The Imperial Family
by Alexander Kerensky

Alexander Kerensky, seated in the library of Nicholas II, Winter Palace, St. Petersburg
Photo: K. Bulla

Please note that the publication of these memoirs do not in any way reflect the opinions of Royal Russia. Kerensky's impressions of Tsar Nicholas II and his family are presented as an example of one man's misinterpretation of the last Russian sovereign. His, like many of his other enemies, assisted in the very negative portrait that the Soviets and 20th century anti-monarchists painted of the the last tsar that we are so familiar with to this day. --- Paul Gilbert, Royal Russia

I clearly remember my first interview with the former Tsar, which took place in the middle of March at the Aleksandrovsky Palace. Upon my arrival in Tsarskoye Selo I inspected the entire palace thoroughly and inquired about the regulations of the guard and the general regime under which the imperial family were being kept. On the whole, I approved of the situation, making only a few suggestions for improvement to the commandant of the palace.

Then I asked Count Benkendorf, former marshal of the court, to inform the Tsar that I wished to see him and Alexandra Fyodorovna. The miniature court composed of a few retainers who had not deserted Nicholas II still kept up the ceremonial. The old count, who sported a monocle, listened to me gravely and answered: "I shall report to His Majesty." In a few minutes he returned and announced solemnly: "His Majesty has graciously consented to receive you." This seemed a trifle ridiculous and out of place, but I did not want to destroy the count's last illusions. He still considered himself first marshal to His Majesty, the Tsar. It was all he had left. Most of the immediate attendants to the Tsar and his family had deserted them. Even the Tsar's children, who were ill with measles, were left without a nurse, and the Provisional Government had to provide the necessary medical assistance.

I had done all I could to bring about the downfall of Nicholas II when he was omnipotent, but I could not revenge myself on a defeated enemy. On the contrary, I wanted to impress upon him that the revolution was, as Prince Lvov had pledged, magnanimous and humane to its enemies, not only in word but in deed. This was the only revenge worthy of the Great Revolution, a noble revenge worthy of a sovereign people.

Of course, if the judicial inquiry instituted by the government had found proof that Nicholas II had betrayed his country either before or during the War, he would have been immediately tried by jury and his trip abroad would have been prevented at all cost. But he was proved beyond doubt to be innocent of this crime.

I had been looking forward to the interview with the former Tsar with a certain anxiety, for fear of losing my temper when I came face to face with him.

All these thoughts occurred to me as we passed through a succession of apartments. At last we came to the children's room. Leaving me before the closed door leading into the inner apartments, the Count went in to announce my visit. Returning almost immediately, he said: "His Majesty invites you." He threw open the door, remaining himself on the threshold.

My first glimpse of the scene as I went up to the former Tsar changed my mood altogether. The whole family was standing huddled in confusion around a small table near a window in the adjoining room. A small man in uniform detached himself from the group and movd forward to meet me, hesitating and smiling weakly. It was Nicholas II. On the threshold of the room in which I awaited him, he stopped as if uncertain what to do next. He did not know what my attitude would be. Was he to receive me as a host or should he wait for me to greet him first? I sensed his embarressment at once, as well as the confusion of the whole family left alone with a terrible revolutionary. I quickly went up to Nicholas II, held out my hand with a smile and said abruptly, "Kerensky," as I usually introduce myself. He shook my hand firmly, smiled, seemingly encouraged, and lef me at once to his family. His son and daughters were obviously consumed with curiosity and gazed fixedly at me. Alexandra Fyodorovna, stiff, proud and haughty, extended her hand reluctantly, as if under compulsion. This was typical of the difference of character and temperament between the husband and wife. I felt at once that Alexandra Fyodorovna, a clever and handsome woman, though now broken and angry, had a strong will. In those few seconds I understood the whole tragedy that had been developing for many years behind the palace walls. My few subsequent interviews with the Tsar confirmed my first impression.

I inquired about the health of the members of the family, informed them that their relatives abroad were solicitious of their welfare and promised to transmit without delay any messages they might wish to send. I asked whether they had any complaints, how the guards were behaving, and whether they needed anything. I asked them not to worry but to rely on me. They thanked me and I began taking my leave. Nicholas II inquired about the military situation and wished me success in my new and burdensome office. Throughout the spring and summer he followed the military events, reading the newspapers carefully and interrogating his visitors.

This was my first meeting with Nicholas "the Bloody." After all the horrors of many years of Bolshevik rule this epithet has quite lost its force. The tyrants who succeeded Nicholas were all the more revolting because they came from the people, or from the intelligentsia, and were thus guilty of crimes against their own brethren.

I think that the experience of the Bolshevik regime has already made some people revise their judgment about the personal responsibility of Nicholas II for all the crimes of his reign. His mentality and his circumstances kept him wholly out of touch with the people. He heard of the blood and tears of thousands only through official documents, in which he was informed of "measures" taken by the authorities, "in the interest of the peace and safety of the State." Such reports did not convey to him the pain and suffering of the victims, but only the "heroism" of the soldiers "faithful in the fullfullment of their duty to the Tsar and the Fatherland." From his youth he had been brought up to believe that his welfare and the welfare of the country were one and the same thing, so that "disloyal" workmen, peasants, and students who were shot down, executed or exiled, seemed to him mere monsters and outcasts of humanity who must be destroyed for the sake of the country and his "faithful subjects."

If he is compared with our modern blood-stained "friends of the people," it is clear that the former Tsar was a man by no means devoid of human feeling, whose nature was perverted by his surroundings and traditions.

When I left him after my first interview, I was very much worked up. What I had seen of the former Tsarina made her character quite clear to me and corresponded with what everyone who knew her had said about her. But Nicholas, with his fine blue eyes and his whole manner and appearance, was a puzzle to me. Was he deliberately exploiting the charm he had inherited from his grandfather, Alexander II? Was he an experienced actor, an artful hypocrite? Or was he a harmless innocent entirely under the thumb of his wife and easily dominated by others? It seemed incredible that this slow-moving modest man, who looked as if he were dressed in someone else's clothes, had been the Tsar of all Russia, Tsar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, etc., etc., and had ruled over an immense empire for 25 years! I do not know what impression Nicholas II would have made upon me if I had seen him when he was still the reigning monarch. However, meeting him after the Revolution, I was struck by the fact that nothing about him suggested that only a month before so much had depended on his word. I left him with the firm intention to trying to solve the riddle of this strange, awesome, and yet disarming personality.

After my first visit I determined to appoint a new commandant to the Aleksandrovsky Palace, a man I could trust. I could not leave the imperial family alone with the few faithful attendants who still clung to the old ceremonial(1) and the soldiers of the guard who kept close watch over them. Later, there were rumours of a "counterrevolutionary" plot in the palace simply because the "court" used to send a bottle of wine to the officer on duty for his dinner. It was necessary to have a faithful, intelligent, and tactful intermediary at the palace. I chose Colonel Korovichenko, a miliary lawyer and a veteran of the Japanese and European wars, whom I knew to be courageous and upright. I was justified in putting my trust in him, for he kept his prisioners strictly isolated and managed to inspire them with respect for the new authorities.

In the course of my occasional short visits to Tsarskoye Selo I tried to fathom the former Tsar's character. I found that he did not care for anything or anyone except, perhaps, his daughters. This indifference to all external things was almost unnatural. As I studied his face, I seemed to see behind his smile and his charming eyes a stiff, frozen mask of utter loneliness and desolation. He did not wish to fight for power, and it simply fell from his hands. He shed his authority as formerly he might have thrown off a dress uniform and put on a simpler one. It was a new experience for him to find himself a plain citizen without the burdens of state. His retirement into private life brought him nothing but relief. Old Madame Naryshkina told me that he had said to her: "How glad I am that I need no longer attend to those tiresome audiences and sign those everlasting documents! I shall read, walk, and spend my time with the children." And, she added, this was no pose on his part.

Indeed, all those who watched him in his captivity were unanimous in saying that Nicholas II seemed generally to be very good-tempered and appeared to enjoy his new manner of life. He chopped wood and piled up the logs in stacks in the park. He did a little gardening and rowed and played with the children.

His wife, however, felt keenly the loss of her authority and could not resign herself to her new status. She suffered from hysteria and was at times partly paralyzed. She depessed everyone around her by her langour, her misery, and her irreconcilable animosity. People like Alexandra Fyodorovna never forget or forgive. While the judicial inquiry into the conduct of her immediate circle was going on, I had to take measures to prevent her from acting in collusion with Nicholas II in case they should be called to give evidence. It would be more accurate to say I had to prevent her from exerting pressure on her husband. Thus, while the investigation was in progress, I ordered the couple to be separated, allowing them to meet only at mealtimes, when they were forbidden to allude to the past.

I must mention here on brief conversation I had with Alexandra Fyodorovna, while old Madame Naryshkina was waiting in an adjoining room. We carried on the conversation in Russian, which Alexandra Fyodorovna spoke haltingly and with a strong accent. Suddenly her face flushed and she flared up:

"I don't understand why people speak ill of me. I have always loved Russia from the time I first came here. I have always sympathized with Russia. Why do people think I am siding with Germany and our enemies? There is nothing German about me. I am English by education and English is my language." She became so excited that it was impossible to continue the conversation.

In her memoirs Naryshkina also throws an interesting sidelight on what was going on in Tsarskoye Selo. On April 16, she writes:

Kerensky is said to be coming here in order to crossexamine the Tsarina. I have been called in as witness to the conversation. I found her in an excited and in an irritable, nervous mood. She was prepared to say a number of silly things to him, but I succeeded in calming her, by telling her: "For the love of God, Your Majesty, don't say a word of all this . . . Kerensky is trying his utmost to save from the Anarchist Party. By interceding for you he is risking his own popularity. He is your only prop. Please try to understand the situation as it is . . .

At this moment Kerensky entered . . . He begged me to withdraw and remained alone with the Tsarina. I stepped into the small salon with the commandant, and here we found Benkendorf and Vanya (Dolgaruki). A few minutes later the Tsar, returning from a walk, joined us there too . . . Then we joined the Tsarina while Kerensky withdrew into the Tsar's study.

The Tsarina has been pleasantly impressed by Kerensky--she finds him sympathetic and honest . . . One could arrive at an understanding with him, she thinks. I am hoping that he has received as favorable an impression of her."(2)

I explained my reasons for the separation to Nicholas II and asked his cooperation so that no one should become invloved in this matter beyond those who knew of it already--Korovichenko, Naryshkina, and Count Benkendorf. They were very cooperative and carried out my injunction strictly. Everyone concerned told me what a remarkably good effect the separation had upon the former Tsar; it made him livlier and altogether more cheerful.

When I told him that there was to be an investigation and that Alexandra Fyodorovna might have to be tried, he merely remarked: "Well, I do not believe Alice had anything to do with it. Is there any proof?" To which I replied: "I do not yet know."

In our conversations we avoided using titles. Once he said: "Well, so now Albert Thomas is with you. Last year he dined with me. An interesting man. Remember me to him, please." I delivered the message.

The way her compared "last year" with "now" showed that Nicholas II may have at times brooded over the past, but we never really talked about it. He only touched upon the subject casually and superficially. He seemed to find it painful to mention these things and, especially, to speak of the men who had deserted and betrayed him so quickly. With all his contempt for manking, he had not expected quite so much disloyalty. I gathered from the hints that slipped out in his conversation that he still hated Guchkov, that he considered Rodzyanko superficial, that he could not imagine what Milyukov was like, that he held Alekseyev in great esteem, and respected Prince Lvov.

Only once did I see Nicholas II lose his self-control. The Tsarskoye Selo Soviet had decided to follow the example in Petrograd and organize an official funeral for the victims of the Revolution. It was to be held on Good Friday, in one of the main avenues of the park at Tsarskoye Selo, at some distance from the palace but exactly opposite the windows of the rooms occupied by the imperial family. The former Tsar was to witness the ceremony from the windows of his gilded prison, to see his guard with red banners paying the last honors to the fallen fighters for freedom. It was an extraordinarily poignant and dramatic episode. The garrison was still well in hand at that time, and we were not afraid of any disorder. We even felt sure that teh troops wished to display their self-control and sense of responsibility as, indeed, they did, when the funeral ceremony did take place.

The question of the imperial family had been attracting too much attention and giving us a great deal of anxiety. On March 4 the government had received a note from the ex-Tsar, in which he made the request for safe passage for him and his family to go to Murmansk on the way to England. On March 6-7, Milyukov had been to see the British ambassador, George Buchanan, and had requested him to ask the British Government to offer hospitality to the imperial family. On March 10, Buchanan had imformed Milyukov that the British Government had agreed to the request. But it had been impossible to organize immediately the departure of the imperial family. All the children were ill with chicken pox. It had also proved impossible in these first few weeks of the Revolution to guarantee the sage conduct for the ex-Tsar on his journey to Murmansk.

As of March 9-10 the Provisional Government had entrusted me with the supervision of the ex-Tsar's stay, under arrest, at the Alexandrovsky Palace, and also with the preparations for the journey to Murmansk. Nicholas could not remain much longer in Tsarskoye Selo in any case. We feared that, if there were any new political complications or disturbances in Petrograd, the Alexandrovsky Palace would not be safe. In the meantime the situation in London had also changed. The British government had gone back on its offer of hospitality to these relatives of its own royal house while the war was still on. Unfortunately, Sir George Buchanan did not immediately inform the Provisional Government of this decision, and the goverenment went on with its arrangements for Nicholas' departure to England. When these were complete, Tereshchenko asked Sir George to get in touch with his government to find out when a British cruiser could be expected to arrive in Murmansk to take on board the imperial family. Sir George, visibly shaken, informed us only at this juncture that the imperial family were no longer welcome in England.

In his memoirs Sir George Buchanan writes:(3) Our offer remained open and was never withdrawn" [italics mine]. Unfortunately, Sir George was not at liberty to reveal the truth. In 1932, after Sir George's death, his daughter Meriel describes the shattering effect on her father of the instructions received from London canceling the invitation that had been extended to the imperial family on March 10. "On his retirement, my father wished to reveal the whole truth," Meriel writes, "but he was told by the Foreign Office that he would lose his pension if he did so."(4) Sir George, whose personal means were slender, decided not to go against the wishes of the government. Meriel Buchanan blames Lloyd George for this change in policy. However, Harold Nicolson, in his official biography of George V, has at last reveled the truth:

"At a meeting which took place at Downing Street on March 22 [N.S.] between the Prime Minister, Mr. Bonar Law, Lord Stamfordham, and Lord Hardinge, it was agreed that since the proposal had been initiated by the Russian Government, it could not possibly be refused . . ." Nicolson continues: ". . . By this time [April 2, N.S.] the suggestion that the Tsar and his family should be given asylum in this country had become publicly known. Much indignation was expressed in left-wing circles in the House of Commons and the press. The King, who was unjustly supposed to be the originator of the proposal, received many abusive letters. George V felt that these disadvantages had not been sufficiently considered by the Government. On April 10 [N.S.] he instructed Lord Stamfordham(5) to suggest to the Prime Minister that, since public opinion was evidently opposed to the proposal, the Russian Government might be informed that His Majesty's Government felt obliged to withdraw the consent which they had previously given."(6)

I had the thankless task of telling the former Tsar of this new development. Contrary to my expectations, he took the news calmly and expressed his wish to go to the Crimea instead. But a journey to the Crimea, which would have involved crossing very unsettled and turbulent parts of the country, seemed very unwise at the time. Instead, I chose Tobolsk, in Siberia, which was without railway communications. I knew that the governor's mansion at Tobolsk was fairly comfortable, and could provide decent accomodations for the imperial family.

The preparations for their departure were shrouded in utmost secrecy, since any publicity might have led to all kinds of complications. Not even all the members of the Provisional Government were informed of the arrangements made for the imperial family. In fact, only five or six persons in Petrograd knew what was going on. The ease and expediency of the departure showed how much the authority of the Provisional Government had been strengthened by August. In March or April it would not have been possible to move the former Tsar without endless consultations with the Soviets. But on August 14, Nicholas II and his family left for Tobolsk upon my personal order and with the consent of the Provisional Government. Neither the Soviet nor anyone else knew of it until afterward.

After setting the date for departure, I explained the situation to Nicholas II and told him to prepare for a long journey. I did not tell him where he was going, but simply suggested that he and his family take as much warm clothing as possible. Nicholas II listened attentively, and when I told him that these arrangements were being made for the benefit of the family, and generally tried to reassure him, he looked straight at me and said: "I am not in the least worried. We believe you. If you say this is necessary, I am certain that it is." And he repeated: "We believe you."

About eleven in the evening, after a meeting of the Provisional Government, I went to Tsarskoye Selo to supervise the departure for Tobolsk. To begin with, I made the rounds of the barracks and inspected the guards, who had been picked by the regiments themselves to accompany the train and guard Nicholas II on his arrival at his destination. They were all ready and seemed cheerful. There had been vague rumors in the town that the ex-Tsar was leaving, and from early evening a curious crowd had begun to gather around the palace park. In the palace final preparations were underway. Luggage was being brought out and stored in motor cars. We were all rather on edge. Before his departure Nicholas II was allowed to see his brother, Grand Duke Michael. Naturally, I had to be present at this interview, much as I disliked intruding on their privacy. The brothers met in the Tsar's study at about midnight. Both seemed very agitated. They were evidently very oppressed by the painful memories of the recent past. For a long time they were silent, and then they began the sort of casual, inconsequential conversation which is characteristic of such brief interviews: "How is Alice?" asked the Grand Duke. They stood facing each other, fidgeting all the while, and sometimes one would take hold of the other's hand or of a button of his uniform.

"May I see the children?" the Grand Duke asked me.
"I am afraid I have to refuse," I answered. "I cannot prolong the interview."
"Very well," the Grand Duke said to his brother. "Embrace them for me."
They began to take leave of each other. Who could have thought that this was the last time they would ever meet?

As I sat in the room near the Tsar's study giving the final orders and awaiting news of the arrival of the train, I could hear the young heir apparent Alexis running about noisily in the corridor. Time was passing and still there was no sign of the train. The railroad workers had hesitated about making up the train. It was daylight by the time it arrived. We motored over to where it was waiting, just beyond the Aleksandrovsky Station. We had previously arranged for the order of seating in the cars, but everything became confused at the last moment.

For the first time I saw the former Tsarina simply as a mother, anxious and weeping. Her son and daughters did not seem to mind the departure so much, though they were upset and nervous at the last moment. Finally, after the last farewell had been said, the cars moved with an escort of Cossacks in front and behind. The sun was already shining brightly when the convoy left the park, but fortunately the town was still asleep. When we reached the train we checked the list of those who were going. More farewells and the train moved off. They were leaving forever, and no one had any inkling of the end that awaited them.(7)

(1) Count Benkendorf, Elisabyeta Naryshkina, Prince Dolgoruky, Dr. Botkin, Countess Buzhoevken, and others.
(2) Elizabeth Naryshkin-Kurakin, Under Three Tsars. Relevant passages from this book are reprinted in The Russian Provisional Government, Vol. I (Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 1961), pp. 187-188.
(3) Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories, Vol. II (London, New York, Cassel & Co., 1923).
(4) Meriel Buchanan, The Dissolution of an Empire, pp. 192, 195-197.
(5) Personal secretary to George V.
(6) Harold Nicolson, King George V, His Life and Reign (New York, Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1953), pp. 299-302.
(7) The fall of the Provisional Government opened the road for bloody dictatorship and led the Tsar's family to the martyr death of July 16, 1918, plotted by Lenin, Sverdlov, and Trotsky. In this connection it is interesting to read Trotsky's own evaluation of the tragic death of the Romanovs: ". . . My next visit to Moscow took place after the fall of Ekaterinburg. Talking to Sverdlov, I asked in passing: 'O yes, and where is the Tsar?' 'It's all over,' he answered, 'he has been shot.' 'And where is the family?' 'And the family along with him.' 'All of them?' I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. 'All of them!' replied Sverdlov, 'What about it?' He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply. 'And who made the decision?' I asked. 'We decided it here. Ilyich believed that we shouldn't leave the Whites a live banner to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances . . .' I did not ask any further questions and considered the matter closed. Actually, the decision was not only expedient but necessary. The severity of this summary justice showed the world that we would continue to fight mercilessly, stopping at nothing. The execution of the Tsar's family was needed not only in order to frighten, horrify, and dishearten the enemy but also in order to shake up our own ranks, to show them that there was no turning back, that ahead lay either complete victory or complete ruin." See Trotsky's Diary in Exile, 1935 (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Univ. Press, 1953), p. 81.

Excerpted from Russia and History's Turning Point by Alexander Kerensky,
Published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1965