bolsheviks in 1918, but the Soviet government was also concerned about the &ldquocounter-revolutionary&rdquo conspiracy that allegedly wanted to free the former monarch. No signs of actual conspiracy has ever been found, however, but the Czechs took the city eight days after the imperial family was murdered.
6. Moscow did not authorize the execution
Group of Ural Bolsheviks at the alleged burial place of the Romanovs / Archive photo
In post-Soviet Russia, investigators concluded that the execution was carried out by order of local Ural Soviet authorities. There is no evidence that Vladimir Lenin or other Bolshevik leaders wanted to execute the Tsar and his family. Some historians argue that Moscow wanted to put the last Tsar on trial.
However, some of the executioners recalled that on the eve of the shooting they received a coded telegram from Moscow ordering to kill the Tsar, but not the entire family. To execute all the Romanovs in Yekaterinburg was the initiative of the local Soviet government, whose members were much more radical than the Bolsheviks in the Kremlin.
7. The bodies were buried twice
The execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family at Yekaterinburg / Mary Evans Picture Library/Global Look Press
The Romanovs were taken to the basement of Ipatiev House where they were lined up against a wall and shot by firing squad. Those who survived the first attack (some bullets ricocheted off jewelry hidden in their clothes) were finished off with bayonets. Then the bodies were taken and thrown into a mine. However, to reduce any chance that the remains might be found, the soldiers threw them into an unmarked grave and doused them in acid.
8. Officially the fate of the Royal family was not known
Room in the Ipatiev House, Yekaterinburg, where the Russian royal family was brutally murdered, 1918 / Mary Evans Picture Library/Global Look Press
Originally, Soviet authorities only reported the death of Nicholas II. For some time the official position was that the rest of the family had been evacuated from Yekaterinburg and was lost in the chaos of the Russian Civil War. It was not until the early 1920s when details of the execution were revealed, after those involved spoke out.
9. There was not much public interest in the murders
The Romanovs' on the house roof in Tobolsk where they were kept until the transfer to Yekaterinburg in 1918. / RIA Novosti
It&rsquos hard to believe now but back then the Russian public was not moved by news of the Tsar&rsquos murder. Nicholas II simply was unpopular. Historians say that after the downfall of the monarchy the authorities received many letters from the public asking for him to be killed. The only protest came from the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tikhon, who openly condemned the killings.
10. The place of pilgrimage
Yakov Yurovsky, chief executioner of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, early 20th century. Artist Unknown. / Getty Images
The man in charge of the shooting, Yakov Yurovsky, claimed that he shot the Tsar dead. In 1920, he personally delivered to Moscow jewelry that belonged to the imperial family. Subsequently, he held several important posts in the new Bolshevik state, dying in 1938, not as a result of Stalin&rsquos Great Purge, but due to a stomach ulcer.
Ipatiev House was demolished in 1977 when the regional government was headed by future President Boris Yeltsin. Later, the Church on the Blood was built on the site that&rsquos now a place of pilgrimage.
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1. In 1890-1891 he went on a round-the-world trip where he got a tattoo and was nearly killed
Along with his younger brother George and cousin Prince George of Greece, Nicholas went on a round the world trip when he was 22 years-old, visiting countries such as Egypt, India, Singapore and Thailand (then Siam).
Russian Tsarivich Nicholas (future Tsar Nicholas II) at Nagasaki, Japan, in 1891 (Image Credit: Nagasaki City Library Archives / Public Domain).
While in Japan, Nicholas got a large dragon tattooed on his right forearm from Japanese tattoo artist Hori Chyo.
During his visit, one of Nicholas’ escorting policeman swung at his face with a sabre in an assassination attempt (the Ōtsu incident). Nicholas’ cousin stopped the second blow, saving Nicholas’ life. The attack left Nicholas with a 9cm scar on the right of his forehead, and cut the trip short.
Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich of Russia (later Tsar Nicholas II), pictured in the 1880s (Image Credit: Sergey Lvovich Levitsky / Public Domain), and Tsuda Sanzō, Prince Nicholas’s attacker (Image Credit: The Eastern Culture Association / Public Domain).
Dozens of statues of Tsar Nicholas were erected all throughout Romanova. The most famous was an equestrian statue of Nicholas created by famed sculptor Roman Zhapatovoy, which graces the courtyard of the Grand Palace of Ministers. Another smaller version of the statue is located in front of the Ministry of Defense Building. Nicholas is still revered as one of the founders of Romanova and one of the most influential figures in the country's history.
However, others have taken a much more critical view of Nicholas for his role in the deaths of protesters during the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. Liberals and socialists alike have criticized his insistence on ruling as an autocrat. Others take issue with his relatively ineffective rule as Tsar and blame him for the loss of Russia and the rise of global communism.
Birth of Alexei
During that time of great turmoil, the royal couple welcomed the birth of a male heir, Alexei Nikolaevich, on August 12, 1904. Apparently healthy at birth, young Alexei was soon found to be suffering from hemophilia, an inherited condition that causes severe, sometimes fatal hemorrhaging. The royal couple chose to keep their son's diagnosis a secret, fearing it would create uncertainty about the future of the monarchy.
Distraught about her son's illness, Empress Alexandra doted upon him and isolated herself and her son from the public. She desperately searched for a cure or any kind of treatment that would keep her son out of danger. In 1905, Alexandra found an unlikely source of help—the crude, unkempt, self-proclaimed "healer," Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin became a trusted confidante of the empress because he could do what no one else had been capable of—he kept young Alexei calm during his bleeding episodes, thereby reducing their severity.
Unaware of Alexei's medical condition, the Russian people were suspicious of the relationship between the empress and Rasputin. Beyond his role of providing comfort to Alexei, Rasputin had also become an adviser to Alexandra and even influenced her opinions on affairs of state.
The Last Czar as Leader
Gloom gripped senior members of the Russian civil and military establishments in June 1915. Some 10 months after the outbreak of World War I, Czar Nicholas II was intent on assuming command of the army.
The “Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias” was officially a colonel in the Russian Army, the rank awarded by his beloved father, the exceptionally reactionary Alexander III. He had no real experience with the duties and responsibilities of military life, having spent only minimal amounts of time with his soldiers. Despite his inexperience, Nicholas had always believed the army esteemed and cherished him like no other institution. As a child, he adored military parades. As an adolescent, he was never happier than when mounting a white horse to take the salutes of Cossacks passing in review. After his coronation, he disliked wearing civilian clothes and did so, reluctantly, only when traveling incognito to European spas. The soldier who was, as he saw himself, the real czar excelled at participating in glittering military ceremonies that helped convince him an unbreakable bond joined his troops to their sovereign.
The “general consternation” and “great outburst of public anxiety” that June, as Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov saw it, arose from the fear that if the czar were to take command of Russia’s armies, his feeble military expertise would sap the people’s attachment to him as the central national symbol. If he moved to general head quarters, would the government’s problems in St. Petersburg become even worse? Besides, the war was going very badly. How could the czar be shielded from public anger if more defeats were suffered-defeats for which he, if in command, might be considered responsible?
And would he not be certain to con tribute to the chances of defeat? His supporters were nearly as unequivocal as his detractors in thinking him manifestly incompetent to lead a modern brigade, let alone an army of ten mil lion. Alexei Brusilov, one of the war’s few successful Russian generals, would soon curse the royal attendants who “Failed to use the most decisive measures–including even force–to dissuade Nicholas II from assuming those duties for which he was so ill-suited by reason of his ignorance, inability, utterly flaccid will, and lack of stern inner character.” That was the universal view of people who knew the monarch out side a small circle at the court. “Where are we headed?” wailed his disbelieving mother, the dowager empress.
High government officials implored the sovereign to think again. The Council of Ministers were dismayed enough to send him a daring collective warning that assuming the commander-in-chief’s role would threaten “Russia, you, and your dynasty with the gravest consequences.” Nicholas answered the rush of pleas with his favorite mantra: “May God’s will be done.”
Was it also God’s will that the Russian Army had suffered a terrible hammering during the war’s opening stages? The declaration of hostilities in August 1914 had inspired a frenzy of heightened reverence for the czar. “Lead us, Sire,” roared jubilant crowds. Russia surged with a patriotism the likes of which all monarchists dream of. That emotion sustained itself during the war’s beginnings while her forces scored substantial advances, especially against the Austrian army in the south. But the debacle at Tannenberg in Au gust 1914 followed by the Great Retreat began to have an impact on Russian confidence in their leaders.
The grim situation reinforced Nicholas’ conviction that it was his duty to lead the army. That was what he had wanted to do during the equally disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1905, 11 years into his reign, until ministers and generals dissuaded him. Now he heeded his instinct to serve-submitting also to the prodding of his wife, the Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna.
When he left to take up his “new heavy responsibility,” as he described it, Alexandra praised him for having “fought this great fight”-against the overwhelming consensus of advisers and commentators–”for your country and throne-alone and with bravery and decision.” She continued: “Never have they seen such firmness in you before…. God appointed you at your coronation, he placed you where you stand and you have done your duty…. Our Friend’s prayers arise day and night for you to Heaven and God will hear them…. It is the beginning of the great glory of your reign. He said so and I absolutely believe it.”
As always, Alexandra wanted her husband to assert his famously indecisive self to thwart imagined seekers of his throne. Also, she and “our Friend,” the monk Grigori Rasputin, couched their admonishment in the name of the highest power. “To yield that post to another is to disobey the will of God.”
General headquarters, Stavka, was located in Mogilev, a provincial capital some 500 miles south of St. Petersburg and 325 miles southwest of Moscow. The czar arrived there on September 15, 1915, with an icon of Saint Nicholas that Rasputin had given him. Settling in, Nicholas wrote the czarina about Mogilev’s “delightful view over the Dnieper and the distant country.” The town had been chosen as the site for headquarters despite its name (mogila means “grave” in Russian).
He believed his presence there would inspire his peasant troops, the “devoted souls” who, as the czarina forever as sured him, loved him absolutely. Initially, his power to comfort and encourage the troops seemed substantiated. His name “worked like magic with the men,” conceded one general who had bitterly, if privately, opposed the royal move. If states men and the intelligentsia had fewer and fewer illusions about Nicholas’ vision and competence, the peasant-soldiers–who had always considered him their leader anyway still venerated their czar.
At the same time, however, the departure of the previous commander, the czar’s uncle Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, chipped away at morale in the ranks. Nikolaevich had contributed to Russia’s defeats at the beginning of the war, but the soldiers still considered him a strong, dedicated, stern officer who was concerned with their welfare.
Nikolaevich made the change of command as easy as possible for Nicholas, objecting only to patently absurd talk–eagerly promoted by the czarina–that he hungered to replace Nicholas as the sovereign.
The czarina’s warped intrigues to strengthen the czar’s resolve were part of her campaign to make her husband a more forceful person. An essentially timid man, a picture of loving tenderness in their domestic life, Nicholas tended to stutter when facing unpleasantness. His wife’s shining ambition was to persuade him to rule “like Ivan the Terrible.” “The emperor, unfortunately, is weak,” she had told the British ambassador when he questioned the decision to change command, “but I am not and intend to be firm.”
Now she wrote to her husband (in English, their epistolary language) at least once a day, every day he was away. Her river of letters and telegrams exhorted him to save Russia and the Romanov dynasty from treacherous politicians by making himself feared. Once he had swept away the impudent villains who sought vile reforms, then Nicholas would rule without restraint–as God intended.
Her goal of making her husband demonstrate who was in command pervaded her every suspicious instinct. “If you could only be severe, my Love, it is so necessary,” she wrote to Nicholas. “They must hear your voice and see displeasure in your eyes they are much too accustomed to your gentle, forgiving kindness.”
To strengthen her case, she invoked the power of Rasputin, the Siberian monk with the hypnotic eyes and apparently genuine ability to stop the bleeding of the royal couple’s hemophilic son, the Czarevich Alexei Nicolaevich. She wrote endlessly of Rasputin’s love for Nicholas and the determining importance of the monk’s prophecies. “You need the strength prayers & advice of our friend,” she told her husband. Quoting his assurance that Nicholas was fulfilling a heavenly purpose, the czarina begged him to further strengthen himself for difficult meetings and decisions by grooming his hair with the holy man’s comb.
After completing the delicate task of relieving his uncle, Nicholas himself felt blissfully calm, “as if after Holy Communion. God’s will be fulfilled.” His profound faith encompassed more than determination to serve the Creator. Divine determination had made Russia an autocracy therefore, the monarch’s holy duty was to perpetuate that hopelessly archaic system. The czar had “unlimited faith,” as the historian Michael Florinsky said, “in the sacredness of the reactionary formula which reduced the essential elements of the Russian Empire to three: orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism.”
Although most Russians rallied around the monarchy, more and more advisers were appalled by the war effort’s actual workings–the court intrigues, the military appointments won because of favoritism rather than ability, and the infernal muddle of military bureaucracies that deprived the fighting men of boots and food, not to mention guns and ammunition.
In 1916, a year after Nicholas came to Stavka, a minister pleaded with him to institute reforms that would save the army from bedlam, his only reply was, “I will do what the Lord wills me to do.” Whatever it said about his religious devotion, that standard expression also camouflaged his refusal to face unmistakable reality–and to cloak his ignorance in heavenly majesty.
The czar settled into a comfortable routine at Mogilev. At 11 each morning, the chief of staff and the general quartermaster reported to Nicholas about the war situation. Every evening he received accounts from the front. Nicholas left the real conduct of the war to his chief of staff, General Mikhail Alexeyev, a relatively skilled administrator and strategist who took pains to keep his commander happily distracted. To most questions about strategy and tactics, the czar answered, “You must ask Alexeyev.”
By that time, millions of Russians had been killed and gravely wounded in the fighting. The same fate awaited millions more. The czar was persuaded that the way to sustain Russia was not to tackle the work needed to modernize and generally professionalize the army, nor try to learn strategy, nor explore matters crying out for sound decisions. It was to permit his suffering soldiers to observe the happy play, in the bosom of general headquarters, of the czarevich who represented their future–the heir to whom the czar read aloud all his mother’s scheming letters.
In terms of his private life, the father’s affection for his sickly son, who “brings much light into my life here,” was high among his merits. Nicholas’ love for his children was exceeded only by his devotion to their mother, and he thanked God for giving her to him “as a wife and friend.”
Convinced that her enemies–who increasingly numbered all thinking Russians–were “incarnations of evil,” the czarina was easily moved to hysteria by traitorous words doubting her and Rasputin’s righteousness. The far less excitable czar also believed that any opposition to him was begot by evil elements seeking Russia’s ruin. His conception of those elements revealed the baseness of his political thinking.
In his modest personal comportment, the winning outdoorsman who loved tennis, wood chopping, and country walks with his adored children was a model for royalty and commoners alike. He usually wore a simple soldier’s belt ed blouse and boots. Kind , courteous, gentlemanly, frequently nervous, the shy and faintly feminine figure, as he appeared to one general, was never known to raise his voice, let alone lose his temper. The soft-spoken ruler with his supreme devotion to his beautiful family seemed anything but a tyrant.
However, many foreigners saw Nicholas as tragically weak–”in no way fitted to be a czar,” concluded American war correspondent Stanley Washburn. Germany’s monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II, once remarked that his nephew Nicholas was fit only to “live in a country house and grow turnips.” Although that remark revealed as much about Wilhelm’s mean-spirited contempt as about Nicholas himself, there was wide spread agreement that the throne’s occupation by such a feeble leader just when Russia needed vision and strength was a curse. Washburn thought Nicholas should have been a priest, for his religious belief went “almost to the point of superstition.”
Not that the czar was stupid. On the contrary, his memory, reading comprehension, knowledge of royal history, and ability with languages was excellent. But his mystical conviction that the benevolent God who appointed him czar and supreme commander would make the right decisions for Russia kept Nicholas from applying himself to demanding military or political questions. Count Sergei Witte, a former minister of finance who–before Nicholas summarily dismissed him did much to spur the country’s turn-of-the-century industrialization and ad vance toward parliamentarianism, characterized the Czar’s motto as, “I wish, therefore it must be.” Absorption of painful realities, let alone any kind of creative thinking, seemed beyond him.
Enclosed in his snug Stavka cocoon, the supreme commander’s view of the war during that supreme national crisis was of maps with brightly colored pins indicating troop positions and of picked regiments-some “amazingly beautiful” and “astounding ,” he enthused whirling in review. His Stavka stay became an enlarged version of summer maneuvers. The czar much enjoyed the reviews. The “performers” were “so tidily, cleanly and well dressed and equipped, such as I have seldom seen even in peace time! Truly excellent!” At least one planned offensive was delayed because he insisted on reviewing some of the Imperial Guard units designated to take part, and that rite was postponed for weeks until the czarevich re covered from an episode of bleeding. The French observer who reported the affair was understandably amazed.
The czar ‘s reluctance to take a firm stand or issue an order became common knowledge among the staff. A few ascribed it to the difficulty of exerting authority in a sprawling landmass whose people leaned toward anarchy unless marshaled by superiors directly on the spot. “You see what it is to be an autocrat,” he complained wistfully to the British ambassador. Other supporters attributed his vacillation to qualities that would have been far less harmful in peacetime. The commander of his Imperial Guard thought the czar’s first decisions were almost always right. But “too much modesty” made him uncertain of himself, and frequent changes of mind “usually spoil[ed] the first decision.”
If it was modesty that kept him from saying or ordering something concrete, his extraordinary view of his responsibilities at Stavka surely helped. Stavka was like no other high command on either side of the war–Nicholas’ behavior ensured that. At one point, the czar was so busy entertaining a steady stream of generals and colonels that for a month he failed to read a district military commander’s 11 page plea for reinforcements. His sedulous, upright chief of staff, General Alexeyev, tried to avoid the social gatherings. Alexeyev continued to devise strategy and plan operations, which Nicholas then “ordered.” However, General Anton Denikin, an army corps commander, believed that the czar “lacked sufficient authority, firmness and strength” even to accomplish his ceremonial ordering with the necessary understanding and decisiveness. Knowing that, Alexeyev took to informing Nicholas only about matters that had already been resolved.
For the czar’s occasional trips to the front, his private train was rigged with a trapeze-like device so he could exercise when that was impossible outdoors. Visiting hospitals, he bore huge supplies of medals for the heavily wounded, on whom he believed he made a stunning impression. General Denikin observed, to the contrary, that the decorated men were left with little to tell their comrades. The ceremonies produced no memorable words because his reserved commander “did not know how to speak with the troops.” Other generals found his ineptness went further–not knowing “where to go or what to do.”
While he remained unaware of the waning support amongst his soldiers, Nicholas continued to enjoy “military” life at Stavka. “The life I lead here at the head of my army is so healthy and comforting,” he mused. He had always relished the officers’ mess of guards regiments. Taken in the company he liked, the meals were washed down by copious vodka and wine, although his own drinking was sparing. He enjoyed praying in church, which confirmed that his heart was “in the hands of God”–and helped him to ignore that the terrible defeats the Russians were suffering were eroding the previously powerful national religious faith, specifically the prevailing conviction in the ranks that prayer would lead to victory.
Most of all he liked reviews and parades. He took the throaty “Hurrahs!” of the troops he reviewed as evidence that his ministers in St. Petersburg knew terribly little of what was happening to the country as a whole. That, he believed, was proof that he had been right to assume supreme command. After all, Rasputin had warned that “trouble is coming” and that Nicholas would have been “driven from the throne by now” if he had not replaced Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.
Trouble was indeed hurtling toward the regime. One of its chief causes was the czar’s illusions about his august calling and slight duties. His fondness for non-combatant military ways made him happy to be at Stavka, as did its refuge from decision-making. Clear thought and action might have allowed Russia to evolve into a modern monarchy, able to acknowledge and cope with 20th-century economic and social developments. The same might have given her army a chance to make good its enormous potential in manpower, soldierly stoicism, and, by 1916, increasing amounts of supplies from awakening industries. Reasonable reform would have given able military leaders the ability to make and execute rational decisions. But the czar, clinging to his mystical sense of how victories are won and to his perceived role as the guarantor of celestial approval, continued to scorn all pleading to recognize the facts. “My brain is resting here–no ministers, no troublesome questions demanding thought,” he wrote.
His adoring wife continued thinking for him. The German-born Alexandra was not a traitor as slanderous sheets had begun suggesting. Apart from her relationship with Rasputin, she was guilty of few of the unusual scandals described by the growing portion of the press that sought to blacken the monarchy. Still, she was a greater menace to Russian victory than countless German divisions. When the czarina visited Mogilev the generals ate in guarded silence and feared to enter the neighboring room to which she retired after the meal. What would they have thought if they had read her letters to their supreme commander, with their beseeching to heed “our friend”? When Nicholas reported that intense fog had interfered with Russian artillery, she answered that “He [Rasputin] scolded for not having said it at once,” and conveyed his promise that “no more fogg [sic] will disturb [you].”
The problems resulting from Nicholas’ lack of command presence were only compounded by Russia’s military leaders. War production was improving but much of the army’s generalship remained abysmal. Western liaison officers were appalled by the flunkies in high army positions. Although court favorites and unscrupulous intriguers were hardly new to Russia, their damage increased in proportion to the army’s urgent need for effective generalship. Never grasping the importance of finding effective leaders, the czar, throughout the duration of his command at Stavka, interceded to win high commands for “a motley crew of failed and incompetent generals,” summarized a historian. Eased into vital commands, a raft of inept aristocrats blundered woefully and helped ensure immense casualties by relying on nineteenth century concepts of warfare.
A French officer characterized the czar’s appointments as “scandalous favoritism.” Nicholas had long trusted and felt comfortable with only people of very mediocre minds and virtually no initiative. Now, when gifted, dynamic leaders were needed–precisely the qualities that provoked his ostracism or hostility–he had difficulty judging who should serve because he had little talent for assessing others’ talents and worth. On top of that, he still knew little about the army’s real workings. Promotions based on petty impulses and resentments–which friendly families should be rewarded with choice posts, what commanders must be punished for lack of deference–thus led, in the crisis of war, to tragic consequences.
“Sadly,” wrote historian Bruce Lincoln, “such traits as likability, glibness, respect for his czarina, and a variety of other inconsequential criteria determined his choice of the men in whom he placed his trust. These men could never provide him with the advice and counsel he needed as Russia passed through the most critical moment in her history.”
The czarina’s letters to Nicholas were full of urgings to accommodate flatterers, notably members of her friends’ families. One, she reminded, “Waits for a regiment.” It would be “lovely” if an other were given command of a brigade–and has that been arranged for a third? A fourth should be the next successor to command of another brigade. Nicholas must “find work” for a fifth. Although some appointments and promotions went to excellent candidates, “the number of incompetents restored to duty and promoted through the favor of the czar and czarina was dangerously large,” according to a scholar of the Romanovs’ fall. Alexandra’s urgings to replace “incompetent” or “disloyal” generals was equally damaging to Russia. Her targets were almost always those who had revealed misgivings about Rasputin-a sure sign of ability, since good generals were anti-Rasputin almost by definition and telling the truth about him required integrity. She stimulated the czar’s purge of precisely the skill, honesty and leadership for which the fight ing units cried out.
The enormously hard-working, in corruptibly apolitical chief of staff did not escape her poison. General Alexeyev’s dedication, endurance, and organizational achievements had won him his promotions and his peers’ admiration despite his plebeian birth. But the czarina warned the czar that anyone “so terribly against our Friend” could not do “blessed work.” There fore, when Alexeyev was found to have cancer in late 1916, the czarina wrote Nicholas that God had sent the illness in order to save him from a man who was losing his way and “doing harm by listening to bad letters & people.”
Although the czar was unwilling to sacrifice Alexeyev, he often followed her advice about other appointments. Rarely able to oppose her, he too was displeased, if not as violently, by expressions of doubt about Rasputin’s revelations. The grievous royal influence was crowned by the disastrous March 1916 dismissal of the man whom the British military attache identified as undoubtedly Russia’s ablest military organizer. General Andrei Polivanov, the war minister, had done more than anyone else to rebuild the army–some said miraculously–after its terrible losses in the Great Retreat of 1915. The czarina considered him “simply a revolutionary” for cooperating with public organizations to improve army supplies.
While campaigning stridently for his ousting, she also wondered whether the chief of the war industries committees could be hung for experimenting with workers’ participation. Nearly all attempts to cope with the emergency by innovation prompted her relentless calls for revenge. How dare public servants act on their own, unguided by the sanctified vision of Rasputin and herself? She protested in outrage that such impertinence was not merely wrong but also satanic because it challenged the natural order. “But we are appointed by God,” she reminded the czar.
For all that, however, Nicholas’ greatest failure in Mogilev was of omission rather than commission. The duties of commander in chief and chief of staff are distinctly different. The latter, even had there been a standard-bearer who somehow worked even longer and harder than Alexeyev, cannot replace the former. But by occupying the top post with his military blankness, Nicholas effectively abolished a position from which energy, knowledge, experience, and in sight should have strengthened and directed the army. His confidence that God would award his faith was bolstered–and his willingness to tackle real issues diminished–by his wife’s reassurance that “A country where a man of God [Rasputin] helps the Sovereign will never be lost.” The ever-courteous czar’s missing leadership was needed all the more because Alexeyev, for all his energy and skill in staff work, could not make quick decisions.
That lack of a commander’s vision on the struggle as a whole deprived the army of a fighting chance. By early 1916, morale was improving because conscripts were being better trained and armed than ever before, thanks largely to the just-dismissed war minister General Polivanov. In strictly military terms, Russia seemed to have turned the corner and could begin to hope for success. General Brusilov’s superbly commanded June attack into Austrian Galacia-Russia’s most successful operation of the war smashed so fast and far forward that Vienna considered negotiating for peace.
But the opportunity for a full breakthrough was lost because of the vacuum at the top. No one insisted on launching simultaneous offensives on the western and northwestern fronts. Although of the war might well have been changed.
Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg later confessed that a second offensive nearby would have threatened his forces “with the menace of a complete collapse.” But at an all-important council of war two months earlier, Nicholas had remained silent, not even asking a question or venturing an opinion. What he did instead was read novels “from morning to night,” he wrote the czarina. His choices just then included a little boy blue tale–”so pretty and true”–that brought him to tears.
By late summer, the Russian forces had suffered monstrous new losses of 1.2 million men and were closer to collapse than the Austrians. The missed opportunity of Brusilov’s offensive turned to rout because the command failure had allowed the Germans to rush in reinforcements to their Austrian allies.
After the war, Hindenburg would praise the sacrificial bravery of his Russian enemies who endured their stunning losses and whose total casualties would never be known. “All we know is that sometimes in our battles with the Russians, we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses from outside our trenches in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting waves,” Hindenberg said. A careful study 10 years later led Russian General Nicholas Golovine to estimate that just under eight million men–more than half those who had been mobilized–had been killed, wounded, or taken captive.
Nicholas was not oblivious to the horrific carnage, but his nature and entire background–his isolation from deliberation of real issues by the enormous gulf that separated him from his people–incapacitated him for useful reaction to it. Rather than strive to lessen the country’s pain by becoming genuinely involved in the conduct of the war, the czar began sinking into a kind of mental abdication.
Nicholas’ reaction to the disastrous effects of the war on his army, or lack thereof, was nothing new. When, in 1905, a report reached him about Japan’s virtual annihilation of the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese War, he merely put it in his pocket and resumed his tennis game.
During World War I his innate passivism had advanced toward fatalism, probably deepened by bewilderment at the course of events. Count Paul Benckendorff, former ambassador to Britain and then chief marshal of the court, observed in 1916 that his “quite apathetic” majesty “is no longer seriously interested in anything. He goes through his daily routine like an automaton, paying more attention to the hour set for his meals or his walk in the garden than to the affairs of state. One can’t rule an empire and command an army in the field in this manner.”
As popular discontent with the war swelled, blame began falling on the czar, just as loyalists had warned. Any genuine exchanges with his troops would have apprised the supreme commander of the people’s growing estrangement from him. But “the little colonel,” as he was now called by the troops who began mocking his physical size and leadership abilities, could not see the danger because it fell outside his own lofty view of himself, his army, and his earthly mission.
Soldiers felt increasing contempt for the state system and the court they had begun holding responsible for the military failures. But most of their disaffection came from their own experience in one of a number of battlefield fiascoes. Robert Liddell, a British captain of a Russian company, called the Russian soldier “a very badly-off man” who knew the terrible odds he was fighting against, despite his fatalistic bravery. His “wonderful faith” slowly died as the war dragged on, its realities silencing the old slogan: “for religion, czar and motherland.” An army cook put it in terms of an old Russian saying: “A fish begins stinking from the head.”
Despite his freedom from burden of command and his lack of physical hardship, the czar’s spirit and appearance began to deteriorate. The process had started soon after his arrival at Stavka, when the once bright, keen eyed enthusiast complained to his wife about a heaviness in his heart. He grew pale and tired. His cheeks began shrinking, his features visibly aged and his nervousness increased. Now every one who saw him was shocked by his gaunt, deeply lined face with prominent black circles under the eyes.
His military failures were not alone in wearing him down. Government affairs, presided over by the relentlessly scheming Alexandra in St. Petersburg, went from scandalously bad to progressively worse, with chaos and public disgust soaring in proportion. The “insane” regime, Count Witte despaired, was “a tangle of cowardice, blindness, craftiness, and stupidity.” The czarina’s solution was ever greater reliance on Rasputin, praise of whom was the quickest way up the slippery pole of ministerial ambition–and opposition to whom was the quickest way down. Alexandra entreated Nicholas to talk to Prince Shcherbatov, one of a rapid succession of ministers of the interior, to “make him understand that he acts straight against us in persecuting and allowing him [Rasputin] to be evil written about or spoken of.” Shcherbatov and other doubters were replaced by toadies willing to heed “the position of our friend,” as Alexandra specified. Historian Michael Florinsky called the parade of ministerial nonentities “an amazing, extravagant and pitiful spectacle, and one without parallel in the history of civilized nations.”
Not satisfied to whisper directives for the great country’s political and social life, the “man of God” had long been using the correspondence to the czar and czarina to thrust himself into military affairs in a way that still takes the breath away.
Why not military guidance, since God, the czarina assured, “opens everything to him”? “Do not fear to pronounce the name Grigori in speaking with [General Alexeyev],” she urged. “Thanks to Him [Rasputin], you have remained sound since a year ago when you took command when everyone was against you.”
One message–of November 1915–was prompted by what Rasputin had seen during the night. He urged Alexandra to inform the czar at once, “He begs you to order that one should advance near Riga, says it is necessary, otherwise the Germans will settle down so firmly… that it will cost endless bloodshed and trouble to make them move… he says this is just now the most essential thing.”
Another, in June 1916, conveyed Rasputin’s blessing to “the whole orthodox army,” and reported his begging, “that we should not yet strongly advance in the north because he says if our successes continue being good in the south, they will themselves retreat in the north, or advance and then their losses will be very great.”
The “successes” here came during Brusilov’s offensive, which had a chance to achieve a pivotal victory, if properly supported–the opposite of Rasputin’s instruction. By the end of the following month, Alexandra was reporting “our friend’s” advice not to advance “too obstinately” for fear of extreme losses. When Nicholas wrote back that he had told Alexeyev to order Brusilov to cease the attacks the czarina now called hopeless, she answered that the czar’s orders left their friend “very satisfied…. All will be well.” In reality, the military situation was again wretched.
The czar tried to draw a line between Rasputin’s spiritual and military counsel and to ignore the latter. More than once he specifically asked Alexandra not to inform the monk of the operational plans he shared with her. Never daring to oppose her, however, he was no more successful at keeping secrets from Rasputin than in advocating a suggestion in military councils. After the monarchy’s fall, she was found to have a map showing unit deployments along the entire front–one of but two copies the chief of staff had made, for himself and for the czar. To the czar’s several requests that some of his information be for her eyes only, Alexandra assured in reply that she told no one what he wrote to her, “Except Him [Rasputin], who protects you wherever you are.”
While Rasputin was playing his bizarre military role, reasonable quantities of supplies–including rifles for every soldier by mid-1916–were at last reaching the front. That worried German strategists, who well knew the Russians’ wondrous resilience after catastrophes that would have subdued less stoic armies. Despite the fearsome defects and difficulties, the Russian Army’s tenacious, heroic fighting had made a great contribution to the Allied effort by tying up much of the German Army in the east. Properly equipped and led forces were now showing themselves to be a match for German ones. A new chance presented itself–not too late militarily–to get the “giant Russian steamroller” running. But as General Alexeyev had warned, the crucial factor in an army that relied so much on endurance was spirit. Once the faith in the “good father” czar was broken, no amount of materiel could save the fading national symbol who had so recently been revered. Whispers that the Russian infantry had lost its heart and that anti-war propaganda was rife in the ranks reached the British military attache in October 1916.
After Prince Felix Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitri Romanov and Vladimir Purishkevich murdered Rasputin on December 17, 1916, Nicholas spent more and more time alone with Alexandra in St. Petersburg. More clearly than ever, the very qualities that helped make him so sterling a family man who instinctively retreated from national issues to his household’s cherished isolation–simultaneously made him so inadequate as a military leader. While the devoted couple read, listened to music, and played cards, his empire continued to rot. Although the Bolsheviks were still a small, illegal organization, the czar’s flaws–now seen as evil–were radicalizing a growing mass of soldiers.
By the end of 1916, his completely isolated government was universally distrusted and generally despised. Many in the ranks were convinced that Alexandra’s court was in the pay of Germany, which accounted for the military defeats snatched from victory. Most soldiers believed that the war could never be won under such leaders. They saw “all their feats of arms brought to nothing,” Brusilov remembered, “by what they considered a lack of intelligence and decision on the part of the Supreme Command.” Only a government responsible to the Duma–which had been all but solidly monarchist before the czar began playing war at Stavka–promised hope for recapturing popular support of the war effort in the field as well as at home.
By January 1917, the monarchy teetered so perilously near collapse that Prime Minister Mikhail Rodzianko ventured to tell the czar that hatred of the czarina was spreading throughout the country and doom was near unless a new government was installed. “Sire, not a single honest or reliable man is left in your entourage. All the best have either been eliminated or have resigned,” the prime minister pleaded.
Rodzianko’s pronouncement was extraordinary. He had been brazen enough to confront the sovereign with the truth. However, not even that effrontery caused the czar to raise his voice. On the contrary, he pressed his hands to his head and asked whether it was possible that he had “tried to act for the best” throughout his reign, but “for 22 years it was all a mistake?” “Yes, Your Majesty,” Rodzianko answered, summoning even more boldness. “For 22 years, you followed a wrong course.”
Still, the “little colonel” persisted in his highest political goal: no significant changes so that he could fulfill his coronation oath to pass on an intact autocracy to his son. His war to achieve that took precedence over the one against Germany and Austria.
Calling it their “hidden cause,” Alexandra saw “what the struggle here really is and means–you showing your mastery, proving yourself the Autocrat without which Russia cannot exist.”
Although Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky had an ax to grind, he would exaggerate only mildly when declaring that no regiment at the front or the rear would now do battle for Nicholas, let alone for that ruinous family cause. In the end, it was the collapse of military morale that undid the czar’s dynasty. If soldiers–and an increasing number of their officers–had not disobeyed orders and sided with angrily protesting St. Petersburg crowds, his rule might have continued.
Longing for Nicholas to go swelled among the officers of the army. The scope of the disaffection may have been lost on the czar but not on his generals. In the end, it was not politicians or courtiers but the leadership of his army that persuaded him to react. He did so only when his top generals told him that his only choice was to follow the prime minister’s advice and abdicate. The exhausted chief of staff went down on his knees to beg the czar to listen.
In fact, the inflexible, fragile Nicholas went further. Rather than transfer executive power to the hated Duma, he chose to leave the field of political battle entirely by giving up the throne–the ultimate expression of his fatalism. Nicholas abdicated on March 15, 1917. Quietly, the czar remarked that he had been “born for misfortune”–a notion many of his subjects shared. Russians believed that czars were either lucky or unlucky and that Nicholas fell into the latter category for many reasons, including mass deaths caused by a stampede of celebrants at his coronation and more deaths in 1905 during the war with Japan. He himself, when defending his fateful decision to lead the army, had reminded an imperial cousin that he had been born on the saint’s day of Job, the righteous sufferer. Perhaps, he reflected, a scapegoat was needed to save Russia, and he was ready to accept his destiny. “I mean to be the victim,” the czar had said. “May the will of God be done.”
By now, he was a scapegoat, blamed for contributing even more stupid decisions to the hoard that ended the country’s evolution toward a workable monarchy. When news of the czar’s abdication spread, most of Mogilev joined the shouting for joy that resounded throughout the huge Russian land mass. Persuaded that the fragile czarevich would not live much longer, Nicholas abdicated in favor of Grand Duke Mikhail, his younger brother. Liberal monarchists hoped the dynasty would endure after the departure of Nicholas. However, Grand Duke Mikhail read the writing on the wall. Within hours, he effectively passed power to a newly formed provisional government. That government suppressed Nicholas’ last speech to his troops, which asked for God’s blessing and victory. Victory had become fantasy the rational goal was to save the army from disintegration. Even now, the former emperor failed to grasp the situation or the perception of him. “My soldiers hated me not,” he declared. “They hated my crown and throne, but once I was divested of them, they made no accusation against me. What injustice have my people suffered that I haven’t suffered with them?”
But huge numbers had come to hate him. His conviction that his people suffered no injustice he did not share revealed more appalling ignorance of the peasant masses to which he claimed such deep attachment. The disaffection by the army commanders–until then his strongest supporters–meant that they now saw him and his imperial government as too great an obstacle to defending the country. Nicholas failed to grasp that, too.
Arrested shortly after abdication, he and his family were shifted from one place of internment to another. The last was Ekaterinburg, Siberia (called Sverdlovsk during most of the Soviet period). Nikolai Romanov, as the former autocrat of some 150 million subjects was now called, remained confident of rescue by an army that, he believed, retained its devotion to him. His illusion persisted until July 1918, some eight months after the Bolshevik seizure of power from the Provisional Government, when a revolutionary band slaughtered him, Alexandra, the czarevich and his four beautiful daughters in the basement of an Ekaterinburg house.
Perhaps that horror could have been avoided if Nicholas had listened to the advice of his most devoted supporters three years earlier and not made himself commander in chief. Perhaps the Romanov dynasty might have fallen–if to less ruthless usurpers than the Bolsheviks–even if he had not opened himself to personal responsibility for the country’s immense battlefield pain. But the wisest observers of the time knew he had neither the force of character to provide genuine leadership nor the vision to recognize why it was needed. They never doubted the link between the “pitifully unprepared “colonel’s assumption of supreme army command and the dynasty’s collapse. “It would seem,” lamented general Sir John Hanbury Williams, who led the British representation at Stavka, that “the czar was fated, on the rare occasions on which he made a critical decision, to assert himself in a manner disastrous to his own prestige and to the interest of his country.”
The czar and Russia’s welfare had been seen as indivisible and sacred. During the course of his 18 months as supreme commander, however, he managed to squander the great reserve of soldierly affection and reverence for him. The moment “God’s will” took him to Mogilev, Nicholas began digging his dynasty’s grave. “We’re sitting on a powder keg, all we need is a single spark to set it off,” wrote a loyal minister shortly before Nicholas re placed his uncle. “In my opinion, the Sovereign czar’s assumption of the army’s command is not merely a spark but a whole candle thrown into a powder magazine.”
The explosion damaged Russian society severely enough to open the way for desperate extremism and 70 years of Soviet rule. MHQ
George Feifer is the author of Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and The Atomic Bomb (Houghton Mifflin).
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue (Vol. 11, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Last Czar as Leader
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'Russia's soul is monarchic': tsarist school wants to reverse 100 years of history
“W e are raising a new elite here,” said Zurab Chavchavadze, the dapper 74-year-old headteacher of St Basil the Great School, sitting beneath a large portrait of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II. “The students will be morally sound, religious, intellectual and patriotic, and will have every chance of getting into power.”
A collection of grand buildings set around a new cathedral in an upmarket suburb of Moscow, the school harks back to Russia’s tsarist traditions to inculcate a sense of patriotism in its 400 students.
As the centenary approaches of Russia’s 1917 revolution, which deposed the Romanov dynasty after centuries of rule, Chavchavadze is part of a small but influential section of Russians who are looking to the tsarist past for inspiration – and even hope to restore a monarchy one day soon.
“Look at what the Russian people did with Lenin, Stalin, Putin. As soon as someone is in power for a few years, they become sacred. The Russian people strive for a monarchy the Russian soul is monarchic,” said Chavchavadze.
At St Basil the Great school, portraits of the tsars look out at pupils from the corridors. A statue of Catherine the Great dominates a hallway, and the student ballroom features vast portraits of eight tsars. The lessons include scripture studies and Latin, and the school’s history textbooks were specially commissioned, to avoid the positive view of much of the Soviet period given by the standard Russian textbooks.
The school is the pet project of Konstantin Malofeyev, a mysterious Russian financier known as the “Orthodox oligarch”. Malofeyev, well-connected in the Kremlin, is believed to have funded rebel forces in East Ukraine, and has set up a nationalist, Orthodox Christian television channel, Tsargrad. The school, he said in an interview with the Guardian, is meant to function as “an Orthodox Eton”, which will prepare the new elite for a future Russian monarchy.
“The mission of our school is to ensure that our graduates will be Orthodox patriots who will carry the thousand-year traditions of Russia, not just those of the last 20 or 100 years,” said Malofeyev, from his central Moscow office, adorned with Orthodox icons and a large portrait of Tsar Alexander III, a 19th century ruler known for his conservatism. “For me it’s very important to restore the traditions that were broken off in 1917.”
Headteacher Zurab Chavchavadze. Photograph: Shaun Walker/Guardian
After the February revolution – named for the month it began in Russia’s then-Juilan calendar – the country embarked on a short liberal experiment, but the provisional government was deposed by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik uprising in October of the same year. Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918 many aristocrats fought for the White armies in the Russian civil war, or fled to western Europe or further afield.
During the Soviet period, discussion of the Whites was forbidden. Chavchavadze’s family returned to the Soviet Union in 1947 in a wave of patriotism after victory in the second world war, but his father was quickly arrested as a spy and sent to the Gulag for 25 years, while the family was exiled to Kazakhstan.
In the post-Soviet period there has been renewed interest in the history of the pro-tsarist forces. Nicholas II has been canonised by the Russian Orthodox church. While Vladimir Putin’s administration has expressed admiration for the achievements of the Soviet Union, its foundation in 1917 is regarded as a tragedy, for the bloodshed and turmoil it caused.
Malofeyev, now 42, was born near Moscow to parents who lived in a special housing reservation for Soviet scientists. As a teenager during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, he devoured literature about the Whites, and swiftly became a monarchist.
“When I was 14, I read two books which had a huge impact on me,” he recalled. One was the memoirs of a former tsarist officer who went on to publish an émigré newspaper in Argentina, while the other was Lord of the Rings. “The image of Aragorn returning to Gondor was my second image of monarchy. It also affected my monarchism,” he said.
Taken with the idea of monarchy, Malofeyev wrote a letter to the Paris-based Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, born in 1917 and considered the head of the imperial family after Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks and other royals died in exile.
After reading Malofeyev’s letter, the duke asked Chavchavadze, who was then working as his assistant, to deliver his reply in person. The pair have stayed in touch ever since.
Cossack troops on patrol in St Petersburg during the Russian Revolution. Photograph: Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images
Malofeyev went on to study law at Moscow State University, writing his dissertation on the constitutional mechanism by which modern Russia could reintroduce monarchy, before going into banking and rapidly becoming one of Russia’s richest men. He tapped up Chavchavadze to head his school, which moved into its new premises in 2012. Its graduates, Malofeyev hopes, will provide the backbone of the “inevitable” future tsarist order in Russia.
Malofeyev said career politicians are venal and focused on electoral success, while monarchs can rule without the dirty business of politics intervening. He does not count Putin among the list of grubby democratic politicians, as the Russian president was handpicked by Boris Yeltsin.
“He never tried to get elected he was found and put in place, and turned out to be sent by God. Who could have guessed in 1999 that Putin would come to us and Russia would start becoming Russia again? It was an act of God,” he said.
He claimed surveys show that the number of Russians who want a monarchy has risen from 15% to 25% over the past decade, and links this to Putin’s personal popularity.
Others who have gathered around Malofeyev’s tsarist agenda include Leonid Reshetnikov, formerly a general in the KGB and Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence and until recently head of an influential foreign policy think tank. Now he runs the Double-headed Eagle Society from a Moscow office adorned with portraits of Putin and Nicholas II.
Reshetnikov said he first became a monarchist when he was a KGB agent stationed in the Balkans during the 1980s, as he noticed there were no true believers in Communism. He is equally unimpressed with democracy.
“Our liberals want to be like Europeans, but God made us different,” said Reshetnikov. “Liberal democracy is like Marxism, it was brought to us from London, Paris and New York. We need to return to the point where we took the wrong turn, in 1917.”
Reshetnikov said it was likely to be decades before Russia could seriously think about restoring the monarchy, and would require a more mature and religious society before it could be contemplated.
Malofeyev, however, said it could happen sooner than expected, and said he believes it to be quite possible that Putin could be crowned tsar: “Nobody wanted Yeltsin to carry on forever, but everyone wants Putin to carry on forever.”
Nicholas II, the eldest son of Emperor Alexander III and Empress Maria Fyodorovna was born 18 May 1868 in Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg. As heir apparent, the young Nicholas received an excellent "palace" education that prepared him for his future role as Autocrat of All the Russias. Among the young tsarevich's private tutors were the ultra-conservative Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod and former advisor to Alexander III, Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, and General Grigory Danilovich. Partially due to their efforts, Nicholas' character combined extraordinary restraint (to the point of shyness), love of military service and of all things military, and the sacred belief in the inviolability of the principles of absolute autocracy - traits which to a greater or lesser degree later affected his activities as tsar.
Contemporaries unanimously note Nicholas' great personal charm, his quiet restraint, combined with an ability to converse easily with others, and his excellent memory which allowed him to recall an enormous number of people whom he had met over the years. He spoke and wrote fluent English (and communicated in this language with his wife, who as child spent her summers at the court of her grandmother, Queen Victoria), and also knew French and German. The Emperor was fond of history and was an avid reader of both entertaining and scholarly books. In addition, Nicholas was fascinated by photography, as were his children, and he enjoyed both walking and hunting (as did many other Romanovs). When automobiles appeared in Russia, they captivated him, and the Russian court possessed one of the largest car collections in early 20th century Europe.
Nicholas II came to power unexpectedly, after Alexander III died suddenly from kidney failure in Lividia Palace on the Black Sea at the age of forty-nine. At the time of this tragedy, Nicholas was engaged to Princess Alice from the small German state of Hesse. Despite the time-honored tradition of holding mourning for one year after the death of a monarch, Nicholas decided to get married immediately, and thus the young couple's honeymoon was spent in an atmosphere of mourning. The coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra (as she was called after her conversion to Orthodoxy) was opulent, but the festivities for the common folk in Khodynskoe Field on the outskirts of Moscow ended tragically: rumors that the free beer and pretzels would not suffice for the huge crowd that had gathered resulted in a stampede in which almost 1,400 people were trampled to death. The tragedy became known as the Khodynka, and was considered by many to be a bad omen for the new regime.
Once in power, Nicholas immediately made known his position about the impossibility of constitutional reform and the inviolability of the autocracy. This pleased the country's monarchists, but disappointed the liberal intelligentsia and the educated elite.
As a whole, the Russian economy expanded during Nicholas II's reign. This economic growth permitted the currency reform of 1897 which established the gold standard for the rouble. On the eve of World War I, in 1913, the country's highest level of economic development was reached, so that the later successes of the USSR were purposely compared with this year. The rate of industrial growth at this time was 4-4.5%, whereas agricultural growth was 2.0%. The construction of railroads continued, natural resources - such as oil in Baku and in Grozny - were actively exploited. The conditions of factory workers improved somewhat during Nicholas' reign, but this did not result in a decrease in the number of strikes, especially during the 1905-1907 revolution.
In the sphere of foreign policy, Nicholas strengthened Russia's focus on an alliance with France, and later with England (the Triple Alliance or Entente). Despite once friendly relations with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (Nicholas and Wilhelm were cousins), the relationship between the two countries began to chill. Russia concluded a treaty with China, which allowed it to build railroads in Manchuria, and then to rent two ports on the coast of China, one of them Port Arthur, for twenty-five years. Strengthening Russia's position in the Far East led to the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-1905. As a result of underestimating the enemy, inadequate technical equipment in the army and the navy, extended lines of communication, and occasional lack of strong leadership in the army, the war ended in a catastrophe for Russia, the nadir of which was the destruction of the Russian fleet in the naval battle of Tsushima. President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the peace treaty which was signed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1905.
This destabilizing war with its disgraceful defeat was one of the causes leading to the Revolution of 1905-1907. Riots began after what became known as Bloody Sunday, when on 22 January 1905, a peaceful crowd of factory workers and their families, carrying icons and singing hymns (including "God Save the Tsar") marched towards Palace Square from several points in the city. They were fired upon by soldiers of the Imperial Guard, and some forty people were killed. Nicholas was not in residence at the time, but the marching demonstrators were unaware of this fact, and he received the blame for the massacre. Although several authors have claimed that there may well have been agents provocateurs mixed in with the marching workers, society at large viewed the brutal suppression of this event as the execution of peaceful citizens.
The capital city and the country at large were beset by worker uprisings and clashes with the police, and overall unrest increased. In October of 1905, under great pressure from ever worsening circumstances and general strikes, Nicholas was forced to relinquish his iron grip on his autocratic principles and to grant civil liberties and the convening of an elective, legislative body, the State Duma. Meanwhile, in December 1905 in Moscow, an armed worker's uprising flared up, but the unrest soon waned.
Nicholas' relationship with the Duma, was, unsurprisingly, not of the warmest nature, and the unruly Duma was twice dissolved by the Tsar. Only after the tightening of election laws was a more docile Duma elected that proved capable of working with the Tsarist government. With the Duma's participation, the progressive economic reforms of Prime Minister Peter Stolypin were implemented, but unfortunately Stolypin was assassinated by terrorists in the Kiev Theatre in 1911, during a performance at which Nicholas himself was also in attendance. Once again, another hope for peaceful reforms in Russia was extinguished.
As has already been mentioned, Nicholas II was a controversial figure who evoked love and respect from some of his contemporaries, but disapproval from others. He was an exemplary family man who deeply loved his wife, the Empress Alexandra. Contemporaries confirmed that the Emperor avoided social events and tried to spend as much time as possible in the circle of his close family. The couple had four girls - Olga, Tatyana, Maria and Anastasia - before the longed-for son, Alexey, finally appeared in 1904.
The great joy at the birth of an heir turned into horror shortly thereafter at the discovery that the young child was stricken with hemophilia, a potentially lethal disease in which the blood does not clot. Although stringent steps were implemented to protect the boy's fragile life, it was impossible to prevent all injuries, and in those desperate cases, with the doctors unable to alleviate the boy's excruciating pain and the Tsar's incredible wealth incapable of purchasing a cure, a terrified Alexandra grasped at other means to save the life of her beloved son. Thus the magnetic Siberian mystic, Rasputin, was able to rise to prominence. To this day, no satisfactory explanation has been found as to how Rasputin worked his cures, but work them he did, and Alexandra trusted him implicitly as the only person capable of helping her pain-wracked son. Thus, the mangy mystic gained enormous influence over the devout Alexandra, and through her over the Emperor of Russia, all of which only further destabilized the country that was suddenly plunged into a war of worldwide dimensions.
The First World War shocked contemporaries with its brutality and simultaneously, demonstrated the weakness of certain elements of the Russian economy. If, at the declaration of war in 1914, thousands of citizens enthusiastically cheered Nicholas II on Petersburg's Palace Square, only two years later the popularity of the war among society at large had plummeted. Nicholas' decision to take upon himself the duties of the Supreme Commander and his departure from St. Petersburg to Headquarters at the front caused him to lose control over the situation in the capital.
The active participation of the Empress (a German by birth) in the running of the government, led to outrageous rumors that resulted in a further weakening of the power of the autocracy. A disruption in food supplies in Petrograd during the harsh winter of 1916-1917 exacerbated the already deep social divisions and quickly led to riots in the capital, and finally to the February Revolution. In March 1917, Nicholas abdicated in both his name and the name of his underage son, the Tsarevich Alexey. It was assumed that power would pass to his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, but he refused to accept the crown. The convening of a Constituent Assembly to determine the country's future form of government was announced for the end of 1917, and in the meantime, power passed to the Provisional Government, which consisted of eminent personalities from the State Duma. However, before the Constituent Assembly could be convened, the Bolsheviks had already seized power in the country.
A tragic fate awaited Nicholas and his family. After Nicholas had abdicated in the wake of the February Revolution, he and his family were held under house arrest in the Alexander Palace at Tsarkoe Selo near Petrograd. The Foreign Minister, Paul Milukov, tried to organize exile for the Royal Family in Great Britain, but due to instable conditions in that country, King George V refused to assent to this plan. By decision of the Provisional Government, the former Tsar and his family were exiled to Tobolsk in August 1917, and in the spring of 1918, the Bolsheviks transported them to Ekaterinburg. Here, in a house belonging to the merchant Ipatiev, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their five children were shot and killed in July 1918.
Learn how Bloody Sunday of 1905 and the outbreak of World War I led to the collapse of the reign of Tsar Nicholas Romanov
NARRATOR: In 1896, Tsar Nicholas Romanov and his wife Tsarina Alexandra were officially crowned Russian rulers. They would be the last of Russia's hereditary rulers. The Romanovs celebrated for one last time as only they could. A picture of the times is only just re-emerging as personal documents from Russia's last tsar and his family are being unearthed at Moscow's State Archives. They've lain here unnoticed and undisturbed for over 70 years. They paint a picture of an idealized world, far from the forced labor, poverty and hunger that scarred the daily lives of most Russians at the start of the 20th century. Dissenters soon incurred the wrath the tsar's secret police. When in 1904 the navy was put on alert, the Russian leadership revealed itself to be weak. A wholly unprepared Russia was now at war with Japan. Japan won a resounding victory. National pride was dented and shortages, hunger and misery ruled everyday life. The Russian people took to the streets and the tsar ordered his troops to open fire. Even today, the Bloody Sunday of 1905 is widely regarded as his biggest political mistake.
PROFESSOR ALEXANDER DEMANDT: "Tsars are born, not elected, and it seems nonsensical to leave the responsibility of running such a vast country as Russia in the hands of someone who got there by an accident of birth. A decisive and intelligent ruler was needed to govern such a large empire. This required learning and savvy, things that were in short supply among the tsars and monarchies of Europe."
NARRATOR: The outbreak of World War I in 1914 indicated the end for Russia's tsars. Munitions, raw materials and food were all in short supply. The people rebelled. A delegation from army high command forced in 1917 the abdication of the tsar. Said to be necessary if the mighty Russian Empire was to be saved.
PROFESSOR SÖNKE NEITZEL: "Following a period of intense negotiations between the moderate and radical wings of the revolution, a provisional government was formed. This provisional government sided with the Allies, as the Russian generals had advocated. The people, however, were very much against the war."
NARRATOR: The tsar and his family were put under house arrest. Their lives were not yet in immediate danger. But that changed with the news from England that the tsar's family would not be offered asylum there. Nicholas II and his family were held in the town of Yekaterinburg until the 17th of July, 1918. On that day, their jailers received a call that the Romanovs were to be executed immediately. According to the executioner's own report, the family had no idea that they only had a few more minutes left to live as they were led into the cellar. The death sentence was hurriedly read out before the execution squad stepped in and opened fire in the name of the revolution and of the people. The family's remains were hastily buried and lay undiscovered for 70 years. Only following the demise of the Soviet regime was the final resting place of the tsar and his family revealed. The family was canonized and the site was honored with its own cathedral. Of the Tsar's Empire, there is little left. Even so, people still pray to Tsar Nicholas II.
The history and restoration of the Mauve (Lilac) Boudoir in the Alexander Palace
The favourite room of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in the Alexander Palace was the Mauve (aka Lilac) Boudoir. This interior was designed by Roman Feodorovich Meltser (1860-1943). According to legend, the empress gave him a lilac branch, her favourite flower, so that the architect could choose the colour scheme for the decoration of the room.
As a result, the walls were upholstered in mauve silk and crowned with a frieze decorated with an iris styled pattern. An ornamental Louis XV style painting decorated the ceiling of the room.
PHOTOS: views of the Mauve (Liliac) Boudoir in the Alexander Palace, as it looked in 1917
The furniture and upright piano by J. Becker were been painted with ivory enamel paint. Some of the furniture items were included in the composition of the walls and fastened to the wall panels. On the shelves, cabinets and fireplace were glass vases, mainly produced by the workshop of Emile Gallé, porcelain figurines and handmade souvenirs presented as gifts to the Empress, as well as family photographs. The room was decorated year-round with fresh flowers from the gardens or hothouses at Tsarskoye Selo.
Alexandra Feodorovna spent a lot of time in the Mauve Boudoir: it was here that she rested, read, and carried out her correspondence. In the evening, the whole family gathered here. The cabinets contained books from the empress’s personal library, sheet music, drawing supplies, and board games.
Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, the room personified the comfort of a home.
Like many other rooms in the Alexander Palace, the Mauve Boudoir suffered a sad fate – the decoration and the interior were lost during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45).
PHOTO: the current look of the Mauve (Lilac) Boudoir after an extensive restoration
PHOTO: Recreated doors of the Mauve (Lilac) Boudoir in the Alexander Palace
During the current restoration, fabric upholstery for the walls and curtains (fragments of fabric had been preserved in the Pavlovsk State Museum-Reserve), furniture, carpets, wood panels, a fireplace, and a picturesque frieze were recreated, based on historical samples, archival documents and photographs.
A huge amount of work has been done to recreate the doors: first, models were made, then the doors were recreated from wood.
The collection of the Alexander Palace Museum contains Alexandra’s writing table from the Mauve Boudoir, found in the park in a ruined state after the war. In 2018, test cleanings of a paint layer of the writing table were carried out, thanks to which the initial colour of the finishing of the entire interior was determined, as well as the colour scheme for the panels, built-in furniture and cabinet doors. The museum plans to restore Alexandra’s writing table to its original, thanks to descriptions and old photographs.
A painting (see first photo above in this article) by the French artist Edouard Jerome Popillon “The Dream of the Virgin” which once hung in the Mauve Boudoir will be returned to the Alexander Palace from the Pavlovsk Museum-Reserve, where it has been held for many decades. Upon the reopening of the palace next year, the painting will be on display in the room for visitors to enjoy.
PHOTO: Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna seated in the corner of the Mauve Boudoir
The Mauve Boudoir is now one of 15 interiors in the eastern wing of the palace, scheduled to open in 2021. Among the other interiors are the New Study of Nicholas II, Moorish Bathroom of Nicholas II, Working Study of Nicholas II, Reception Room of Nicholas II, Pallisander (Rosewood) Living Room, Mauve (Lilac) Boudoir, Alexandra’s Corner Reception Room, the Imperial Bedroom, among others.
In the future, the Alexander Palace will become a memorial museum of the Romanov family – from Catherine the Great to Nicholas II, showcasing the private, domestic life of the Russian monarchs who used the palace as an official residence. The eastern wing of the palace will be known as the Museum of the Russian Imperial Family. The multi-museum complex, which includes the Western wing is scheduled for completion no earlier than 2024.
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