A HISTORY OF
THE RUSSIAN MONARCHY

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The House of Romanov was the second and last imperial dynasty to rule over Russia,
reigning from 1613 until the February Revolution abolished the crown in 1917

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For each generation to react against the generation before it is a characteristic of many reigning dynasties; but particularly of the Russian Imperial House in the century following the death of Catherine the Great, when autocratic Tsars alternated with Tsars who were liberal as inevitably as Fredericks alternated with Christians on the Throne of Denmark. Catherine's son, Paul I, who reigned from 1796 to 1801, was autocratic; and it can often be said to have reacted against his mother who, while being a despot, was influenced by the doctrines of the Enlightenment. Paul was also influenced by ideas which came out of France; but in his case it was the strong royalist and legitimist theories of the French émigrés, who, together with the Knights of Malta and other victims of the revolutionary upheaval, were given a refuge in his dominions.

Whereas Catherine, though enlightened in her ideas, was unscrupulous in her methods, Paul "wished to remain an honest man, philosophical and religious, while governing despotically". He hated the abuse of power, and he detested the crimes which he had seen his mother commit. The belief in his own Divine Right, which made some Monarchs more human, had the opposite effect on him so that he was perceived to be an aloof, haughty, lonely figure; yet he was generous and sympathized with the misfortunes of others. He would often apologize to people whom he had punished unjustly in a fit of anger, making amends by embracing them and showering them with presents; he visited the wounded Polish leader, Kosciuszko, in prison, ordered his release and treated him with great kindness.

Strongly wedded as he was to legitimacy, the Emperor Paul, in the days of the Consulate, admired Napoleon, of who he would say "I have found a man; there is a man in the world!" The key to his contradictory nature seems to lie in the fact that he had secret doubts about the divine concept of Monarchy which he so rigorously upheld. Being unsure of his convictions made him unhappy and tyrannical in his behavior; so that he became highly unpopular, particularly among Russia's nobles. There was a plot to dethrone him--the last of those palace revolutions that are such a feature of Russian history up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It had the approval of Paul's son, the Tsarevitch Alexander, who was assured by the conspirators that nothing worse would happen to the Emperor than imprisonment. This was genuinely the intention of some of them; but when they attempted to seize the unfortunate Paul, they were afraid that his cries would bring the palace guards to the rescue; so they put him to death.

The character and career of the next Emperor, Alexander I, presents us with paradoxes that are typically Russian. As Tsarevitch, though he was heir to the wealthiest and most absolute Monarchy in Europe, he espoused the doctrines of 1789. A young man of charming disposition, with a touching, Rousseauesque delight in the beauties of nature, he would tell his confidant Prince Adam Czartoryski, that he "would like to see Republics everywhere" and that he "looked upon this form of government as the only one suited to the rights and happiness of humanity". He had acquired some of his notions from his tutor, a Voltairian professor chosen for him by his grandmother, Catherine the Great; yet his Voltairian upbringing did not in any way affect his pious and fervent Orthodox faith.

The absolutist Paul had wished to make friends with the First Consul of revolutionary France. The liberal Alexander went to war with Napoleon a few years after succeeding to the Throne. Having been defeated at Austerlitz, he and Napoleon came to terms at Tilsit, where he astonished the upstart Emperor of the French by maintaining that Monarchies ought to be elective, whereas Napoleon argued with equal conviction that they should be hereditary. Five years after Tilsit, Napoleon invaded Russia and Alexander led his country's epic defense; then, having forced the French to retrace their steps, he chased the remnant of their Army all the way back to Paris.

When the Allied Sovereigns assembled in Paris and Vienna for the peacemaking, the tall, benignly smiling Alexander, with his fine brow and lustrous eyes, was the most impressive figure among them, as well as the most popular. In London, the tumultuous welcome given by the populace to the visiting Tsar was in striking contrast to the unpopularity of the Prince Regent. But when the Allied statesmen got down to business, they were dismayed by Alexander's proposal that Poland--which had been partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria at various times during the past fifty years--should be reunited under his sceptre. Castlereagh called it "the plan of the Tartar prince for overturning Europe"; the fact that Alexander intended to reign over a reunited Poland as a constitutional King did not make the proposal any more acceptable.

Though his Polish dream came to nothing, Alexander insisted on granting a Constituition to that part of Poland which he already held. This caused great jealousy in Russia. Madame de Stael once told him that his own character was "a charter and a constitution for his subjects". Alexander's benevolence was still the only Constitution which the Russians had. It was better than many a written charter; but Constitutions were now all the rage; especially among those of the Tsar's subjects who had picked up democratic ideas while serving with the Russian Army in western Europe; one old General had complained that every officer in the Army had gone back to Russia with the draft of a Constitution in his pocket. Alexander's absolutism in Russia seemed inconsistent with his liking for democratic government in other countries; though towards the end of his reign, he definitely ranged himself on the side of the enemies of liberalism by becoming the champion of the Holy Alliance. Yet there were those who reckoned that it would have been totally impracticable to give a constitution to a country like Russia, with its vast, semi-Asiatic population; and indeed, up to the present day, the idea has not really been tried.

Such was the unrest among the Russian nobility and other sections of the educated classes at the end of Alexander's reign that in December 1825, shortly after his death, there was a military and political insurrection. It was suppressed with great severity by his brother and successor, Nicholas I, who hanged five ringleaders and sent hundreds of conspirators--who were mostly members of the aristocracy--to Siberia. The Emperor Nicholas was stern by nature; and this revolt by some of his more influential subjects on his accession to the Throne increased his sternness. For the rest of his reign, his policy was one of repression; and he governed as autocratically as any of his immediate predecessors had done, making rapid if arbitrary decisions, such as when, having been consulted by the engineers as to the course of the projected railway from St. Petersburg to Moscow, he took a ruler and drew a straight line between the two capitals.

Nicholas's suppression of the Polish rising of 1830 increased his reputation as a tyrant; and he became the bogeyman of every liberal in Europe. When he visited England in 1844, his reception was not quite as enthusiastic as his brothers' had been, thirty years earlier. It is another paradox of the Russian Emperors that although their country was the remotest in Europe, they took to traveling abroad sooner than any other European Sovereigns. Nicholas's son the future Alexander II, also visited England; and a race was named the Cesarewitch in his honor.

Whereas Alexander I's foreign policy had been directed at Poland, Nicholas I looked towards Turkey and set about solving the "Eastern Question". This made him more than ever disliked in Britain, where Russia was seen as a threat to British interests in the Near east. When Nicholas persisted in pressing his claims on Turkey, having unfortunately not been given sufficient warning by Lord Aberdeen's Government that these claims would not be tolerated by Britain and France, it led to the Crimean War. That conflict proved Nicholas's military system to be a failure, which broke his heart; he died in 1855, before the war came to an end.

Nicholas I had unfairly gone down to history as an oppressor of his subjects; yet foreigners who visited Russia in his time did not find the mistrustful, suspicious, spy-ridden people whom they had been led to believe that they would find. Nicholas's subjects suffered from a good deal of petty officialdom; but it was almost always possible to get around the regulations by bribery. Above all, foreigners did not find the Russians, under Nicholas, either ignorant or dull. Although criticism of the Government was absolutely forbidden, there was freedom of speech on every other subject. The latest ideas from Western Europe--together with the novels of Dickens and George Sand--found their way to the remotest provincial towns of the Empire, thanks to the many widely-read literary reviews. And while the Russians were remarkably familiar with the literature of other nations, they also had a flourishing literature of their own. Both Pushkin and Gogol did most of their writing in Nicholas's reign.

Like many harsh rulers, Nicholas was a devoted family man. One must not, therefore, see the liberalism of the next Emperor Alexander II too much in terms of a reaction against his father; and indeed, the act for which Alexander is best remembered, the emancipation of the serfs, was actually in accordance with his Nicholas's dying wish. Alexander's other major reforms included the setting up of local assemblies, which laid the foundation of a representative system, and the introduction of open law courts, with trial by jury. As well as carrying out reforms, Alexander, during the early years of his reign, repealed or relaxed most of his father's stern measures. The censorship was all but abolished. The universities, which Nicholas had strictly limited, regarding them as a breeding ground of revolution, were thrown open to as many newcomers as possible; so that a university education became available to any Russian who could afford a few shillings a term in the way of fees. The Government spies and secret police were given a holiday.

As is so often the case, Alexander turned out to have been too hasty in ending his father's repressive regime. The virtual abolition of the censorship led to the dissemination of inflammatory and revolutionary doctrines throughout Russia. Far from being grateful for Alexander's reforms, the middle classes were disgruntled because these reforms did not go further than they did. As a sign of the growing unrest in the country, there were student riots--those in Moscow being suppressed with the help of the ordinary workmen, who, like the peasants, could always be rallied in support of the Tsar. Student riots were followed by outbreaks of incendiarism; and then, early in the 1860s, the cancer of terrorism--then known as Nihilism--made its appearance in the Russian body politic. The expansion of the universities was to a large extent responsible for this terrible evil; for while it provided an endless supply of graduates to fill the ever-increasing ranks of the civil service, it also produced a corresponding number of failed students who inevitably became Nihilists.

Now that the secret police and the spies had been allowed to relax their vigilance, it was possible for Nihilism to be stamped out, or even kept under control. Outrages became increasingly frequent. In 1881, a Nihilist bomb ended the Tsar's life. Thus perished that benevolent giant of an Emperor, who would have taken his people far along the road to democratic government of only they had given him the chance. In fact, when he was murdered, he was on the point of setting up a form of Parliament.

It was inevitable that the new Emperor, Alexander III, having seen the father whom he loved and revered mortally wounded by a Nihilist bomb, should attempt to combat Nihilism by re-introducing his grandfather's stern measures. So liberals everywhere came to regard Alexander III with as much distaste as they had regarded Nicholas I; especially in Britain, where, just as Nicholas's Turkish ambitions had seemed to threaten British interests in the Near East, so did Alexander's Central Asian policy now appear as a menace to British India. The large and powerfully-built Tsar, with his beard, his loud voice and his rather terrifying eyes, seemed the very reincarnation of the Russian Bear. Queen Victoria never forgave him for having brought about the overthrow of the young ruler of Bulgaria, Prince Alexander of Battenberg, a particular favourite of hers; it was of Alexander III that she made her celebrated remark: "He may be an Emperor, but the Queen does not regard him as a gentleman".

But however bad Alexander III's image may have been outside Russia, he was popular with the great majority of his subjects. He was, in fact, a most able and energetic ruler; thanks his strong government, there was a decline in the number of Nihilist outrages, and an increase in prosperity. Alexander may not have regarded his people as being ripe for modern democratic institutions; but he set out to modernize the country in every other respect; it was during his reign that Russia was transformed into a powerful industrial nation. Though he could be frightening, he could also be extremely genial, in a bluff, bantering way. He pleased the more aggressively Russian of his subjects by his policy of "Russianization"--which included making Russian the official language of the German-speaking Baltic provinces. Alexander liked to think of himself as a Russian peasant, and affected a rough simplicity in his clothes and way of life--though he was also the patron of Faberge. He spent much of his time at a modest house in the country; though this was for reasons of security, as well as by choice. Ever since the murder of Alexander II, there had been the most elaborate security measures to protect the Tsar and his family, who were consequently seen much less by their subjects. Nevertheless, Alexander III and the Empress Marie were never recluses like their son and daughter-in-law. The beautiful and vivacious Empress, who was a Danish Princess and the sister of the Princess of Wales, was very popular in Russian society.

It was a tragedy for the Imperial House, for Russia and for the world that Alexander III died in 1894, when he was barely fifty. Had he lived for twenty or thirty years longer, his toughness, ability and realism might have saved Russia from the calamities that befell her during the first two decades of this century. Instead, the unwieldy Empire passed to his twenty-six year old son, the amiable but weak Nicholas II. Compared with the big, forceful men who sat on the Throne of Russia before him, Nicholas looked almost like a child: a frail, gentle figure with "a caressing expression" in his eyes and a soft, low-pitched voice. To everyone with whom he had dealings, whether they were his subjects, his Royal relations or the ambassadors accredited to him, he was kind and considerate, but distant. As his cousin, Queen Marie of Roumania, wrote of him: "He seemed to live in a sort of Imperial mist".

Had Nicholas been married to a friendly and warm-hearted Princess like his mother, all might have been well with him; but the Empress Alexandra was even more withdrawn from the world than he was. Her fragile beauty was spoilt by her tight lips and the coldness of her eyes: she always looked miserable some thought. She was stiff, haughty, for ever on the defensive. This was due in part to shyness; but also to a sense of being superior to all other mortals, which had little or nothing to do with the fact that she was Royal, or an Empress; for the grandest of her Royal relations found her just as haughty and aloof as any of her subjects. Queen Marie of Roumania could remember " the pinched, unwilling, patronizing smile with which she received all you said as if it were not worth while answering". To make matters worse, she spoke in a whisper.

For most of her husband's reign, the Empress Alexandra refused to appear in public or to perform any of the duties of an Empress. Her behavior can to a certain extent be explained by her desperate anxiety over her only son, the Tsarevitch Alexis, who was frequently in danger of death and very often in agony owing to the hemophilia which he had inherited from her side of the family. It was her belief that the so-called "holy man" could cure Alexis which led to her friendship with Rasputin. But even before Alexis was born, she had virtually become a recluse. Such was the Tsar's devotion to her and his own reserve that it was all too easy for him to stay with her in her seclusion. Father, mother and children became entirely self-contained; they led a quiet, rather dull family life in a plainly-furnished corner of one of the vast and glittering Imperial palaces. St. Petersburg society was, to all intents and purposes, without an Emperor and Empress. The most influential section of the community came to regard the Imperial couple with indifference, or even resentment.

Nicholas II cannot be fitted into the pattern of autocratic Tsars alternating with liberal tsars; for he was neither autocratic nor liberal. Or rather, he vacillated between liberalism and autocracy; at one moment he called the Duma, at another he tried to rule as a despot. While he vacillated, Russia drifted to disaster. The events of his reign are all too well-known. There was the disastrous war with Japan, followed by a period of near-anarchy. Then came the rise of Stolypin, the first strong man Russia had seen since the death of Alexander III. With Stolypin in control, there was a miraculous recovery; but then he was murdered by a Nihilist during a gala performance in the theatre in Kiev. Dying, he raised himself up and gave his blessing to the Tsar, who was above him in the Imperial box.

Without Stolypin, the Empire began once again to drift. Then came 1914, when Russia went to war for the cause of Pan-Slavism; and in so doing set all Europe aflame. The country had only just recovered from the Japanese war; it should have been obvious to every thinking Russian that another war at this juncture would prove fatal. Alexander III, had he been alive, would almost certainly have realized this; and while sympathizing with Pan-Slavism, he would have kept the chauvinists of his country under control. But Nicholas hesitated between the advice of his pacific Foreign Minister, Sazonoff, and that of Sukhomlinoff, his chauvinistic Minister for War. He kept ordering mobilization and then canceling it; until finally, when he ordered mobilization yet again, the War Office cut his telephone wire as to prevent him from countermanding the order until it was too late.

During the war, the Tsar spent as much time as he could with his troops. In the easy atmosphere of the officers' mess, Nicholas and his subjects were at last able to get to know each other; just as the supporters of Charles I of England--a monarch to whom Nicholas is frequently compared--only really got to know their King when he was their companion in arms. But it was too late. Soon, everything was out of control, and Russia was overwhelmed by the forces of revolution. The Tsar abdicated; the well-meaning but irresponsible Kerensky was ousted by the men who had arrived in a sealed train, carrying the plague bacillus of Communism with them. The Emperor, the Empress and their children were made prisoners, and moved from place to place; a journey which ended in the cellar at Ekaterinburg. That hideous murder of a father and mother, four young girls and a sick boy on a July night in 1918 was far from being the worst of the crimes committed in the name of Communism, either before or since; yet, with the possible exception of Katyn, it is the one which has caused the most horror and disgust.


The Romanov Coat-of-Arms