One of the most intriguing scenes in Franklin Schaffner’s 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra concerns Tsar Nicholas II’s (played by Michael Jayston) signing of the Act of Abdication in his railway carriage. He notices the date, and quietly exclaims ‘The Ides of March!’ As has already been mentioned in Harold Rex, this would not have happened: Russia still used the Julian (or Old Style) Calendar, which was thirteen days behind the Gregorian Calendar used in the West, so the date as far as Nicholas and his subjects were concerned would have been 2 March 1917. There is, though, something strangely appropriate about Russia’s last Tsar finally giving up power on the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s murder, and not just because the Russian word Tsar derives from the word Caesar (as does the German word Kaiser). Like the Roman Republic’s first dictator, Nicholas was totally tin-eared to criticism and oblivious to the damage that his overreached powers were doing to the state and people.
One of the problems with monarchy as a system of government is that the element of trust takes on a much bigger profile than in a republic: as you can’t vote a monarch out of power you have to trust him or her not to mess the job up. In absolute monarchies this problem is even bigger, since there are virtually no checks and balances and the prince is answerable only to the Almighty. The comedian Richard Herring nailed the problem in a 2013 BBC radio documentary about Rasputin:
Nicholas genuinely believed that God had chosen him to rule Russia, which seems bizarre: that of all people God could have chosen it could have been this quite ineffectual, quite weak-minded, not a great leader of men, who so believed that he had the Divine Right to rule that he wouldn’t really allow any concessions to parliament, which would have saved everything.
As far as Nicholas was concerned, the empire that he had inherited from his father in 1894 had an autocratic monarchical system, and that was the system he was determined to pass on to his son. The problem was that the empire in question was coming undone: as has already been mentioned in Harold Rex he had guaranteed at least a difficult war if not a defeat by expecting his armies to take on the Germans, Habsburgs and Turks all at once, even though Russia was in no fit state to triumph in such a war, given the inefficiencies and shortcomings that total war had exposed. Defeat after defeat had resulted in the Central Powers taking Poland, the Baltic provinces and western Ukraine, with the Russians losing over 2 million men in the process. At home, there were shortages of food and fuel, as well as inflation, the effects of which led the steelworkers at the Putilov works in Petrograd to down tools on 3 March 1917. Thousands of protesters hit the streets in sympathy with the steelworkers, and over the next week the numbers of demonstrators ran into half a million.
The Tsar’s unimaginative response was to order the commander of the Petrograd garrison, General Sergei Khabalov, to “restore order” – for which, read ‘kill all who oppose me.’ Some soldiers carried the order out – and it’s thought about 1,500 people in the capital were killed during the twelve days of the Revolution – but others did not. Indeed, an ominous sign from the point of view of the imperial government was that the normally-loyal Cossacks had defected to the revolutionary side.
Nicholas himself was made to understand the depth of popular anger against the regime, when the train taking him back to Petrograd from his countryside retreat of Tsarskoye Selo was stopped by strikers, and diverted into a siding in Pskov. With the Germans about to launch more offensives, possibly in the direction of Petrograd, and an army mutiny a strong possibility, leading figures of the Russian aristocracy filed into the Tsar’s carriage, and one by one urged him to abdicate. So, on 15 March Nicholas bowed to the inevitable, and abdicated in favour of his cousin, Grand Duke Michael – but he rejected the Russian throne, and so the monarchy was abolished, and a Provisional Government, headed by Socialist Revolutionary party member Alexander Kerensky, was formed.
Perhaps the last word on the system that Russia’s last Tsar had inherited and ultimately had to abandon belongs to the historian Orlando Figes. In his brilliant 1996 book A People’s Tragedy, Figes argues that, for all Nicholas’s shortcomings, most of the Russian population still favoured a monarchical (or quasi-monarchical) system over all others:
The mass of the peasants thought of politics in monarchical terms. They conceived of the state as embodied in the monarch, and projected their ideals of the revolution on to a “peasant king”, or some other authoritarian liberator come to deliver their cherished land and freedom. Here were the roots of the cults of Kerensky, Kornilov and Lenin, all of which were attempts to fill the missing space of the deposed Tsar, or perhaps the vacuum left by the myth of the Tsar Deliverer. George Buchanan, the British Ambassador, noted this monarchical mentality during the first days of the revolution, when one soldier said to him: ‘Yes, we need a republic, but at its head there should be a good Tsar.’
Perhaps this mindset goes some way to explain the consistent successes of figures like Yeltsin, Medvedev and Putin, too…