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A Waterstones Exclusive: Robert Service on Nicholas II’s Inevitable Fall

Posted on 8th February 2017 by Sally Campbell & Peter Whitehead
Robert Service is undoubtedly a titan of Russian studies. An unparalleled trilogy of works – LeninStalin and Trotsky – offer a virtually panoptic understanding of Russia’s complex soul, Simon Heffer for example in the Telegraph referring to Lenin as ‘a superb work of scholarship… if you seek to know about this crucial figure in the history of Marxism-Leninism, this book will tell you everything.’

In The Last of The Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution Service now turns his forensic attention to the year preceding Nicholas’s abdication and the events leading toward the annihilation of both the Tsar and his family. It’s simply a stunning account, with Service’s typical depth of research virtually uncovering the DNA to the century of creation and conflict that has followed.

It seemed irresistible to us to pose Robert Service the ultimate ‘what if’ – to contemplate a Nicholas II who could at least entertain the prospect of a constructional monarchy. But as we will discover in Service’s analysis, the die of fate had long been cast.

Photo: Robert Service (c) Adele Biagi

Nicholas II abdicated the throne of the Romanovs in March 1917. He was put under house arrest, at first in his beloved Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo outside Petrograd and then in Tobolsk in western Siberia. The new communist government led by Lenin moved him to the Bolshevik stronghold of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, and it was in Yekaterinburg that he and his family were done to death by firing squad. 

Even before he had stepped down from power, Nicholas was an exhausted man. His nerve was finally broken by the discovery that even his generals wanted him to abdicate. He tried to pass his powers to his younger brother Mikhail, who was known as a sympathiser with the cause of political reform. If this had happened, it would have contravened the law on succession. And, anyway, the streets were filled with workers and soldiers who wanted revolution, not reform. The public mood was fiercely against any Romanov taking power.

But what might have happened if Nicholas in earlier years had sought to compromise with Russia’s liberal and conservative party leaders? Would agreement to a constitutional monarchy have saved the monarchy? Would revolution have been made unlikely?

Nicholas had granted an elected parliament – or Duma - after the near-revolution of 1905. But he remained unreconciled himself to its existence.  When the Duma demanded greater change than he endorsed, he redrafted the electoral regulations to produce a more compliant Duma. His prime minister Peter Stolypin tried to work positively with the new body, but this only annoyed the tsar, who ceased to support him. Nicholas believed in autocracy and had sworn a solemn oath at his coronation to preserve it. Rather than celebrating the rights of civil society in modern Russia, he yearned to rule like a tsar of old Muscovy.

It wasn’t only critics of the monarchy who urged reform upon him.  Even his close relatives, with the notable exception of his wife Alexandra, told him that failure to accept the case for change would lead to disaster for the ruling elite. He ignored the advice. He hated the Duma and despised its leading politicians.

Of course, not even Nicholas could reject all the requirements of modernity. He supported the cause of manufacturing industry. He boosted the re-equipment of the armed forces with advanced weaponry. He allowed a reform of land ownership among the peasantry. Although the authorities often closed down newspapers, the press were permitted to campaign against governmental policies. Russia was later than its rival powers in Europe to transform its economic and social order. But changes were undoubtedly in motion under Nicholas’s rule.

But he could have gone a lot further if he wanted, but he chose not to. For the parliamentary conservatives, he had a decent chance for fundamental reform that he was either too stupid or too rigid to take.

Whether the conservatives or liberals could have made reform truly viable in tandem with a willing tsar is an open question. Perhaps the tsar’s father Alexander III, who came to the throne in 1881, was really the ruler who missed the best chance at a time when no conservative or liberal political party yet existed.  For reform to be a success, it was crucial to adopt policies in a timely, gradual fashion.  By the time of Nicholas’s accession in 1894, attitudes had hardened against the monarchy because Alexander III had yielded so little. The liberals in particular assumed that they could and should extract a wide range of liberal reforms out of Nicholas in exchange for their cooperation.

Some of the conservative groupings, notably the so-called Octobrists, were more accommodating toward the monarch. But it is doubtful that they could ever have satisfied the demands of workers, peasants and soldiers if ever the empire re-entered a period of military emergency.

Such an emergency became a reality in the years after 1914. Although the Russian army managed to recover from its early defeats, the situation in the rear went from bad to worse. Inflation rocketed, making peasants reluctant to release their produce to the market. Urban food supplies were depleted. Civilian rail traffic became disrupted. Grumbling against the government got louder, and it did not help that the scandalous Grigori Rasputin was known to have access to Nicholas and Alexandra. Industrial strikes were already hitting economic production in 1915 and again in 1916.

These were troubles that would have affected the empire even if Nicholas had been a different kind of ruler and had accepted the case for a constitutional monarchy. They would also have arisen even for a conservative or liberal republican government. By early 1917 the whole political order was vulnerable to revolutionary challenge, and Nicholas II paid the price with his abdication. Russia was to go on paying its own price for many decades under communist rule.

   

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