Issue 205 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: The last emperor

Pat Stack

There has been a growing campaign to whitewash the reputation of Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, who were executed during the civil war in 1918. It has even been suggested that Boris Yeltsin may have plans to restore the monarchy to Russia.

Partly, of course, this rehabilitation is part of the ideological onslaught on the 1917 revolution. If everything about the revolution was bad, then those who were its most prominent victims must at the very least be to some degree good. Sections of the Russian Orthodox Church are arguing that Nicholas and Alexandra should be canonised as saints and religious martyrs.

In Russia the pro-monarchist movement stands on the right wing of reaction. One of its leaders, Sergei Sapojnikov, when asked where democracy fitted into a restorationist regime, replied, how can you possibly give an equal vote to a member of the academy of sciences and to a drunkard? The irony here is that a drunkard had a far greater influence on the last tsar and tsarina than any academy member.

Amid all this talk of restoration, rehabilitation and sainthood the true nature, value and worth of Russia's final royal rulers are lost. The Russian monarchy always represented the most reactionary of the European royal rulers. It used wealth, power and military might as a battering ram first against the various attempts to create parliamentary democracies in Europe, and later against revolutionary movements of workers throughout Europe. Marx described the tsars as ruling over the 'prison house of nations'.

Nicholas and Alexandra reigned in the period when all the contradictions between a rapidly growing capitalism, an increasingly angry and powerfully concentrated working class, and the old tsarist right to complete domination of society, came to the fore. The two were hated by the revolutionary workers' movement, but also by the liberal and not so liberal intelligentsia, and large sections of the nobility. They and their court circle of mystics, misfits and mediocrities were despised and mocked by great swathes of Russian society. Nicholas and Alexandra were not just pathetic, dimwitted and superstitious. Although they were all these things, they were also brutal friends of reaction, pogrom and state murder.

In his fine books about the two Russian revolutions, 1905 and The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky looks at both the crass emptyheadedness of the tsar and his wife but also at their brutality. To give some insight into the character of the tsar, Trotsky quotes extracts from Nicholas's diary, a diary as mundane and emptyheaded as any eavesdropped phone conversation of today's representatives of the decaying house of Windsor.

In the days preceding the opening of the state Duma (the partial parliament granted by the tsar), Nicholas wrote, 'April 14. Took a walk in a thin shirt and took up paddling again. Had tea on the balcony. Stana dined and took a ride with us. Read.'

Later, when the Duma is dissolved against a background of liberal outrage and renewed revolutionary violence he records, 'Very busy morning. Half an hour late to breakfast with the officers... A storm came up and it was very muggy. We walked together. Received Goremykin. Signed a decree dissolving the Duma! Dined with Olga and Petia. Read all evening.' On and on goes this nonsense. Against a background of society splitting apart, and growing revolutionary turmoil, the diary records bathing, canoeing, weather reports and taking tea.

Beside him sat the tsarina. She was a powerful influence on the tsar, but was in turn powerfully influenced by the mad mystic Gregory Rasputin. Rasputin's hold over her sprang from her affinity for superstition, mysticism and religion. He was a drunkard, a frequenter of brothels, a street fighter and rapist. Yet his influence on the tsarina and her husband was so great that he advised on government ministers being sacked, on their replacements, even on war tactics. He was despised by almost all bar the royal couple and the courtiers who had been picked by him. His influence was brought to an end only when he was murdered by a group of nobles who became folk heroes to much of Russian society.

The fall of Rasputin was seen by the couple as a great tragedy. In fact it was small farce compared to the events unfolding around them. The great wave of patriotism which had greeted Russia's entry into the First World War was giving way to misery and despair. The soldiers at the front lived through the hell and misery of the trenches, the fear of death or injury, the mistreatment by officers, hunger and military defeat.

In the countryside, the peasantry endured greater and greater hunger and hardship. In the cities, the workers found that the demands of the war were driving up the cost of living. Working conditions worsened sharply and food shortages led to growing hunger. The patriotic peace gave way to strikes for better wages and conditions which in turn gave way to bread riots, political strikes against the war and the ruling order, and greater fraternisation with the soldiers. All the forces for revolution were coming to the fore.

International Women's Day in 1917 saw strikes initially led by women textile workers spread to mass strikes throughout St Petersburg. The strikes gave way to demonstrations and the army promised not to shoot on the demonstrators. Famously the Cossacks allowed the demonstrators to break their blockade by allowing them to crawl under the bellies of their horses. The revolution was under way.

As these events began to unfurl, the tsarina remained an influence on her husband, which can be seen from extracts of letters she wrote to him. Some three months before the February Revolution she wrote, 'Everything is getting quiet and better, but people want to feel your hand. How long they have been saying to me, for whole years, the same thing: "Russia loves to feel the whip". That is their nature.' About a fortnight before the revolution she wrote to the tsar, 'I hope that Duma man Kedrinsky [she meant Kerensky, leader of the bourgeois revolutionaries, and conversely also a hero of many latter day opponents of the October revolution] will be hung for his horrible speeches ­ it is necessary and it will be an example.'

Again she wrote as the revolution was knocking at her door, as always counselling against compromise:

'Things are not going at all well in the city. You must say to the workers that they must not declare strikes. If they do, they will be sent to the front as a punishment. There is no need at all of shooting. Only order is needed, and not to let them cross the bridges.'

This last command was about as meaningful as Canute's in the face of the waves. The bridges were crossed, and the monarchy was undone.

Yet the dimness of this couple was matched and surpassed by their cruelty. After all, this was the tsar who in 1905 had ordered his troops to commit a massacre against a peaceful demonstration in St Petersburg led by a priest (who subsequently turned out to be a police spy). This demonstration carried a petition which had begun:

'Sire! We workers, our children and wives, the helpless old people who are our parents, we have come to you, Sire, to seek justice and protection... The limit of our patience has been reached; the terrible moment has come for us when it is better to die than to continue suffering intolerable torment.'

He chose that they should die. They in turn chose to make a revolution, a dress rehearsal for what was to come 12 years later. To defeat that revolution this tsar was prepared to unleash the ultimate in reactionary terror ­ the Black Hundreds­against the population. This relatively small group of extreme reactionaries could not have caused anything like the chaos, havoc, fear and persecution they did without the backing of police, soldiers and other officials of the state. Their anti-Jewish pogroms were enthusiastically approved by Nicholas. His cruelty was not unique among tsars but it was unique in the sense that it was the flailing cruelty of a dying breed.

His fall came swiftly as the turmoil grew. 'Respectable opinion' now feared that without his removal the revolution would grow. They began to believe that their own power and privilege could only be preserved by abdication.

The tsar, who as commander in chief had been with the army, now took a train to return to his family. The train was prevented from completing its journey. The tsar, true to form, sent a telegram to his wife commenting on the 'wonderful weather', but in truth the storm had erupted that was to finish him.

At first he resisted announcing his abdication, but then did so in favour of his son. He changed his mind and withdrew his abdication, then changed it again, this time in favour of his brother. His fate was sealed when a leading general sent telegrams to other generals asking ten questions, the answers to which would determine whether he could be saved. Each replied in the negative.

The tsar fell, but the revolution was in no mind to accept royal sons or brothers. Instead the bourgeois politician Kerensky eventually emerged to form a government. This government, though, was tied to international capital, was committed to continuing the war, and would not challenge the power of the landowners or the factory bosses. For these things to be resolved it was necessary for the workers to take power into their own hands. Under the leadership of the Bolsheviks this is precisely what they were to do in October.

The fall of the Romanov dynasty marked the beginning of this process. Their later execution has led to much liberal horror and outrage ever since. In fact the Bolsheviks only executed the family when the town in which they were held was under threat of invasion by the Whites during the civil war. They quite rightly feared that any member of the Romanov family could become a future standard bearer for counter revolution. So this cruel and worthless family deserve no tears, they were the last representatives of a system of brutality, greed and murder, masked by the respectability of a crown on the head of Nicholas. Trotsky sums it up beautifully:

'This dim, equable and "well bred" man was cruel­not with the active cruelty of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great, in the pursuit of historic aims... What had Nicholas the Second in common with them?...but with the cowardly cruelty of the late born, frightened at his own doom... He always read with satisfaction how they flogged with whips the bob-haired girl students or cracked the heads of defenceless people during Jewish pogroms. This crowned black sheep gravitated with all his soul to the very dregs of society, the Black Hundred hooligans.'

These are the people we are being asked to mourn as martyrs, canonise as saints. Yet at the time of their demise hardly any section of society would speak up for them, not the generals, not the nobility, not the capitalists, and certainly not the workers or peasants. They were cast into the dustbin of history. Its lid should remain firmly closed.


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