Tag Archives: Nicholas II

The popular Romanov

Today is the 100th anniversary of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Given the subsequent triumph of the Bolsheviks it is easy to see the February/March revolution which overthrew the Tsar as founded on the Russian people’s desire for ‘peace, land, and bread’. But this is to confuse one revolution with another. It is not even clear that in February/March 1917 Russians were rejecting the Romanov dynasty. Certainly, this was the demand of the more extreme elements who led the way in the capital Petrograd, but elsewhere in the country the situation was not the same. To understand this, it is worth looking at what happened to another Romanov in this period – Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

The Grand Duke had been Supreme Commander of the Russian Army until August 1915, when he was dismissed and sent packing to the Caucasus to be Viceroy. In one of his very last acts as Tsar, Nicholas II reappointed Nikolai Nikolaevich as Supreme Commander. In Petrograd, the appointment caused outrage among the more radical socialists who dominated the revolutionary mob. Elsewhere, though, the reaction was very different.

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Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

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Charismatic legitimacy

In pre-revolutionary China, the Emperor’s legitimacy was said to derive from the ‘mandate of heaven’. On the one hand, proof that an Emperor had such a mandate came from his success. On the other hand, if the Emperor was unsuccessful, that was evidence that he did not have a mandate from heaven, in which case rebellion against him was justifiable.

In an article commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the February (March, new style) revolution, Russian conservative thinker Boris Mezhuev has developed a somewhat similar theory regarding the legitimacy of Russian government. Mezhuev notes that the revolution of February/March 1917 went beyond overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II and resulted in the complete destruction of the monarchy. Theoretically speaking, this didn’t have to happen, he says. It should have been possible to replace Nicholas with somebody else. Indeed, that was most people originally had in mind – some sort of revolution or coup d’etat which would result either in a change of government under the same Tsar, or in a substitution of one Tsar for another, while at the same time possibly producing a new more democratic form of constitutional monarchy. Why then, Mezhuev asks, did the revolution instead result in the creation of a republic?

The answer, he says, lay in Russians’ shallow understanding of monarchy and political legitimacy. Mezhuev calls this a ‘weakness of institutional thinking’. Russian government, he claims, was based upon a form of legitimacy which he terms ‘charismatic legitimacy’. This was focused on the personality of the ruler and perceptions of his success. A successful Tsar was legitimate. An unsuccessful one wasn’t.

Nicholas II’s fateful mistake, according to Mezhuev, was taking personal command of the army in August 1915. Although the Russian army ceased to retreat soon afterwards, and did win a major victory in 1916 in the form of the Brusilov Offensive, overall it failed to make significant progress with the Tsar as Supreme Commander. Nicholas thus came to be seen as illegitimate, in essence as lacking the ‘mandate of heaven.’ More than this, though, the monarchy as a whole lost its legitimacy. Failure in war ensured its downfall.

The same pattern repeated itself in Soviet times. The legitimacy of the Soviet system came to be associated with the head of the Communist Party. When the Party was led by someone who was clearly failing – Mikhail Gorbachev – not just Gorbachev, but communist rule as a whole lost its legitimacy. ‘People will look at the existing ruler’, Mezhuev writes, ‘and at the regime they lead, and ask: if you are like that, Mikhail Sergeevich, then we don’t need the USSR, and if you are like that, Nicholas II, then down with the monarchy’.

‘The problem’, continues Mezhuev, ‘is the idea that victory beats everything, that the victor should receive all. This idea destroys all institutions in a country, both democratic and monarchical. … Charismatic legitimacy is a recognition of the supremacy of the truth of revolution over the truth of historical legality’. A system founded on charismatic legitimacy carries the seeds of revolution within itself. Mezhuev concludes:

I am convinced that a republic can arise in Russia only as a result of a restoration, or more precisely, some sort of restoration or renewal of traditional monarchical legitimacy. Whether a monarch is restored or not isn’t important. What’s important is that people recognize that the power of tradition is more important than the power of force.

There is, I think, something to this. Basing the legitimacy of an entire system upon perceptions of a given ruler’s success is extremely risky. Furthermore, other sources of legitimacy such as elections can only go so far. Factors such as history, tradition, culture, and religion (which I imagine would fit within Mezhuev’s definition of ‘traditional monarchical legitimacy’) are extremely important.

Unfortunately for modern Russia, charismatic legitimacy remains an extremely important foundation of the political system. Indeed, the system almost guarantees this by concentrating so much power in the hands of the president. So far, Vladimir Putin’s enormous popularity has ensured that the political order established by Boris Yeltsin can survive. But what would happen if Russia had a president who not only lacked Putin’s charisma but was also an obvious failure? At that point, there is a danger that the whole system might come tumbling down.

If Mezhuev is right, therefore, the lesson of the Russian revolution may be that Russia’s long-term stability depends on how successful its rulers are in creating sources of legitimacy other than themselves. Given the catastrophic results of the revolutions of 1917, we must hope that they succeed.

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.’

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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.

Memory wars

Following the recent kerfuffle in Russia over a statue of Ivan the Terrible, the issue of monuments continues to make headlines. Two differing approaches to historical memory are on display. Both create their own historical distortions. By eradicating monuments of an entire era, one paints that era as bad in every single way. By sanctifying an autocratic ruler, the other whitewashes the imperfections of the past.

According to the Ukrainian television station Espreso TV, the last remaining statue of Lenin in Ukraine, located in the town of Novgorod-Severskii, has been taken down. There were once more than 2,000 Lenin statues in the country. As a result of a 2015 law prohibiting communist memorials and symbols, Ukraine is now Lenin-free.

Meanwhile, a bell-tower dedicated to Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, was formally opened in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, on Tuesday. Attending the opening was Duma deputy and former chief prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaia, who has acquired something of a reputation as a monarchist, and whose idea the bell tower was. Poklonskaia told reporters that, ‘For me, my colleagues and friends, this isn’t simply a bell tower, but an entire church. And this church is not simply a building but a holy one, in which will be carried out, with full rights, all the services and liturgies as laid down in the church canons.’

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Natalia Poklonskaia pays homage to Nicholas II

The first story illustrates an approach to historical memory which is destructive and coercive; the second an approach which is constructive and voluntary. If there is one thing the participants can agree on, it is that they aren’t fans of communism. But as these examples show, the victors of today’s memory wars aren’t always the victors of tomorrow’s.

Mannerheim or bust

On Monday, a St Petersburg court refused to order the city government to take down a plaque put up earlier this year to commemorate General Gustaf Mannerheim. Mannerheim served in the Imperial Russian Army before the revolution, reaching the rank of lieutenant general, and the plaque celebrates him as a distinguished Russian officer. During the Second World War, however, Mannerheim was Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Army, which supported the Germans in blockading Leningrad. Believing that it was inappropriate to install a memorial to somebody who brought the city so much harm, a St Petersbug resident petitioned the local court to order its removal. The court ruled that the city was not responsible for putting up the plaque, and therefore couldn’t be told to take it down.

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Friday book #4: Court of Nicholas II

Next along my bookshelf is this week’s Friday book: Greg King’s 2006 The Court of the Last Tsar: Pomp, Power, and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II. The book is divided into five parts: ‘Personalities’, which examines the royal family, its servants, and the various military, administrative, and clerical members of the Court; ‘Palaces’, which looks at the Winter Palace, Tsarskoe Selo, Peterhof, and the Moscow palaces; ‘Possessions’, which describes the royal family’s jewelry, art, and so on; ‘Pageantry’, which looks at Imperial ceremonies such as funerals, weddings and coronations; and ‘Pleasures’, which examines Imperial balls, state visits, and the annual outings to the Crimea.

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Crackpot theory no. 6: Kenoticism

Today, my class on ‘Russia and the West’ will be examining Russian Orthodoxy. One of the subjects we will be discussing is the theological concept of kenoticism.

Kenoticism derives from the Greek word kenosis, which means ‘self-emptying’, and it demands that people empty themselves of their own will and subordinate themselves entirely to the will of God. The idea of kenoticism comes from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.7-8, which says that Jesus ‘emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’

Kenoticism therefore implies obedience and subordination to a higher power, as well as a willingness to suffer. As the Orthodox theologian Alexander F.C. Webster puts it, the concept requires, ‘meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, non-resistance, acceptance of suffering, and death, in imitation of Christ.’

In Russian Orthodoxy, notable examples of kenoticism are the 11th century princes of Kiev Boris and Gleb, who chose not to resist their brother Svyatopolk the Accursed, but instead meekly awaited the assassins whom Svyatopolk had sent to kill them, and consequently suffered decidedly unpleasant deaths. The story of Boris and Gleb encapsulates both the principle of non-resistance to evil and the idea that suffering is holy. Boris and Gleb are saints not because of any holy acts, but because they suffered. The same is true of Tsar Nicholas II, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church not for any allegedly saintly deeds while ruling Russia but for the simple fact that he was killed. Through suffering, humans humble themselves and so come to resemble Christ, who suffered on the cross. Suffering is good for the soul.

I understand the idea that non-resistance to evil can be a better option than violent resistance. Are Syrians as a whole better off for the fact that some of them rose up to resist Assad? Clearly not. For the most part, they were better off when they submitted. But there can be virtue in non-violent resistance, as seen by examples such as Rosa Parks. The idea of complete non-resistance makes me rather uneasy.

More than that, though, what I don’t like about kenoticism is the implication that suffering is good for the soul. Is it actually true that those who suffer are holier than those who do not? On the one hand, I get the point that being too comfortable possibly distracts one’s mind from spiritual matters. One runs the risk of decadence. On the other hand, being very uncomfortable probably makes material matters even more important. Who has time to worry about God when they are hungry? Furthermore, there seems to be plenty of evidence that those who suffer aren’t automatically better people because of it. A large number of physically abusive men were themselves physically abused as children. Their childhood suffering didn’t bring them closer to Christ – quite the opposite.

And then, there is the whole issue of suffering, subordination, and the ‘Russian soul’. Kenoticism fits in with the centuries-old cliché (found as far back as in Herberstein’s writings in the sixteenth century) that Russians like to be bossed about and have a particular penchant and capacity for suffering. I don’t buy it. There is quite a history of Russian resistance to autocratic authority (e.g. Stenka Razin, Emelyan Pugachev, and the revolutions of 1905 and 1917). And while it is true that Russians have suffered a lot over the course of their history, that doesn’t mean that they have liked it, let alone that they have a peculiar ability to endure it. I am sure that if you asked Russians, ‘would you rather be free and comfortable or enslaved and suffering?’, pretty much all of them would prefer to be free and comfortable.

Dostoevsky wrote that, ‘the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.’ I think not.