19. The Romanovs and the Russian Revolution

Prof: Today I want to
talk about the Russian Revolution.
I want to do just a couple
things at the beginning. Then I’m going to–I hope you
weren’t in Jay’s class “The Age of Total War”
last year, because I gave almost the same
lecture in it. In fact, I might have done it
this year, too. As you know,
I have him come in, then he has me go into theirs.
But what I want to do is see
the Revolution through the eyes of Nicholas and Alexandra,
for the last part. But first, just a couple things
at the beginning. Picking up on something that I
said when we talked about 1848, the Russian Revolution is a
perfect way to see revolution as process at work.
You know, read the chapter.
The revolution in February,
as I said before, people wake up and there are
not a lot of troops around, and people are hungry,
and the–and I’ll talk more about this in a
minute–autocracy falls rather quickly and rather easily.
It’s at that point when you’ve
got the provisional government of Kerensky.
It’s at that point that,
as in 1848, and as in 1789 and the following years,
people who want to shape the future of the country put in
their claims. That’s when social and
political conflicts increase dramatically.
The context of the war is,
of course, mind-boggling, with the front not all that far
away from Petrograd–because St. Petersburg was renamed
Petrograd at the beginning of the war, because it was a more
Russian name. Those groups,
like the Mensheviks whom you read about,
the Bolsheviks–Lenin comes back on the sealed train–the
Kadets, liberals, and those people who wanted
czarist restoration, and the Socialist
Revolutionaries, of which Kerensky was one,
who have the most influence in Russia of any dissident party by
far. They would be allies,
especially the leftwing of the Socialist Revolutionaries,
of the Bolsheviks after the Bolshevik seizure of power.
Then they’re dismissed and
persecuted like the others. But they all put forward their
claims. All the kinds of tensions,
and the “Kornilov plot,” in quotes,
which you can read about, and the July Days,
and all of that really reflect the revolutionary process.
What happens in October is the
Bolsheviks, after one attempt that didn’t work,
are able to seize power. So, Leon Trotsky–who ends up,
as you know, with an ice pick planted
through his neck in a garden in Mexico City,
assassinated on the orders of Stalin–and Lenin and the very
young Stalin, who was in Siberia at the time
of the February revolution, the Bolsheviks come to power
and the Soviet Union is created. Next week I’ll talk about
Stalin and Stalinism. Today it’s enough to talk about
the Russian Revolution. Before I go back and tell you
about Nicholas and Alexandra, and the crazed Rasputin and
those folks, nobody expected there would be
a revolution, that the Marxist revolution or
version would come to Russia. Populists, who in the middle
decades of the nineteenth century believed that the
Russian peasantry was a potentially revolutionary force,
people like Bakunin, whom I’ve talked about before.
They thought that the peasants
would rise up one day and sweep away their masters,
to whom they were indentured as serfs until 1861.
That’s not that long before
World War I and all of that. But for Marx the revolution had
to come where you had a class-conscious proletariat that
had been organized by this revolutionary elite,
sort of a top-down organized revolutionary elite.
That would come in Germany,
in Britain, in France, eventually maybe in the United
States. After the Bolshevik revolution,
Lenin is still convinced that the revolution is going to come
in Germany. In fact, the Spartacists do
rise. They were a real far-left
revolutionary group full of some very good people,
incidentally, like Rosa Luxemburg who ends up
being murdered. She was born in Zamosc,
in what then was Russian Poland.
The revolution had to come
where you had an industrial proletariat.
But it doesn’t.
Or does it?
I’m a little ambiguous there,
but let me say that because the revolution starts in Petrograd,
that the way Petrograd was in 1917 an administrative,
czarist, autocratic capital constructed
by Peter the Great. But it’s also a huge,
enormous industrial center with hundreds of thousands of
industrial workers. The historians still debate
whether by October, that is,
after February during the provisional government time,
the Socialist Revolutionaries or the Bolsheviks had more
influence in the soviets. That’s where the Soviet Union
comes from. In the soviets,
which were organizations of workers, sailors,
and soldiers. Marx wasn’t all wrong.
The role of the industrial
workers in St. Petersburg is very important in
this. Lots of them get betrayed.
They all get betrayed,
ultimately, because what was going to be the workers’
paradise, it ain’t that. And workers’ self-management,
it didn’t become that. It didn’t become that at all.
They’re shocked when the Red
Guards are putting down their strikes.
But in the beginning,
the role of the workers on the periphery–remember center and
periphery is terribly important. I talk a little bit about this
in what you’re reading. Along the Nevsky Prospect you
have government buildings. You’ve got the Singer Sewing
Machine Company. You’ve got tramways.
I haven’t been to St.
Petersburg since au temps
des camarades, since the fall of communism,
but very fancy stores in 1917, very dolled-up people,
very rich people. Then the tramway simply stopped
in the mud when they reached the periphery, when they reached the
working-class suburbs. The glittering lights of the
big department stores that would make you think of London,
and Paris, and Berlin, and Vienna, and the big fancy
hotels, all lit up with doormen
clicking their heels as the well-heeled enter and leave,
even during the war. There weren’t any lights,
or very few, when you got into the
working-class suburbs. The one thing to keep in mind
is that the Russian Revolution, both that of February and that
of October, was a popular revolution.
This was no sort of a coup
d’état carried out by a couple of extremely organized,
determined politicos. Lenin was organized and he was
determined. Lenin was not what the French
would call rigolo. He was not a barrel of laughs.
He was sure of himself.
He had very little sense of
humor. He had biting sarcasm.
I guess I quote once in there,
when he would argue with somebody he said,
“He who does not understand that understands
nothing.” He was very,
very sure of himself, a very difficult man to get
along with. I’ll leave it to you to think
was Stalinism inevitable in Leninism?
I’m not so sure it was.
Anyway, the revolution was a
popular revolution. The fall of the autocracy,
the masses did not rise up to save the czar.
They did not, and the czarina.
land, and peace.” “Bread, land,
and peace” is a very, very important slogan when
you’ve got millions of people under arms from all of the
nationalities, some of whom didn’t know
Russian at all, many of whom when they go into
the war don’t know the difference between a gun and a
pitchfork. Until the very end,
Nicholas and Alexandra, who are not very loveable
people– one can feel sorry for them, and you will feel sorry
for them. They end horribly.
But they still had the beliefs
that the Russian people loved their czar,
and that they would pour forward to save the czar,
and the czarina, and the autocracy.
And they didn’t.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk,
March 1918, pulls Russia out of the war and all that.
That’s just a couple of things
that the beginning to say. It’s all in the book.
Still, it’s a very interesting
revolution. There’s a lot of great
literature on the Russian Revolution in English.
I don’t read Russian at all,
but in all sorts of languages. Now, having just sort of that
set that up–reserved seating, VIP?
What is this?
I don’t know.
Anyway, there’s nobody
there–Let’s talk about–did I do all that?
Yeah–Let’s talk about Nicholas
and Alexandra. The czar.
Nicholas was a family guy.
He enjoyed his family.
They played tennis.
They were modern people.
They had bicycles.
They pedaled around.
The bicycle was a relatively
recent invention, as you know.
The first big bicycle races in
Europe are already in the 1890s. Like his cousin,
Nicholas II, he had some general education
in the political economy, in math and geography,
and foreign languages, which he spoke very well,
and in military science. But he had very little
intellectual interest at all. Built into the way he looked at
the world was this inherent suspicion of rationality,
of the Enlightenment. He was somebody who,
and his wife also, would still blame,
if he discussed it, Peter the Great for having
really incorporated, in some ways,
rational organization and the Enlightenment,
at least the works of the philosophes,
into Russia long before that. He believed that waging war was
a matter of honor. In that he shared lots with his
wacko cousin, Wilhelm II.
He was hard-working in the
sense that he read or listened to reports on all that was going
on about the war. Mark Steinberg has published
some of the letters. Mark Steinberg is a friend of
mine who teaches at Illinois. If I remember correctly,
the czar believed that the nobles had compromised the fate
of the autocracy in some ways, or threatened it by being
indolent and not working hard enough.
His view was always that he was
the father of his people, that he was the holy czar.
Again, everybody has seen
pictures of him sitting on a horse, blessing the kneeling
soldiers as they’re going off to fight in 1914.
He constantly referred to his
ancestors, the Romanovs. “Only the state which
preserves the heritage of the past is strong and firm,”
he wrote. “We ourselves have sinned
against this and God is punishing us with the war.”
He took command of the Russian
army in 1915 against the advice of his wife.
He didn’t usually go against
the advice of Alexandra, the advice of his ministers,
and the advice of the mad monk, Rasputin.
Obviously, one of the reasons
that people argued against this was (a) he really wasn’t a
military guy, and (b) if it doesn’t go well,
will people blame the czar? Will the role of the czar be
diminished? He had a strong sense of what
he considered moral, and it was shaped by his
Orthodox religion. His wife, about whom I’ll have
more to say, was a convert to Russian Orthodoxy.
Like many converts from one
religion to another, was absolutely fanatic in her
attachment. He was more relaxed about
religion than his wife was, but he often spoke about this
sort of religious ecstasy that he felt when he went to church.
Historians now say,
“It’s too easy to shape discourse about the Russian
Revolution around the influence of Rasputin.”
But in fact,
Rasputin in 1914 had warned that war would bring God’s
punishment upon Russia, and great destruction,
and grief without end. Rasputin did have great
influence with the family. In one letter–again,
Mark put this stuff together–the czar wrote,
“When I am worried or doubtful or vexed,
I only talk to Gregory for a few minutes to feel myself
immediately soothed and strengthened.”
One of the reasons that
Rasputin had so much influence on the royal family was,
of course, tragic illness. Alexi, the son,
was a hemophiliac. Hemophiliacs,
I guess now they can treat it easier than they could before,
but when hemophiliacs get a scratch they can bleed.
The blood does not coagulate
and they can die. He was not in good health at
all. Rasputin, on a couple of
occasions, got lucky and predicted the end
of a spell, as they used to call them,
or an episode of hemophilia, and everything worked out okay.
This increases the belief of
these parents in the power, if you will,
of Rasputin. When there was a mutiny in the
navy he wrote, “If you find me so little
troubled, it is because I have the firm
and absolute faith that the destiny of Russia,
of my own fate, and that of my family are in
the hands of Almighty God, who has placed me where I am.
Whatever may happen I shall bow
to His will.” This kind of fatalism you would
see to the end, when after the revolution he’s
on a train and he finally has to turn back.
This sort of fatalism was part
of it. Rasputin by then at that point
was already dead. He’d been assassinated.
Even the story of his
assassination, it was almost impossible to
kill him. They kept hammering him with
huge rocks and pumping one bullet after another into him.
The people that wanted to get
him out of the way. They finally,
after sort of beating the hell out of him and pumping one
bullet after another into all parts of his body,
they threw him into a lake weighted down with rocks.
When they brought the body up
and did an autopsy, they found out that he died of
drowning. Anyway,
his influence over the czar in a way helped accentuate this
sort of fatalism that was almost predetermined,
you could say, by his religious orthodoxy.
But if you’re going to be the
autocratic czar, father of all the people,
you don’t want any political institution that’s going to
limit your will. Now, the Duma, the assembly,
had been created in 1905 after the revolution–which I trust
that you have read about–in 1905,
and the role of the Russo-Japanese War facilitating
that. He believed that even the
existence of the Duma would compromise the virtues of
autocracy. As you know,
the Duma loses most of what authority it had been given.
The Duma seemed to be a
rational organization and this didn’t fit terribly well in a
worldview that believes in faith feeling as opposed to reason,
and has a particular, and sometimes peculiar,
idea of morality shaped by the traditions of Mother Russia.
He and his wife look back to
this sort of imaginary time before Peter the Great,
when the true Russia did not look westward at all,
and was not tempted by these foreign imports.
He idealized that time of
piety, the unity between the czar and his people,
the narod. In 1902, he wrote a letter to
Alexandra when he was on tour. He said, “We passed
through large villages where the good peasants presented simple
bread and salt,” which are very important in
Russia. At his coronation they spilled
the salt. It was part of the ceremony.
That was bad omen.
He was very superstitious,
by the way. Seventeen was his unlucky
number. He was terrified of seventeen.
There was a huge throng at his
inauguration, and a stampede,
and lots of people were killed. That was a bad omen, too.
he said, “All the peasants presented simple bread and salt
and all went down immediately on their knees showing such a
touching childish joy.” He had the image that the
Russian people were childish, that they–and his wife
insisted on this–loved being whipped.
They loved being punished.
Since the abolition of the
serfdom in 1861, there was lots of mistreatment
of peasants by lords, but you could no longer
literally torture serfs, so long as he didn’t die.
Before 1861 if you tortured a
serf and he did die or if you just ordered him killed or
killed him yourself, you would receive a small fine.
But still, there was this idea
that the narod, that the people,
“good, virtuous, and kindly,”
will come to their senses and that they will not disobey
during the war. They will do what he told them.
Until the end,
possibly, we don’t know this–the idea that they will
rise up and take him away from his captors in those final days.
They did try.
There were attempts,
but it wasn’t ordinary people. He had these views of
orthodoxy, autocracy, aristocracy,
etc. It’s a romantic view.
He preferred Russian foods.
Peter the Great liked Russian
food, but he also,
you’ll remember, ripped roasts off tables in
London, and drank tons of wine and
things like that when he was in Western Europe.
He spoke Russian,
obviously, very well, but he spoke English with his
wife, because English was her language, along with some
German. Again, speaking English was
part of this kind of aristocratic tradition of
speaking other languages by the aristocracy, but not Russian.
Again, French and German
were–they did speak Russian, but French and German were sort
of privileged languages. He had this feeling that he
didn’t like big cities. He had his retreat on the sea
near St. Petersburg or Petrograd.
He said that Moscow and St.
Petersburg were “two
needle dots on the map of our country.”
Well, in terms of percentages
he was certainly correct. It was his idea to rename St.
Petersburg to Petrograd,
because it was more Russian. But he believed,
and I’ve already spoken about this a little bit,
that the heart of the empire was Moscow,
because it was the religious capital of the empire,
and that the skyline was dotted with churches and not by
government buildings. Part of having a modern army
and a modern navy was you had to have a bureaucracy.
Petrograd was a bureaucratized
city and “not truly Russian in its heart and in its
spirit.” He didn’t spend much time in
the famous winter palace, that of the siege in the
Russian Revolution. When he went to his provincial
resort on the sea, where I’ve been,
but a long time ago, he had a new church built there
but in the original Moscow style.
Nicholas and Alexandra were
raving anti-Semites. That’s why it’s amazing,
this business–didn’t they canonize him as a saint or
something? I really don’t know,
but that’s horrific. He loved the Black Hundreds who
had sparked–and in the pogroms, particularly in Crimea in 1905,
and had beaten Jews to death. He thought that they
represented the true heart of Russia.
His interpretation was that the
pogroms were the “pious rage.”
I think that’s Mark’s phrase,
not his. Here’s his,
unfortunately I quote, “The Poles and the
Yids,” that is a slang, horrible, racist,
ethnic denunciation of people who happen to be Jewish,
“who had agitated and brought about the concessions of
1905.” That the revolution of 1905 and
until he went to his grave, so to speak,
he believed that the Russian Revolution was the work of Jews.
because a fair number of the Bolsheviks happen to be Jewish,
this played into the Russian Civil War because of the sheer
brutality in the Russian Civil War of the “white
forces” against the “reds,”
or the Bolsheviks, was often part of,
just sort of an extension of anti-Semitism run wild.
Anyway, Nicholas wrote that the
deaths of these people, of the Jews in 1905,
was justified. “Harm befell not only the
Yids, but also Russian agitators, engineers,
lawyers, and all other bad people.”
Anyway, it’s very sad.
There was lots of complexity
built into his being. On one hand he’s supposed to be
the czar of all the people. He’s supposed to be ruthless.
He’s supposed to be tough,
hard, etc., etc. On the other hand,
he’s dominated by his wife. His wife is constantly urging
him in her letters to him to be harsh,
demonstrate “the power of your will and your
decisiveness.” “Show you’re the complete
autocrat, without whom Russia cannot exist.
Ah, my love,
when at last will you thump with your hand upon the table
and scream at those who act wrongly.
They do not fear you enough,
but indeed they must, oh my boy.
Make one tremble before you.
To love you is not enough.
They must obey you.
Show to all that you are the
master and that your will will be obeyed.”
He signed one letter to his
wife “ever your poor little hussy,”–that’s an odd
choice of words–“with a tiny will.”
With a tiny will.
She was born in Germany,
a princess. These royals,
as I’ve stressed, they’re all intermarried.
She’s the granddaughter of
Queen Victoria of England. She had identity with
Hesse-Darmstadt, the part of Germany in which
she was born. And, as I said,
although she spoke English at home and with her children,
she had been a convert to Russian Orthodoxy.
She also feared or resented
idleness. She thought it was important to
work. She was a nurse for her
children. She worked for her son,
above all. She worked very, very hard.
She wanted to keep her
daughters “from foolish gossip” and away from being
“idle and listless.” She was fanatically religious.
She went to church everyday,
and she was intolerant of those people who did not.
Again, this turns them towards
Rasputin. Again, Rasputin did not make,
by being who he was, the Russian Revolution.
It’s a popular revolution.
But still, he’s there lurking
in the shadows. She said, “God has given
Rasputin more insight, wisdom, and enlightenment than
all of the czar’s advisors.”
At home, she reinforces the
idea that any kind of constitutional compromise was
dangerous. She believed until the end that
St. Petersburg, Petrograd,
was a rotten town, not Russian at all.
As for the Black Hundreds,
who had murdered all the Jews, they represented “the
healthy, right-thinking Russians.”
“The Russian people loved
to be whipped,” she said.
She believed it was in the
Slavic nature. They use over and over the word
“childish” in describing other Russian
people. The progressive block,
which I sent around on the website,
she believed that the existence of the progressive block,
which wouldn’t have been really possible had it not been for
World War I. World War I gives opportunity
to Russian dissidents to get together in ways that they
couldn’t have otherwise. It makes possible the creation
and operation of voluntary associations that are bringing
people together to try to send food and letters to the front,
to get news from the front that are not military secrets.
These inevitably began to
imagine a world without the czar.
There were people in 1905 who
could imagine a world without the czar.
Again, there are lots of people
who are thinking about the post-war world and who imagine
or are beginning plan for a reformed czarism.
It’s very hard to say how many
people could comprehend the idea that Russia would not have a
czar. Obviously, the Mensheviks,
the Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Bolsheviks did feel
that way. All of these dissident groups
want change, but only the liberals and
particularly the Kadets, whom you can read about,
want the czardom, the autocracy to continue.
But until the very end,
Nicholas is determined to defend the autocracy,
trying to transfer power to his brother when the Revolution
comes. Mikhail, who would be the
regent for Alexi. Then, when told by his son’s
physician, and imagine this,
that his son would not recover, he tried to leave the autocracy
in the hands forever of his brother, Mikhail.
In fact, he abdicated the next
day. He really wrote only,
“All around me is treachery, cowards,
and deceit.” What were they going to do with
him? What do you do with the czar of
all the Russians, and Alexandra,
and their children? Predictably enough,
the liberals and the Kadets want to have them protected.
The Socialists basically want
him to go on trial, that is the Mensheviks,
the Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Bolsheviks.
But for a couple days they
don’t do anything at all. They’ve got other things going
on. They’ve got the war.
I won’t discuss the attitude of
the Provisional Government to the war,
and the kinds of pressures from the Allies, of course,
for them to keep the war going. That is handled in the textbook.
There are more demands from the
public and from the soviets, in particular,
to arrest him. So, the provisional government
wants to protect them. They finally order them
confined to the resort, which is called Tsarskoe Selo,
but the name doesn’t matter. Nicholas himself,
he wants to go to Britain. One day he wanted to live out
the rest of his life with his family in Crimea.
Does the British government
want the czar of all the Russian people to arrive in London?
Not exactly.
It might complicate the war
effort. Labor will have no part of it
at all. You’re dealing with a coalition
in the war. You can’t have the czar.
You’re not going to be coming
in a 747 or something, but you can’t have him coming
up the river in the Thames. How are you going to get him
there in the first place? That simply is not practical.
The liberals didn’t want the
czar there either. There were constantly rumors
that the czar was going to be allowed to leave.
There’s lots of protests about
that. Kerensky says that the
revolution should show its moral worth by seeing that no harm
came to the royal family. By the way, just as an aside,
Kerensky lived a very, very long life.
At the end of his life,
he taught this course at Stanford University.
There’s a story that’s probably
apocryphal. This is in very contentious
times in American politics in the late 1960s.
I can vaguely remember those
days. A student, not realizing it was
Kerensky, asked a question saying,
“How could the provisional government be so stupid in their
conduct of those operations?”
And this clueless person had no
idea that this was Kerensky, who was an historian and was
trained as an historian. He died shortly thereafter.
But that is really amazing to
think. Of course, Lenin dies in 1924
or 1925, but Kerensky went on and on.
So, what they do,
they’re in the resort, their little mini palace.
They’re allowed to take walks.
They could talk on the
telephone, but only in Russian and only in the presence of a
guard who spoke Russian. They could not speak German and
they could not speak English. They separated the family for a
while, fearful of the influence of Alexandra on Nicholas.
Again, this is rather like the
attitude that people had toward Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.
People thought that the
influence of Marie Antoinette was prenant,
was overwhelming, on Louis XVI.
Anyway, then they were put back
together and they didn’t have much to do.
They gardened.
They taught the children,
which they always had done. They wrote letters.
They went to church.
They complained that the
soldiers were more and more disrespectful.
They were noisy.
They were slovenly in their
dress, their crushed caps were set awry on huge mops of unkempt
hair. Their coats were half-buttoned
and their nonchalant manner of performing their military duties
was a constant irritation. They mocked them.
They knocked on the door.
“Who’s there?”
The answer would come,
“The czar of all the Russians.”
A Latvian guard,
“a mere commoner,” outside would be laughing
uproariously. Once the czar was pedaling his
bike and he goes by a guard who has a bayonet,
and the guy sticks his bayonet into the spokes of the wheel.
The czar of all the Russians
went tumbling down and skinned his knees.
But yet there were rumors of
how well they were eating when nobody else was eating.
When the July Days mini-attempt
at revolution comes, for their own safety Kerensky
says they have to be moved. So, they decided on Siberia,
almost inevitably, to a town called Tobolsk,
where they would presumably be safe and they were moved on
August 1,1917, with their windows covered up
for most of the trip. Like Lenin, when he comes back,
is brought back by Germany to encourage the Russians to get
out of the war, he goes on the famous sealed
train, so people can’t see that it is
Lenin, because people knew what he
looked like. The same thing,
the czar of all the people is not going to be seen by the
masses, because what if they try to stop the train and pull them
off that? Ironically, they passed by
Rasputin’s home village, and indeed his house,
as a steamboat took them via two rivers to this town of
Tobolsk, where I have never been.
This frightened them,
especially Nicholas, because he is so superstitious.
The salt falling,
the stampede, the number seventeen,
and all of this. When they’re pulled by the
house, on the steamboat, of the dead Rasputin,
his trusted advisor, it is a bad omen.
So, they could go to church
when they arrived. They played cards.
They performed plays,
en famille, which they did a lot.
But the counterrevolution was a
very real threat. The Americans,
and the British, and the French,
after the Bolshevik revolution–one reason Stalin
was so paranoid, he was clinically paranoid,
just a complete dangerous crackpot,
but they had a lot to be paranoid about,
because the Americans, and the British,
and the French kept trying to undo the Russian Revolution.
Anyway, they were photographed
and they had ID cards. Can you imagine the czar and
the czarina having ID cards, like your Yale ID cards?
They start seeing obscene
graffiti written, new guards come that had even
less respect for them than the other people.
There were serious attempts to
kidnap them and to get rid of them.
There was one in which czarists
were supposed to be hidden under the altar of the church when
they were in the service. This, again,
is a throwback to the revolution.
It was like in the French
Revolution, where there is a massacre that starts at the
Festival of the Federation when people are hidden under the
church. So, there are articles in the
newspapers calling for the surveillance of Nicholas
“The Bloody Romanov,” and calls for him to be put on
trial. The arrival of a certain Vasili
Yakovlev, a name you don’t have to remember, obviously,
sent by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet.
He was a longtime
revolutionary, rumored subsequently to have
been an agent of the Germans, which is preposterous.
Lenin was rumored to have been
an agent of the Germans, by his enemies,
because of the way he got back to Russia after the initial
revolutions. He was the son of a peasant.
He had that kind of curriculum
vitae that lots of folks, including Stalin,
had. He had participated in armed
holdups to raise money for revolution and became a
Bolshevik. He transferred the czar and
family to a much smaller place. The czar and his wife believed,
naively, that they were going to be
taken to Moscow because the provisional
government–originally, before the provisional
government is ended–wants Nicholas to sign the eventual
peace treaty with the Germans. So, this Yakovlev was ordered
to take his “baggage,” as they called it,
that is the royal family, to this small town in the Ural
mountains. But the Ural mountain
Bolsheviks were harder to control.
Remember, the Russian
Revolution, both the first one and the second,
have been aptly described as a revolution by telegraph.
The vast reaches of the Russian
Empire are so absolutely enormous that in many cases it
was weeks, and in a few places months,
before any revolutionary commissar arrived to sort of
inform people what’s going on. So,
lots of these Bolsheviks were sort of freelancers,
and, for a party that was extremely
hierarchically controlled from the top down,
there was very little control over the Ural Bolsheviks.
Nicholas had some trepidation
about that, because he wrote that “there was a mood that
was rather harsh” against him.
Conditions were worse.
They used to like to photograph
birds and things like that in bushes.
Their equipment was taken away
from them. They could no longer control
their own money. The guards couldn’t talk to
them at all, so they could only talk to each other.
Some of the guards were just
awful to them. There were plans afoot to put
them on trial, a kind of show trial,
but there was also this big possibility discussed that they
might simply be killed. Trotsky asked that they be put
on trial, so that the corruption and abuses of the autocracy
could be revealed. The context is that there are
large, massive armies being organized, the White Armies.
Because foreign intervention
was already underway, it’s conceivable,
one could imagine why there was a national current within the
Bolsheviks, but local in particular,
and that’s what would count, that they should be executed.
It’s possible that a telegram
came from Moscow ordering that they be executed,
or simply that it was the Ural Bolsheviks–;in the Ural
mountain region–acting on their own.
Recently, the archives have
been opened up only in the last ten or fifteen years,
and the people that have looked think that is mostly the case.
In any case,
the order came in July 1918, that there be a trial.
If that was not deemed
possible, they should be shot. A bloody execution on the night
of, early morning really, of July 16-17,
that number again. They actually died on the
17^(th) of July 1918 in a horrific massacre with machine
guns and pistols, a bloodbath in the basement of
a house. Almost immediately there were
stories that Alexandra and her daughters had been seen taking a
train away from there. Way into the 1980s the Russian
community in Paris tended to settle around the Boulevard
Montparnasse, where there is still a very
good Russian restaurant that is there.
There is a particular
café called the Coupole on boulevard Montparnasse where
sort of the Russian émigré
wealthy people went. There were periodically women
turning up who claimed to be the daughter, and then later,
as the time passed, the granddaughter of the czar.
It was only after what was left
of the bodies, or the bones,
them dry bones, were discovered in 1976,
and forensic experts in 1991 were able to work with the DNA,
that the victims have all been accounted for.
None of them escaped.
The others were in that long
Russian tradition of false czars or false czarinas,
the kind their loyalty to whom in the eighteenth century
generated so many uprisings. What can one say?
He’s been canonized,
this vicious, murderous, anti-Semite,
by the Russian Orthodox Church. But that’s not my church.
It’s not for me to say that.
I don’t know.
Yes I do.
Anyway, tragic martyrdom?
Were they heroic people,
or simply human beings who were mowed down in a revolution that
didn’t start out as a bloody revolution but became a very,
very bloody civil war? Was it the first signposts of
Soviet totalitarianism? No.
It wasn’t that.
Was it bloody vengeance for
past misdeeds in the pursuit of justice?
It depends on your viewpoint.
I happen to believe the latter.
See you on Wednesday.
Thank you.

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