17 July 2014

Remembering Tsar Saint Nicholas II of Russia

An interesting study polling modern Russians on their past leaders – specifically, whether their contributions and policies had helped Russia develop in a positive direction or not – showed that, after V. V. Putin, the most highly-rated Russian leaders of the past century were Dmitriy Medvedev, Leonid Brezhnev and the Right-Believing Emperor Saint Nicholas II Romanov, the last Tsar of the Russian Empire before the February Revolution. Interestingly, with the exception of Brezhnev, in this poll Nicholas II came out well ahead of every other Soviet-era leader, not to mention the post-Soviets (Gorbachev and Eltsin) who wreaked the devastation of disaster capitalism across the nation.

Nicholas II is a figure who has been very wrongly despised and belittled both by the historians of the West and by those of the Soviet period. Portrayed by both Western and Soviet historians as a muddle-headed and heavy-handed reactionary, the truth of the matter was that his sole failing was that he was (as my wife would say) too young and too naïve to have been given such heavy responsibilities as early in life as he was. A pious Orthodox believer, a lover of peace, a dutiful son, an ardently loving husband and an affectionate father, such a virtuous man as Nicholas Romanov should have been universally well-loved. Even in his capacity as Tsar, his difficulties arose not from personal defects, unless his willingness to think well of the people surrounding him is to be considered a defect.

After the diplomatic mishandling of the tragedy at Khodynskoe Pole following his coronation, in which over a thousand Muscovites were killed, Nicholas was unfortunately subject to the impression amongst the Russian populace that he was frivolous and aloof. However, he had spent that afternoon with his wife, the Empress Alexandra Fiodorovna, visiting those hospitalised and injured at Khodynskoe Pole. At his behest also, a large fund, to which he personally contributed great sums, was set aside for the benefit of the families of those who had died there, and a number of the incompetents who had organised the celebration at the Pole were fired. There was more than a bit of the narodnik in Nicholas, in spite of his reputation for clinging to the autocracy – it is probably in part this narodnik tendency which led him and his wife to trust so implicitly a poor, illiterate Siberian peasant mystic by the name of Grigoriy Efimovich Rasputin.

In peacetime, Nicholas would have been a great Tsar rather than the mediocrity he is often considered. But he came to power during a very troubled time. He went to great lengths, much like Metternich before him, to secure a lasting continental peace and to reintroduce norms for a more civilised conduct of war through the Hague Convention of 1899. Unfortunately, he had to contend – as the United States also later would – with the rise of a belligerently imperialistic and militaristic Japan, bent on its dreams of Asian conquest. The Japanese attack on Port-Arthur (now Lüshunkou in Liaoning Province, China) in 1904 was completely unprovoked, a cowardly sneak attack under cover of night against two Russian battleships and a cruiser. Because Nicholas had invested so much of his time and effort in negotiate a European peace, his military was unprepared to fight a naval war on the eastern coast, against a fledgling empire whose technological and civil developments were, at the tutelage of the West, far outpacing the civility and wisdom of their leaders. In spite of the débâcle at Tsushima, the Russians fought bravely and effectively on land, holding the Yalu against the Japanese. In the long run, had Russia carried on the war and had it not been for the growing tide of revolt at home, the exhaustion of Japan’s industrial and human capacity would have guaranteed victory. As it was, the unequal peace with Japan was a humiliation for Russia and left all of Asia open to Japanese depredation and debauchery; once again, though, the Tsar is hardly to be blamed for it.

The saintly Tsar was a conservative autocrat, but neither his conservatism nor his autocracy are easily modelled on Western European notions. His appointment of P. A. Stolypin is a case in point. Stolypin wanted above all else to preserve intact the office and dignities of the Russian Emperor, and he was willing to cut deals with liberal elements in Russian society to do so – to a point. He had no patience for revolutionaries, and had many of them hanged. But Stolypin’s agrarian reforms, often cited as sweeping and ‘liberalising’, were in actuality more modest and more accommodating to the traditional model than they are often painted.

True, his aim was to give peasants more individual rights in land ownership, and the ability to leave their family farms as they wished. However, it seems he either knew he could not, or did not want to, do away entirely with the collective responsibilities and shared communal life of the traditional obshchina: his reforms therefore also included a strong initiative for agricultural, credit and consumer cooperatives and institutions of collective self-help very similar to the ideas of F. W. Raiffeisin in Germany or J. E. Krek in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; these surprisingly socialistic proposals of Stolypin would later be adopted and expanded upon by the early Soviets. The saintly Tsar supported these reforms – and would, even after Stolypin’s dismissal and assassination, continue embarking on reform programmes aimed at protecting workers and farmers: instituting state schooling; limiting the workday to a maximum of ten hours; holding factories to high uniform standards of safety; guaranteeing social insurance to workers. But these were not, of course, motivated by any revolutionary fervour, so much as by the demands of Orthodox piety and social conscience!

Revolutionary fervour, though, was a major problem throughout Nicholas’s reign. He was subject to several assassination attempts, after one of which (in early 1904) he moved his family out of Saint Petersburg for several weeks. During this time, a social reformist priest (Fr George Gapon) staged a protest which wound up in tragedy as panicked soldiers at the Winter Palace fired into the crowd, leaving ninety-two protesters dead. The incident sadly crushed public faith in the Tsar. Waves of protests and strikes following the ‘Bloody Sunday’ incident forced Nicholas to adopt parliamentary reforms, which very quickly escalated into more and more unreasonable demands of the liberal intelligentsia. The appointment of Stolypin was an attempt to mitigate the growing unrest, but ultimately it failed.

Nicholas found himself also looking on in horror as the peace he’d worked so hard to build in Europe crumble as Europe reorganised into two large military alliances, and as tensions began to rise between them. He sympathised with the Serbian struggle for autonomy, but for more than a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand he did all in his limited power to hold back the tide of war and bring about a diplomatic resolution, until the demands of the Russian military for total mobilisation against Germany and Austria could no longer be sanely ignored. The early war on the Eastern Front was mishandled and the Germans made heavy incursions into Russian territory by 1915; as a result, when Tsar Nicholas took personal command, he had inherited a largely defensive rather than an offensive war. His decision to take command also left him isolated from affairs of state, and left him open to the machinations of the State Duma to wrest power from him.

When at last he was forced to abdicate, he had hoped to hand the reins over to his brother, Grand Duke Michael. But Michael refused to take the throne and left power in the hands of the Constituent Assembly, which abolished the Empire and established a provisional republic in its place, which itself would fall in a mere matter of months to the Bolsheviks. The Russian provisional government placed the dethroned ‘Colonel Romanov’ and his family under arrest and later exiled them to Ekaterinburg, where they met their martyrdoms at the hands of the Bolsheviks – brutally shot point-blank in the basement of their house as White legionaries were approaching Ekaterinburg. Tsarina Alexandra and her daughter Olga Nikolaevna crossed themselves as they were martyred. The younger ones of the saintly Tsar’s children suffered the most of the Bolsheviks’ cruelty, having survived the first salvo and dying by their bayonets.

Tsar Saint Nicholas, having been born on the feast-day of Prophet Job the Long-Suffering, was likewise a righteous man tragically doomed by the vicissitudes of a brutal, wicked and adulterous age. But the doom which he long suspected lay in store for himself he bore with all the equanimity of a saint, long before the Bolsheviks in their drunken panic at the White advance decided to murder him. ‘Perhaps an expiatory sacrifice is needed for Russia’s salvation,’ he at one point said. ‘I will be that sacrifice. May God’s will be done!’

Humble, pious and meek, but strong in faith and right belief, having been given by Our Lord the crown of glory to replace the crown of this life which was wrongly taken from you, glorious passion-bearing Tsar Saint Nicholas, with blessed and steadfast Tsarina Saint Alexandra and your five children, please intercede for us on this day.

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