Part One

RUSSIA UNDER THE OLD REGIME


I The Dynasty

1 The Tsar and His People

On a wet and windy morning in February 1913 St Petersburg celebrated three hundred years of Romanov rule over Russia. People had been talking about the great event for weeks, and everyone agreed that nothing quite so splendid would ever be seen again in their lifetimes. The majestic power of the dynasty would be displayed, as never before, in an extravaganza of pageantry. As the jubilee approached, dignitaries from far-flung parts of the Russian Empire filled the capital's grand hotels: princes from Poland and the Baltic lands; high priests from Georgia and Armenia; mullahs and tribal chiefs from Central Asia; the Emir of Bukhara and the Khan of Khiva. The city bustled with sightseers from the provinces, and the usual well-dressed promenaders around the Winter Palace now found themselves outnumbered by the unwashed masses — peasants and workers in their tunics and caps, rag-bundled women with kerchiefs on their heads. Nevsky Prospekt experienced the worst traffic jams in its history as trams and horse-drawn carriages, cars and sleighs, converged on it. The main streets were decked out in the imperial colours of white, blue and red; statues were dressed in garlands and ribbons; and portraits of the tsars, stretching back to Mikhail, the founder of the dynasty, hung on the facades of banks and stores. Above the tram-lines were strung chains of coloured lights, which lit up at night with the words 'God Save the Tsar' or a Romanov double-headed eagle and the dates 1613—1913. Out-of-towners, many of whom had never seen electric light, stared up and scratched their heads in wonderment. There were columns, arcs and obelisks of light. In front of the Kazan Cathedral stood a white pavilion filled with incense, bromeliads and palms, shivering in the Russian winter air.

The rituals began with a solemn thanksgiving in the Kazan Cathedral led by the Patriarch of Antioch, who had come from Greece especially for the occasion, the three Russian Metropolitans and fifty priests from St Petersburg. The imperial family drove out from the Winter Palace in open carriages accompanied by two squadrons of His Majesty's Own Horseguards and Cossack riders in black caftans and red Caucasian caps. It was the first time the Tsar had ridden in public view since the 1905 Revolution, and the police were taking no chances. The route was lined by the Imperial Guards gorgeously turned out in their feathered shakos and scarlet uniforms. Military bands thumped out the national anthem and the soldiers boomed 'Oorah!'as the cavalcade passed by. Outside the cathedral religious processions from various parts of the city had been converging from early in the morning. The vast crowd, a forest of crosses, icons and banners, knelt down as one as the carriages approached. Inside the cathedral stood Russia's ruling class: grand dukes and princes, members of the court, senators, ministers, state councillors, Duma parliamentarians, senior Civil Servants, generals and admirals, provincial governors, city mayors, zemstvo leaders, and marshals of the nobility. Hardly a breast without a row of shining medals or a diamond star; hardly a pair of legs without a sword. Everything sparkled in the candlelight — the silver iconostasis, the priests' bejewelled mitres, and the crystal cross. In the middle of the ceremony two doves flew down from the darkness of the dome and hovered for several moments over the heads of the Tsar and his son. Carried away by religious exaltation, Nicholas interpreted it as a symbol of God's blessing on the House of Romanov.

Meanwhile, in the workers' districts factories were closed for a public holiday. The poor queued outside municipal canteens, where free meals were served to mark the anniversary. Pawnshops were beset by crowds after rumours spread of a special dispensation allowing people to redeem their valuables without interest payments; when these rumours turned out to be false, the crowds became angry and several pawnshops had their windows smashed. Women gathered outside the city's jails in the hope that their loved ones would be among the 2,000 prisoners released under the amnesty to celebrate the tercentenary.

During the afternoon huge crowds walked into the city centre for the long-awaited son et lumiére. Stalls along the way sold mugs of beer and pies, Romanov flags and souvenirs. There were fairs and concerts in the parks. As darkness fell, the Nevsky Prospekt became one solid mass of people. Every face turned upwards as the sky was lit up in a blaze of colour by fireworks and lights that criss-crossed the city, sweeping over roofs to land for a moment on significant monuments. The golden spire of the Admiralty burned like a torch against the black sky, and the Winter Palace was brilliantly illuminated with three huge portraits of Nicholas II, Peter the Great and Mikhail Romanov.

The imperial family remained in the capital for another week of ritual self-congratulation. There were pompous receptions at the Winter Palace where long lines of genuflecting dignitaries filed through the state rooms to present themselves to Nicholas and Alexandra in the concert hall. There was a sumptuous ball in the Noblemen's Assembly attended by the imperial couple and their eldest daughter, Olga, in one of her first social engagements. She danced the polonaise with Prince Saltykov, who caused a stir by forgetting to take off his hat. At the Marinsky Theatre there was a gala performance of Glinka's patriotic opera, A Life for the Tsar, which retold the legend of the peasant Susanin, who had saved the life of the first Romanov Tsar. The tiers of boxes 'blazed with jewels and tiaras', according to Meriel Buchanan, the British Ambassador's daughter, and the stalls were filled with the scarlet uniforms of the court officials, who swayed in unison like a field of poppies' as they rose to greet the arrival of the Tsar. Mathilde Kshesinskaya, Nicholas's former mistress, came out of retirement to dance the mazurkas in the second act. But the sensation of the evening was the silent appearance of the tenor, Leonid Sobinov, standing in for Shaliapin, who walked across the stage at the head of a religious procession dressed as Mikhail Romanov. It was the first (and the last) occasion in the history of the imperial theatre when the figure of a Romanov Tsar was represented on the stage.1

Three months later, during an usually hot May, the imperial family went on a Romanov pilgrimage around the towns of ancient Muscovy associated with the foundation of the dynasty. They followed the route taken by Mikhail Romanov, the first Romanov Tsar, from his home at Kostroma on the Volga to Moscow after his election to the Russian throne in 1613. The imperial touring party arrived at Kostroma in a flotilla of steamboats. The river bank was packed with townspeople and peasants, the men all dressed in tunics and caps, the women in the traditional light blue and white headscarfs of Kostroma. Hundreds of sightseers had waded waist deep into the river to get closer to the royal visitors. Nicholas visited the Ipatiev monastery, where Mikhail had taken refuge from the Polish invaders and from the civil wars that had raged through Muscovy on the eve of his assumption of the throne. He received a peasant delegation from the lands that had belonged to the monastery and posed for a photograph with the descendants of the boyars who had travelled from Moscow in 1613 to offer the crown to the Romanovs.

From Kostroma the touring party went on to Vladimir, Nizhnyi Novgorod and Yaroslavl'. They travelled in the beautifully furnished imperial train, complete with mahogany-panelled rooms, soft velvet armchairs, writing desk and grand piano. The bathroom even had a special device to prevent His Imperial Majesty's bathwater from spilling when the train was moving. There was no railway between Vladimir and the small monastery town of Suzdal, so the entourage had to make the journey along dusty country roads in a fleet of thirty open-top Renaults. In the villages old peasant men and women bent down on their knees as the cars sped past. In front of their modest wooden huts, barely noticed by the travellers, they had set up little tables laid with flowers, bread and salt, the traditional Russian offerings to strangers.

The royal pilgrimage climaxed with a triumphant entry into Moscow, the old Russian capital, where the first Romanov Tsar had been crowned, followed by another round of pageantry and gastronomy. The ball in the Assembly of the Moscow Nobility was particularly lavish, far beyond the wildest dreams of Hollywood. A lift was installed specially so the royal waltzers need not tire themselves by climbing to the ballroom on the second floor. The imperial touring party arrived in Moscow by train and was greeted by a vast delegation of dignitaries at the Alexandrovsky Station. The Tsar rode alone on a white horse, sixty feet ahead of his Cossack escort and the rest of the imperial cavalcade, through huge cheering crowds to the Kremlin. The decorations along Tverskaya Street, bathed in brilliant sunshine, were even more magnificent than in St Petersburg. Maroon velvet banners with Romanov emblems spanned the boulevard. Buildings were draped in colourful flags and pennants, and covered in lights which lit up at night to reveal even more inventive emblems than those on the Nevsky Prospekt. Garlanded statues of the Tsar stood in shop windows and on the balconies of private apartments. People showered the procession with confetti. The Tsar dismounted in Red Square, where religious processions from all parts of the city had converged to meet him, and walked through lines of chanting priests into the Uspensky Cathedral for prayers. The Empress and the Tsarevich Alexis were also to walk the last few hundred yards. But Alexis was struck down once again by his haemophilia and had to be carried by a Cossack bodyguard. As the procession paused, Count Kokovtsov, the Prime Minister, heard from the crowd 'exclamations of sorrow at the sight of this poor helpless child, the heir to the throne of the Romanovs'.2

* * * The Romanov dynasty presented to the world a brilliant image of monarchical power and opulence during its tercentenary. This was no simple propaganda exercise. The rituals of homage to the dynasty and the glorification of its history were, to be sure, meant to inspire reverence and popular support for the principle of autocracy. But their aim was also to reinvent the past, to recount the epic of the 'popular Tsar', so as to invest the monarchy with a mythical historical legitimacy and an image of enduring permanence at this anxious time when its right to rule was being challenged by Russia's emerging democracy. The Romanovs were retreating to the past, hoping it would save them from the future.

The cult of seventeenth-century Muscovy was the key to this self-reinvention, and the leitmotiv of the jubilee. Three perceived principles of Muscovite tsardom appealed to the Romanovs in their final years. The first was the notion of patrimonialism whereby the Tsar was deemed literally to own the whole of Russia as his private fiefdom (yotchina) in the manner of a medieval lord. In the first national census of 1897 Nicholas described himself as a landowner'. Until the second half of the eighteenth century this idea had set Russia apart from the West, where an independent landowning class emerged as a counterbalance to the monarchy. The second principle from Muscovy was the idea of personal rule: as the embodiment of God on earth, the Tsar's will should be unrestrained by laws or bureaucracy and he should be left to rule the country according to his own consciousness of duty and right. This too had distinguished the Byzantine tradition of despotism from the Western absolutist state. Conservatives, such as Konstantin Pobedonostsev, tutor and leading ideologist to both Nicholas and Alexander, the last two Tsars, argued that this religious autocracy was uniquely suited to the Russian national spirit, that a god-like autocrat was needed to restrain the anarchic instincts of the Russian people.* Lastly, there was the idea of a mystical union between the Tsar and the Orthodox people, who loved and obeyed him as a father and a god. It was a fantasy of paternal rule, of a golden age of popular autocracy, free from the complications of a modern state.

The last two tsars had obvious motives for holding on so firmly to this archaic vision. Indeed, in so far as they believed that their power and prestige were being undermined by 'modernity' in all its forms — secular beliefs, Western constitutional ideologies and the new urban classes — it was only logical for them to seek to put the clock back to some distant golden age. It was in the eighteenth century and the reign of Peter the Great — 'Your Peter' as Nicholas called him speaking with officials — that the rot, in their view, had begun to set in. There were two opposing models of autocracy in Russia: the Petrine and the Muscovite. Emulating Western absolutism, the Petrine model sought to systematize the power of the crown through legal norms and bureaucratic institutions. This was deemed a limitation on the Tsar's powers in that even he would henceforth be obliged to obey his own laws. The Tsar who did not was a despot. The Petrine tradition also implied a shift in the focus of power from the divine person of the Tsar to the abstract concept of the autocratic state. Nicholas disliked this, above all. Like his father, Alexander III, he had been taught to uphold the principles of personal rule, keeping power at the court, and to distrust the bureaucracy as a sort of 'wall' that broke the natural bond between the Tsar and his people. This distrust may be explained by the fact that during the nineteenth century the imperial bureaucracy had begun to emerge as a force for modernization and reform. It became increasingly independent of the court and closer to public opinion, which, in the view of conservatives, was bound to lead to revolutionary demands for a constitution. Alexander ITs assassination in 1881 (after two decades of cautious reform) seemed to confirm their view that the time had come to stop the rot. Alexander III (who once claimed that he 'despised the bureaucracy and drank champagne to its obliteration')3 instituted a return to personal forms of autocratic rule, both in central and local government. And where the father led the son was bound to follow.

* Bertrand Russell used a similar idea when, in an attempt to explain the Russian Revolution to Lady Ottoline Morrell, he remarked that, terrible though Bolshevik despotism was, it seemed the right sort of government for Russia: 'If you ask yourself how Dostoevsky's characters should be governed, you will understand.'


Nicholas's model of the autocracy was almost entirely Muscovite. His favourite Tsar was Alexei Mikhailovich (1645—76), after whom he named his son the Tsarevich. He emulated his tranquil piety, which it was said had given him the conviction to rule Russia through his own religious conscience. Nicholas often liked to justify his policies on the grounds that the idea had 'come to him' from God. According to Count Witte, one of his most enlightened ministers, Nicholas believed that 'people do not influence events, that God directs everything, and that the Tsar, as God's anointed, should not take advice from anyone but follow only his divine inspiration. Such was Nicholas's admiration for the semi-Asiatic customs of the Middle Ages that he tried to introduce them at his court. He ordered the retention of the old Slavonic forms of spelling in official documents and publications long after they had been phased out in literary Russian. He talked of Rus', the old Muscovite term for the core lands of Russia, instead of Rossiia, a term for the Empire which had been adopted since Peter the Great. He disliked the title Gosudar Imperator (Sovereign Emperor), also introduced by Peter, since it implied that the autocrat was no more than the first servant of the abstract state (the gosudarstvo), and much preferred the older title Tsar (derived from the Greek term kaisar), which went back to the Byzantine era and carried religious connotations of paternal rule. He even toyed with the idea of making all his courtiers wear long caftans, like those of the ancient Muscovite boyars (it was only the cost that discouraged him). The Minister of the Interior, D. S. Sipiagin, who had given him the idea, had his own offices decorated in the Muscovite style. On one occasion he received the Tsar, who came dressed as Alexei, with all the rituals of the seventeenth-century court, complete with a traditional Russian feast and a gypsy orchestra. Nicholas encouraged the Russian courtly fashion — which had begun in his father's reign — for seventeenth-century costume balls. In 1903 he himself gave one of the most lavish. The guests appeared in replicas of court dress from Alexei's reign and danced medieval Russian dances. Photographs of all the guests, each identified by their respective court ranks from the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, were published in two richly produced albums. Nicholas appeared in a replica of the processional robe worn by Alexei, and Alexandra in the gown and headdress worn by his Tsarina Natalia.4

Nicholas made no secret of the fact that he much preferred Moscow to St Petersburg. The old 'holy city', with its thousand onion domes, stood for the Eastern and Byzantine traditions which lay at the heart of his Muscovite world-view. Untouched by the West, Moscow retained the 'national style' so favoured by the last two Tsars. Both considered Petersburg, with its classical architectural style, its Western shops and bourgeoisie, alien to Russia. They tried to Muscovitize it by building churches in the Byzantine style — a fashion started under Nicholas I — and adding archaic architectural features to its cityscape. Alexander III, for example, commissioned a Temple of Christ's Resurrection, which was built in the old Moscow style, to consecrate the site on the Catherine Canal where his father had been assassinated in 1881. With its onion domes, colourful mosaics and ornate decorations, it presented a bizarre contrast with the other great cathedrals of the city, the Kazan Cathedral and St Isaac s, which were both built in the classical style. Nicholas refashioned buildings in the neo-Byzantine manner. The School Council of the Holy Synod was remodelled as the Alexander Nevsky Temple-Monument by embellishing its classical facade with Muscovite motifs and adding to its flat roof five onion domes and a triangular steeple. More buildings were built in the old Russian style to mark the Romanov jubilee. The Tercentenary Cathedral, near the Moscow Station, for example, was built in explicit imitation of the seventeenth-century Rostov church style. The Fedorov Village, built by Nicholas at Tsarskoe Selo, just outside the capital, elaborately recreated a seventeenth-century Kremlin and Cathedral.5 It was a sort of Muscovite theme park.

Nicholas and his father Alexander visited Moscow often and used it increasingly for ritualistic displays of homage to the dynasty. The coronation of the Tsar, which traditionally took place in Moscow, became an important symbolic event — much more so than it had been in the past. Nicholas made a habit of visiting Moscow at Easter — something no Tsar had done for more than fifty years. He convinced himself that only in Moscow and the provinces would he find his spiritual communion with the ordinary Russian people. 'United in prayer with my people', he wrote to Moscow's Governor-General in 1900, shortly after his first Easter visit to the old capital, 'I draw new strength for serving Russia, for her well-being and glory'.6 After 1906, when St Petersburg became the seat of the Duma, Nicholas looked even more towards Moscow and the provinces as a base on which to build his 'popular autocracy' as a rival to the parliament. With the support of the simple Russian people — represented increasingly by Grigorii Rasputin — he would reassert the power of the throne, which for too long had been forced to retreat before the bureaucracy and society.

The tercentenary jubilee marked the culmination of this Muscovite heritage industry. It was a dynastic celebration, centred on the symbols of the Tsar, with those of the state pushed firmly into the background. The squabble between Rasputin, the scandalous peasant 'holy man' whose influence had come to dominate the court, and Mikhail Rodzianko, President of the Duma, during the service in the Kazan Cathedral was symbolic in this respect. Rodzianko had taken offence because the members of the Duma were to be seated at the back, far behind the places reserved for the state councillors and senators. This, he complained to the master of ceremonies, was 'not in accordance with the dignity' of the parliament. 'If the jubilee was intended to be a truly national rejoicing, it should not be overlooked that in 1613 it was an assembly of the people and not a group of officials that elected Mikhail Romanov Tsar of Russia.' Rodzi-anko's point was taken and the Duma places were duly exchanged for those of the senators. But when he arrived to take his own place he found it occupied by a dark bearded man in peasant dress, whom he immediately recognized as Rasputin. The two men confronted each other in a heated exchange, the one insisting on the sanctity of his position as President of the country's elected parliament, the other claiming the support of the Tsar himself, until a sergeant-at-arms was called to restore the peace. With a heavy groan, Rasputin slunk away towards the exit, where he was helped on with his sable coat and shown to a waiting carriage.7

The Prime Minister was equally outraged by the court's contemptuous attitude towards the government during the jubilee rituals. Ministers were expected to provide their own transport and accommodation whilst they accompanied the royal party on its tour of the provinces. 'The current attitude', recalled Count Kokovtsov:

seemed to suggest that the government was a barrier between the people and their Tsar, whom they regarded with blind devotion because he was anointed by God . . . The Tsar's closest friends at court became persuaded that the Sovereign could do anything by relying upon the unbounded love and utter loyalty of the people. The ministers of the government, on the other hand, did not hold to this sort of autocracy; nor did the Duma, which steadily sought control of the executive power. Both were of the opinion that the Sovereign should recognize that conditions had changed since the day the Romanovs became Tsars of Moscow and lords of the Russian domain.

The Prime Minister tried in vain to tell the Tsar that he could not save his throne by trying to adopt 'the halo of the "Muscovite Tsar" ruling Russia as his own patrimony'.8

The communion between the Tsar and his people was the central theme of the jubilee. The cult of the peasant Ivan Susanin was supposed to reinforce the message that the simple people loved the Tsar. Susanin had lived on the Romanov estate in Kostroma. Legend had it that, at the cost of his own life, he saved Mikhail Romanov's by misleading the Poles who had come to kill him on the eve of his assumption of the throne. From the nineteenth century he was officially promoted as a national hero and celebrated in patriotic poems and operas such as Glinka's A Life for the Tsar. During the tercentenary celebrations A Life was performed throughout the country by amateur companies, schools and regiments. The penny press and popular pamphlets retold the Susanin myth ad nauseam. It was said to symbolize the people's devotion and their duty to the Tsar. One army newspaper told its readers that Susanin had shown every soldier how to fulfil his oath to the Tsar. The image of the seventeenth-century peasant hero was reproduced everywhere during the jubilee, most notably at the base of the Romanov Monument in Kostroma, where a female figure representing Russia blessed a kneeling Susanin. During his tour of Kostroma Nicholas was even presented with a delegation of Potemkin-peasants purporting to be descendants of Susanin.9

According to the jubilee propaganda, the election of the Romanovs in 1613 was a crucial moment of national awakening, the first real act of the Russian nation state. The 'entire land' was said to have participated in the election, thus providing a popular mandate for the dynasty, although it had been widely accepted by historians in the nineteenth century that the election owed more to the machinations of a few powerful boyars than to the ordinary people. Through their election, it was claimed, the Romanovs had come to personify the will of the nation. 'The spirit of Russia is incarnate in her Tsar,' wrote one propagandist. 'The Tsar stands to the people as their highest conception of the destiny and ideals of the nation.' Russia, in short, was the Romanovs. 'In every soul there is something Romanov,' declared the newspaper Novoe vremia. 'Something from the soul and spirit of the House that has reigned for 300 years.'10

Nicholas Romanov, Russia incarnate: that was the cult promoted by the jubilee. It sought to build on the Tsar's religious status in the popular consciousness. Russia had a long tradition of saintly princes — rulers who were canonized for laying down their lives pro patria et flies — stretching back to the tenth century. In the mind of the ordinary peasant the Tsar was not just a kingly ruler but a god on earth. He thought of him as a father-figure (the Tsar Batiushka, or Father-Tsar, of folk tales) who knew all the peasants personally by name, understood their problems in all their minute details, and, if it were not for the evil boyars, the noble officials, who surrounded him, would satisfy their demands in a Golden Manifesto giving them the land. Hence the peasant tradition of sending direct appeals to the Tsar — a tradition that (like the monarchic psyche it reflected in the common people) continued well into the Soviet era when similar petitions were sent to Lenin and Stalin. This 'naive' peasant myth of the Good Tsar could sometimes be used to legitimize peasant rebellions, especially when a long-awaited government reform failed to satisfy the people's expectations. Pugachev, the Cossack rebel leader of the 1770s, proclaimed himself Tsar Peter III; while the peasant rebels after 1861 also rose up in the name of the True Tsar when the serf emancipation of that year failed to satisfy the grievances of the peasantry. But in general the myth of the Good Tsar worked to the benefit of the crown, and as the revolutionary crisis deepened Nicholas's propagandists relied increasingly upon it.

The propaganda of the tercentenary was the final flourish of this legend. It depicted Nicholas as a godfather to his subjects, intimately acquainted with each of them and caring for their every need. He was praised for his modest lifestyle and his simple tastes, his accessibility to the common people, his kindness and his wisdom. A popular biography of Nicholas was commissioned especially for the jubilee, the first ever published of a living Tsar. It portrayed him as the 'father of his people, over whose needs he keeps an earnest and compassionate watch'. He was said to devote 'special care and attention to the welfare and moral development' of the peasants, whose huts he frequently entered 'to see how they live and to partake of their milk and black bread'. At official functions he 'talked genially' with the peasants, who then 'crossed themselves and felt happier for the rest of their lives'. He shared the people's simple habits and pursuits, wore a peasant blouse and ate humble peasant dishes such as borscht and blinies. During the jubilee the Tsar was photographed in symbolic acts of homage to the people, such as inspecting a new type of plough or tasting the rations of his soldiers. Such images were calculated to reinforce the popular myth that nothing, however trivial, in the people's daily lives escaped the attention of the Tsar and that his influence was everywhere. 'Thousands of invisible threads centre in the Tsar's heart,' wrote the royal biographer; 'and these threads stretch to the huts of the poor and the palaces of the rich. And that is the reason why the Russian people always acclaims its Tsar with such fervent enthusiasm, whether in St Petersburg in the Marinsky Theatre ... or on his way through the towns and villages.'11

* * * 'Now you can see for yourself what cowards those state ministers are,' the Empress Alexandra told a lady-in-waiting shortly after the jubilee. 'They are constantly frightening the Emperor with threats of revolution and here — you see it for yourself — we need merely to show ourselves and at once their hearts are ours.' If the rituals of the jubilee were intended to create the illusion of a mighty and stable dynasty, then they had convinced few people except the court itself. The Romanovs became victims of their own propaganda. Nicholas, in particular, returned from his tour of the provinces confirmed in the self-delusion that 'My people love me.' It aroused a fresh desire to travel in the Russian interior. He talked of a boat trip down the Volga, a visit to the Caucasus and Siberia. Emboldened by the belief in his own popularity, he began to look for ways of moving one step closer towards the system of personal rule which he so admired in ancient Muscovy. Encouraged by his more reactionary ministers, he even considered dissolving the Duma altogether or turning it into a purely consultative body such as the Land Assembly (Zemskii Sobor) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Foreign observers friendly to the monarchy were just as easily swept along by the rosy rhetoric. 'No hope seems too confident or too bright,' the London Times pronounced on the Romanovs' future in a special edition on the jubilee. Convinced of the people's devotion to the Tsar, it reported that a series of postage stamps with portraits of the Romanov rulers had been issued to mark the tercentenary but had been withdrawn when some royalist post-office clerks refused to impress the obliterating postmark on these hallowed visages. 'These loyal and eminently respectable scruples', concluded The Times, 'are typical of the mind of the vast masses of the Russian people.' Such sentiments were echoed by the British Foreign Office. 'Nothing could exceed the affection and devotion to the person of the Emperor displayed by the population wherever His Majesty appeared. There is no doubt that in this strong attachment of the masses ... to the person of the Emperor lies the great strength of the Russian autocracy.'12

In fact, the jubilee took place in the midst of a profound social and political crisis — some would even say a revolutionary one. Its celebrations were set against a backdrop of several decades of growing violence, human suffering and repression, which had set the Tsar's people against his regime. None of the wounds of the 1905 Revolution had yet healed; and some of them had festered and become worse. The great peasant problem remained unresolved, despite belated efforts at land reform; and in fact, if anything, the landed gentry had become even more opposed to the idea of concessions to the peasants since the 1905 Revolution, when crowds had attacked their estates. There had also been a resurgence of industrial strikes, much more militant than their predecessors in the early 1900s, with the Bolsheviks steadily gaining ground at the expense of their more moderate rivals, the Mensheviks, among the labour organizations. And as for the aspirations of the liberals, which had seemed so near in 1905, they were now becoming a more distant prospect as the court and its supporters blocked all the Duma's liberal reforms and (with the Beiliss trial of 1913, which even after the Dreyfus Affair shocked the whole of Europe with its medieval persecution of an innocent Jew on trumped-up charges of the ritual murder of a Christian boy) trampled on their fragile ideal of civil rights. There was, in short, a widening gulf of mistrust not just between the court and society — a gulf epitomized by the Rasputin scandal — but also between the court and many of its own traditional supporters in the Civil Service, the Church and the army, as the Tsar resisted their own demands for reform. Just as the Romanovs were honouring themselves and flattering themselves with the fantastic belief that they might rule for another three centuries, outside their own narrow court circles there was a growing sense of impending crisis and catastrophe. This sense of despair was best voiced by the poets of this so-called 'Silver Age' of Russian literature — Blok and Belyi above all — who depicted Russia as living on a volcano. In the words of Blok:

And over Russia I see a quiet Far-spreading fire consume all.

How are we to explain the dynasty's collapse? Collapse is certainly the right word to use. For the Romanov regime fell under the weight of its own internal contradictions. It was not overthrown. As in all modern revolutions, the first cracks appeared at the top. The revolution did not start with the labour movement — so long the preoccupation of left-wing historians in the West. Nor did it start with the breakaway of the nationalist movements on the periphery: as with the collapse of the Soviet Empire that was built on the ruins of the Romanovs', nationalist revolt was a consequence of the crisis in the centre rather than its cause. A more convincing case could be made for saying that it was all started by the peasant revolution on the land, which in some places began as early as 1902, three years before the 1905 Revolution, and indeed that it was bound to be in so far as Russia was overwhelmingly a peasant society. But while the peasant problem, like that of the workers and nationalities, introduced fundamental structural weaknesses into the social system of the old regime, it did not determine its politics; and it was with politics that the problem lay. There is no reason to suppose that the tsarist regime was doomed to collapse in the way that Marxist determinists once claimed from their narrow focus on its 'social contradictions'. It could have been saved by reform. But there is the rub. For Russia's last two tsars lacked the will for real reform. True, in 1905, when the Tsar was nearly toppled from his throne, he was forced reluctantly to concede reforms; but once that threat had passed he realigned himself with the supporters of reaction. This is the fatal weakness in the argument of those historians on the Right who paint a rosy image of the Tsarist Empire on the eve of the First World War. They claim that the tsarist system was being reformed, or 'modernized', along Western liberal lines. But the last two tsars and their more reactionary supporters — in the gentry, the Church and Rightist political circles — were at best ambiguous towards the idea of 'modernization'. They knew, for example, that they needed a modern industrial economy in order to compete with the Western powers; yet at the same time they were deeply hostile to the political demands and social transformations of the urban industrial order. Instead of embracing reform they adhered obstinately to their own archaic vision of autocracy. It was their tragedy that just as Russia was entering the twentieth century they were trying to return it to the seventeenth.

Here, then, were the roots of the revolution, in the growing conflict between a society rapidly becoming more educated, more urban and more complex, and a fossilized autocracy that would not concede its political demands. That conflict first became acute (indeed revolutionary) following the famine of 1891, as the government floundered in the crisis and liberal society became politicized as it launched its own relief campaign; and it is there that the narrative of Part Two commences. But before that we must look more closely at the main protagonists of the conflict, starting with the Tsar.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!