For much of Europe, Russia, far to the east, was a great unknown, and certainly a state possessing major contradictions. Russia’s vast resources – both material and human – had often made it a figure of envy and fear, and many of the diplomatic struggles of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were focused on either currying favour with St. Petersburg, or else avoiding the prospect of war. Russia was the most populous state in Europe, with access to some of the most extensive deposits of oil, coal, metals, and gemstones anywhere on the globe. In the event of war, many spoke with a mixture of admiration and worry about a “Russian steamroller”, a massive army of countless strong, warlike, semi-barbaric young men, who would sweep away everything in their path. This picture was offset, however, by the realities of Russia when viewed in the harsh light of day. Russia was vast, it was true, and it had an enormous population, but that vastness had not given it a decisive advantage in many of the conflicts in which it was involved in the nineteenth century. Moreover, for all that was available to it, Russia was riven with backwardness and inefficiency, both economically and politically. The political system rested uneasily on a difficult, teetering foundation that, while not in immediate danger of collapse, was by no means stable. Also, festering under the surface was horrific social discord and a profound contrast – arguably greater than in any other country – between those who governed and those who were governed. Coupled with the government’s penchant for adventurism, and the state’s deep interests in regions and issues that might bring it into conflict with its neighbours, this meant that the great behemoth in the east of Europe was not a source of surety but of insecurity and uncertainty.
In 1913, the House of Romanov celebrated its tercentenary at the head of the Russian Empire. For three hundred years, it had been a member of this dynasty who had ruled over the vast swathes of territory that stretched from Poland to the Pacific Ocean, and all the hundreds of millions of people who lived within those borders. The pageantry of the occasion, however, belied the deep-seated concerns surrounding the leadership of the latest emperor in the bloodline, Tsar Nicholas II. Nicholas, like his forebears, was an absolute monarch and autocrat. He believed in direct rule, and that the person of the tsar was anointed by God to lead the Empire. In this, he was quite unique among the European leaders. His cousin George V, king of Great Britain, was merely a figurehead, presiding in a mostly ceremonial fashion over a parliamentary form of government. Nicholas’ other cousin, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, was more central to his nation’s policy-making, but even then he was hardly a monarch without democratic checks and balances, and such was also the case in the Dual Monarchy. Even the Ottoman Empire, so widely derided as a relic of Oriental feudalism (with all the misguided European bigotry that view entailed), had begun dabbling with democracy; a cornerstone of the Young Turk revolt, after all, was a desire to wrest power from the autocratic and incompetent sphere of the sultan, and open it to the pashas and to representatives of the citizenship, elected through limited franchise. On the ascension of Nicholas to the Russian throne in 1894, however, the concept of representative democracy was foreign, dangerous, unthinkable. Nearly twenty years later, as he celebrated his family’s three hundredth jubilee, some circumstances had changed, but the attitude had not.
Nicholas is a truly divisive figure in Russian history – or, indeed, in any history. After his ignominious fall from power in 1917, and his awful fate in 1918, he has been both vilified and lauded; in recent times, he, his wife Alexandra, and his children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei, have been canonised by the Moscow synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Other commentators have labeled him weak, indecisive, disastrously incompetent. There is more than a grain of truth to these charges, but we should perhaps have some sympathy for Nicholas, for many of the problems that were thrown into such sharp relief during his leadership were not of his own making, but were in fact inherited from an already moribund and struggling system.
Nicholas came into the role of tsar almost totally unprepared for it. His father, Tsar Alexander III, was an imperious, controlling personality, who had expected to rule for decades, but his unexpected death, at the young age of just 49, catapulted his 26 year old son on to the throne in 1894, with very little by way of formal political training. What tutelage he had received had been conducted almost entirely by Alexander’s old tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who had also assumed the role of Nicholas’ private tutor, in addition to his duties as ober-procurator of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church. As one might expect from these credentials, Pobedonostsev was deeply conservative in his views. He had been a key proponent of Alexander’s plan of “Russification” of the Empire – that is, the removal of ethnic elites and culture within the minority spheres of the Empire, replacing them with Russian administrators and programmes. No longer, for example, would Tartars or Don Cossacks be permitted to speak their own languages, for they would be illegalised and replaced with Russian (it must be remembered that, as of Nicholas’ crowning, just under 50% of the Empire was, in fact, ethnically Russian.) This policy would continue unabated under Nicholas. So, too, would the intrinsic and total belief in the divine right of the tsar. Pobedononstsev, as a deeply religious figure, was convinced that wickedness and corruption was at the very heart of human nature. This, he argued, was the fatal flaw of the many calls for democracy in Russia, for all the granting of political liberty would do would be to concentrate many people, full of wickedness, into positions in which they could manipulate the course of the country. This could only lead Russia to ruin. On the other hand, the tsar was second only to God. He was holy, he had been chosen by God to rule, and so it was not only prudent to continue direct and absolute rule, since this would avoid the concentration of sin, but it was vital, because to do otherwise would be to contravene the will of God.
There is no doubt that Nicholas was a devoutly religious man, and there is equally no doubt that he was heavily influenced by Pobedonostsev. Thus, even though he was nervous and hesitant about taking power, even himself recognising that he was not ready to do so, when he did he did it with the conviction that God was on his side, and the alternative – increasing liberalism and the expansion of democratic freedoms, as had been seen in Germany and Britain – was the path to disaster. Thus, for all his self-awareness, Nicholas was sure that there was simply no other option than his total rule. These two principles – the danger of advancing liberties and rights, and the necessity of his own personal command – were the only two significant lessons he had learnt by the time his father died, and they would become defining characteristics of his leadership.
The tsar’s demi-divinity was not merely a matter of faith for Nicholas or Konstantin Pobedonostsev. In fact, when Nicholas took power, there was a genuine and widespread love for the tsar, particularly among the peasantry, which made up significantly more than 80% of Russia’s huge population. Russia lagged far behind the western European states in terms of industrialisation, and thus the mainstay of the economy was farming. However, the Russian countryside was largely feudal, representative of what in the west was a long-gone era. Technically, there had been an emancipation of the serfs (i.e. peasants tied to the land), but in reality the countryside was the picture of serfdom.
Few peasants owned their own land, and instead worked the properties of wealthy landowners, who were generally members of the aristocracy and nobility. Life in villages was difficult, brutal, and often short. Medical care was virtually non-existent, as was education. For the vast majority of peasants, life was defined entirely by the family unit and the village; very few peasants, owing to their isolation, had even a concept of being Russian, or even were familiar with what Russia was. Illiteracy was a chronic condition, and life expectancy was low. Throughout all of this, resentment festered towards the landowner class, which profited from the toils of the peasants who worked but did not own the land. Crucially, however, this resentment and anger was not aimed at the person of the tsar. Much as Pobedonostsev believed in the infallibility of the tsar, so too did the peasantry; the tsar was the “Little Father”, with the “Big Father”, of course, being God in Heaven. The ills of the countryside, the peasants decided, were due only to the landowners and their lackeys, who were deceiving the tsar as to the true conditions of Russian agriculture. A common conception of the peasantry was that their lives would improve if only the tsar were aware of their trials and tribulations. Thus, no matter how bad conditions were, the tsar was genuinely beloved by the majority of his subjects. Certainly, there was a revolutionary movement – including a nascent but weak Marxist organisation, the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), which in 1903 split into two parties, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks – but these were limited to the much smaller bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. As far as the vast proportion of the population was concerned, their tsar was a benevolent leader, second only to God, and worthy of their devotion.
Circumstances were to change, however, in the first half of the first decade of the twentieth century. Part of the impetus for this came not from internal hardships, which were bad enough, but from the consequences that arose from a series of Russian foreign policy blunders that, in turn, caused problems at home.
A problem faced by Russia on the international stage was that, for all its vastness, it was often adversely affected by its own winter. This was particularly the case for the Russian Navy, which wanted for clear water ports that would be free of ice. This was already a problem in the west, since the key ports (Murmansk, Arkangel’sk, etc.) were subject to icing in winter, while Odessa and Sebastopol, by dint of Russia’s difficult diplomatic situation viz. Turkey, were not easy solutions to the issue. Problems were more acute on the Pacific coast, where Russia’s only deepwater port, Vladivostok, suffered the same icing conditions. On the other hand, the navy saw the occupation of Port Arthur (now Lüshunkou), on the Korean peninsula, as a workable solution, since it would be open all year. This, however, brought St. Petersburg into competition with Tokyo; the Japanese felt that their own interests in the region would be threatened by a Russian consolidation on the peninsula and, in a series of negotiations between 1903 and 1904, attempted to come to some form of agreement with their Russian counterparts. Both sides were intractable, though, and a series of failed negotiations finally led to the Japanese losing patience. On 8 February 1904, a Japanese fleet arrived off Port Arthur, damaging seven of the Russian Pacific Squadron contingent there, and blockading the port. Consequently, the Japanese besieged Port Arthur, and the Russians devoted their war effort to lifting that siege. Nicholas entered the war convinced that his forces would prevail, given the fact that Japan was a non-European power (none of which had ever overcome a European imperial power in war before), as well as his concerted belief both that God was on his side, and that the Japanese, as Asians, were inferior to the Russians. This confidence was misplaced. Within months, Russia had suffered tremendous defeats. On land, the army attempting to relieve Port Arthur was mauled by a Japanese force half its size at Liaoyang. At sea, the Pacific Squadron’s August 1904 attempt to break through the Japanese blockade was indecisive. Other actions, both on land and at sea, also ended in heavy defeats.
In late February 1905, a large Russian army was decisively beaten, with nearly 90,000 casualties, near Mukden in Manchuria. In late May, a large Russian fleet arrived in the Pacific to challenge the Japanese and lift the siege of Port Arthur. The fleet had come from the Baltic Sea, and had taken six months to navigate through the Baltic, through the southern Atlantic, around the Horn of Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and into the Tsushima Straits. However, the long voyage had left the Russian fleet, made up of some 28 ships (including the four most modern battleships in the tsar’s navy), short on supplies and poorly maintained. During the night of 27-28 May, the newly arrived fleet was set upon by a Japanese task force that consisted mostly of small torpedo boats; the resulting battle left the entire Baltic Fleet either at the bottom of the Tsushima Straits, or else captured, and approximately 10,000 sailors killed or captured, while the Japanese lost just three torpedo boats and some 100 sailors. The battle, so phenomenally decisive, was considered by many to be the most important naval engagement since Trafalgar, and it crushed Russia’s naval power.
Russia’s war effort had unintended consequences. In the cities, the public had expected a short war with little privation, but as more and more troops were sent via the Trans-Siberian Railway to their deaths, the domestic economic situation began to worsen. Food from the countryside was shunted towards the faraway front, bypassing the cities, and particularly having a tremendous impact on the working class and urban poor, who already suffered horrendous working and living conditions. Consequently, on Sunday 22 January 1905, a demonstration of some 150,000 workers took to the streets of St. Petersburg, marching towards the Winter Palace. The demonstration was led by an Orthodox priest, Father Georgi Gapon, who worked closely with the workers in St. Petersburg. It would be incorrect to term the 22 January demonstrations a protest, since the workers carried placards praising the royal family, sang patriotic songs, and carried a petition which specifically stated their belief that the tsar could and would help them in their plight. As they approached the Winter Palace, however, they were met by a line of soldiers, with orders not to allow the demonstrators near the palace gates. As more and more workers crowded into the square before the palace, the troops opened fire.
The immediate importance of 22 January has, in some ways, been overstated in some histories. The number of casualties suffered is disputed – some sources place the numbers well in the many thousands – but it is unlikely that any more than 300 people died in the snow in front of the palace. But, regardless of the fact that the deaths were much lower than reported, these events – forever immortalised as “Bloody Sunday” – changed the very nature of the relationship between the governing autocracy and the people. Gapon, who had begun his petition by assuring the tsar that “the people believe in thee”, saw his faith in the Little Father shattered. Writing just hours after he had escaped the bloodshed outside the Winter Palace, Gapon attacked the “beast tsar and his jackal ministers.” Indeed, the response of the people as a whole to this ghastly massacre of innocents – for, regardless of the lower casualty figures, it must be remembered as such – reflected Gapon’s own urges to “tear up all portraits of the bloodsucking tsar and say to him: be thou damned with all thine august reptilian progeny!” For the people as a whole, the comforting fiction of the Little Father had been torn away. To them, it was clear now that the tsar did know of their terrible living conditions. Worse, he was not willing to help them, and in fact sought to beat them down further. The fact that the tsar was actually at his retreat at Tsarskoye Selo on the day, and not in residence at the Winter Palace, made little difference. All at once, the great resentments against the inadequacies of the regime bubbled to the surface and exploded in a torrent of violence and unrest. Riots erupted in the industrial centres of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Some 400,000 workers in St. Petersburg alone went on strike within weeks of Bloody Sunday. In the countryside, law and order ceased to exist; between January and October, the army was called in to quell peasant riots more than 2,700 times, and more than 3,000 manor houses belonging to landowners were burned and destroyed.
The regime’s response to this revolution was gradual, brutal, but ultimately – for the short term, at least – successful. The tsar made use of the army to put down rebellions in the provinces and on the streets. To that end, the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War was a top priority, and in September 1905 a peace treaty, generally unfavourable to the Russians but ending the hostilities, was signed in Portsmouth. This allowed troops, freshly demobilised in the east, to return to the home front to bolster the ranks combatting rioters. Moreover, while the revolts had begun as part of a mass movement, they lacked direction or unity. Workers in Petersburg, for example, rebelled for entirely different reasons to, and with no coordination with, peasants in Ukraine, or even workers in Moscow. This made the revolution vulnerable, and the language of revolution was soon co-opted by educated political reformers in the cities, who wished for liberal reform and saw no good as coming from unbridled rebellious violence. Thus, by October, the tsar had (reluctantly) put his name to the so-called October Manifesto, granting the formation of an advisory legislative parliament, or Duma. The chief powerbrokers of this new Duma would be politicians from two major political factions – the Octobrists, who saw the way forward for Russia as coming through precisely this form of parliamentary monarchy, and the Kadets (or Constitutional Democrats), who favoured further reforms (and – as far as some were concerned – the eventual creation of a republic). Crucially, in spite of the republican tendencies of some of the Kadets, these two parties were committed to reform within the system – that is, cooperating with the tsar. This took the sting out of the tail of the faltering revolution, which wound down by the end of the year. With the immediate danger now gone, but unable to renege on his promise for the creation of a Duma, Nicholas II introduced a new constitution, the “Fundamental Laws”, which clarified the powers of the Duma. Effectively, the Fundamental Laws emasculated the liberal parliament, relegating it to nothing more than a consultative body, over which the tsar retained supreme power. By and large, then, the regime had emerged from the crises of 1904 and 1905 relatively unscathed.
Or had it? Certainly, the tsar had been able to reassert his power, while at the same time providing the impression of liberal reform. But lasting damage had been done, both at home and abroad. At home, the image of the tsar as a devoted Little Father was forever destroyed by the horrors of Bloody Sunday and the year to follow. Like Father Gapon, workers and peasants alike now disabused themselves of the notion that the tsar was a benevolent, God-given leader, and began to see him as simply the highest man in the same system that had kept them poor, unhealthy, uneducated, and without any political representation. In the cities, this discontent manifested itself in the slow but steady growth of so-called “workers’ councils”, or Soviets, which acted as political action groups for disenfranchised proletarian workers. These would become extremely important in the future of Russia, and especially during the crisis year of 1917.
The concessions that the tsar had made, moreover, were merely a stopgap solution to a more significant problem that he failed to grasp. The Duma was a safety valve, its members committed reformists but (in general) loyal tsarists. Yet Nicholas, trained by Pobedonostsev to be suspicious of democracy, sought from day one to negate even the very limited power afforded the parliament. This had the potential to alienate even the tsar’s most trenchant supporters. This reaction against moderation can also be seen in the tsar’s dealings with his post-revolution prime minister, Peter Stolypin, whose raft of economic and social reforms had the potential to modernise Russia into a formidable, far more stable industrial power. Nicholas, however, frustrated Stolypin at nearly every turn, and most of the prime minister’s policies were stillborn. There is even some suggestion that Stolypin’s assassination in Kiev in September 1911 had, in fact, been committed by the Russian political police (the Okhrana), on the orders of the tsar himself. While this has never been proven, it is known that the investigation into the murder was halted on the official order of Nicholas. Perhaps, Nicholas saw Stolypin as a political threat, or simply a distraction from his divine right. If indeed there is any truth to the suggestion of Nicholas’ culpability in Stolypin’s murder, it is incontrovertible that the tsar thus denied himself the counsel of one of the most brilliant political minds of the era, whose reform programmes boded well for the future – providing they had the support they required.
Internationally, these years were damaging to Russia. It has been suggested – most recently, by Christopher Clark – that the French alliance with the Russians was designed so that the French could restrain what they saw as reckless Russian foreign adventurism. There may be some truth to this, but if so, it did not succeed. Russia’s war with Japan was misbegotten from the beginning, based more upon racist ideas and delusions of divinity than political expedience or military prowess. The damage wrought on the Russian fleet removed the tsar’s navy as an instrument of foreign policy. Even worse, while the tsar was grappling with both the Japanese and his own subjects, he was also busily antagonising other European powers. The Baltic Fleet, which departed on its ill-fated odyssey to Tsushima, had been projected to pass through the British-controlled Suez Canal. However, upon leaving the Baltic, the fleet’s spotters had mistaken British fishing trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats (which had, in the imaginations of these officers, somehow skirted around the world to do battle with them at this very moment), and had opened fire on the civilian craft. The incident nearly sparked war with Britain, and while this was narrowly averted, the passage through the Suez was denied, condemning the fleet to a far longer voyage (which may well have contributed to its total destruction.) Moreover, Russian paternalistic, pan-slavic policy in the Balkans had led it to offer constant encouragement to Serbia in its long-running war of nerves with Austria-Hungary. This, naturally, caused ill feeling in Vienna, and both Austria and Austria’s ally, Germany, increasingly saw Nicholas as a deliberate instigator for the deteriorating diplomatic conditions in the Balkans. As a result, Vienna frequently sought guarantees from Berlin that, were St. Petersburg to take precipitous action against Austria-Hungary, Germany would rush to Austria’s defence. This, and Russia’s growing reliance on French capital for rearmament in the face of the tremendous losses to the Japanese, severely increased the level of danger in the Balkan region.
Thus, when Nicholas and Alexandra celebrated the three hundredth Romanov jubilee, they did so presiding over a country that had nearly torn itself apart, only to paper over the cracks while hoping for the best. Underneath the thin coat of recovery, however, the state continued to decay. At the same time, while Russia had secured an alliance with the French, its foreign policy was confused, arrogant, and frequently dangerous. Not all of these problems were of Nicholas’ making. But it would have taken a quite extraordinarily astute leader to see the way clear to resolving Russia’s mounting issues, and Nicholas, in spite of the assiduous teaching of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, was neither extraordinary nor astute. His failings, and those of his country, would only be exacerbated during and after the July Crisis of 1914, and the seeds of his own, tragic fate in a dark cellar in Ekaterinburg in 1918 can be traced back to the very origins of his rule.