3 Nicholas the Last

The Tsar's diary, 26 February 1917:

At ten o'clock I went to Mass. The reports were on time. There were many people at breakfast, including all the foreigners. Wrote to Alix and went for a walk near the chapel by the Bobrisky road. The weather was fine and frosty. After tea I read and talked with Senator Tregubov until dinner. Played dominoes in the evening.

While Petrograd sank into chaos and the monarchy teetered on the verge of collapse, Nicholas carried on with the peaceful routines of his life at Stavka. There, in the words of one of his entourage, 'one day after another passed like two drops of water'. Judging from his letters, he was much more concerned by the fact that two of his daughters had gone down with measles than by the latest reports of rioting in the capital. True, Khabalov had not informed him of the gravity of the situation. But would the truth have made a difference? It is doubtful. On the morning of the 27th a cable arrived from the President of the Duma informing the Tsar of the real situation and pleading with him to 'take immediate steps' because 'tomorrow it will be too late'. Nicholas glanced at the message and, turning to Count Fredericks, exclaimed: 'That fat fellow Rodzianko has again written to me with all kinds of nonsense, which I shan't even bother to answer.'43

Since the death of Rasputin, Nicholas had turned his back on the capital and retreated into the quiet daily routines of Stavka and his family life at Tsarskoe Selo. Now more than ever he lived in a world of his own delusions, surrounding himself with lackeys of the court who flattered his fantasies of patrimonial power. During the last weeks of his reign numerous advisers pleaded with him to appoint a new government of confidence responsible to the Duma. But none had been able to penetrate the invisible wall of indifference that Nicholas erected around himself. And yet, beneath this outward appearance of calm, he was clearly in the midst of a deep internal crisis. Kokovtsov, who had not seen the Tsar for a year, found him 'unrecognizable' at the beginning of February. He was convinced that he was 'on the verge of a mental breakdown'. Paleologue was equally shocked by the Tsar's 'grave, drawn features and furtive distant gaze, the impenetrability of his thoughts, and the thoroughly vague and enigmatic quality of his personality'. It confirmed the French Ambassador in his long-held 'notion that Nicholas II feels himself overwhelmed and dominated by events, that he has lost all faith in his mission or his work, and that he has so to speak abdicated inwardly and is now resigned to disaster'.44 It was as if his mental crisis consisted of the realization that the autocratic path he had followed for the past twenty-two years had finally come to an end, bringing his dynasty to the brink of disaster, and that the advice which everyone now gave him, to save his throne by handing over executive power to the Duma, was something he simply could not do. His whole life had been dedicated to the maintenance of autocracy, and now that he realized it could no longer be maintained, he gave up on life altogether. Here was the root of his notorious fatalism during the days leading up to his abdication.

In the evening of the 27th news finally reached the Tsar of the mutiny in Petrograd. He ordered General Ivanov, whom he now appointed to replace Khabalov as chief of the Petrograd Military District, to lead a force of punitive troops to the capital and establish a dictatorship there. Nicholas himself set out that night by train for Tsarskoe Selo, ignoring Alexeev's objections that this would merely hinder the counter-revolution and could endanger his life. His only concern, it appears, was to be reunited with his wife and children. The imperial train did not go directly northwards because Ivanov's troops were moving on this line but made a large detour to the east, arriving at Malaya Vishera, some 125 miles south-east of the capital, in the early morning of I March. There it could proceed no further because the line ahead had been seized by revolutionaries, so it headed west to Pskov, arriving there at 7 p.m. on I March. Because of the hasty arrangements, there was no formal ceremony to welcome the Tsar to the town where he was destined to renounce his throne. General Ruszky, Commander of the Northern Front, arrived late to meet him at the station. He was wearing a pair of rubber boots.45

By this time, however, several things had happened to undermine the plans for a counter-revolution. For one thing, the last remaining loyalist forces in the capital had singularly failed to organize resistance. General Khabalov clearly lacked the nerve for a serious fight and did almost nothing, although there was still much that he might have done. From the Admiralty, where he and his entourage had bunkered themselves in, there was a straight path to the three main railway stations (the Baltic, the Warsaw and the Nikolaevsky): loyalist troops, brought in from the Front, might have succeeded in fighting their way through. But Khabalov did not even think of this. Drinking cognacs to keep his hands from shaking, he merely wrote out a proclamation in which he declared the obvious — that the city was in a state of siege. But there was no one with the courage, let alone the brushes or the glue, to post up the printed version in the streets. Instead the leaflets were thrown out of the windows of the Admiralty, and most landed in the garden below. The efforts of Khabalov's men to link up with the loyalist forces in the other parts of the city centre ended in a similar farce. One detachment fought its way across to the Winter Palace — only to be ordered back by the palace commandant, outraged by the sight of the soldiers' dirty boots on his newly polished floors. It later turned out that the Grand Duke Mikhail, who had been in the palace at the time, had ordered the soldiers to be turned away because he had been afraid that they might damage its chinaware. And for that he lost an Empire! Demoralized and unfed for several days, most of the soldiers ran off to the people's side rather than return to the Admiralty.

There was a second development to foil the plans for a counterrevolution on I March. Ivanov's troops had arrived in Tsarskoe Selo to find that the mutiny had even spread to the Imperial Guards, who were garrisoned there. Some of Ivanov's own troops had already begun to show signs of disaffection, answering in a 'surly fashion' when addressed by the Empress during a review. Meanwhile, back in Petrograd, the Temporary Committee had resolved that Nicholas would have to abdicate. Early in the morning on 2 March Guchkov and Shulgin departed for Pskov with instructions to impose the abdication and ensure the Law of Succession with Alexei as Tsar and the Grand Duke Mikhail as Regent. Rodzianko, meanwhile, who still had hopes of persuading the Tsar to make concessions, was prevented from going by a Soviet railway blockade.46

But the most important development was the decision of General Alexeev, as the acting Commander-in-Chief, to order a halt to the counterrevolutionary expedition. One of the reasons for this crucial decision was the assurance Alexeev had been given by Rodzianko on I March that the Duma leaders, rather than the Soviet ones, would form the new government in Petrograd. Alexeev himself had long been party to the palace coup plots of the Progressive Bloc. Instinctively he trusted Rodzianko, and seemed to believe that the liberals might still be prepared to negotiate a political settlement which retained the monarchical basis of Russia. But there was another motive for Alexeev's change of mind: he was afraid that if the army was used to attack the revolutionary capital, it might become engulfed in a general mutiny, leading to the country's defeat in the war. Already, on I March, there were mutinies in several northern garrisons, and there was a real danger that they might soon spread to the units at the Front. He preferred to isolate his front-line soldiers from Red Petrograd rather than send them there and run the risk of having them fall under its revolutionary influence. On I March Alexeev ordered General Ivanov to halt his expedition against Petrograd. He then sent a cable to the Tsar begging him to let the Duma form a government for the restoration of order. A revolution throughout Russia', he warned prophetically, 'would mean a disgraceful termination of the war. One cannot ask the army to fight while there is a revolution in the rear.'47

The armed services had always held a special place in Nicholas's heart, and it was the advice of his military chiefs which now persuaded him to abdicate. If on the morning of I March Alexeev had considered the appointment of a Duma government sufficient to calm the capital, by the morning of the 2nd he had become convinced that nothing less than the Tsar's abdication would be necessary. During the small hours of the morning, while Nicholas tossed and turned in his bed, unable to sleep, General Ruzsky conversed with Rodzianko in Petrograd through the Hughes Apparatus and learned from him that the capital was in such a state of chaos that only an act of abdication would be enough to satisfy the crowds. Alexeev was stunned by what he read from the transcripts of their conversation. At 9 a.m. he cabled Pskov with orders to wake the Tsar at once — 'ignoring all etiquette' — and to inform him of the contents of the Ruzsky—Rodzianko tapes. It was now clear to him and the other generals at Stavka that Nicholas had no choice but to follow Rodzianko's advice. But he knew the Tsar well enough to realize that he would not agree to abdicate unless urged to do so by his leading generals. Sending a circular telegram to the Front Commanders with a summary of the situation, he asked them to reply to Pskov in line with his view that Nicholas should step down in favour of his son in order to save the army, the war campaign, the nation and the dynasty.48

At 10 a.m. Ruzsky came to the Tsar's railway car and handed him the transcripts of his conversation with Rodzianko. Nicholas read them, stood up and looked out of the window. There was a dreadful silence. At last, he returned to his desk, and quietly spoke of his conviction 'that he had been born for misfortune'. The night before, as he lay in his bed, he had come to realize that it was too late for concessions. 'If it is necessary that I should abdicate for the good of Russia, then I am ready for it,' he said. 'But I am afraid that the people will not understand it.' A few minutes later Alexeev's telegram arrived. Ruzsky read it aloud to the Tsar and suggested postponing any decision until he had seen what the other commanders had to say. Nicholas adjourned for lunch. What else could he do? He was a man of habit.

By half-past two the telegrams from the commanders had arrived and Ruzsky was summoned back to the Emperor's car. Nicholas smoked incessantly as he read the cables. All of them agreed with Alexeev on the need for his abdication. Brusilov, who had long been convinced of the damage caused by the Tsar to the army, declared outright that it was now the only way to restore order in the rear and continue the war. The Grand Duke Nikolai implored his nephew 'on his knees' to give up the crown. When he had finished reading Nicholas asked the opinions of his three attendant generals on the imperial train. It was the same. There was a moment of silence before Nicholas spoke. 'I have made up my mind. I have decided to abdicate from the throne in favour of my son Alexei.' He crossed himself, the generals also made the sign of the cross, and then he withdrew to his cabin.49

Many of those who were with him on the imperial train were struck by the Tsar's strange lack of emotion during this ordeal. Right to the end he kept up his stiff Edwardian manners and impeccable sense of decorum. Having made the crucial decision to abdicate, he went for his afternoon walk and appeared in the buffet car as usual for evening tea. Not a word was said of the day's events. His courtiers carried on with the normal small-talk on the weather, while liveried servants went round the table pouring tea as if nothing had happened. 'The Tsar sat peacefully and calm,' recalled one of his aides-de-camp. 'He kept up conversation and only his eyes, which were sad, thoughtful and staring into the distance, and his nervous movements when he took a cigarette, betrayed his inner disturbance.'50

The truth of the matter was that his abdication probably came as a relief. That night Nicholas would sleep much better than he had done for a long time. As a young man, he had never really wanted to be Tsar. The jovial life of a young Guards officer, followed by the cosy domestic routines of a landed squire, were much more to his liking. But when misfortune had put him on the throne he swore to uphold and pass on to his son the autocratic powers which he had inherited from his beloved and much-feared father. He adhered to this coronation oath with a dogged narrow-mindedness, as if he was terrified that God (or his wife) would punish him if he failed to rule like Ivan the Terrible. As long as he remained Tsar nothing could divert him from this path. For twenty-two years he had ignored the lessons of history, as well as the pleadings of countless advisers, which all pointed to the fact that the only way to save his throne was to grant a government accountable to the people. His motive was always the same: his 'conscience' forbade him to do it. Even as late as January 1917, when the Grand Duke Pavel, in a last desperate bid to avert the catastrophe, urged him to concede a Duma ministry, Nicholas replied: 'I took an oath for Autocracy on the day of my coronation and I must remit this oath in its integrity to my son.'51 In a way, he probably found it easier to abdicate than to turn himself into a constitutional king. That was Nicholas's tragedy.

Throughout the whole affair Nicholas's main concern was to be reunited with his family. 'In my thoughts I am always with you,' he wrote to Alexandra on 28 February. It was this that led to a final curious twist in the tale of his abdication. During the evening of 2 March, while he waited for Guchkov and Shulgin to arrive from the capital, Nicholas summoned Professor Fedorov, his court physician, and asked him about the prospects for his son's recovery. He told him of Rasputin's prediction that Alexei would be cured by the age of thirteen, which, by an ironic turn of fate, he was due to reach in 1917. Fedorov dispelled any such hopes: there was no medical cure for haemophilia and Alexei could not live much longer. He also expressed his doubts that the Tsar would be allowed to stay with his son once he had renounced the throne, for he would surely be expected to go into exile. On hearing this, Nicholas resolved to abdicate not only for himself but also for his son in favour of his younger brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail. 'I cannot be separated from him,' he told Guchkov and Shulgin when they arrived. 'I hope you will understand the feelings of a father.'52

In legal terms this was quite invalid. The Law of Succession made it clear that the Russian throne was 'not the Emperor's private property nor his patrimony to be disposed of according to his will', but descended automatically to his eldest son. To make matters worse, Mikhail had legally barred himself from the throne by marrying a commoner who had already been divorced. But Guchkov and Shulgin were now more concerned with the fact of the Tsar's abdication than with its strict legality; and in order to achieve it they were ready to make this final concession to his patrimonial will. The Abdication Manifesto, which Nicholas composed in his private car that evening, was technically illegal. Later it was claimed that this might have served as a pretext for his restoration. But at the time it seemed no more than a minor allowance for his natural rights as a father.53

News of the Tsar's abdication reached Tsarskoe Selo on the following day. It was left to the Grand Duke Pavel to inform the Empress, since no one else in her entourage could find the courage to do so. He found her with the children, in a nurse's uniform. When he told her the news 'the Empress trembled and bent down her head, as though she were uttering a prayer'. In a calm voice she explained to him that her husband had evidently 'preferred to abdicate the crown rather than break the oath which he had made at his coronation'. Then she burst into tears.54

* * * The crowds outside the Tauride Palace met the announcement that Nicholas would abdicate in favour of the Grand Duke Mikhail with an outburst of angry indignation. The Catherine Hall echoed to shouts from the street of 'Long Live the Republic!' and 'Down with the Dynasty!' When Guchkov returned from Pskov he went in triumph to a meeting of railway workers to tell them what had happened. Ending his speech with the rallying call 'Long Live the Emperor Mikhail!', he was at once arrested and threatened with execution by the workers. Throughout the capital crowds attacked supporters and symbols of the tsarist order. A huge demonstration of soldiers marched to the Tauride Palace demanding the overthrow of the dynasty. Politically, it seemed, the monarchy was doomed. Yet inside the palace Miliukov continued to defend its existence in legal terms. It was essential, the professor argued, to preserve the monarchy as a symbol of the state. For only it could give legitimacy and a historic continuity to the transfer of power. This was the triumph of hope over reality. The mood of the crowd clearly made the survival of the monarchy impossible. The masses would not tolerate a new Tsar, and if one was imposed then further disorders would ensue, perhaps even leading to a civil war. The republican ministers, led by Kerensky and Nekrasov, eventually got their way. The Provisional Government resolved to persuade the Grand Duke to refuse the crown and thus bring the dynasty to an end.55                                                                     

It would not take much persuading. Mikhail was a shy and modest man, not much interested in politics, and even less intelligent than his older brother. In different circumstances he might have made a good, if rather dim, constitutional monarch, much like his English cousin, George V But the rioting in the capital, which he had personally witnessed, had not given him much appetite for monarchical power. He was not in the least bit eager to put his own head on the block — either metaphorically or literally — and was understandably both surprised and annoyed when his brother suddenly and unexpectedly decided to burden him with the crown without even consulting him.

He met the leaders of the Provisional Government on 3 March in the residence of Princess Putiatina, not far from the Winter Palace, where the Grand Duke had taken refuge from the revolution. Lvov and Kerensky put forward the majority point of view in the government that if Mikhail accepted the throne there would be a violent uprising, leading to civil war. Miliukov disagreed, claiming that only the monarchy was recognized by the people as a symbol of authority and that it was now required to save the country from chaos. 'The Provisional Government on its own, without a monarch', he argued, 'is an unseaworthy vessel liable to sink in the ocean of popular unrest.' All this left the Grand Duke rather confused. He asked for an hour to talk in private with Rodzianko. His main concern, according to Rodzianko, was whether the Duma could guarantee his personal safety if he became Tsar. When Rodzianko said that it could not, he finally made up his mind and, returning to the meeting, announced that he had decided to decline the crown. There was a tear in his eye. Kerensky, whose own emotions often got the better of his senses, rushed up to the Grand Duke, shook his hand and congratulated him with these words of astounding self-importance: 'Your Imperial Highness, you have acted nobly and like a patriot. From now on, I shall assume the obligation of making this known and of defending you.'56

Two jurists, Nabokov and Nolde, were later summoned to the Putiatina residence to draft the abdication manifesto. This historic document, which brought to an end 300 years of Romanov rule, was written out by them at a school desk in the study of Putiatina's daughter and then copied out in one of her school notebooks. By 6 p.m. the document was ready. Mikhail signed it in the presence of the ministers and Rodzianko. He then turned to embrace Prince Lvov and wished him good fortune as the Prime Minister of the new Russia.5'

* * * The end of the monarchy was marked by scenes of rejoicing throughout the Russian Empire. Rapturous crowds assembled in the streets of Petrograd and Moscow. Red flags were hoisted on to the roofs and hung from the windows of nearly every building. In Helsingfors, Kiev, Tiflis and the other non-Russian capitals, where the downfall of the Tsar was associated with the liberation of the nation, national flags were often displayed alongside them. There was hardly a town, however small, that did not celebrate the revolution with jubilant processions, patriotic speeches and the singing of the Marseillaise. Konstantin Paustovsky recalls the night when his little sleepy town, Yefremov in Tula province, first heard of the revolution.

It was one o'clock in the night, a time when Yefremov was usually asleep. Suddenly, at this odd hour, there sounded a short, booming peal of the cathedral bell. Then another, and a third. The pealing grew faster, its noise spread over the town, and soon the bells of all the outlying churches started to ring.

Lights were lit in all the houses. The streets filled with people. The doors of many houses stood open. Strangers, weeping openly, embraced each other. The solemn, exultant whistling of locomotives could be heard from the direction of the station. Somewhere down one street there began, first quietly, then steadily louder, the singing of the Marseillaise:

Ye tyrants quake, your day is over, Detested now by friend and foe!

The singing brass sounds of a band joined the human voices in the chorus.

The soldiers in the trenches were equally ecstatic, despite the initial confusion caused by the efforts of the officers to withhold the news from the capital. Red flags were raised in the trenches and red ribbons tied to the military trucks, pieces of artillery and the horses. There were parades to celebrate the revolution, military bands played the Marseillaise and soldiers wildly threw their caps into the air. On the naval ships there was a similar outburst of emotion. The red flag was raised on battleships 'as an emblem', in the words of the Helsingfors sailors, 'of our freedom and our unity'.58

In the countryside the news of the abdication filtered down more slowly. Some of the more remote villages did not learn about the events in the capital until the end of March, and in some places, such as in Kazan and Mogilev provinces, where the tsarist forces remained dominant, not until April. Many of the peasants were at first confused by the downfall of the Tsar. 'The church was full of crying peasants,' one witness recalled. ' "What will become of us?" they constantly repeated — "They have taken the Tsar away from us?" ' Some of the older peasants, in particular, venerated the Tsar as a god on earth and saw his removal as an attack upon religion — a fact exploited by many priests in their counter-revolutionary agitation. Even among the more ruralized workers the overthrow of the Tsar was sometimes seen as a sin. The American Frank Golder noted in his diary on 15 March:

Talked with one of the workmen (an old muzhik) of the Navy archives. He said it was a sin to overthrow the Emperor, since God had placed him in power. It may be that the new regime will help people on this earth, but they will surely pay for it in the world to come.

In the villages people at first spoke in muted voices about the 'big events' in the capital. Until the land captains and the police were removed from power, which took place gradually during March and April, the peasants had no guarantee that they would not be arrested if they spoke their minds. But as the weeks went by, they grew in confidence and began to voice their opposition to the Tsar. A survey by the Duma based upon the reports of its provincial agents for the first three months of the revolution summarized this process:

the widespread myth that the Russian peasant is devoted to the Tsar and that he 'cannot live' without him has been destroyed by the universal joy and the relief of the peasants upon discovering that in reality they can live without the Tsar, without whom they were told they 'could not live'.. . Now the peasants say: 'The Tsar brought himself down and brought us to ruin.'59

Once their initial fear had been removed, the peasants welcomed the revolution. The news from the capital was joyously greeted by huge assemblies in the village fields. 'Our village', recalls one peasant, 'burst into life with celebrations. Everyone felt enormous relief, as if a heavy rock had suddenly been lifted from our shoulders.' Another peasant recalled the celebrations in his village on the day it learned of the Tsar's abdication: 'People kissed each other from joy and said that life from now on would be good. Everyone dressed in their best costumes, as they do on a big holiday. The festivities went on for three days.' Many villages held religious processions to thank the Lord for their newly won freedoms, and offered up prayers for the new government. For many peasants, the revolution appeared as a sacred thing, while those who had laid down their lives for the people's freedom were seen by the peasants as modern-day saints. Thus the villagers of Bol'she-Dvorskaya volost in the Tikhvinsk district of Petrograd province held a 'service of thanksgiving for the divine gift of the people's victory and the eternal memory of those holy men who fell in the struggle for freedom'. The parishioners of Osvyshi village in Tver province offered, as they put it, 'fervent prayers to thank the Lord for the divine gift of the people's victory . . . and since this great victory was achieved by sacrifice, we held a requiem for all our fallen brothers'. It was often with the express purpose of reciprocating this sacrifice that many villages sent donations, often amounting to several hundred roubles, to the authorities in Petrograd for the benefit of those who had suffered losses in the February Days.60

The February Revolution was, in its essence, a revolution against monarchy. The new democracy to which it gave birth defined itself by the negation of all things tsarist. In the rhetoric of its leaders the Tsar was equated with the dark oppression of old Russia, while his removal was associated with enlightenment and progress. The symbols and emblems of the revolution — printed in the press and the pamphlet literature — were the images of a broken chain, of the radiant sun appearing from behind the clouds, and of a toppled throne and crown.61

The revolution was accompanied by the nationwide destruction of all signs and symbols of imperial power. During the February Days the crowds in Petrograd tore down the imperial double-headed eagles which hung from many buildings (sometimes even blowing them up with explosives);* removed imperial signs from shopfronts and streets; smashed tsarist statues; took out portraits of the tsars from government buildings (Repin's famous portrait of Nicholas II was torn down from the tribune of the Tauride Palace), and burned all these in bonfires on the streets. The imperial coats of arms on the iron fence around the Winter Palace were covered up with red material — as were all the statues too large to destroy. During March and April many towns held symbolic re-enactments of the February Days, usually known as 'Festivals of Freedom', in which these tsarist emblems and insignia — sometimes reinstalled especially for the event — were torn down once again. In Moscow the elephantine statue of Alexander III was dismantled by a team of workers using ropes and dynamite. In provincial towns statues of the tsars were also destroyed, although here there were sometimes conflicts when these statues had been paid for out of civic funds and had come to represent a certain civic pride. In Vladimir, for example, there was a dispute between the socialists and the merchants over the town's statue of Alexander II. After a series of long street debates,' recalls a local resident, 'it was decided to strike a compromise: the statue would not be destroyed but, in order not to offend the revolutionary morals of the people, the figure of the Tsar would be covered up with a large brown sack.' Much of this iconoclasm was carnivalesque. Thus, for example, in the February Days a crowd paraded through the Petrograd streets with a straw effigy of Nicholas II in police uniform which they then burned in a comic ceremony. But such destruction could easily turn violent. A eunuch was lynched by the same crowd simply because such effeminate types were thought to be the lackeys of the court.62

* Several US eagles were also taken down mistakenly.


This symbolic revolution was also enacted on the personal level. People made a conscious effort to distance themselves from the old regime and to identify themselves with the new democracy. Soldiers renounced their hard-won tsarist medals, and often sent them to the Petrograd Soviet so that it could melt them down and put the silver to the use of the people's cause. Hundreds of people with surnames such as Romanov, Nemets (German) or Rasputin, appealed to the Chancellery for the right to have them changed. One such Romanov, Fedor Andreevich, a peasant of Koltovskii village in Penza province, claimed that his surname had become 'a source of shame' and wanted it changed to Lvov — the surname of the Prime Minister.63

The revolution was accompanied by a boom of anti-tsarist pamphlets, postcards, plays and films, as the old laws on censorship were removed. The pamphlets, in particular, were hugely popular, some of them selling in their millions. They all traded in the rumours of the war years: that the Empress was working for the Germans; that she was the lover of Rasputin; that the Tsar had given his throne to this 'holy devil', and so on. Most of their titles were sexually suggestive — The Secrets of the Romanovs; The Gay Days of Rasputin; The Night Orgies of Rasputin — as was much of their dialogue. In The Night Orgies, for example, Protopopov asks Madame Vyrubova if Rasputin has an 'enormous talent'. 'Oh, I know,' she answers, 'an enormous, enormous talent.'64 Many of the pamphlets were semi-pornographic and were illustrated with cartoons of the royals rolling around in bed with Rasputin. By making the link between the sexual corruption of the court and the diseased condition of Russia explicit, this propaganda played a vital role (still to be investigated by historians) in debunking the myth and the mystique of the Tsar as a divine king. During the course of 1917 it shaped the popular image of the monarchy as an alien force of darkness and corruption, an image which ruled out the possibility of a restoration and thus largely undermined the counter-revolution in the years to come.

So, politically, the monarchy was dead. All its main institutions of support — the bureaucracy, the police, the army and the Church — collapsed virtually overnight. It was a sign of how far they had been weakened, and of how far they had become alienated from the Tsar, during the years before 1917. The Tsar was the lynchpin of the monarchy — he was at the same time, as it were, an officer, a priest, a district governor and a policeman — and once he had been removed the whole system came crashing down. The army commanders soon declared their allegiance to the Provisional Government. Many of them had been linked with its leaders through the opposition movement of the war; while those who were opposed to the revolution knew that it would break the army to resist it. The Church was undermined by its own internal revolution.


In the countryside there was a strong anti-clerical movement: village communities took away the church lands, removed priests from the parishes and refused to pay for religious services. Many of the local priests managed to escape this fate by throwing in their lot with the revolution. But the rest of the Church hierarchy was thrown on to the defensive. The Holy Synod, purged of its Rasputinites, appealed to the priesthood to support the new government. Religious freedoms were introduced. Church schools were transferred to the control of the state. And preparations were made for the separation of Church and state. The provincial apparatus collapsed in most places like a house of cards, and it was only very rarely that armed force was needed to remove it. The people simply took to the streets; the governors, without any military means to suppress the disorders, were forced to resign; and ad hoc committees of citzens declared themselves in power. In Moscow the regime fell as a result of no more than two days of street demonstrations. 'There was no shooting in the streets and no barricades,' recalled a jubilant businessman. 'The old regime in Moscow fell by itself, and no one defended it or even tried to.' The police state similarly collapsed — the police being replaced by citizens' militias almost overnight. Even the Okhrana was dissolved, although it was later rumoured that many of its agents had found employment in the new government.65

No one really tried to revive the monarchy. It is telling, for example, that none of the White leaders in the civil war embraced monarchism as a cause, despite the efforts of the many monarchists in their ranks. The White leaders all realized that politically it would be suicide for them to do so. For as Trotsky put it with his usual bluntness, 'the country had so radically vomited up the monarchy that it could not ever crawl down the peoples throat again'.66 His prognosis is probably still true, the post-Soviet romance with the tsarist past notwithstanding.*

But if the monarchy was dead politically, it was still alive in a broader sense. The mass of the peasants thought of politics in monarchical terms. They conceived of the state as embodied in the monarch, and projected their ideals of the revolution on to a 'peasant king', or some other authoritarian liberator come to deliver their cherished land and freedom. Here were the roots of the cults of Kerensky, Kormlov and Lenin, all of which were attempts to fill the missing space of the deposed Tsar, or perhaps rather the vacuum left by the myth of the Tsar Deliverer. George Buchanan, the British Ambassador, noted this monarchical mentality during the first days of the revolution, when one soldier said to him: 'Yes, we need a republic, but at its head there should be a good Tsar.' Frank Golder similarly noted such misunderstandings in his diary on 7 March: 'Stories are being told of soldiers who say they wish a republic like England, or a republic with a Tsar. One soldier said he wanted to elect a President and when asked, "Whom would you elect?" he replied, "The Tsar." ' Soldiers' letters voiced the same contusion. 'We want a democratic republic and a Tsar-Batiushka for three years'; 'It would be good if we had a republic with a sensible Tsar.' It seems that the peasants found it difficult to distinguish between the person of the monarch (gosudar') and the abstract institutions of the state (gosudarstvo). Their conception of the democratic order was similarly couched in personalized terms. Sometime during March a Menshevik deputy of the Moscow Soviet went to agitate at a regimental meeting near Vladimir. He spoke of the need for peace, of the need for all the land to be given to the peasants, and of the advantages of a republic over monarchy. The soldiers cheered loudly in agreement, and one of them called out, 'We want to elect you as Tsar', whereupon the other soldiers burst into applause. 'I refused the Romanov crown', recalled the Menshevik, 'and went away with a heavy feeling of how easy it would be for any adventurer or demagogue to become the master of this simple and naive people.'67

* According to an opinion poll in 1995, only 7 per cent of the Russian people favoured the return of the monarchy.


* * * 'A miracle has happened', Blok wrote to his mother on 23 March, 'and we may expect more miracles.' People shared a wild excitement and euphoria during the first days of the revolution. It was partly the sense of absolute freedom — 'the extraordinary feeling', as Blok put it in his letter, 'that nothing is forbidden', that 'almost anything might happen'. It was also the fact that everything had happened so quickly: a mighty dynasty, three centuries old, had collapsed within a few days. 'The most striking thing', Blok wrote in his diary on 25 May, 'was the utter unexpectedness of it, like a train crash in the night, like a bridge crumbling beneath your feet, like a house falling down.' There was a strange sense of unreality. People compared the whole experience to living through a dream or a fairy tale'. Things happened too fast for daily life to stop and for people to take it all in. 'What was really strange', wrote the artist Yulia Obolenskaya to a friend, 'was getting your parcel with the dried fruit and coffee on the first day of the revolution, while the street outside was wild with joy and gun carriages with red flags were rolling by. . . Outside there was a hurricane . . . Then suddenly — a ring and a parcel containing blackcurrents!'68

This was the 'honeymoon' of the revolution. People fell in love with 'February'. Almost instantly, the history of the revolution was reinvented to suit these democratic ideals and mythic expectations. The 'Glorious February Revolution', as it became known, was said to have been a bloodless affair. 'Just imagine,' one contemporary wrote, 'there was a great revolution in Russia and not a single drop of blood was spilled.' It was also said to be a single national act without opposition. 'Our revolution', one Duma agitator informed the sailors of Helsingfors, 'is the only one in the history of the world to express the spirit of the entire people.' The revolution was portrayed as a spiritual renewal, a moral resurrection of the people. Merezhkovsky called it 'perhaps the most Christian act in the history of the world.' The revolution was itself transformed into a sort of cult. Huge crowds would assemble in the streets to hold prayers and ceremonies in celebration of Glorious February. The burial of the revolution's martyred victims on the second Sunday of the new order (12 March) equally bore the character, although not the rituals, of a religious mass. Many people compared the revolution to an Easter holiday. People in the streets would congratulate each other on the revolution with the Easter blessing: 'Christ has arisen!' (sometimes this was changed to 'Russia has arisen!'). Tsarism was said to have stood for evil and sin (one priest even called it 'the Devil's institution'); it had split the people into rich and poor; but with its downfall, society would be reorganized on the basis of more Christian attitudes. Some idealists even thought that lying and stealing, gambling and swearing, would at once disappear. 'Drunkenness in Russia', declared a peasant congress in Tomsk province, 'was a source of national shame under the old regime. But now in Free and Democratic Russia there can be no place for drunkenness. And therefore the congress looks upon the manufacture of all alcohol as a betrayal of the revolution, and as a betrayal of the Russian democratic republic' One woman even wrote to the Soviet that the 'Christian mission' of the Russian Revolution should be to abolish all the country's jails, since there was no criminal who could not be reformed. There were many intellectuals who now claimed that the Russian people would learn to live together in a new sobornost' — a universal spiritual community — overriding class or party differences. In the words of Tatyana Gippius: 'The atmosphere has been purified . . . Thank God that sobornost' triumphs over partiinost'.'69

It was in this same Christian-populist sense that the revolution was also portrayed as a process of national and patriotic reawakening. People echoed Herzen's view that Tsarism was 'alien' to the simple people. It was the 'Gottorp-Holstein dynasty'. Germans had dominated at the court. The Empress ('the German woman') had betrayed Russia. But the people had arisen, and from this truly national revolution Russia had received a truly national government, behind which it could unite for the defeat of the external enemy. This was to be a 'patriotic revolution'. Or, as someone put it: 'Now we have beaten the Germans here, we will beat them in the field.'70

Many of these ideals were expressed by Prince Lvov in his first interview with the free press. 'I believe', he said, 'in the vitality and the wisdom of our great people, as expressed in the national uprising that overthrew the old regime. It is expressed in the universal effort to establish freedom and to defend it against both internal and external foes. I believe in the great heart of the Russian people, filled as it is with love for their neighbours, and am convinced that it is the foundation of our freedom, justice, and truth.'71 Such high expectations were soon to be dashed.

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