Tag Archives: Russian revolution

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.

NN hermitage 1910s
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.’

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.

Friday book # 42 : Three who made a revolution

Natalia Poklonskaia made news again this week by denouncing Trotsky and Lenin, along with Hitler and Mao Tse Tung, as ‘monsters of the twentieth century’. The leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Ziuganov, called the equating of Lenin and Hitler ‘an absolute provocation’. Personally, I don’t have any objection to what Poklonskaia said, though I do wonder why she left Stalin out. Collectively, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin did untold harm. Coincidentally, this week’s Friday book is a biography of the ‘three who made a revolution’, although a better title might be ‘Three who ruined Russia’.


Friday book #20: Russian Revolution

Next on my shelf is a small book (84 pages) by Richard Pipes, entitled Three Whys of the Russian Revolution. The questions which Pipes asks are:

  • Why did Tsarism fail?
  • Why did the Bolsheviks triumph?
  • Why did Stalin succeed Lenin?

Roughly speaking, his answers are as follows:

  • The Tsarist state was weak and unable to cope with the strains of the First World War.
  • The Bolsheviks didn’t triumph because they had majority support (they didn’t), but because they were more determined, more organized, and more ruthless than their opponents.
  • Stalin’s ascent was inevitable. Rather than distorting Lenin’s legacy, Stalin carried it to its logical conclusion.

three whys

The Bolshevik

Last week I gave a talk at the Canadian War Museum on the subject of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich and the First World War. Prior to the talk, I was taken downstairs into the vault to see one of the museum’s large and excellent collection of paintings. Entitled ‘The Bolshevik’, and painted in 1919 by British artist David Jagger, it was eventually bought by Lord Beaverbrook. He then gave it to the Canadian War Museum, which has never put it on display. I think that it is very striking, and given that it has sat unseen in various museum vaults for nearly 100 years, the general public deserves finally to view it. So here is a digital copy of it kindly provided to me by the war museum.

David Jagger, The Bolshevik, CWM 19710261-0204, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum