2 The Miniaturist

Four years before the tercentenary the brilliant sculptor, Prince P. N. Trubetskoi, had completed an equestrian statue of the former Tsar Alexander III which stood in Znamenskaya Square opposite the Nikolaevsky Station in St Petersburg. It was such an ingenious and formidable representation of autocracy in human form that after the revolution the Bolsheviks decided to leave it in place as a fearful reminder of the old regime; and there it remained until the 1930s.* The huge bronze figure of Alexander sat rigidly astride a ponderous horse of massive architectural proportions, its four thick legs fixed like pillars to the ground. The rider and horse had been made to appear so heavy and solid that it seemed impossible for them to move. Many people took this to be a symbol of the autocracy's own inertia, and there was a perhaps not-altogether unintentional element of irony in this. Workers were quick to recognize the statue's funny side. They christened it the 'Hippopotamus' and recited the witty lines:

Here stands a chest of drawers,

On the chest a hippopotamus

And on the hippopotamus sits an idiot.

Even the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, President of the Academy of Arts and the late Tsar's brother, denounced the statue as a caricature. It was certainly a cruel twist of fate that Trubetskoi had chosen to build the statue in equestrian form, since Alexander III had always been afraid of horses. His difficulties with them had grown in his final years as he put on weight. It became almost impossible to find a horse that he could be persuaded to mount.13

Nicholas was oblivious to such ironies. For him, the Trubetskoi statue symbolized the power and solidity of the autocracy during his father's reign. He ordered an even larger statue of Alexander to be built for Moscow, his favoured capital, in time for the tercentenary. It took two years to construct the awesome monument, which Nicholas himself unveiled amidst great ceremony during the jubilee celebrations. Unlike its Petersburg brother, which had combined a good representational likeness of the Tsar with a strong symbolic point, the new statue had no pretensions to artistic merit. The Tsar's giant figure was a mannequin without human expression, a monolithic incarnation of autocratic power. It sat straight-backed on its throne, hands on knees, encumbered with all the symbols of tsarist authority — the crown, the sceptre and orb, the imperial robe and full military dress — staring out towards the Kremlin, its back to the cathedral, in the manner of a pharaoh with nothing to think about except the source of his own illimitable power.14

* After more than fifty years in storage the statue was returned to the city's streets in 1994. Ironically, the horse now stands in front of the former Lenin Museum, where it has taken the place of the armoured car which, in April 1917, brought Lenin from the Finland Station.


Since Alexander's death, in 1894, Nicholas had developed an almost mystical reverence towards the memory of his father. He thought of him as the true autocrat. Alexander had ruled over Russia like a medieval lord over his private patrimony. He had centralized power in his hands and commanded his ministers like a general at war. He even looked like an autocrat should look — a giant of a man, six feet three inches tall, his stern face framed by an imposing black beard. This was a man who liked to amuse his drinking companions by crashing through locked doors and bending silver roubles in his 'vicelike imperial thumb'. Out of earshot in a private corner of his palace he played the trumpet with similar boisterousness. Legend has it that in 1888 he had even saved his family from certain death by supporting on his Herculean shoulders the collapsed steel roof of the dining carriage in the imperial train, which had been derailed by revolutionaries on its way to the Crimea. His only weakness, it seems, was his fatal addiction to liquor. When he fell ill with kidney disease the Empress forbade him to drink. But he got round this by having a special pair of boots made with hidden compartments large enough to carry a flask of cognac. General P. A. Cherevin, one of his favourite companions, recalled, 'When the Tsaritsa was beside us, we sat quietly and played like good children. But whenever she went off a little, we would exchange glances. And then — one, two, three! We'd pull out our flasks, take a swig and then it would be as if nothing had happened. He [Alexander] was greatly pleased with this amusement. It was like a game. We named it "Necessity is the mother of invention." "One, two, three. Necessity, Cherevin?" — "Invention, Your Majesty." "One, two and three" — and we'd swig.'15

Nicholas grew up in the shadow of this boozy colossus, acutely aware of his own inferiority. Being naturally shy and juvenile in appearance, his parents continued to treat him like a little child ('Nicky' was his family name) long after he had outgrown his teenage years. Nicholas retained many of his childish tastes and pursuits. The diaries he wrote in his early twenties are full of silly little notes about games and pranks. In 1894, at the age of twenty-six, for example, less than a month before his accession to the throne, he recorded an epic chestnut battle with Prince George of Greece in the royal park: 'We started in front of the house and ended up on the roof A few days later he wrote of another battle, this time with pine cones. Alexander, who knew nothing of physical or emotional complexes, considered his son a weakling and something of an imbecile. He called him 'girlie' and thought there was little point in preparing him for the tasks of government. When Count Witte, his Minister of Finance, suggested that the time had come to instruct the heir to the throne in the affairs of state, Alexander seemed surprised. 'Tell me,' he asked the Minister, 'have you ever spoken to his Imperial Highness, the Grand Duke Tsarevich?' Witte admitted that he had. 'Then don't tell me you never noticed that the Grand Duke is a dunce!'16

Through his education Nicholas had all the talents and charms of an English public schoolboy. He danced gracefully, rode beautifully, was a very good shot and excelled in several other sports. He spoke English like an Oxford professor, and French and German well. His manners were, almost needless to say, impeccable. His cousin and boyhood friend, the Grand Duke Alexander, supposed him to be 'the most polite man in Europe'. But of the practical knowledge required to govern a country the size of Russia — and a country, moreover, in a pre-revolutionary situation — Nicholas possessed almost nothing. His principal tutor, an English gentleman by the name of Mr Heath, painted well in water-colours, and was extremely fond of the outdoor life. But he lacked the advantage of a university education and knew nothing about Russia except for a few basic words of its language. From V O. Kliuchevsky, the distinguished historian, Nicholas learned something of the history of his country, but nothing of its contemporary problems. When Pobedonostsev tried to instruct him in the workings of the state, he became 'actively absorbed in picking his nose'. Politics bored Nicholas. He was always more at home in the company of officers and society women than ministers and politicians.17

Less than sanguine about his son's ability to learn the art of kingship from books, Alexander enrolled him in the officer corps of the Guards in the hope that the army would build up his character and teach him something of the world. Nicholas loved the military life. The comradely spirit of the officers' mess, more like a gentleman's club than a military barracks, would remain with him for the rest of his life as a fond memory of the days before he had been weighed down by the burdens of office. It was then that he had fallen in love with the ballerina Mathilde Kshesinskaia. His rank of Colonel in the Preobrazhensky Guards, awarded to him by his father, remained a source of immense pride. He refused to take a higher rank, even during the First World War when he assumed the position of Supreme Commander. This damaged his prestige in the army, where he became known as 'Colonel Romanov'.

In 1890 Alexander sent his son on a grand tour of Siberia, Japan, Indo-China, Egypt and Greece. The journey was intended to broaden the heir's political education. But the nature of his travelling suite (the usual complement of dim and hedonistic Guards officers) largely precluded this. During the tour Nicholas filled his diary with the same banal and trivial entries with which he usually filled his diary at home: terse notes on the weather, the distances covered each day, the times of landfall and departure, the company at meals, and so on. It seems that nothing in his travels had encouraged him to broaden his outlook and observations on life. The one lasting effect of the tour was unfortunate. At Otsu in Japan he narrowly escaped an attempt on his life by a deranged terrorist. The experience left him with an ingrained hatred of the Japanese (he called them 'monkeys', makakt), and it is often argued that this made him vulnerable to the influence of those at his court who promoted the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-5.

Had Alexander lived three score years and ten then the fate of the Russian Empire might have been very different. But as fortune would have it, he died from kidney disease in 1894 at the age of only forty-nine. As the crowd of relatives, physicians and courtiers gathered around the death-bed of the great autocrat, Nicholas burst into tears and exclaimed pathetically to his cousin, Alexander, 'What is going to happen to me and to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to the ministers.'18 Louis XVI, with whom Nicholas had much in common, made a strikingly similar remark when he first learned in 1775 that he was to be the King of France.

The reign of Russia's last Tsar began disastrously. A few days after the coronation, in May 1896, a celebratory fair was organized on the Khodynka Field, a military training ground just outside Moscow. By the early morning some half a million people had already assembled, expecting to receive from their new Tsar gifts of souvenir tankards and biscuits embossed with the date and the occasion. Vast quantities of free beer and sausage were to be distributed. As more people arrived, a rumour went round that there would not be enough gifts for everyone. The crowd surged forward. People tripped and stumbled into the military ditches, where they were suffocated and crushed to death. Within minutes, 1,400 people had been killed and 600 wounded. Yet the Tsar was persuaded to continue with the celebrations. In the evening, while the corpses were carted away, he even attended a ball given by the French Ambassador, the Marquis de Montebello. During the next few days the rest of the scheduled festivities — banquets, balls and concerts — went ahead as if nothing had happened. Public opinion was outraged. Nicholas tried to atone by appointing a former Minister of Justice to look into the causes of the catastrophe. But when the Minister found that the Grand Duke Sergius, Governor-General of Moscow and the husband of the Empress's sister, was to blame, the other Grand Dukes protested furiously. They said it would undermine the principles of autocracy to admit in public the fault of a member of the imperial family. The affair was closed. But it was seen as a bad omen for the new reign and deepened the growing divide between the court and society. Nicholas, who increasingly believed himself to be ill-fated, would later look back at this incident as the start of all his troubles.19

Throughout his reign Nicholas gave the impression of being unable to cope with the task of ruling a vast Empire in the grips of a deepening revolutionary crisis. True, only a genius could have coped with it. And Nicholas was certainly no genius.* Had circumstances and his own inclinations been different, he might have saved his dynasty by moving away from autocratic rule towards a constitutional regime during the first decade of his reign, while there was still hope of appeasing the liberals and isolating the revolutionary movement. Nicholas had many of the personal qualities required to be a good constitutional monarch. In England, where one needed only to be a 'good man' in order to be a good king, he would have made an admirable sovereign. He was certainly no dimmer than his look-alike cousin, George V, who was a model of the constitutional king. Nicholas was mild-mannered, had an excellent memory and a perfect sense of decorum, all of which made him potentially ideal for the largely ceremonial tasks of a constitutional monarch. But Nicholas had not been born to that role: he was the Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.+ Family tradition and pressure from the crown's traditional allies compelled him not only to reign, but to rule. It would not do for a Romanov to play the role of a ceremonial monarch, leaving the actual business of government to the bureaucracy. Nor would it do to retreat before the demands of the liberals. The Romanov way, in the face of political opposition, was to assert the 'divine authority' of the absolute monarch, to trust in the 'historic bond between the Tsar and the people', and to rule with force and resolution. In spite of her Anglo-German background, the Empress adopted with a vengeance all the medieval traditions of Byzantine despotism, and constantly urged her mild-mannered husband to be more like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. The veneration which Nicholas felt for his father, and his own growing ambition to rule in the manner of his Muscovite ancestors, made it inevitable that he would endeavour to play the part of a true autocrat. As he warned the liberal nobles of Tver shortly after his coronation, he saw it as his duty before God to 'maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was preserved by my unforgettable dead father'.20

* There used to be a nice Soviet joke that the Supreme Soviet had decided to award the Order of the Red Banner to Nicholas II posthumously 'for his services to the revolution'. The last Tsar's achievement, it was said, was to have brought about a revolutionary situation.

+ The full titles of Nicholas II were: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias; Tsar of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Kazan, Astrakhan, Poland, Siberia, the Tauric Chersonese and Georgia; Lord of Pskov; Grand Prince of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volhynia, Podolia and Finland; Prince of Estonia, Livonia, Courland and Semigalia, Samogatia, Belostok, Karelia, Tver, Yugria, Perm, Viatka, Bulgaria and other lands; Lord and Grand Prince of Nizhnyi Novgorod and Chernigov; Ruler of Riazan, Polotsk, Rostov, Yaroslavl', Belo-Ozero, Udoria, Obdoria, Kondia, Vitebsk, Mstislavl and all the Northern Lands; Lord and Sovereign of the Iverian, Kartalinian and Kabardinian lands and of the Armenian provinces; Hereditary Lord and Suzerain of the Circassian Princes and Highland Princes and others; Lord of Turkestan; Heir to the Throne of Norway; Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, Stormarn, the Dithmarschen and Oldenburg.


But Nicholas had been blessed with neither his father's strength of character nor his intelligence. That was Nicholas's tragedy. With his limitations, he could only play at the part of an autocrat, meddling in (and, in the process, disrupting) the work of government without bringing to it any leadership. He was far too mild-mannered and shy to command any real authority among his subordinates. Being only five feet seven inches tall and feminine in stature, he didn't even look the part of an autocrat. Domineering figures, like his mother, the Empress Maria Fedorovna, his uncles, the four Grand Dukes, and his ex-tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, towered over him during the early years of his reign. Later his wife would 'wear the trousers', as she once put it in a letter to him.

Yet it would be mistaken to assume, as so many historians have done, that Nicholas's failure stemmed from a fundamental 'weakness of will'. The generally accepted wisdom has been that Nicholas was a passive victim of history who became increasingly mystical and indifferent towards his own fate as he realized his growing powerlessness against the revolution. This interpretation owes much to the observations of his revolutionary enemies, who dominated the early literature on him. Viktor Chernov, the Social Revolutionary leader, for example, argued that Nicholas had met adversity with 'a kind of stubborn passivity, as if he wished to escape from life . . . He seemed not a man, but a poor copy of one.' Trotsky similarly portrayed the last Tsar as opposing 'only a dumb indifference' to the 'historic flood' that flowed ever closer to the gates of his palace. There is of course an element of truth in all this. Frustrated in his ambitions to rule as he thought a true autocrat should, Nicholas increasingly retreated into the private and equally damaged realm of his family. Yet this covert admission of political failure was not made for want of trying. Beneath his docile exterior Nicholas had a strong sense of his duty to uphold the principles of autocracy. As he grew in confidence during his reign he developed an intense desire to rule, like his Muscovite ancestors, on the basis of his own religious conscience. He stubbornly defended his autocratic prerogatives against the encroachments of his ambitious ministers and even his own wife, whose persistent demands (often in Rasputin's name) he did his best to ignore and resist. It was not a 'weakness of will' that was the undoing of the last Tsar but, on the contrary, a wilful determination to rule from the throne, despite the fact that he clearly lacked the necessary qualities to do so.21                     

A complete inability to handle and command his subordinates was one obvious deficiency. Throughout his life Nicholas was burdened by a quite unnatural sense of decorum. He hid his emotions and feelings behind a mask of passive reserve which gave the impression of indifference to those, like Chernov and Trotsky, who observed him from a distance. He tactfully agreed with everyone who spoke to him rather than suffer the embarrassment of having to contradict them. This gave rise to the witticism, which went round the salons of St Petersburg, that the most powerful man in Russia was the last man to have spoken to the Tsar. Nicholas was too polite to confront his ministers with complaints about their work, so he left it to others to inform them of their discharge. Count Witte recalled his own dismissal as President of the Council of Ministers: 'We [Nicholas and Witte] talked for two solid hours. He shook my hand. He embraced me. He wished me all the luck in the world. I returned home beside myself with happiness and found a written order for my dismissal lying on my desk.' Witte believed that the Tsar derived some curious satisfaction from tormenting his ministers in this way. 'Our Tsar', he wrote in his memoirs, 'is an Oriental, a hundred per cent Byzantine.' Such unpredictable behaviour gave rise to feelings of insecurity within the ruling circles. Damaging rumours began to circulate that the Tsar was involved in various court conspiracies, or, even worse, that he did not know his own mind and had become the unwitting tool of dark and hidden forces behind the scenes. The fact that Nicholas relied on a kitchen cabinet of reactionary advisers (including Pobedonostsev, Procurator-General of the Holy Synod, and the notorious newspaper editor, Prince Mesh-chersky, whose homosexual lovers were promoted to prominent positions at court) merely added fuel to this conspiracy theory — as of course in later years Rasputin did.

What Nicholas lacked in leadership he made up for by hard work. He was an industrious and conscientious monarch, especially during the first half of his reign, diligently sitting at his desk until he had finished his daily administrative duties. All this he did in the manner of a clerk — the 'Chief Clerk of the Empire' — devoting all his energies to the routine minutiae of his office without ever stopping to consider the broader policy issues. Whereas his father had been briefed on only the major questions of policy and had delegated most of his minor executive functions to his subordinates, Nicholas proved quite incapable of dealing with anything but the most trivial matters. He personally attended to such things as the budget for repairs at an agricultural training school, and the appointment of provincial midwives. It was evident that he found real comfort in these minor bureaucratic routines: they created the illusion of a smoothly functioning government and gave him a sense of purpose. Every day he carefully recorded in his diary the time and duration of his meetings with his ministers and his other official activities, along with terse notes on the weather, the time of his morning coffee, the company at tea, and so on. These routines became a sort of ritual: at the same time every day he performed the same functions, so much so that his officials often joked that one could set one's watch by him. To the petty-minded Nicholas, it seemed that the role of the true autocrat, ruling in person from the throne, was precisely to concern himself with every minor detail in the administration of his vast lands. He spent hours, for example, dealing with the petitions to the Chancellery: hundreds of these came in every month, many of them from peasants with rude names (e.g. serf nicknames such as 'Smelly' or 'Ugly' that had been formalized as their surnames) which they could not change without the Tsar's consent. Nicholas proved unable to rise above such petty tasks. He grew increasingly jealous of his ministers' bureaucratic functions, which he confused with the exercise of power, and resented having to delegate authority to them since he saw it as a usurpation of his own autocratic powers. So protective was he of his petty executive prerogatives that he even refused to appoint a private secretary, preferring instead to deal with his own correspondence. Even such simple instructions as the summoning of an official or the readying of a motor car were written out in a note and sealed in an envelope by the Tsar's own gentle hand. It never occurred to him that an autocrat might be more usefully employed in resolving the larger questions of state. His mind was that of a miniaturist, well attuned to the smallest details of administration yet entirely incapable of synthesizing them into general principles of government. As Pobedonostsev once said of him, 'He only understands the significance of some isolated fact, without connection with the rest, without appreciating the interrelation of all other pertinent facts, events, trends, occurrences. He sticks to his insignificant, petty point of view.'22

To defend his autocratic prerogatives Nicholas believed that he needed to keep his officials weak and divided. The more powerful a minister became, the more Nicholas grew jealous of his powers. Able prime ministers, such as Count Witte and Petr Stolypin, who alone could have saved the tsarist regime, were forced out in this fog of mistrust. Only grey mediocrities, such as the 'old man' Ivan Goremykin, survived long in the highest office. Goremykin's success was put down by the British commentator Bernard Pares to the fact that he was 'acceptable' to both the Tsar and the Tsarina 'for his attitude of a butler, taking instructions to the other servants'. Indeed, as befits a Tsar who ruled over Russia like a medieval lord, Nicholas regarded his ministers as the servants of his own private household rather than officials of the state. True, he no longer addressed them with the familiar tyi (the 'you' reserved for animals, serfs and children). But he did expect unthinking devotion from them and placed loyalty far above competence in his estimation of his ministers. Even Count Witte, who was anything but humble in his normal demeanour, found himself standing to attention in the presence of the Tsar, his thumbs in line with the seams of his trousers, as if he were some private steward.

Nicholas exploited the rivalries and divisions between his different ministries. He would balance the views of the one against the other in order to retain the upper hand. This made for little coherence in government, but in so far as it bolstered his position it did not appear to bother him. Apart from a short time in 1901, Nicholas consistently refused to co-ordinate the work of the different ministries by chairing meetings of the Council of Ministers: it seems he was afraid that powerful factions might be formed there which would force him to adopt policies of which he disapproved. He preferred to see his ministers on a one-to-one basis, which had the effect of keeping them divided but was a recipe for chaos and confusion. These audiences could be extremely frustrating for ministers, for while Nicholas invariably gave the impression that he agreed with a minister's proposals, he could never be trusted to support them against those of another minister. Sustained and general debates on policy were thus extremely rare. If a minister talked too long on politics, the Tsar would make clear that he was bored and change the conversation to the weather or some other more agreeable topic. Aware that the Tsar found their reports dull, ministers consciously shortened them. Some even scrapped them altogether and amused him instead with anecdotes and gossip.23

The result of all this was to deprive the government of effective leadership or co-ordination during the final years of the tsarist regime. Nicholas was the source of all the problems. If there was a vacuum of power at the centre of the ruling system, then he was the empty space. In a sense, Russia gained in him the worst of both worlds: a Tsar determined to rule from the throne yet quite incapable of exercising power. This was 'autocracy without an autocrat'. Perhaps nobody could have fulfilled the role which Nicholas had set himself: the work of government had become much too vast and complex for a single man; autocracy itself was out of date. But Nicholas was mistaken to try in the first place. Instead of delegating power he indulged in a fantasy of absolute power. So jealous was he of his own prerogatives that he tried to bypass the state institutions altogether and centre power on the court. Yet none of his amiable but dim-witted courtiers was remotely capable of providing him with sound advice on how to rule the country, coming as they did from a narrow circle of aristocratic Guards officers who knew nothing of the Russia beyond St Petersburg's fashionable streets. Most of them were contemptuous of Russia, speaking French not Russian and spending more time in Nice or Biarritz than on their landed estates in the provinces. Under the court's growing domination, Nicholas's government was unable to create coherent policies to deal with the mounting problems of society which were leading inexorably towards revolution. During its final years, especially after Stolypin's downfall in 1911, the government drifted dangerously as one sycophantic mediocrity after another was appointed Prime Minister by the Tsar. Nicholas himself spent more and more time away from his office. Government business had to be delayed for weeks at a time, while he went off on hunting trips, yachting parties and family holidays to the Crimea. But in the apparently secure refuge of his family another tragedy was unfolding.

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