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Lessons of Russian History: The last days of the last Tsar (Part II)

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Submitted by Olivia Kroth

Fame and glory seem to be ephemeral phenomena, hard to win, easily lost. The last Tsar of the Russian Empire, Nicholas II, was killed by the Bolsheviks who abolished tsardom, once and for all, in 1917/1918. Yet his fame has lasted until today and seems to be still growing. Films are being made, books are written about him. His diary was recently published as a pocket book in France: “Nicholas II – Journal intime” (Perrin, Paris 2020), edited with a commentary by Jean-Christophe Buisson.

The last Tsar was a pious man, a loyal believer of Russian Orthodox faith. He went to mass regularly with his family. Nicholas II was a devout husband and a caring father for his five children. He was also a malleable and soft-hearted man, who became a prisoner in his own home, the Winter Palace of Tsarskoye Selo, when the Bolsheviks came into power. Like exotic birds in their guilded cage, the last Tsar and his family sat in captivity, waiting for their fate to be decided by the revolutionaries.

The life and death of Nicholas II are still of interest today because they mark an important turning point in Russian history. The last Tsar witnessed the end of autocratic monarchy and the formation of a communist government, in the first quarter of the 20th century. He saw the destruction of an old, aristocratic, privileged way of life and the construction of a new presence with the rise of the proletariat.

The First World War (1914-1918) accelerated his downfall, since it was going badly for the Russian Empire, after a few hopeful events at the beginning. Due to Russia’s decrepit railway system, supplies did not reach the troops at the front in time. Russia’s economy was not able to produce enough food and heating material for the population. All in all, two and a half million Russian soldiers died, nearly four million were mutilated in World War I.

Nicholas II occupied the position of supreme commander of the Imperial Russian Army, although he was no military genius. He was not missed at the front, his advice was not needed. The editor Jean-Christophe Buisson quotes Lieutenant General Cherevin, who said about Nicholas Romanov: “He is such a soft towel that you cannot even wash it” (Journal intime, p. 228).

Lieutenant General Pyotr Alexandrovich Cherevin (1837-1896) descended from the nobility of the Kostroma Governorate. He took part in the final battles of the Crimean War (1853-1856) and in the suppression of the Polish uprising (1863-1864). In 1865, he became the Russian Empire’s Minister of War under Tsar Alexander II, the last Tsar’s grandfather.

In 1877, Lieutenant General Cherevin fought successfully in the Russian-Turkish War. He died from pneumonia in Saint Petersburg, on the 8th of February 1896, shortly before the coronation ceremony of Nicholas II, on the 26th of May 1896. Reading the biography of Pyotr Cherevin, one gets the impression that the First World War might have ended better for the Russian Empire, had he been in command of the Imperial Army, from 1914 to 1918.

Nicholas II mentioned the war often in his diary. 19.06/02.07.1917: “Just before dinner, we received the good news of the beginning offensive on the Southwestern Front. In direction of Zolochev, after a preparation of artillery that lasted two days, our troops broke into the enemies’ positions. They captured 176 officers and 10.000 soldiers. God be praised! Hopefully this will continue! I felt a lot better after receiving these fortunate news” (Journal intime, p. 104).

The Southwestern Front (Юго-Западный фронт) was an army group of the Imperial Russian Army, responsible for managing operations along a front line that stretched 615 kilometres. This army group took part in the Battle of Galicia and the Brusilov Offensive, fighting against Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and German troops.

05.07./18.07.1917: “These days, there was trouble in Petrograd, with shootings yesterday, a crowd of soldiers and seamen arrived from Kronstadt to march against the government. Incomprehensible! Where are the men who could calm down this movement, stop the discord and bloodshed?” (Journal intime, p. 111).

The Kronstadt naval base was under the influence of the Bolsheviks and Anarchists, who fought against the government. As early as May 1917, the Kronstadt Soviet had become the main authority in the city. General unhappiness with the government’s inaction, regarding the promised land reform and industrial reform, as well as outrage about food shortages caused the Kronstadt sailors and soldiers to march to Petrograd with the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!”

Soon enough, the Tsar received bad news from the front. 13.07./26.07.1917: “These last days, bad news arrived from the southwest. After our offensive at Galich, many army units, totally poisoned by negative propaganda, not only refused to advance but turned backwards, without being pressured by the enemies. Profiting from this favourable situation, the Austrians and Germans broke through in southern Galicia. This might contain our southwestern army group and force them to retreat eastward. This is truly shameful and exasperating!” (Journal intime, p. 113).

Regarding the Tsar’s exile, plans had changed. The Bolsheviks sent him neither to England nor to the Crimea but to Siberia. 31.07/15.08.2017: “Our last day in Tsarskoye Selo. We departed in two automobiles to the Alexander train station. We got into the train to Tobolsk” (Journal intime, p.121).

Tobolsk (Тобольск), located at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh rivers, was founded in 1590. It was the second-oldest Russian settlement east of the Ural Mountains and the historic capital of the Russian Siberia Governorate. The town grew fast due the Siberian river routes and prospered on trade with China. In 1708, Tobolsk got its first school, theatre and newspaper.

After the Decembrist Revolt (Восстание декабристов), on the 14th of December 1825, some of the Decembrists were deported to Siberia and settled in Tobolsk. The Decembrists were Russian noblemen and intellectuals with liberal ideas. Realizing the suffering of Russian peasants and soldiers, the Decembrists wished to reform society. They rejected the lavish lifestyle at the Tsarist court and asked for the abolishment of serfdom.

The distance from Tsarskoye Selo to Tobolsk is 2.500 kilometres. For the Bolshevik revolutionaries, the choice of Tobolsk was highly symbolic. Nicholas II and his family were deported to the same town, where some of the Decembrists had lived in exile. The times were changing, the tables turned.

The last Tsar’s voyage to Tobolsk is described like a luxury tourist trip in his diary. 03.08./16.08.1917: “We passed through Perm and went for a walk around Kungur along the Sylva river in a very beautiful valley” (Journal intime, p.123).

Perm (Пермь) is a city located in the Ural region. In the 19th century, Perm became a major trade and industrial centre with a population of more than 20.000 people. The city owned several metallurgy, paper and steamboat producing factories. In 1870, a theatre was opened. Today, Perm is the administrative centre of Perm Krai, with a population of over one million residents.

Kungur (Кунгур) is a town southeast of Perm, at the confluence of the Iren, Shakva and Sylva rivers. Founded in 1648, the town became a centre of leather and footwear industries, in the 18th century. Kungur rope and linseed oil were also widely known. The town was important for transit trade on the Siberian road.

Kungur is the main port on the Sylva river (Сылва). This beautiful river in Perm Krai has a length of 493 kilometres. It freezes in November and stays under the ice until April. Every year, hundreds of tourists take boat rides on the Sylva river, which flows leisurely through the Preduraliye Nature Preserve, past abrupt cliffs and fossilized remnants of coral reefs, left by the Great Permian Sea.

04.08./17.08.1917: “We crossed the Ural Mountains, the temperature went down immediately. We went through Yekaterinburg and arrived in Tyumen. The train stopped near the landing. We boarded a ship called Rus. The transfer of our luggage continued the whole night” (Journal intime, p. 123).

The editor Jean-Christophe Buisson explains in his commentary, why the transfer lasted so long. Plenty of items and people needed to be taken aboard the ship: “Wine bottles from the Tsar’s cave, carpets, china and silverware, paintings, a big trunk full of precious jewels, worth about a million rubles. The seven Romanov family members were accompanied by 46 people, among them some cabinet members, ten footmen, seven cooks, six butlers, two valets, a wine taster, a hairdresser, a doctor, a nurse, a secretary, the children’s private teachers, as well as two spaniel dogs” (Journal intime, p. 238).

06.08./19.08.1917: “I got up late because I slept badly due to the noise, whistles, stops. At night, we crossed over from the Tura river to the Tobol river, which is larger, with higher embankments” (Journal intime, p. 123).

The Tura (Тура) is a historically important Siberian river, which flows eastward from the central Ural Mountains into the Tobol river. From 1600 to 1750, the Tura was the main entry point into Siberia. A number of mining towns are located in the upper Tura basin. With a lengh of 1.030 kilometres, this river is frozen from November to mid-April.

The Tobol (Тобол) has a length of 1.591 kilometres, the area of its drainage basin is 426.000 square kilometres. The Tobol river is rich in fish: bream, carp, perch, pike, roach, ruff, Siberian sturgeon are caught here. In former times, the Tobol was one of the four important rivers of the Siberian Khanate.

At the end of August 1917, the Romanov family settled down in the Governor’s house in Tobolsk. The servants were accomodated in neighbouring houses. Here the Tsar read books, felled trees and cut wood in the garden. He also played billiard, cards, dice or domino with his children, while waiting for news from the front, which were scarce.

24.08./06.09.1917: “The bad news from the front are unfortunately being confirmed. Today, we heard that Riga had to be evacuated. Our troops withdrew far away, towards the northeast” (Journal intime, p.132).

The Riga Operation was carried out by the German Imperial Army against the Russian Imperial Army, during the first week of September 1917. It ended with the victory of the German troops and the capture of Riga. In this operation, 125.000 Russians were killed, up to 15.000 were taken prisoner or went missing.More bad news from the front reached the Tsar in October. 01.10./14.10.1917: “We received a telegramme telling us that the Germans have taken the islands of Ösel and Dagö” (Journal intime, p.124). Today, these islands are called Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. They belong to Estonia. After Latvia, the Germans took away Estonia.

The Russian Empire started to crumble. Big pieces of land were lost in the Baltic and in Galicia, the Empire’s northwestern and southwestern corners. As World War I was nearing its end, catastrophe and disaster appeared on the horizon for the Russian Empire. …

To be continued: “The last days of the last Tsar” (Part III) will be published in November 2021.

Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia. Her blog: http://olivia2010.kroth.wordpress.com

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.