"Nicholas II brought the Russian Revolution upon his own head": An interview with Robert Service

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Robert Service talks to 
Ellie Cawthorne about his book on the downfall of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II...

This interview was first published in the February 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine.

Robert Service photographed in central London. (Photography by Alastair Levy)
 

Q. Your book, The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution, looks at the last 16 months of Nicholas II’s life, from his abdication to his execution. What happened in those fateful final months?

A. In early 1917 Nicholas was at the eastern front, leading Russia’s forces in the First World War, when political demonstrations broke out in Petrograd. Once the Russian capital fell into rebellion, the rest of the country joined in the revolutionary upsurge. The Duma [the Russian parliament] made it very clear that if there was to be tranquility behind the lines in order for Russia to pursue the war effort, the tsar had to step down. 

Many politicians had wanted to see the back of Nicholas for some time, but this time the military high command agreed. Nicholas had a very deep affection for his military and so this really broke his spirit. He abdicated suddenly, amazing everyone around him, and became a private citizen. His family was taken into custody at the Alexander Palace outside Petrograd and lived pretty comfortably until August 1917, when for reasons of political security they were sent to western Siberia.

Some time after the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution, they moved the Romanovs to Ekaterinburg in the Urals, in order to have more control over the conditions of their confinement. They ultimately planned to put Nicholas on show trial for all the political and economic difficulties the country had fallen into. However, in the summer of 1917, the advance of the Czechoslovaks on Ekaterinburg meant that the Urals ceased to be a secure place of confinement. The local Bolsheviks pressed the Moscow leadership to execute the Romanovs before they fell into the hands of anti-Bolsheviks. But it wasn’t just the situation in Ekaterinburg that led to the family’s execution. Moscow was also in danger from serious anti-Bolshevik uprisings in July 1918. This double military emergency explains why Lenin was so ready to approve the decision to kill the Romanovs at that particular moment. 

In July 1918, Nicholas was shot, alongside his family, their retainers and even some of their dogs. Their bodies were secretly burned on a pyre and thrown down a mineshaft. The Bolsheviks were nothing if not ruthless. If you had people who might be put at the head of a counter-revolutionary force, then you liquidated them. It wasn’t just Nicholas and his family who were killed, but all the Romanovs in Bolshevik hands. Russia had already descended into a brutal civil war and the Bolsheviks didn’t want the royal dynasty to have any chance of making a comeback. 

 

Q. What was it about Nicholas in this period that you found particularly interesting?

A. By looking at his diary and the conversations he had with his jailers and members of his entourage at a time when he was out of power, I was able to get a better idea about what he really thought. After losing power, he wasn’t trying to impress anyone, or to deceive ministers or advisors, so these documents give a real insight into his beliefs about Russian life, as well as about politics, Europe, foreigners, the war and the revolution. 

Nicholas II, his children and nephews, c1915. The tsar, tsarina and their five children were shot by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. (Getty)
 

Q. To what extent was Nicholas to blame for the revolution?

A. It would have taken a political genius to prevent Russia from disintegrating, and Nicholas certainly wasn’t a political genius. He was a very limited man – limited in his understanding of his country. He didn’t recognise this in himself however; he was a proud, self-confident man surrounded by toadies who said whatever he wanted to hear. 

Nicholas was referred to as ‘the cushion’, meaning that he wore the imprint of the ideas of the last person that he spoke to. But this wasn’t the case – he had certain essential principles of rulership that he really stuck to. He was a very reluctant reformer and compromised as little as possible. Because of the revolutionary disturbances of 1905, he had allowed the Duma to exist, yet had never really reconciled himself to this. He was highly suspicious about the parliament and therefore annoyed the moderate conservatives elected to it, who might have worked co-operatively with him. He also behaved very badly to Pyotr Stolypin, the greatest of his prime ministers, who meant him well. 

A certain amount of scandal was also brought on the Romanov dynasty by Nicholas’s liaison with the mystic Grigory Rasputin. Rumours that his wife Alexandra was having an affair with Rasputin weren’t true, but it was an indication of the general annoyance with Nicholas that a scandal like that could take off so readily. This would have been a difficult enough storm to weather even if the war hadn’t occurred. 

While Nicholas didn’t have much chance of avoiding a future with far more reforms, he stood next to no chance of surviving when this rickety political system was put under the pressure of total war. Everything was put under strain – administration, transport, food supplies, housing. Russia was a mess behind the lines; an angry mess. Nicholas’s preoccupation with the army and his failure to confront the problems of daily life that affected ordinary workers, peasants and street traders was disastrous. 

Another of Nicholas’s failings was that even though he ruled over Ukrainians, Uzbeks and Georgians, he was preoccupied with the Russians, who only made up half the country’s population. This dangerously alienated the other peoples of the empire, and when the uprisings began, he paid a heavy price for ignoring the rest of the country.

I really can’t think of any serious redeeming qualities Nicholas had. He was a very poor ruler, so it’s fair to say that he brought the revolution upon his own head.

 

Q. Was Nicholas simply ignorant of the realities of Russian life?

A. I don’t think Nicholas had any idea how a Russian peasant lived. The only peasants he ever saw were deferential Christians who weren’t going to say anything rambunctious. 

Interestingly, one of Nicholas’s Siberian jailers was an exiled ex-convict, a man named Pankratov. Nicholas recognised a noble spirit in Pankratov and the pair talked endlessly about Siberia. Although Nicholas had visited Siberia in the 1890s, he had only been exposed to cheering crowds who loved the Romanovs. Pankratov told him about the other Siberia – the peasants, the reindeer, the climate. And, to do him justice, Nicholas wanted to learn this from this remarkable old man. 

Many of the books Nicholas read after his abdication – by authors such as Chekhov, Tolstoy and Turgenev – were also about sections of the population with whom he had had very little contact. He even read War and Peace, which is ironic since Tolstoy’s works were censored under Nicholas’s own government. He wasn’t just reading for pleasure, but plugging the gaps in his own education and that of his children. 

While Nicholas may not have recognised his own failings, and certainly never admitted that he had messed up, he knew that there were gaps in his knowledge. 

There were things about Russia that he hadn’t learnt, so during his confinement he took the opportunity to read about them. 

 

Q. How did he reflect on his abdication and the revolution?

A. You get the feeling from Nicholas’s diary that he was an exhausted man, relieved to lay down the burdens of office. I don’t think he personally regretted losing power; rather he regretted the way he lost power and the political consequences for the country. He ultimately felt that the power and prestige of the Romanov dynasty had always rested on military might. Although he was spent as a wartime leader, he believed that by stepping down he would remove himself as an obstacle to national unity. He was a patriot above all else. When the Bolsheviks took power, Nicholas was devastated by the prospect that they would pull out of the war. For him, the alliance with Britain and France was a matter of honour and national ambition, and he saw rapprochement as a disaster and a disgrace for Russia.

Nicholas had plenty of time to reflect on who was to blame for the travails of his country, revealing his political ideas to be very similar to what would later emerge as fascism. He was incredibly anti-Semitic and truly believed the Jews were a dark alien force dedicated to the breakup of Russian Christian civilisation. During his confinement, he read the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery that supposedly proved there was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that used liberals and socialists to bring revolution to the advanced powers. This was the most crazy, dangerous poppycock, and Nicholas loved it. He was convinced that all the Bolshevik leaders were Jewish and saw the October Revolution as proof that Russia had fallen into the hands of Jews.

 

Q. How has Nicholas’s life and death  been characterised since?

A. The last tsar has begun to be romanticised, even by those who don’t share his political ideas. Even though Nicholas died as a political victim, not a Christian martyr, he has been canonised by the Orthodox church. I’ve tried in this book to bring back the historical Nicholas – a decent family man, complacent ruler and a far-right political thinker – a much more complex man than the rather romantic figure that appears in both Russian and western books to this day.   


In context

Tsar Nicholas II abdicated under duress during the February Revolution of 1917, amid a military crisis and domestic unrest. By renouncing the throne, he brought an end to the Romanov royal dynasty that had ruled Russia for more than 300 years. Nicholas was replaced by a provisional government until October 1917, when the country was engulfed by revolution once again, as the Bolsheviks – led by Vladimir Lenin – seized control. Following his fall from power, Nicholas was held in captivity with his family until July 1918, when they were shot on the  orders of the Bolshevik leaders.

Robert Service is a fellow of both the British Academy and St Antony’s College, Oxford. His books include The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution, Lenin: A Biography and The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991. His 2009 biography of Trotsky 
was awarded the Duff Cooper Prize.

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