The Romanov dynasty is an endlessly fascinating one, spanning 300 years and including rulers like Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great. Their autocratic power meant each reign was shaped by each ruler’s personal history or characteristics.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution which put a bloody end to the Romanov dynasty, this article looks back at the growing tensions, wrong decisions and power-hungry revolutionaries that shaped Russia and the world.
It started when Alexander III gifted one to his wife, Maria Feodorovna. It was in celebration of their Orthodox Easter, and the tradition continued every year where another would be presented with the customary surprise inside. Nicholas II gifted one to his mother and his wife every year, with the most expensive egg being the 1913 ‘Winter Egg’, valuing at £2.36 million in today’s currency.
They were gifted right up to 1916, emphasizing their disconnection with the increasing unrest and trouble in their country. Even though Nicholas lived modestly in rooms which weren’t lavishly adorned like the winter palace, the image of the ostentatious royal luxury remained within the public sphere. He had little integration into the government before he became Tsar, resulting in his famous quote Nicholas’s big mistake was in thinking that his Russia was the same as his father’s. He tried to embody his father’s conservative policies and legacy, as his father was a far more imposing and strong-willed figure than Nicholas ever was. However, reactionary policies would only work if the army was completely under government control and there was some positive output. Alexander III had the skills of Sergei Witte, who was a very capable economist who aimed to industrialise Russia. Witte stayed on in Nicholas’s government but did not enjoy the same confidence Alexander entrusted in him, and resigned from the government in 1906, leaving Nicholas with a lack of expertise. The archaic way he ruled was not what Russia needed, but it provided the opportunity for revolutionary movements to gain traction.
A simple commodity launched the common people onto the streets demanding for change. Dissent had been building up among the intelligentsia for over 50 years, but their attempts to involve the public were a failure. When the Great War drew Russia into its orbit, the severity of the situation was revealed. Russia’s backward mentality meant its poorly industrialised army was not prepared for the technological advances Germany had made, and suffered more losses than any other nation. At home, its economy was greatly weakened by scale of total war, coupled with corruption and the struggles the public felt at being heard by their Tsar. Bread lines were long and assurance that there was anything at the other end was nonexistent. By February of 1917, upheaval broke out in the lines resulting in strikes across Petrograd for days. Nicholas reacted as he usually did by sending the troops and dissolving the Duma (the national parliament). Things were different this time however, since the troops defected to the public’s cause. The Imperial government’s main method of persuasion had disappeared when the army refused their orders, and they had nothing left to use to quell the unrest. The Duma formed a provisional government and Nicholas abdicated, but this was only the beginning of troubles in Russia.
Nicholas II’s Diary
The emperor wrote in his diary every day. He did not write of national affairs, instead discussing the people who came to visit him and his daily activities with the family. He is known to have had a charming and well-mannered disposition which meant he was liked by most visitors. However, he appeared shy and feeble in comparison to his hulking father, who was said to be able to bend coins between his fingers. His younger brother Michael thought his personality was too weak to be emperor, and his father refused to let ‘a child’ sit in on council meetings, even if Nicholas was twenty-four years old at the time. Nicholas felt this pressure all his life and it is suggested that this ruled his life choices.
Historians remain divided about what the diary can tell us, but it does reveal a great deal about his last years under Bolshevik arrest. The government did not know what to do with him and so they transported the family across Russia with guards. Restrictions tightened in the following years and they were forbidden from leaving the house at all. Their treatment and the personnel involved were revealed in his entries, which listed names, dates and interactions. His final entry was about how his hemophilic son’s knee was healing, and that there was “no news from the outside whatsoever”. The family had no idea what had become of Russia or what would become of them, and were at the mercy of Lenin’s government.
‘The Spark’ was the name of Vladimir Lenin’s newspaper which he began publishing as he moved around Europe, to avoid Nicholas’s oppressive laws about free speech. He later smuggled copies back into Russia. It was the most popular underground Russian publication, and was the main form of communication for the Russian Social Democratic Party, where it circulated ideas of socialism and political freedom.
He would have to wait a long time, however, before he could grasp the vision he saw ahead of him. Upon the abdication of the tsar, the Duma and military soviets created a coalition which Lenin wished to target. In the October 1917 revolution, he staged a coup d’état where the Bolsheviks systematically took over the city, and the government had little power to do anything about it. With the transport networks controlled by the soviets, and the army members defecting, the Winter Palace was stormed and the new government took its place.
The storming of the palace was a momentous occasion for the Red Army and was propagated as an epic event through the media. The reality was somewhat different; the cadets found an open back door and wandered around until they found the Provisional government, where they then forced the members to write their own arrest warrants as the cadets were illiterate. Lenin proceeded to instate a multitude of laws which granted women autonomy, requisitioned land from the gentry and nationalized banks. Further turmoil followed in Lenin’s government, including the Civil War and the secession of Estonia and Ukraine, but he remained in power until his death. Prior to that, he wrote his testament where he stated that Joseph Stalin should be removed but against his wishes however, Stalin took hold of the government, and the rest is, well, history.
The events of 1917 were the accumulation of over 50 years’ worth of underground movements, coupled with disastrous foreign involvements such as the Russo-Japanese War, and WWI. The court distrusted their own tsar and the increasing loss of confidence in the government made the country ripe for political upheaval. Whether Nicholas was unfortunate to have been thrust into a position where he could not fight against the turning of the tide, or whether he orchestrated his own demise, is a question left for us.