A century ago today, as the Imperial Train sat impounded at a provincial station 180 miles from Petrograd, Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II (1868-1918), signed an act of abdication. The Russian Revolution was formally in motion. Slightly more than eight months later, the liberal republic that succeeded the Romanov autocracy had given way to seven decades of Communist dictatorship.
With a few exceptions, most Western historians still judge Nicholas harshly, blaming not only Russia’s string of heavy defeats in the war against Germany but also his Empire’s failed transition to democracy on his ‘incompetence’ and ‘rigidity’.
In Russia, however, the jubilant crowds of a century ago have been replaced by the solemn prayers of the faithful. In a suburban church this morning, the Patriarch of Moscow will lead a memorial service in honour of the country’s vanished monarchy.
The Russian Orthodox Church now numbers Nicholas and his family among the saints, venerated for their submission to the will of God and Christian faith in the steadily worsening conditions of their captivity that led to their deaths.
Of course, not everyone sees them that way. (Indeed, the venue for this morning’s service is telling: the site, where, according to legend, an icon of the Virgin enthroned miraculously appeared at the moment of the Tsar’s abdication—and, hence, a suitably holy setting for a liturgy in his honour —but not one of the country’s main temples.)
But many do.
Indeed, of all the things that separate Russia and the West today, divergent attitudes towards history are far from the least.
In his review of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Romanovs (2016), Adam Zamoyski describes the dynasty’s history as one of ‘sordid power struggles, violence and brutality’, peopled by a ‘cast of magnificent monsters, tragic victims and grotesque “holy men”.’
Is there anything redeeming to be said of the Romanovs?
Elected in 1613 to the Russian throne after a decade or so of civil war and rebellion, famine and foreign invasion that reached its lowest ebb in a Polish occupation, it’s hard to deny the new dynasty’s achievements would turn out as great as any.
In 1600, Europeans looked on ‘Muscovy’ as little more than a horde of steppe barbarians, crouched petulantly in the wastes of the northern forests. Yet it took the Romanovs little more than two hundred years to turn them an empire in the front rank of European powers. Indeed, by 1815, Europe’s fate would lie in Romanov hands, specifically those of Emperor Alexander I (1801-25), who defeated Napoleon.
Despite the Empire’s weaknesses, until 1917 Russia would remain with the United Kingdom the only European power that was simultaneously an Asian one—a status that eluded more ‘advanced’ Germany and France.
By that time, the Romanovs had overseen the transformation of ‘semi-Oriental’ Muscovy, sunken in religious obscurantism, and all but cut off from civilisation by a sea of grass and forest, into a flourishing centre of European high culture—and between 1890 and 1914 probably its most brilliant, original and creative.
Conventionally, Western historians bemoan the Philistinism of every Romanov after Catherine the Great (1762-96, who was, in any case, German). They forget such ‘stolid reactionaries’ as Alexander III (1881-93) and Nicholas II (1893-1917) breathed the same air as Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Tolstoy (d. 1911) and Chekhov (d. 1904), Tchaikovsky (d. 1893), Rubinstein (d. 1894) and Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, Pasternak (b. 1890) and Bulgakov (b. 1891).
Many of these figures loathed the Autocracy. Others, almost in spite of themselves, loved it.
In any case, as soon as the Romanovs were gone Russia returned to the state in which they had found it: a second ‘Time of Troubles’ as bloody and destructive as the original. By the time the Reds had defeated the last White Army outside Vladivostok in 1922, overthrowing ‘Tsarism’ had cost as many as 10 million lives.
All of which makes it at least remarkable that, though they might denounce the events of October, most Westerners still do as their forebears did in 1917 and cheer the onset of February.
As Adam Tooze records in his Deluge (2016), US President Woodrow Wilson celebrated the collapse of the Russian monarchy as ‘wonderful’ and ‘heartening’, while in a note to cabinet his Secretary of State, Robert Lansing remarked that the Tsar’s abdication ‘had removed the one objection to affirming that the European war was a war between democracy and absolutism.’
Even the French who in 1914 had moved mountains to set the Russian war machine in motion against the Kaiser—for the sake of the citizens not of St Petersburg but of Paris—joined in the dance on the Romanovs’ (still figurative) grave. In the words of Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, in the Tsar’s downfall ‘all the great peoples of democracy’ had ‘taken that place in the battle that was destined for them.’
Meanwhile, in Britain, King George V, the Tsar’s own first cousin, friend and regular correspondent, infamously vetoed a plan to bring the Imperial family to safety.
Taking its cue from such rejoicing, a new generation of Russian historians casts the February Revolution as a plot hatched in London and New York for Anglo-American world domination. Just as Russia was poised, they believe, for a crushing victory over Germany, British imperialists and American financiers conspired to decapitate the rising global colossus.
This is bad history, mixing with resentment and bitterness the events of 1917, 1945 and 1991. Among the deficiencies of Russia’s modern ‘patriots’ is their obstinate refusal to take a reasonable measure of responsibility for their own revolution.
But, in another sense, revelling in the Tsar’s dethronement as one after the other fundaments of ‘Old Russia’ (Church, aristocracy, civil service, bourgeoisie) collapsed was the price the Western powers resolved in 1917 to pay to re-christen an alliance struck during the Indian Summer of nineteenth-century Realpolitik as a partnership of ‘democracies’ dedicated to the universal triumph of liberalism under Washington’s effective direction.
True enough, by the time 1917 came around hardly anybody in Russia thought to raise a sword in defence of the honour of the country’s anointed Sovereign. But it’s not too much to say that a hundred years later the West’s relations with Russia are still haunted by this calculation.
What about Nicholas?
After seventy years of Bolshevik character assassination, the recognition of the genuine piety of Russia’s last rulers is welcome: the Tsar’s sense of bearing an unsought but sacred duty before God for his peoples is clear enough from his papers.
By contrast, Western tellers of Russia’s Revolution often still seem to delight in the cheap thrills of character assassination, as if they were themselves part of a Petrograd bread riot. Yet there’s a case to be made that the vices they ascribe to Nicholas (‘indecisive’, ‘pathetic’, ‘weak-willed’, ‘uxorious’, ‘superstitious’, ‘stubborn’) should be seen as the reverse side of the redeeming virtues whose absence they will (rightly) denounce in Stalin: the fear of God, humility, restraint, marital fidelity, obedience to conscience, faith.
Confident that no one else will offer one today, let this be a partial defence of the Romanovs.
Matthew Dal Santo is an Australian historian and foreign affairs writer resident in Europe. He’s a former fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and officer of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. You can follow him on Twitter at MatthewDalSant1.
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