A wave of nostalgia for Czar Nicholas II and his family is sweeping Russia and beyond. However, the glow in which Nicholas is seen tells only a part of the story of the czar as leader.
Gloom gripped senior members of the Russian civil and military establishments in June 1915. Some 10 months after the outbreak of World War I, Czar Nicholas II was intent on assuming command of the army.
The “Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias” was officially a colonel in the Russian Army, the rank awarded by his beloved father, the exceptionally reactionary Alexander III. He had no real experience with the duties and responsibilities of military life, having spent only minimal amounts of time with his soldiers. Despite his inexperience, Nicholas had always believed the army esteemed and cherished him like no other institution. As a child, he adored military parades. As an adolescent, he was never happier than when mounting a white horse to take the salutes of Cossacks passing in review. After his coronation, he disliked wearing civilian clothes and did so, reluctantly, only when traveling incognito to European spas. The soldier who was, as he saw himself, the real czar excelled at participating in glittering military ceremonies that helped convince him an unbreakable bond joined his troops to their sovereign.
The “general consternation” and “great outburst of public anxiety” that June, as Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov saw it, arose from the fear that if the czar were to take command of Russia’s armies, his feeble military expertise would sap the people’s attachment to him as the central national symbol. If he moved to general head quarters, would the government’s problems in St. Petersburg become even worse? Besides, the war was going very badly. How could the czar be shielded from public anger if more defeats were suffered-defeats for which he, if in command, might be considered responsible?
And would he not be certain to con tribute to the chances of defeat? His supporters were nearly as unequivocal as his detractors in thinking him manifestly incompetent to lead a modern brigade, let alone an army of ten mil lion. Alexei Brusilov, one of the war’s few successful Russian generals, would soon curse the royal attendants who “Failed to use the most decisive measures–including even force–to dissuade Nicholas II from assuming those duties for which he was so ill-suited by reason of his ignorance, inability, utterly flaccid will, and lack of stern inner character.” That was the universal view of people who knew the monarch out side a small circle at the court. “Where are we headed?” wailed his disbelieving mother, the dowager empress.
High government officials implored the sovereign to think again. The Council of Ministers were dismayed enough to send him a daring collective warning that assuming the commander-in-chief’s role would threaten “Russia, you, and your dynasty with the gravest consequences.” Nicholas answered the rush of pleas with his favorite mantra: “May God’s will be done.”
Was it also God’s will that the Russian Army had suffered a terrible hammering during the war’s opening stages? The declaration of hostilities in August 1914 had inspired a frenzy of heightened reverence for the czar. “Lead us, Sire,” roared jubilant crowds. Russia surged with a patriotism the likes of which all monarchists dream of. That emotion sustained itself during the war’s beginnings while her forces scored substantial advances, especially against the Austrian army in the south. But the debacle at Tannenberg in Au gust 1914 followed by the Great Retreat began to have an impact on Russian confidence in their leaders.
The grim situation reinforced Nicholas’ conviction that it was his duty to lead the army. That was what he had wanted to do during the equally disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1905, 11 years into his reign, until ministers and generals dissuaded him. Now he heeded his instinct to serve-submitting also to the prodding of his wife, the Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna.
When he left to take up his “new heavy responsibility,” as he described it, Alexandra praised him for having “fought this great fight”-against the overwhelming consensus of advisers and commentators–”for your country and throne-alone and with bravery and decision.” She continued: “Never have they seen such firmness in you before…. God appointed you at your coronation, he placed you where you stand and you have done your duty…. Our Friend’s prayers arise day and night for you to Heaven and God will hear them…. It is the beginning of the great glory of your reign. He said so and I absolutely believe it.”
As always, Alexandra wanted her husband to assert his famously indecisive self to thwart imagined seekers of his throne. Also, she and “our Friend,” the monk Grigori Rasputin, couched their admonishment in the name of the highest power. “To yield that post to another is to disobey the will of God.”
General headquarters, Stavka, was located in Mogilev, a provincial capital some 500 miles south of St. Petersburg and 325 miles southwest of Moscow. The czar arrived there on September 15, 1915, with an icon of Saint Nicholas that Rasputin had given him. Settling in, Nicholas wrote the czarina about Mogilev’s “delightful view over the Dnieper and the distant country.” The town had been chosen as the site for headquarters despite its name (mogila means “grave” in Russian).
He believed his presence there would inspire his peasant troops, the “devoted souls” who, as the czarina forever as sured him, loved him absolutely. Initially, his power to comfort and encourage the troops seemed substantiated. His name “worked like magic with the men,” conceded one general who had bitterly, if privately, opposed the royal move. If states men and the intelligentsia had fewer and fewer illusions about Nicholas’ vision and competence, the peasant-soldiers–who had always considered him their leader anyway still venerated their czar.
At the same time, however, the departure of the previous commander, the czar’s uncle Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, chipped away at morale in the ranks. Nikolaevich had contributed to Russia’s defeats at the beginning of the war, but the soldiers still considered him a strong, dedicated, stern officer who was concerned with their welfare.
Nikolaevich made the change of command as easy as possible for Nicholas, objecting only to patently absurd talk–eagerly promoted by the czarina–that he hungered to replace Nicholas as the sovereign.
The czarina’s warped intrigues to strengthen the czar’s resolve were part of her campaign to make her husband a more forceful person. An essentially timid man, a picture of loving tenderness in their domestic life, Nicholas tended to stutter when facing unpleasantness. His wife’s shining ambition was to persuade him to rule “like Ivan the Terrible.” “The emperor, unfortunately, is weak,” she had told the British ambassador when he questioned the decision to change command, “but I am not and intend to be firm.”
Now she wrote to her husband (in English, their epistolary language) at least once a day, every day he was away. Her river of letters and telegrams exhorted him to save Russia and the Romanov dynasty from treacherous politicians by making himself feared. Once he had swept away the impudent villains who sought vile reforms, then Nicholas would rule without restraint–as God intended.
Her goal of making her husband demonstrate who was in command pervaded her every suspicious instinct. “If you could only be severe, my Love, it is so necessary,” she wrote to Nicholas. “They must hear your voice and see displeasure in your eyes; they are much too accustomed to your gentle, forgiving kindness.”
To strengthen her case, she invoked the power of Rasputin, the Siberian monk with the hypnotic eyes and apparently genuine ability to stop the bleeding of the royal couple’s hemophilic son, the Czarevich Alexei Nicolaevich. She wrote endlessly of Rasputin’s love for Nicholas and the determining importance of the monk’s prophecies. “You need the strength prayers & advice of our friend,” she told her husband. Quoting his assurance that Nicholas was fulfilling a heavenly purpose, the czarina begged him to further strengthen himself for difficult meetings and decisions by grooming his hair with the holy man’s comb.
After completing the delicate task of relieving his uncle, Nicholas himself felt blissfully calm, “as if after Holy Communion. God’s will be fulfilled.” His profound faith encompassed more than determination to serve the Creator. Divine determination had made Russia an autocracy; therefore, the monarch’s holy duty was to perpetuate that hopelessly archaic system. The czar had “unlimited faith,” as the historian Michael Florinsky said, “in the sacredness of the reactionary formula which reduced the essential elements of the Russian Empire to three: orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism.”
Although most Russians rallied around the monarchy, more and more advisers were appalled by the war effort’s actual workings–the court intrigues, the military appointments won because of favoritism rather than ability, and the infernal muddle of military bureaucracies that deprived the fighting men of boots and food, not to mention guns and ammunition.
In 1916, a year after Nicholas came to Stavka, a minister pleaded with him to institute reforms that would save the army from bedlam, his only reply was, “I will do what the Lord wills me to do.” Whatever it said about his religious devotion, that standard expression also camouflaged his refusal to face unmistakable reality–and to cloak his ignorance in heavenly majesty.
The czar settled into a comfortable routine at Mogilev. At 11 each morning, the chief of staff and the general quartermaster reported to Nicholas about the war situation. Every evening he received accounts from the front. Nicholas left the real conduct of the war to his chief of staff, General Mikhail Alexeyev, a relatively skilled administrator and strategist who took pains to keep his commander happily distracted. To most questions about strategy and tactics, the czar answered, “You must ask Alexeyev.”
By that time, millions of Russians had been killed and gravely wounded in the fighting. The same fate awaited millions more. The czar was persuaded that the way to sustain Russia was not to tackle the work needed to modernize and generally professionalize the army, nor try to learn strategy, nor explore matters crying out for sound decisions. It was to permit his suffering soldiers to observe the happy play, in the bosom of general headquarters, of the czarevich who represented their future–the heir to whom the czar read aloud all his mother’s scheming letters.
In terms of his private life, the father’s affection for his sickly son, who “brings much light into my life here,” was high among his merits. Nicholas’ love for his children was exceeded only by his devotion to their mother, and he thanked God for giving her to him “as a wife and friend.”
Convinced that her enemies–who increasingly numbered all thinking Russians–were “incarnations of evil,” the czarina was easily moved to hysteria by traitorous words doubting her and Rasputin’s righteousness. The far less excitable czar also believed that any opposition to him was begot by evil elements seeking Russia’s ruin. His conception of those elements revealed the baseness of his political thinking.
In his modest personal comportment, the winning outdoorsman who loved tennis, wood chopping, and country walks with his adored children was a model for royalty and commoners alike. He usually wore a simple soldier’s belt ed blouse and boots. Kind , courteous, gentlemanly, frequently nervous, the shy and faintly feminine figure, as he appeared to one general, was never known to raise his voice, let alone lose his temper. The soft-spoken ruler with his supreme devotion to his beautiful family seemed anything but a tyrant.
However, many foreigners saw Nicholas as tragically weak–”in no way fitted to be a czar,” concluded American war correspondent Stanley Washburn. Germany’s monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II, once remarked that his nephew Nicholas was fit only to “live in a country house and grow turnips.” Although that remark revealed as much about Wilhelm’s mean-spirited contempt as about Nicholas himself, there was wide spread agreement that the throne’s occupation by such a feeble leader just when Russia needed vision and strength was a curse. Washburn thought Nicholas should have been a priest, for his religious belief went “almost to the point of superstition.”
Not that the czar was stupid. On the contrary, his memory, reading comprehension, knowledge of royal history, and ability with languages was excellent. But his mystical conviction that the benevolent God who appointed him czar and supreme commander would make the right decisions for Russia kept Nicholas from applying himself to demanding military or political questions. Count Sergei Witte, a former minister of finance who–before Nicholas summarily dismissed him did much to spur the country’s turn-of-the-century industrialization and ad vance toward parliamentarianism, characterized the Czar’s motto as, “I wish, therefore it must be.” Absorption of painful realities, let alone any kind of creative thinking, seemed beyond him.
Enclosed in his snug Stavka cocoon, the supreme commander’s view of the war during that supreme national crisis was of maps with brightly colored pins indicating troop positions and of picked regiments-some “amazingly beautiful” and “astounding ,” he enthused whirling in review. His Stavka stay became an enlarged version of summer maneuvers. The czar much enjoyed the reviews. The “performers” were “so tidily, cleanly and well dressed and equipped, such as I have seldom seen even in peace time! Truly excellent!” At least one planned offensive was delayed because he insisted on reviewing some of the Imperial Guard units designated to take part, and that rite was postponed for weeks until the czarevich re covered from an episode of bleeding. The French observer who reported the affair was understandably amazed.
The czar ‘s reluctance to take a firm stand or issue an order became common knowledge among the staff. A few ascribed it to the difficulty of exerting authority in a sprawling landmass whose people leaned toward anarchy unless marshaled by superiors directly on the spot. “You see what it is to be an autocrat,” he complained wistfully to the British ambassador. Other supporters attributed his vacillation to qualities that would have been far less harmful in peacetime. The commander of his Imperial Guard thought the czar’s first decisions were almost always right. But “too much modesty” made him uncertain of himself, and frequent changes of mind “usually spoil[ed] the first decision.”
If it was modesty that kept him from saying or ordering something concrete, his extraordinary view of his responsibilities at Stavka surely helped. Stavka was like no other high command on either side of the war–Nicholas’ behavior ensured that. At one point, the czar was so busy entertaining a steady stream of generals and colonels that for a month he failed to read a district military commander’s 11 page plea for reinforcements. His sedulous, upright chief of staff, General Alexeyev, tried to avoid the social gatherings. Alexeyev continued to devise strategy and plan operations, which Nicholas then “ordered.” However, General Anton Denikin, an army corps commander, believed that the czar “lacked sufficient authority, firmness and strength” even to accomplish his ceremonial ordering with the necessary understanding and decisiveness. Knowing that, Alexeyev took to informing Nicholas only about matters that had already been resolved.
For the czar’s occasional trips to the front, his private train was rigged with a trapeze-like device so he could exercise when that was impossible outdoors. Visiting hospitals, he bore huge supplies of medals for the heavily wounded, on whom he believed he made a stunning impression. General Denikin observed, to the contrary, that the decorated men were left with little to tell their comrades. The ceremonies produced no memorable words because his reserved commander “did not know how to speak with the troops.” Other generals found his ineptness went further–not knowing “where to go or what to do.”
While he remained unaware of the waning support amongst his soldiers, Nicholas continued to enjoy “military” life at Stavka. “The life I lead here at the head of my army is so healthy and comforting,” he mused. He had always relished the officers’ mess of guards regiments. Taken in the company he liked, the meals were washed down by copious vodka and wine, although his own drinking was sparing. He enjoyed praying in church, which confirmed that his heart was “in the hands of God”–and helped him to ignore that the terrible defeats the Russians were suffering were eroding the previously powerful national religious faith, specifically the prevailing conviction in the ranks that prayer would lead to victory.
Most of all he liked reviews and parades. He took the throaty “Hurrahs!” of the troops he reviewed as evidence that his ministers in St. Petersburg knew terribly little of what was happening to the country as a whole. That, he believed, was proof that he had been right to assume supreme command. After all, Rasputin had warned that “trouble is coming” and that Nicholas would have been “driven from the throne by now” if he had not replaced Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.
Trouble was indeed hurtling toward the regime. One of its chief causes was the czar’s illusions about his august calling and slight duties. His fondness for non-combatant military ways made him happy to be at Stavka, as did its refuge from decision-making. Clear thought and action might have allowed Russia to evolve into a modern monarchy, able to acknowledge and cope with 20th-century economic and social developments. The same might have given her army a chance to make good its enormous potential in manpower, soldierly stoicism, and, by 1916, increasing amounts of supplies from awakening industries. Reasonable reform would have given able military leaders the ability to make and execute rational decisions. But the czar, clinging to his mystical sense of how victories are won and to his perceived role as the guarantor of celestial approval, continued to scorn all pleading to recognize the facts. “My brain is resting here–no ministers, no troublesome questions demanding thought,” he wrote.
His adoring wife continued thinking for him. The German-born Alexandra was not a traitor as slanderous sheets had begun suggesting. Apart from her relationship with Rasputin, she was guilty of few of the unusual scandals described by the growing portion of the press that sought to blacken the monarchy. Still, she was a greater menace to Russian victory than countless German divisions. When the czarina visited Mogilev the generals ate in guarded silence and feared to enter the neighboring room to which she retired after the meal. What would they have thought if they had read her letters to their supreme commander, with their beseeching to heed “our friend”? When Nicholas reported that intense fog had interfered with Russian artillery, she answered that “He [Rasputin] scolded for not having said it at once,” and conveyed his promise that “no more fogg [sic] will disturb [you].”
The problems resulting from Nicholas’ lack of command presence were only compounded by Russia’s military leaders. War production was improving but much of the army’s generalship remained abysmal. Western liaison officers were appalled by the flunkies in high army positions. Although court favorites and unscrupulous intriguers were hardly new to Russia, their damage increased in proportion to the army’s urgent need for effective generalship. Never grasping the importance of finding effective leaders, the czar, throughout the duration of his command at Stavka, interceded to win high commands for “a motley crew of failed and incompetent generals,” summarized a historian. Eased into vital commands, a raft of inept aristocrats blundered woefully and helped ensure immense casualties by relying on nineteenth century concepts of warfare.
A French officer characterized the czar’s appointments as “scandalous favoritism.” Nicholas had long trusted and felt comfortable with only people of very mediocre minds and virtually no initiative. Now, when gifted, dynamic leaders were needed–precisely the qualities that provoked his ostracism or hostility–he had difficulty judging who should serve because he had little talent for assessing others’ talents and worth. On top of that, he still knew little about the army’s real workings. Promotions based on petty impulses and resentments–which friendly families should be rewarded with choice posts, what commanders must be punished for lack of deference–thus led, in the crisis of war, to tragic consequences.
“Sadly,” wrote historian Bruce Lincoln, “such traits as likability, glibness, respect for his czarina, and a variety of other inconsequential criteria determined his choice of the men in whom he placed his trust. These men could never provide him with the advice and counsel he needed as Russia passed through the most critical moment in her history.”
The czarina’s letters to Nicholas were full of urgings to accommodate flatterers, notably members of her friends’ families. One, she reminded, “Waits for a regiment.” It would be “lovely” if an other were given command of a brigade–and has that been arranged for a third? A fourth should be the next successor to command of another brigade. Nicholas must “find work” for a fifth. Although some appointments and promotions went to excellent candidates, “the number of incompetents restored to duty and promoted through the favor of the czar and czarina was dangerously large,” according to a scholar of the Romanovs’ fall. Alexandra’s urgings to replace “incompetent” or “disloyal” generals was equally damaging to Russia. Her targets were almost always those who had revealed misgivings about Rasputin-a sure sign of ability, since good generals were anti-Rasputin almost by definition and telling the truth about him required integrity. She stimulated the czar’s purge of precisely the skill, honesty and leadership for which the fight ing units cried out.
The enormously hard-working, in corruptibly apolitical chief of staff did not escape her poison. General Alexeyev’s dedication, endurance, and organizational achievements had won him his promotions and his peers’ admiration despite his plebeian birth. But the czarina warned the czar that anyone “so terribly against our Friend” could not do “blessed work.” There fore, when Alexeyev was found to have cancer in late 1916, the czarina wrote Nicholas that God had sent the illness in order to save him from a man who was losing his way and “doing harm by listening to bad letters & people.”
Although the czar was unwilling to sacrifice Alexeyev, he often followed her advice about other appointments. Rarely able to oppose her, he too was displeased, if not as violently, by expressions of doubt about Rasputin’s revelations. The grievous royal influence was crowned by the disastrous March 1916 dismissal of the man whom the British military attache identified as undoubtedly Russia’s ablest military organizer. General Andrei Polivanov, the war minister, had done more than anyone else to rebuild the army–some said miraculously–after its terrible losses in the Great Retreat of 1915. The czarina considered him “simply a revolutionary” for cooperating with public organizations to improve army supplies.
While campaigning stridently for his ousting, she also wondered whether the chief of the war industries committees could be hung for experimenting with workers’ participation. Nearly all attempts to cope with the emergency by innovation prompted her relentless calls for revenge. How dare public servants act on their own, unguided by the sanctified vision of Rasputin and herself? She protested in outrage that such impertinence was not merely wrong but also satanic because it challenged the natural order. “But we are appointed by God,” she reminded the czar.
For all that, however, Nicholas’ greatest failure in Mogilev was of omission rather than commission. The duties of commander in chief and chief of staff are distinctly different. The latter, even had there been a standard-bearer who somehow worked even longer and harder than Alexeyev, cannot replace the former. But by occupying the top post with his military blankness, Nicholas effectively abolished a position from which energy, knowledge, experience, and in sight should have strengthened and directed the army. His confidence that God would award his faith was bolstered–and his willingness to tackle real issues diminished–by his wife’s reassurance that “A country where a man of God [Rasputin] helps the Sovereign will never be lost.” The ever-courteous czar’s missing leadership was needed all the more because Alexeyev, for all his energy and skill in staff work, could not make quick decisions.
That lack of a commander’s vision on the struggle as a whole deprived the army of a fighting chance. By early 1916, morale was improving because conscripts were being better trained and armed than ever before, thanks largely to the just-dismissed war minister General Polivanov. In strictly military terms, Russia seemed to have turned the corner and could begin to hope for success. General Brusilov’s superbly commanded June attack into Austrian Galacia-Russia’s most successful operation of the war smashed so fast and far forward that Vienna considered negotiating for peace.
But the opportunity for a full breakthrough was lost because of the vacuum at the top. No one insisted on launching simultaneous offensives on the western and northwestern fronts. Although of the war might well have been changed.
Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg later confessed that a second offensive nearby would have threatened his forces “with the menace of a complete collapse.” But at an all-important council of war two months earlier, Nicholas had remained silent, not even asking a question or venturing an opinion. What he did instead was read novels “from morning to night,” he wrote the czarina. His choices just then included a little boy blue tale–”so pretty and true”–that brought him to tears.
By late summer, the Russian forces had suffered monstrous new losses of 1.2 million men and were closer to collapse than the Austrians. The missed opportunity of Brusilov’s offensive turned to rout because the command failure had allowed the Germans to rush in reinforcements to their Austrian allies.
After the war, Hindenburg would praise the sacrificial bravery of his Russian enemies who endured their stunning losses and whose total casualties would never be known. “All we know is that sometimes in our battles with the Russians, we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses from outside our trenches in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting waves,” Hindenberg said. A careful study 10 years later led Russian General Nicholas Golovine to estimate that just under eight million men–more than half those who had been mobilized–had been killed, wounded, or taken captive.
Nicholas was not oblivious to the horrific carnage, but his nature and entire background–his isolation from deliberation of real issues by the enormous gulf that separated him from his people–incapacitated him for useful reaction to it. Rather than strive to lessen the country’s pain by becoming genuinely involved in the conduct of the war, the czar began sinking into a kind of mental abdication.
Nicholas’ reaction to the disastrous effects of the war on his army, or lack thereof, was nothing new. When, in 1905, a report reached him about Japan’s virtual annihilation of the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese War, he merely put it in his pocket and resumed his tennis game.
During World War I his innate passivism had advanced toward fatalism, probably deepened by bewilderment at the course of events. Count Paul Benckendorff, former ambassador to Britain and then chief marshal of the court, observed in 1916 that his “quite apathetic” majesty “is no longer seriously interested in anything. He goes through his daily routine like an automaton, paying more attention to the hour set for his meals or his walk in the garden than to the affairs of state. One can’t rule an empire and command an army in the field in this manner.”
As popular discontent with the war swelled, blame began falling on the czar, just as loyalists had warned. Any genuine exchanges with his troops would have apprised the supreme commander of the people’s growing estrangement from him. But “the little colonel,” as he was now called by the troops who began mocking his physical size and leadership abilities, could not see the danger because it fell outside his own lofty view of himself, his army, and his earthly mission.
Soldiers felt increasing contempt for the state system and the court they had begun holding responsible for the military failures. But most of their disaffection came from their own experience in one of a number of battlefield fiascoes. Robert Liddell, a British captain of a Russian company, called the Russian soldier “a very badly-off man” who knew the terrible odds he was fighting against, despite his fatalistic bravery. His “wonderful faith” slowly died as the war dragged on, its realities silencing the old slogan: “for religion, czar and motherland.” An army cook put it in terms of an old Russian saying: “A fish begins stinking from the head.”
Despite his freedom from burden of command and his lack of physical hardship, the czar’s spirit and appearance began to deteriorate. The process had started soon after his arrival at Stavka, when the once bright, keen eyed enthusiast complained to his wife about a heaviness in his heart. He grew pale and tired. His cheeks began shrinking, his features visibly aged and his nervousness increased. Now every one who saw him was shocked by his gaunt, deeply lined face with prominent black circles under the eyes.
His military failures were not alone in wearing him down. Government affairs, presided over by the relentlessly scheming Alexandra in St. Petersburg, went from scandalously bad to progressively worse, with chaos and public disgust soaring in proportion. The “insane” regime, Count Witte despaired, was “a tangle of cowardice, blindness, craftiness, and stupidity.” The czarina’s solution was ever greater reliance on Rasputin, praise of whom was the quickest way up the slippery pole of ministerial ambition–and opposition to whom was the quickest way down. Alexandra entreated Nicholas to talk to Prince Shcherbatov, one of a rapid succession of ministers of the interior, to “make him understand that he acts straight against us in persecuting and allowing him [Rasputin] to be evil written about or spoken of.” Shcherbatov and other doubters were replaced by toadies willing to heed “the position of our friend,” as Alexandra specified. Historian Michael Florinsky called the parade of ministerial nonentities “an amazing, extravagant and pitiful spectacle, and one without parallel in the history of civilized nations.”
Not satisfied to whisper directives for the great country’s political and social life, the “man of God” had long been using the correspondence to the czar and czarina to thrust himself into military affairs in a way that still takes the breath away.
Why not military guidance, since God, the czarina assured, “opens everything to him”? “Do not fear to pronounce the name Grigori in speaking with [General Alexeyev],” she urged. “Thanks to Him [Rasputin], you have remained sound since a year ago when you took command when everyone was against you.”
One message–of November 1915–was prompted by what Rasputin had seen during the night. He urged Alexandra to inform the czar at once, “He begs you to order that one should advance near Riga, says it is necessary, otherwise the Germans will settle down so firmly… that it will cost endless bloodshed and trouble to make them move… he says this is just now the most essential thing.”
Another, in June 1916, conveyed Rasputin’s blessing to “the whole orthodox army,” and reported his begging, “that we should not yet strongly advance in the north because he says if our successes continue being good in the south, they will themselves retreat in the north, or advance and then their losses will be very great.”
The “successes” here came during Brusilov’s offensive, which had a chance to achieve a pivotal victory, if properly supported–the opposite of Rasputin’s instruction. By the end of the following month, Alexandra was reporting “our friend’s” advice not to advance “too obstinately” for fear of extreme losses. When Nicholas wrote back that he had told Alexeyev to order Brusilov to cease the attacks the czarina now called hopeless, she answered that the czar’s orders left their friend “very satisfied…. All will be well.” In reality, the military situation was again wretched.
The czar tried to draw a line between Rasputin’s spiritual and military counsel and to ignore the latter. More than once he specifically asked Alexandra not to inform the monk of the operational plans he shared with her. Never daring to oppose her, however, he was no more successful at keeping secrets from Rasputin than in advocating a suggestion in military councils. After the monarchy’s fall, she was found to have a map showing unit deployments along the entire front–one of but two copies the chief of staff had made, for himself and for the czar. To the czar’s several requests that some of his information be for her eyes only, Alexandra assured in reply that she told no one what he wrote to her, “Except Him [Rasputin], who protects you wherever you are.”
While Rasputin was playing his bizarre military role, reasonable quantities of supplies–including rifles for every soldier by mid-1916–were at last reaching the front. That worried German strategists, who well knew the Russians’ wondrous resilience after catastrophes that would have subdued less stoic armies. Despite the fearsome defects and difficulties, the Russian Army’s tenacious, heroic fighting had made a great contribution to the Allied effort by tying up much of the German Army in the east. Properly equipped and led forces were now showing themselves to be a match for German ones. A new chance presented itself–not too late militarily–to get the “giant Russian steamroller” running. But as General Alexeyev had warned, the crucial factor in an army that relied so much on endurance was spirit. Once the faith in the “good father” czar was broken, no amount of materiel could save the fading national symbol who had so recently been revered. Whispers that the Russian infantry had lost its heart and that anti-war propaganda was rife in the ranks reached the British military attache in October 1916.
After Prince Felix Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitri Romanov and Vladimir Purishkevich murdered Rasputin on December 17, 1916, Nicholas spent more and more time alone with Alexandra in St. Petersburg. More clearly than ever, the very qualities that helped make him so sterling a family man who instinctively retreated from national issues to his household’s cherished isolation–simultaneously made him so inadequate as a military leader. While the devoted couple read, listened to music, and played cards, his empire continued to rot. Although the Bolsheviks were still a small, illegal organization, the czar’s flaws–now seen as evil–were radicalizing a growing mass of soldiers.
By the end of 1916, his completely isolated government was universally distrusted and generally despised. Many in the ranks were convinced that Alexandra’s court was in the pay of Germany, which accounted for the military defeats snatched from victory. Most soldiers believed that the war could never be won under such leaders. They saw “all their feats of arms brought to nothing,” Brusilov remembered, “by what they considered a lack of intelligence and decision on the part of the Supreme Command.” Only a government responsible to the Duma–which had been all but solidly monarchist before the czar began playing war at Stavka–promised hope for recapturing popular support of the war effort in the field as well as at home.
By January 1917, the monarchy teetered so perilously near collapse that Prime Minister Mikhail Rodzianko ventured to tell the czar that hatred of the czarina was spreading throughout the country and doom was near unless a new government was installed. “Sire, not a single honest or reliable man is left in your entourage. All the best have either been eliminated or have resigned,” the prime minister pleaded.
Rodzianko’s pronouncement was extraordinary. He had been brazen enough to confront the sovereign with the truth. However, not even that effrontery caused the czar to raise his voice. On the contrary, he pressed his hands to his head and asked whether it was possible that he had “tried to act for the best” throughout his reign, but “for 22 years it was all a mistake?” “Yes, Your Majesty,” Rodzianko answered, summoning even more boldness. “For 22 years, you followed a wrong course.”
Still, the “little colonel” persisted in his highest political goal: no significant changes so that he could fulfill his coronation oath to pass on an intact autocracy to his son. His war to achieve that took precedence over the one against Germany and Austria.
Calling it their “hidden cause,” Alexandra saw “what the struggle here really is and means–you showing your mastery, proving yourself the Autocrat without which Russia cannot exist.”
Although Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky had an ax to grind, he would exaggerate only mildly when declaring that no regiment at the front or the rear would now do battle for Nicholas, let alone for that ruinous family cause. In the end, it was the collapse of military morale that undid the czar’s dynasty. If soldiers–and an increasing number of their officers–had not disobeyed orders and sided with angrily protesting St. Petersburg crowds, his rule might have continued.
Longing for Nicholas to go swelled among the officers of the army. The scope of the disaffection may have been lost on the czar but not on his generals. In the end, it was not politicians or courtiers but the leadership of his army that persuaded him to react. He did so only when his top generals told him that his only choice was to follow the prime minister’s advice and abdicate. The exhausted chief of staff went down on his knees to beg the czar to listen.
In fact, the inflexible, fragile Nicholas went further. Rather than transfer executive power to the hated Duma, he chose to leave the field of political battle entirely by giving up the throne–the ultimate expression of his fatalism. Nicholas abdicated on March 15, 1917. Quietly, the czar remarked that he had been “born for misfortune”–a notion many of his subjects shared. Russians believed that czars were either lucky or unlucky and that Nicholas fell into the latter category for many reasons, including mass deaths caused by a stampede of celebrants at his coronation and more deaths in 1905 during the war with Japan. He himself, when defending his fateful decision to lead the army, had reminded an imperial cousin that he had been born on the saint’s day of Job, the righteous sufferer. Perhaps, he reflected, a scapegoat was needed to save Russia, and he was ready to accept his destiny. “I mean to be the victim,” the czar had said. “May the will of God be done.”
By now, he was a scapegoat, blamed for contributing even more stupid decisions to the hoard that ended the country’s evolution toward a workable monarchy. When news of the czar’s abdication spread, most of Mogilev joined the shouting for joy that resounded throughout the huge Russian land mass. Persuaded that the fragile czarevich would not live much longer, Nicholas abdicated in favor of Grand Duke Mikhail, his younger brother. Liberal monarchists hoped the dynasty would endure after the departure of Nicholas. However, Grand Duke Mikhail read the writing on the wall. Within hours, he effectively passed power to a newly formed provisional government. That government suppressed Nicholas’ last speech to his troops, which asked for God’s blessing and victory. Victory had become fantasy; the rational goal was to save the army from disintegration. Even now, the former emperor failed to grasp the situation or the perception of him. “My soldiers hated me not,” he declared. “They hated my crown and throne, but once I was divested of them, they made no accusation against me. What injustice have my people suffered that I haven’t suffered with them?”
But huge numbers had come to hate him. His conviction that his people suffered no injustice he did not share revealed more appalling ignorance of the peasant masses to which he claimed such deep attachment. The disaffection by the army commanders–until then his strongest supporters–meant that they now saw him and his imperial government as too great an obstacle to defending the country. Nicholas failed to grasp that, too.
Arrested shortly after abdication, he and his family were shifted from one place of internment to another. The last was Ekaterinburg, Siberia (called Sverdlovsk during most of the Soviet period). Nikolai Romanov, as the former autocrat of some 150 million subjects was now called, remained confident of rescue by an army that, he believed, retained its devotion to him. His illusion persisted until July 1918, some eight months after the Bolshevik seizure of power from the Provisional Government, when a revolutionary band slaughtered him, Alexandra, the czarevich and his four beautiful daughters in the basement of an Ekaterinburg house.
Perhaps that horror could have been avoided if Nicholas had listened to the advice of his most devoted supporters three years earlier and not made himself commander in chief. Perhaps the Romanov dynasty might have fallen–if to less ruthless usurpers than the Bolsheviks–even if he had not opened himself to personal responsibility for the country’s immense battlefield pain. But the wisest observers of the time knew he had neither the force of character to provide genuine leadership nor the vision to recognize why it was needed. They never doubted the link between the “pitifully unprepared “colonel’s assumption of supreme army command and the dynasty’s collapse. “It would seem,” lamented general Sir John Hanbury Williams, who led the British representation at Stavka, that “the czar was fated, on the rare occasions on which he made a critical decision, to assert himself in a manner disastrous to his own prestige and to the interest of his country.”
The czar and Russia’s welfare had been seen as indivisible and sacred. During the course of his 18 months as supreme commander, however, he managed to squander the great reserve of soldierly affection and reverence for him. The moment “God’s will” took him to Mogilev, Nicholas began digging his dynasty’s grave. “We’re sitting on a powder keg, all we need is a single spark to set it off,” wrote a loyal minister shortly before Nicholas re placed his uncle. “In my opinion, the Sovereign czar’s assumption of the army’s command is not merely a spark but a whole candle thrown into a powder magazine.”
The explosion damaged Russian society severely enough to open the way for desperate extremism and 70 years of Soviet rule. MHQ
George Feifer is the author of Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and The Atomic Bomb (Houghton Mifflin).
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1998 issue (Vol. 11, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Last Czar as Leader
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