A dire warning

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of a warning ignored.

In autumn 1916, as the political situation in the Russian Empire worsened, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, General M.V. Alekseev, penned a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, in which he wrote:

Your Imperial Majesty, I consider the minute has come when I am obliged to report the true state of affairs to You. The whole rear of the army … is in a state of ferment. … All this is leading slowly, but steadily, toward an inevitable outburst of stormy emotions among the people.

Next to alert Nicholas of impending danger was his cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, who sent the Tsar a pair of letters containing inflammatory accusations against the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Word of the letters reached the empress, who declared herself ‘utterly disgusted’ and denounced the Grand Duke as one of her ‘greatest enemies’.

Finally, exactly one hundred years ago today, on 20 November 1916, the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, turned up at the Supreme Headquarters in the town of Mogilev. On arrival, he invited the Head Chaplain of the Russian Army, Georgii Shavelskii, to speak to him. Shavelskii revealed that he too had issued a warning to the Tsar. ‘You did well’, said the Grand Duke, ‘But the problem is … her, only her [the Empress]. Take her away, put her in a monastery, and the Emperor will be a completely different person.’

tsar-and-grand-duke-1915
Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich

After talking with Shavelskii, Nikolai Nikolaevich went to visit the Tsar. Most of their conversation was businesslike, but shortly before leaving and returning to the Caucasus, the Grand Duke broached the subject of possible revolution and urged the Tsar to appoint a government enjoying the support of Russia’s parliament, the Duma. Later he described the scene as follows:

I spoke with Nicky in a very sharp manner. … He just said nothing and shrugged his shoulders. I told him straight: ‘It would be more pleasant if you swore at me, struck me, chased me out of here, rather than say nothing. Don’t you see that you will lose your crown? Come to your senses before it’s too late. Install a responsible ministry.’

According to Shavelskii, the Grand Duke pointed to the room occupied by the Tsar’s son and heir, and told him: ‘If you won’t take pity on yourself, take pity on him.’ But the Tsar refused to heed his advice.

On his way back to the Caucasus, Nikolai Nikolaevich stopped in Kiev, where he met the Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Mariia Fedorovna. On 22 November 1916, she recorded in her diary: ‘We are on the threshold of revolution. … Let us hope that Nicky’s conversations with four different people will open his eyes. Alekseev, Shavelskii, Nikolai [Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich],and finally Nikolasha [Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich], whom it was evidently hardest and most unpleasant to listen to, have all told him the truth.’

When revolution broke out in Russia two months later, the Tsar could not say that he had not been warned.

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10 thoughts on “A dire warning”

  1. I have often contemplated in an idle way a book comparing three kings who lost their heads. Charles I, Louis XVI and Nikolay II. Good men, kind men, decent men who thought they had to be absolute rulers but had none of the talent and self-confidence to do the job. Might have made good or acceptable constitutional monarchs.

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    1. King Stephen of England was considered a kindly man, and as a result spent his reign fighting endless rebellion. Likewise Henry VI, God rest his soul. (‘Rex Henricus sis amicus’, as we used to sing at school).

      Perhaps there’s a message there, though not a very pleasant one.

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    2. Being far too generous with Charles I. Cromwell lost patience with him when his plotting to restart the civil war using Irish troops to invade England was discovered. That man of blood was an apt description. A man with a tin ear to his people, an inability to compromise, convinced of his own righteousness and an incompetent. Probably a consistent pattern across all three.

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  2. An example of King Stephen’s kind heartedness came during the siege of Usk castle (which is about 5 miles from my childhood home). Usk was owned by John Marshall, who supported Stephen’s rival, Matilda. Stephen agreed to relax the siege on condition that Marshall did not resupply the castle. To ensure that he kept his word, Marshall handed over his son, William, as a hostage. Despite that, he broke his promise and resupplied the castle. On learning of this, Stephen told him that his son’s life was forfeit. In reply, Marshall supposedly said, ‘I can always have another son; I can’t have another castle’. Stephen, however, took pity on the child, and spared his life. He went on to become one of the most famous knights of English history.

    Anyway, Stephen’s kindheartedness didn’t do him any good. People just took it as a sign of weakness, and rebelled against him.

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    1. “Kind” king Stephen put poor kid into a catapult’s ladle, after which he delivered his ultimatum to the “concerned” father. Marshall the Elder, according to the account, grabbed his crotch and informed all interested parties that he “still has hammer and anvil” to make another son.

      Both were assholes. Totally normal thing for a nobility.

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  3. Oh well, ‘the bottoms don’t want, and the tops cannot’. I don’t see how installing “a responsible ministry” would’ve changed anything…

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    1. It strikes me differently, one wonders what direction the world might have turned for the better. Perhaps revolution would have been prevented, millions of people spared, decades of animosity between east and west might have been prevented.
      I don’t know. Maybe just one man, even a Tsar, couldn’t have made any difference. I like to think he could have though.

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