A century ago this week, Russia’s October Revolution changed the world forever by establishing the first Communist state in history. Yet the revolution’s success would have been impossible had the Russian monarchy not collapsed just months before. Though often treated as a mere footnote to the grand narrative of the Russian Revolution, the downfall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 came as an enormous shock. The prehistory of the revolution is essential to appreciating just how radical a break it was. Indeed, just four years earlier, the Crown had appeared to be at the height of its powers.
In 1913 the monarchy’s prospects looked positively auspicious, as Russia commemorated 300 years of the ruling dynasty — an event known as the “Romanov Tercentenary.” Tsarist autocracy, the notion that the tsar was all-powerful, had weathered the stormy beginnings of Nicholas II’s reign apparently unscathed. Organizers used the Tercentenary to present the past as a glorious model for modern Russia to emulate. The event’s success raises the question of what might have been.
Like other monarchies, Russia’s was based on continuity, and the idea that the monarchy embodied stability and tradition. Yet each new reign was also expected to symbolically overturn the last. Since Peter the Great’s reforms, the need to demonstrate transformative ability in state matters had become the defining hallmark of absolute power. Nicholas abandoned this custom by retaining his predecessor’s ministers and persevering with his father’s vision.
Romantic ideals inspired by 17th century Muscovy — the original tsarist state that would become Russia — were fashionable when Nicholas became tsar in 1894. These resonated with his belief that Peter the Great’s choice in the 1700s to move his capital to St. Petersburg, his “window on the west,” had constituted a rejection of Moscow and had weakened Russian identity. Only a return to true, organic tsarism could purify Russia’s soul.
The building of an Orthodox cathedral in St. Petersburg, known as the Church on Spilled Blood, was the showpiece of this cultural “restoration” project. Commissioned by Alexander III in 1883 to honor his father, it was finally opened in 1907. Built in defiance of the city’s neoclassical style, it echoed Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral. Muscovite imagery connected 20th century tsarism with the origins of the Russian state and was on full display at the Tercentenary ceremonies.
This focus on the dynasty’s Russian roots also functioned as a counterpoint to accusations of Romanov disloyalty. As the Tercentenary approached, friction between the Russian and German empires intensified. Nicholas’s consort, Alexandra, was a German princess by birth and never earned her adopted country’s trust. That she produced an heir with hemophilia only made matters worse. Tragically, Alexandra inherited the gene from her grandmother, Queen Victoria. Foreign blood, it seemed, had contaminated the Russian court.
For the Romanovs, the 300th anniversary was also a moment to reaffirm their dynasty’s legitimate right to the throne. In 1613, a makeshift parliament had ended Russia’s anarchic “Time of Troubles” by electing Michael Romanov as tsar. Nicholas seized the opportunity to renew this foundation, centuries later, by going directly to the people.
During a tour of Muscovy’s historic cities, hundreds knelt down before him and sang the imperial anthem. Such scenes bolstered Nicholas’ conviction that autocracy, not democracy, was hardwired in the Russian psyche. Throughout 1913, Glinka’s opera, A Life for the Tsar, was performed across the empire. Its theme of peasant sacrifice for tsarist salvation serenaded the Romanovs into their fourth century.
The promise of 1913 faded as Russia became embroiled in World War I. With Nicholas away at the front, the capital fell under his wife’s supervision. Alexandra’s devotion to the monk Rasputin provoked the ire of courtiers, but his ability to stem their son’s bleeding fits had made him indispensable to the couple.
Rumors of the healer’s influence over imperial governance scandalized Russia and wreaked irreparable damage on the monarchy’s image. In December 1916, a group of noblemen killed Rasputin in a desperate effort to avert catastrophe.
Bread shortages, wage stagnation and an influx of refugees fleeing the German army led to mass strikes by spring 1917. When troops began fraternizing with protestors, Nicholas realized the gravity of the situation and abdicated. His son’s illness and a lack of willing successors rendered the monarchy obsolete. Though most welcomed the news, many found it earth-shattering nonetheless.
Matilda Kshesinskaya, an aristocratic ballerina, captured the mood in her memoir Dancing in Petersburg: “It seemed so extraordinary that we could scarcely believe it. It was not, it could not be, true!” Sixteen months later, the nascent Soviet regime murdered Nicholas and his family in a squalid cellar.
An obelisk was unveiled alongside the Kremlin Wall in July 1914. Dedicated to the Tercentenary, it displayed a chronology of the Romanov tsars. Ultimately, it became little more than a sepulcher for tsarism. A year after Nicholas’s abdication, Russia’s new Communist leaders adapted the monument to venerate a role call of revolutionary thinkers. What once carried the authority of stone had become little more than dust.
Appeals to a past golden age are rife in contemporary politics. too. They offer a false sense of security in a fast-changing world. Yet events seldom, if ever, conform to a script. Nicholas’s fate reminds us that even history is a fair-weather friend at the best of times.
Danny Bird is a graduate of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, with a special interest in modern Spanish and Russian history.