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Nicholas II: A Tsar’s Life for the People?

On July 16 and 17, Russia will mark one of the most sensitive centenaries in its recent history: the slaughter of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, his wife (the Anglo-German Empress Alexandra), five children, and four remaining servants at point-blank range by a Bolshevik firing squad in 1918. Beyond Russia’s borders, the Great War was staggering towards its terrible, weary climax. Within them, it was the middle of the first year of the Russian Civil War, and the Romanovs had to be killed in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of an approaching White army composed mostly of Czechoslovak POWs on their way to Vladivostok.

Once the shooting had started, it didn’t take long to bring Russia’s 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end (though in a scene of truly Gothic horror, Nicholas and Alexandra’s son, two daughters, and maid, who survived the main fusillade, had to be finished off with a combination of bayoneting and bullets to the temple). Disposing of the corpses proved, however, far more difficult. The rough soldiers who were assigned the task drove the bodies to an abandoned mineshaft in a conifer forest 25 kilometers outside of Ekaterinburg, stripped them of their valuables (the Empress and her daughters were wearing concealed jewels), burned their clothes, and smashed the family’s faces in in a bid to hamper their identification. Nonetheless, the makeshift grave, a mere prospectors’ pit, was clearly too shallow to conceal its morbid secret for long. The following morning, the exhausted men dug the putrefying corpses back up, loaded them back into the truck, and drove them off into the forest on a ghoulish mission to find somewhere better to hide them from the Whites. In sheer desperation, they buried them in a shallow and hastily-dug grave in a boggy section of the road through the forest where their truck was temporarily stuck, cunningly covering it with railway sleepers to make it look like a purely pragmatic track through the mud. Remarkably, it worked. Only days later, a White investigation party, which travelled across the very bridge of railway sleepers without ever suspecting the existence of the freshly-buried bodies lying beneath it, found the heap of ashes by the shaft in which the Romanovs had originally been dumped, and concluded that their bodies had been incinerated. No one touched the bones again until 1979, and the Russian Orthodox Church, which holds fast to the original White investigation, still doesn’t believe them to be the Romanovs’.1

Understandably, the men involved in this macabre farce hid it from Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers in Moscow.  As far as Vladimir Lenin and his leading henchman Yakov Sverdlov (who had covertly authorized the killings) were concerned, the night of July 16, 1918, signified the end—not only of Nicholas and the Romanov dynasty, but of the whole of old Russia’s benighted social order of Tsars, priests, and peasants.2 In Trotsky’s words, “the country had so radically vomited up the monarchy that it could never again crawl back down people’s throats.”3

He seemed to be right. In Petrograd, Vladimir Kokovtsov, who had served for over a decade as minister of finance and chairman of the Council of Ministers before the outbreak of the war, recalled going for a ride about the former capital in a tramcar the day after news of Nicholas’s execution was announced (and when the murder of the empress and children was still being denied). “There was no sign of grief or sympathy among the people,” he recalled. “The report of the Tsar’s death was read aloud with smiles, mockeries and base comments.” 4 While older people tended to remain silent, the young in particular were jubilant. Privately, some, but far from all, of Russia’s now dispossessed aristocrats grieved for the Tsar’s murder and feared the worst for his family. But in Siberia, peasants celebrated in the streets.5 By the summer of 1918 Kokovtsov, like many members of the Tsarist government and ruling classes, found himself in a Bolshevik jail. Hauled before the head of the Petrograd Cheka, he was interrogated about his involvement in an anti-Bolshevik plot feared to be afoot. Having satisfied his captors of his innocence, the former Tsarist minister was asked a question by the Chekist boss who only before held his life and future in his hands. “Did you know the former Emperor well?” he asked. “Do you think he perceived the wrong he was doing the country?”6

Nicholas II in Russian Memory

In a way, Nicholas II has been in the dock ever since. Labelled a “tyrant” in Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat, Nicholas and his family were condemned as “enemies of the people.” For seven decades, Russia’s last Anointed ruler was subjected to a vicious and unsparing damnatio memoriae, his name was first blackened by the universal and mandatory addition of the epithet “the Bloody” and then, as the years went by and memories faded, simply and cruelly suppressed. “Slowly but surely,” a woman who grew up in the Soviet Union recalled, “the memory of the Romanovs was effaced from the nation’s psyche. By the time I was growing up in the Soviet Union and studying history at school in the early 1980s, textbooks scarcely mentioned their name at all, preferring faceless terms like ‘czarism,’ ‘tyranny’ and ‘autocracy.’”7 In the West, meanwhile, Nicholas remains a by-word for personal ineptitude and a symbol of the inherent incompetence of non-democratically elected rulers. Indecisive, weak-willed, and out-of-touch with the modern world, he fell prey to his own fantasies about the unity of the tsar and his people. Nicholas is seen (not always fairly) in Western historiography as stubbornly, inflexibly, and unrepentantly leading his country to catastrophe.8

In Russia, however, a hundred years after the revolution, Trotsky has been proved wrong. In his homeland, Nicholas has been rehabilitated and was glorified with his wife and children as saints and “Royal Passion-bearers” by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. Whereas Nicholas’s image was once vigorously suppressed by Russia’s Communist rulers, now, in churches, chapels, and shrines from the Baltic to the Pacific, the faces of Nicholas and his family stare down on the faithful from their sacred icons. Every year, tens of thousands travel to Ekaterinburg to pay their respects, and offer their prayers, to Russia’s “tsar-martyr.”

To those familiar only with the Nicholas of Western history books, this decision by the descendants of his former subjects to number such a disastrous ruler among the saints will seem grotesque. Those yet to catch up with the changes that have taken place in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union will find the Romanovs’ rehabilitation doubly disconcerting. Talk of a “new Cold War” has released a torrent of analogies between Putin’s Russia and Stalin and Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.9 It is said that Putin, the ex-KGB man, yearns to restore the Soviet Union, whose demise he infamously qualified as a turbulent century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe,” and it has become an article of faith in Western analysis that this sentiment motivates Russian foreign policy. Moreover, it is commonly held that, as Russia almost ineluctably returns to its totalitarian past, that the country so recently democratized by Yeltsin is being “re-Stalinized” by Putin. If so, however, it’s a re-Stalinization of which the marshall would hardly recognize or approve of.

To Stalin, the Romanovs belonged to the past and deserved to be forgotten. “Not another word about the Romanovs!” he is reported to have declared when approached about marking the tenth anniversary of their execution.10 Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the archives were opened and Russia was inundated with Romanov family photos, and in particular since Putin’s rise to the presidency in 2000, when the Romanovs were declared saints, post-Soviet Russia’s disregard for Stalin’s injunction has been distinguished by its gusto. Nicholas II, the “tsar-Martyr,” has had more akathists (liturgical hymns) written in his honor than any other of Russia’s recent saints. Over just two weeks in 2013, a quarter of a million Muscovites crowded into a pavilion near the Kremlin to behold a historical exposition on the Romanovs that was organized jointly by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Ministry of Education and Culture in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the dynasty’s election to the Russian throne in 1613. Last year, a film that twisted his youthful romance with Mathilde Ksheshinskaya, a famed prima donna of the fin-de-siècle Petersburg stage, into a Charles-and-Diana style tale of a loveless marriage, adultery, and close-run dynastic collapse provoked outrage from the sainted tsar’s devotees who at times seemed to go so far as to threaten civil unrest if the Kremlin didn’t agree to have the film banned (it wasn’t). And in a twist probably not even his most devout adherents foresaw, Nicholas recently emerged from a nationwide survey as the “greatest Russian leader of the twentieth century”—ahead of both Stalin and Lenin (in that order).11

Putin and the Tsars

Will Putin attend the centenary commemorations in Ekaterinburg? It’s hard to say. Russia still has a lot of people nostalgic for Communist days. Indeed, since his re-election to the presidency earlier this year, Putin’s approval rating has fallen ten per cent, less in favor of Russia’s feted but small “liberal opposition” than its considerably more popular Communist Party. Though, ideologically, Putin isn’t one of them, he avoided taking the downfallen dynasty’s side unequivocally on last year’s symbolically charged centenaries of the February and October Revolutions. In his longest and most carefully-worded commentary on 1917, Putin pleaded the cause of moderate, gradual reform in distinctly Burkean terms, condemning revolution as “the result of an accountability deficit in both those who would like to conserve, to freeze in place the outdated order of things that clearly needs to be changed, and those who aspire to speed change up, resorting to civil conflict and destructive resistance.” At an address to the meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, he said, “Today, as we turn to the lessons of a century ago, namely, the Russian Revolution of 1917, we see how ambiguous its results were. . . . Let us ask ourselves: was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at a cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?”12

Such remarks are hardly an encomium for the Russia of the Romanovs. On the other hand, Putin has publicly cited the family’s murder as evidence of the Soviet state’s brutality. And, subtly, Putin seized on last year’s reflective mood to draw attention to the Romanovs’ contribution to building the nation in other ways. For example, in May Putin found the time to attend the rededication of a memorial cross originally erected in honor of Nicholas II’s uncle Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich who, as Governor-General of Moscow, was hated for his reactionary views and was blown to pieces by a revolutionary’s bomb as his carriage exited the Kremlin in 1905. In his speech, Putin noted that the original cross “was among the first monuments destroyed after the revolution.” “Today, however,” he noted with gratitude, “Russia’s history is regaining its unity. We treasure each page in this history, no matter how difficult. These are our national spiritual roots.”13

Then in November, just eleven days after the centenary of the “Great October Socialist Revolution” (which Putin did nothing specific to commemorate), he flew to Crimea to unveil a massive statue of Nicholas II’s father, Tsar Alexander III (1881–94), outside the restored imperial palace at Livadia, where Alexander passed in 1894. Given that Alexander, who had sent Lenin’s elder brother to the gallows for an attempt on his life in 1887, outdid even Nicholas in Communist demonology, this was an act of considerable symbolic boldness. Whereas liberals and socialists together hated the thickset emperor Alexander III, the first tsar in two and a half centuries to wear the traditional Orthodox beard, he was lauded by Russia’s nineteenth-century Slavophil nationalists (including Dostoevsky, who was presented to him at the palace) for repudiating the “cultural revolution” instituted by his clean-shaven ancestor Peter the Great (1682–1725) in his slavish imitation of Western manners, styles, and customs.

The essence of Burkean conservatism has been described as lying in “a philosophy upholding the authority of tradition; an organic, historical conception of society; and the need to defend order, religion, and property.”14 If this is so, then once again Putin couched in distinctly Burkean terms the lessons he distilled from Alexander’s reign for twenty-first-century Russia. Alexander III, he said, “believed that a strong, sovereign and independent state should rely not only on its economy and military power but also on its traditions; that it is crucial for a great nation to preserve its identity whereas any movement forward is impossible without respect for one’s own history, culture and spiritual values. Alexander III loved Russia and believed in it, and by unveiling this monument today we pay tribute to his deeds, achievements and merits, we show our respect for the continuous history of our country for people of all ranks and social classes who constantly served the Fatherland” (emphasis added).15

The Meaning of the Romanovs’ Rehabilitation

In a purely negative sense, of course, the Romanovs’ rehabilitation represents a repudiation of the whole idea of revolutionary upheaval—something overwhelming majorities of Russians reject for their country. Naturally, the cynic will say that the Kremlin’s recourse to Burkean-style rhetoric to idealize the Romanovs’ autocracy is just an apology for reaction, window-dressing for a further tightening of Russia’s political screws. Perhaps it is, and it would be foolish not to be alert to that possibility. But it’s important for us as observers of Russia in the West is to take a broad enough view of Russian society and politics in order to be able to account for the alternative, too. We won’t if we keep telling ourselves that Stalin’s totalitarianism is post-Soviet Russia’s only lodestar. In a positive sense, then, is rehabilitating the Romanovs a means for repairing the broken unity of Russia’s historical experience? If so, perhaps a sympathetic re-consideration of the moral and political predicament of Russia’s last Tsar, from the point of view of both subsequent Russian history and the twenty-first century “metacrisis” of liberalism, could provide clues as to its contents and direction.

In a speech in 1905 (when in Britain Edmund Burke was just being re-invented as the father of conservatism) Nicholas asserted an almost identical “need for social and political structures to conform to ‘unique Russian principles,’” and “loyalty to Russia’s ‘historical foundations’.”16 Rhetorically, at least, this is perfectly if superficially Burkean. At the source, however, of Burke’s defense of tradition, organic historical development, and gradual, reformist change (which in granting Russia its first national representative organ, Nicholas by 1917 might have justifiably felt himself to have pursued), was his conception of society as based not on a contract whose terms might be revised or renegotiated at any moment by its respective parties. It represented rather a sacred “partnership” of the unborn, living, and dead that no generation or mere individual, however exalted, was unilaterally entitled to alter.17

This deeper, Burkean view of the nation as a “moral essence” to whose inherited laws even an autocrat had to submit, Nicholas shared entirely. “I am not entitled,” he told General Ruzskii, a fundamentally convinced, if largely closeted, liberal during their famous conversation aboard the imperial train at Pskov as the revolution in Petrograd reached its crescendo, “to give up the whole matter of governing Russia to the hands of those who, today in the government, could cause such blunders to the Fatherland and tomorrow wash their hands, and send in their resignations from the cabinet.”18 As if foreseeing the weightless careerism, circularity, short-termism and moral pusillanimity of modern liberal politics, Nicholas was complaining that, while a minister might be responsible to the Duma so long as it suited him to bear the burdens (or enjoy the benefits) of public office, the Tsar was responsible to God and his people for life, whether he wanted to abandon them or not. “Seeing what the ministers are doing is not for Russia’s good,” he said in rejecting Ruzskii’s formula that the Tsar should “reign but not rule.” “I will never be able to agree with them, comforting myself with the thought that matters are not in my hands and that the responsibility is not mine.”19 (If the recent Netflix series The Crown is to be believed, it’s a predicament Britain’s quietly pious Queen Elizabeth II—Christendom’s last anointed monarch—had to reconcile herself to many times in her sixty-five-year-long reign.)

Yet, while Nicholas’s thoughts on government often approximated many of the most important insights of Burke, he was, in essence, an Orthodox “integralist.” It is no exaggeration to say that Nicholas, who was known to dismiss ministers with the sign of the Cross and to encourage them to pray with him before an icon of Christ in his study, imagined himself as head of a “sacramental kingdom,” in which his relationship to the Russian people was modelled on that of Christ to the Church.20 “I am responsible,” he said at the conclusion of his conversation with Ruzskii, “before God and Russia for everything that has happened and will happen.” That, in the end, such ardent moral commitment wasn’t enough should serve as a source of reflection for those (rightly) in search of a post-liberal politics today that would redress the desiccating moral and ontological void at the heart of modern liberalism in the West.21

In Russia itself, however, the Romanovs’ canonization as saints is symbolic of the resurgence of that ancient vision of Orthodox “Holy Rus” suppressed by seventy years of atheist Communism. The official liturgy written in honor of Nicholas and his family unyieldingly describes Bolshevism as the “godless authority” by which “Russia was oppressed” after “many iniquitous . . . leaders of the people desired to rise up against Faith, Tsar and Fatherland.”22 Of course, the note here is patriotic and conservative. But we shouldn’t for that reason miss its potential radicalism either. The ideal of the saintly, self-sacrificial prince pervaded the culture of medieval Russia; the twenty-first century cult of the “Royal Passion-bearers” essentially revives it.23 As both Tsar and martyr, Nicholas II offers the Russian people a ruler “meek and silent in . . . sufferings” who voluntarily “relinquished earthly power, glory and honor” in his desire “to avoid Cain-like fratricide.” Don’t we find here precisely that “anti-Stalin” of which Russian society is universally seen as lacking—a means for Russians both to retrieve their history, and to transcend it?

Of course, this could easily be dismissed as naive Christian idealism. But all regimes ultimately rely on some sort of founding ideal. Telling the story of the peasant Ivan Susanin who sacrifices his own life to save that of the first newly-elected Romanov tsar during the Polish occupation of 1612, Glinka’s famous patriotic opera A Life For the Tsar was an integral element of every national festival in the last days of Imperial Russia. Nicholas and Alexandra must have seen it tens if not scores of times.24 In elevating the slain emperor and his family to the rank of saints, however, the contemporary Russian Church has managed both to retain and yet invert this logic. True patriotism, the Church seems—somewhat subversively—to be saying, demands not only the sacrifice of the ruled for the ruler, but also of the ruler for the ruled. The test of a ruler’s greatness lies not in the terror he is able to inspire in his subjects, such as Ivan the Terrible or Stalin, nor in his ability to dominate them. Rather, it lies in the depth of his love for the people, in his willingness to offer himself up for the greater good, even to the point of renouncing his power and life. Admittedly, Nicholas only agreed to do these things after he had lost the moral argument for Orthodox autocracy. All the same, if an opera were written today to express the meaning given to Nicholas and Alexandra’s witness as “Royal Passion-bearers” it could, with some justification, be called “A Tsar’s Life for the People.”

1 See the vivid reconstruction of events in Wendy Slater, The Many Deaths of Nicholas II: Relics, Remains and the Romanovs (London: Routledge, 2007), 1–15.

2 On Lenin’s culpability, see Robert Service, The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution (London: Pegasus Books, 2017),  248–53.

3 Cited in Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 72.

4 Count Vladimir Nikolaevich Kokovtsov, Out of My Past: The Memoirs of Count Kokovtsov, ed. H. H. Fisher and trans. Laura Matveev (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1935), 522.

5 Douglas Smith, Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy (London: Picador, 2013), 184.

6 Kokovtsov, 518-19.

7 See Anastasia Edel, “The Remains of the Romanovs,” New York Times, July 10, 2017.

8 Service, 5–10. See also: S. A. Smith, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890–1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 16–21. For a more sympathetic interpretation of Nicholas as man and ruler, see Dominic Lieven, Nicholas II: Emperor of All the Russias (London: John Murray Publishers Ltd, 1993).

9 Andrew Monaghan, “A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia,” Chatham House Research Paper, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2015.

10 Slater, 44.

11Lenin, Stalin and Last Emperor Nicholas II Top Popularity Rating of Russian Historical Figures,” RT, June 26, 2018.

12 Vladimir Putin, Address to the Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, October 19, 2017.

13 Putin, Unveiling of Monument to Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich, May 4, 2017.

14 See William Anthony Hay, “How Burke Became Conservative,” Modern Age 60, no. 2 (Spring 2018).

15 Putin, Unveiling of Monument to Alexander III, November 18, 2017.

16 Mark D. Steinberg and Vladimir M. Khrustalev, The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 21.

17 Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 138, 232. Neither was Nicholas necessarily opposed to change in itself, as he is often represented. Unbound by the solemn oath Nicholas swore before God at his coronation, his son Alexei he believed would “repeal what’s unnecessary.” “I’m preparing the way for him,” the tsar told a member of the court (Service, Last of the Tsars, 10).

18 Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The February Revolution: Petrograd, 1917 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), 493–94.

19 Lieven, Nicholas II, 232.

20 For Nicholas’s interaction with ministers, see Kokovtsov, Out of My Past, p. 153. On the standard that Nicholas held himself to as an “apostle-like Tsar,” see John Strickland, The Making of Holy Russia: The Orthodox Church and Russian Nationalism before the Revolution (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Publications, 2013), 97–102. I am firmly convinced that Nicholas could not conceive the possibility of the separation of Church and State any more than he could the principles of a purely constitutional monarchy. On the question of such a separation as ideologically constitutive of modern liberalism, see Andrew Willard Jones, Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St Louis IX (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2017), 2–20.

21 Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 27–31, 174–78; also John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016), 247–76.

22 The text of the liturgies can be found in The Royal Passion-bearers of Russia: Their Life and Service, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, (Platina, California, 2014).

23 Michael Cherniavsky, Tsar and People: Studies in Russian Myths (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), 13–17.

24 Richard S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy from Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 160–61, 388, 393; Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 10–11.

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