HIST 202: European Civilization, 1648-1945

Lecture 19

 - The Romanovs and the Russian Revolution


The period between the Russian Revolution of February 1917, which resulted in the overthrow of the autocracy and the establishment of a provisional government, and the Bolshevik Revolution in October of that same year, offers an instructive example of revolutionary processes at work. During this interval, the fate of Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, was bound up in the struggle for power amongst competing political factions in Russia. Until his death, Nicholas was convinced that the Russian people would rescue him from his captors. Such a belief would prove to be delusional, and the efforts on the part of liberals, socialists, and some Bolsheviks to arrange for a trial would fail to save the czar from the verdict of history.

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European Civilization, 1648-1945

HIST 202 - Lecture 19 - The Romanovs and the Russian Revolution

Chapter 1. The Process of Revolution: Political Competition after the February Revolution [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: Today I want to talk about the Russian Revolution. I want to do just a couple things at the beginning. Then I’m going to — I hope you weren’t in Jay’s class “The Age of Total War” last year, because I gave almost the same lecture in it. In fact, I might have done it this year, too. As you know, I have him come in, then he has me go into theirs. But what I want to do is see the Revolution through the eyes of Nicholas and Alexandra, for the last part. But first, just a couple things at the beginning. Picking up on something that I said when we talked about 1848, the Russian Revolution is a perfect way to see revolution as process at work. You know, read the chapter.

The revolution in February, as I said before, people wake up and there are not a lot of troops around, and people are hungry, and the — and I’ll talk more about this in a minute — autocracy falls rather quickly and rather easily. It’s at that point when you’ve got the provisional government of Kerensky. It’s at that point that, as in 1848, and as in 1789 and the following years, people who want to shape the future of the country put in their claims. That’s when social and political conflicts increase dramatically. The context of the war is, of course, mind-boggling, with the front not all that far away from Petrograd — because St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd at the beginning of the war, because it was a more Russian name.

Those groups, like the Mensheviks whom you read about, the Bolsheviks — Lenin comes back on the sealed train — the Kadets, liberals, and those people who wanted czarist restoration, and the Socialist Revolutionaries, of which Kerensky was one, who have the most influence in Russia of any dissident party by far. They would be allies, especially the leftwing of the Socialist Revolutionaries, of the Bolsheviks after the Bolshevik seizure of power. Then they’re dismissed and persecuted like the others. But they all put forward their claims.

All the kinds of tensions, and the “Kornilov plot,” in quotes, which you can read about, and the July Days, and all of that really reflect the revolutionary process. What happens in October is the Bolsheviks, after one attempt that didn’t work, are able to seize power. So, Leon Trotsky — who ends up, as you know, with an ice pick planted through his neck in a garden in Mexico City, assassinated on the orders of Stalin — and Lenin and the very young Stalin, who was in Siberia at the time of the February revolution, the Bolsheviks come to power and the Soviet Union is created. Next week I’ll talk about Stalin and Stalinism. Today it’s enough to talk about the Russian Revolution.

Before I go back and tell you about Nicholas and Alexandra, and the crazed Rasputin and those folks, nobody expected there would be a revolution, that the Marxist revolution or version would come to Russia. Populists, who in the middle decades of the nineteenth century believed that the Russian peasantry was a potentially revolutionary force, people like Bakunin, whom I’ve talked about before. They thought that the peasants would rise up one day and sweep away their masters, to whom they were indentured as serfs until 1861. That’s not that long before World War I and all of that. But for Marx the revolution had to come where you had a class-conscious proletariat that had been organized by this revolutionary elite, sort of a top-down organized revolutionary elite. That would come in Germany, in Britain, in France, eventually maybe in the United States.

After the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin is still convinced that the revolution is going to come in Germany. In fact, the Spartacists do rise. They were a real far-left revolutionary group full of some very good people, incidentally, like Rosa Luxemburg who ends up being murdered. She was born in Zamosc, in what then was Russian Poland. The revolution had to come where you had an industrial proletariat. But it doesn’t. Or does it? I’m a little ambiguous there, but let me say that because the revolution starts in Petrograd, that the way Petrograd was in 1917 an administrative, czarist, autocratic capital constructed by Peter the Great. But it’s also a huge, enormous industrial center with hundreds of thousands of industrial workers.

The historians still debate whether by October, that is, after February during the provisional government time, the Socialist Revolutionaries or the Bolsheviks had more influence in the soviets. That’s where the Soviet Union comes from. In the soviets, which were organizations of workers, sailors, and soldiers. Marx wasn’t all wrong. The role of the industrial workers in St. Petersburg is very important in this. Lots of them get betrayed. They all get betrayed, ultimately, because what was going to be the workers’ paradise, it ain’t that. And workers’ self-management, it didn’t become that. It didn’t become that at all. They’re shocked when the Red Guards are putting down their strikes.

But in the beginning, the role of the workers on the periphery — remember center and periphery is terribly important. I talk a little bit about this in what you’re reading. Along the Nevsky Prospect you have government buildings. You’ve got the Singer Sewing Machine Company. You’ve got tramways. I haven’t been to St. Petersburg since au temps des camarades, since the fall of communism, but very fancy stores in 1917, very dolled-up people, very rich people. Then the tramway simply stopped in the mud when they reached the periphery, when they reached the working-class suburbs. The glittering lights of the big department stores that would make you think of London, and Paris, and Berlin, and Vienna, and the big fancy hotels, all lit up with doormen clicking their heels as the well-heeled enter and leave, even during the war. There weren’t any lights, or very few, when you got into the working-class suburbs.

The one thing to keep in mind is that the Russian Revolution, both that of February and that of October, was a popular revolution. This was no sort of a coup d’état carried out by a couple of extremely organized, determined politicos. Lenin was organized and he was determined. Lenin was not what the French would call rigolo. He was not a barrel of laughs. He was sure of himself. He had very little sense of humor. He had biting sarcasm. I guess I quote once in there, when he would argue with somebody he said, “He who does not understand that understands nothing.” He was very, very sure of himself, a very difficult man to get along with. I’ll leave it to you to think was Stalinism inevitable in Leninism? I’m not so sure it was.

Anyway, the revolution was a popular revolution. The fall of the autocracy, the masses did not rise up to save the czar. They did not, and the czarina. “Bread, land, and peace.” “Bread, land, and peace” is a very, very important slogan when you’ve got millions of people under arms from all of the nationalities, some of whom didn’t know Russian at all, many of whom when they go into the war don’t know the difference between a gun and a pitchfork. Until the very end, Nicholas and Alexandra, who are not very loveable people — one can feel sorry for them, and you will feel sorry for them. They end horribly. But they still had the beliefs that the Russian people loved their czar, and that they would pour forward to save the czar, and the czarina, and the autocracy. And they didn’t. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, March 1918, pulls Russia out of the war and all that. That’s just a couple of things that the beginning to say. It’s all in the book. Still, it’s a very interesting revolution.

There’s a lot of great literature on the Russian Revolution in English. I don’t read Russian at all, but in all sorts of languages. Now, having just sort of that set that up — reserved seating, VIP? What is this? I don’t know. Anyway, there’s nobody there — Let’s talk about — did I do all that? Yeah —

Chapter 2. Czar Nicholas II, a Family Man [00:10:58]

Let’s talk about Nicholas and Alexandra. The czar. Nicholas was a family guy. He enjoyed his family. They played tennis. They were modern people. They had bicycles. They pedaled around. The bicycle was a relatively recent invention, as you know. The first big bicycle races in Europe are already in the 1890s. Like his cousin, Nicholas II, he had some general education in the political economy, in math and geography, and foreign languages, which he spoke very well, and in military science. But he had very little intellectual interest at all. Built into the way he looked at the world was this inherent suspicion of rationality, of the Enlightenment.

He was somebody who, and his wife also, would still blame, if he discussed it, Peter the Great for having really incorporated, in some ways, rational organization and the Enlightenment, at least the works of the philosophes, into Russia long before that. He believed that waging war was a matter of honor. In that he shared lots with his wacko cousin, Wilhelm II. He was hard-working in the sense that he read or listened to reports on all that was going on about the war. Mark Steinberg has published some of the letters. Mark Steinberg is a friend of mine who teaches at Illinois.

If I remember correctly, the czar believed that the nobles had compromised the fate of the autocracy in some ways, or threatened it by being indolent and not working hard enough. His view was always that he was the father of his people, that he was the holy czar. Again, everybody has seen pictures of him sitting on a horse, blessing the kneeling soldiers as they’re going off to fight in 1914. He constantly referred to his ancestors, the Romanovs. “Only the state which preserves the heritage of the past is strong and firm,” he wrote. “We ourselves have sinned against this and God is punishing us with the war.” He took command of the Russian army in 1915 against the advice of his wife. He didn’t usually go against the advice of Alexandra, the advice of his ministers, and the advice of the mad monk, Rasputin. Obviously, one of the reasons that people argued against this was (a) he really wasn’t a military guy, and (b) if it doesn’t go well, will people blame the czar? Will the role of the czar be diminished?

He had a strong sense of what he considered moral, and it was shaped by his Orthodox religion. His wife, about whom I’ll have more to say, was a convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Like many converts from one religion to another, was absolutely fanatic in her attachment. He was more relaxed about religion than his wife was, but he often spoke about this sort of religious ecstasy that he felt when he went to church. Historians now say, “It’s too easy to shape discourse about the Russian Revolution around the influence of Rasputin.” But in fact, Rasputin in 1914 had warned that war would bring God’s punishment upon Russia, and great destruction, and grief without end. Rasputin did have great influence with the family. In one letter — again, Mark put this stuff together — the czar wrote, “When I am worried or doubtful or vexed, I only talk to Gregory for a few minutes to feel myself immediately soothed and strengthened.”

One of the reasons that Rasputin had so much influence on the royal family was, of course, tragic illness. Alexi, the son, was a hemophiliac. Hemophiliacs, I guess now they can treat it easier than they could before, but when hemophiliacs get a scratch they can bleed. The blood does not coagulate and they can die. He was not in good health at all. Rasputin, on a couple of occasions, got lucky and predicted the end of a spell, as they used to call them, or an episode of hemophilia, and everything worked out okay. This increases the belief of these parents in the power, if you will, of Rasputin. When there was a mutiny in the navy he wrote, “If you find me so little troubled, it is because I have the firm and absolute faith that the destiny of Russia, of my own fate, and that of my family are in the hands of Almighty God, who has placed me where I am. Whatever may happen I shall bow to His will.”

This kind of fatalism you would see to the end, when after the revolution he’s on a train and he finally has to turn back. This sort of fatalism was part of it. Rasputin by then at that point was already dead. He’d been assassinated. Even the story of his assassination, it was almost impossible to kill him. They kept hammering him with huge rocks and pumping one bullet after another into him. The people that wanted to get him out of the way. They finally, after sort of beating the hell out of him and pumping one bullet after another into all parts of his body, they threw him into a lake weighted down with rocks. When they brought the body up and did an autopsy, they found out that he died of drowning. Anyway, his influence over the czar in a way helped accentuate this sort of fatalism that was almost predetermined, you could say, by his religious orthodoxy. But if you’re going to be the autocratic czar, father of all the people, you don’t want any political institution that’s going to limit your will.

Chapter 3. The Father of His People: Narod and the National Family [00:18:39]

Now, the Duma, the assembly, had been created in 1905 after the revolution — which I trust that you have read about — in 1905, and the role of the Russo-Japanese War facilitating that. He believed that even the existence of the Duma would compromise the virtues of autocracy. As you know, the Duma loses most of what authority it had been given. The Duma seemed to be a rational organization and this didn’t fit terribly well in a worldview that believes in faith feeling as opposed to reason, and has a particular, and sometimes peculiar, idea of morality shaped by the traditions of Mother Russia. He and his wife look back to this sort of imaginary time before Peter the Great, when the true Russia did not look westward at all, and was not tempted by these foreign imports. He idealized that time of piety, the unity between the czar and his people, the narod.

In 1902, he wrote a letter to Alexandra when he was on tour. He said, “We passed through large villages where the good peasants presented simple bread and salt,” which are very important in Russia. At his coronation they spilled the salt. It was part of the ceremony. That was bad omen. He was very superstitious, by the way. Seventeen was his unlucky number. He was terrified of seventeen. There was a huge throng at his inauguration, and a stampede, and lots of people were killed. That was a bad omen, too. Anyway, he said, “All the peasants presented simple bread and salt and all went down immediately on their knees showing such a touching childish joy.” He had the image that the Russian people were childish, that they — and his wife insisted on this — loved being whipped. They loved being punished.

Since the abolition of the serfdom in 1861, there was lots of mistreatment of peasants by lords, but you could no longer literally torture serfs, so long as he didn’t die. Before 1861 if you tortured a serf and he did die or if you just ordered him killed or killed him yourself, you would receive a small fine. But still, there was this idea that the narod, that the people, “good, virtuous, and kindly,” will come to their senses and that they will not disobey during the war. They will do what he told them. Until the end, possibly, we don’t know this — the idea that they will rise up and take him away from his captors in those final days. They did try. There were attempts, but it wasn’t ordinary people. He had these views of orthodoxy, autocracy, aristocracy, etc. It’s a romantic view. He preferred Russian foods. Peter the Great liked Russian food, but he also, you’ll remember, ripped roasts off tables in London, and drank tons of wine and things like that when he was in Western Europe.

He spoke Russian, obviously, very well, but he spoke English with his wife, because English was her language, along with some German. Again, speaking English was part of this kind of aristocratic tradition of speaking other languages by the aristocracy, but not Russian. Again, French and German were — they did speak Russian, but French and German were sort of privileged languages. He had this feeling that he didn’t like big cities. He had his retreat on the sea near St. Petersburg or Petrograd. He said that Moscow and St. Petersburg were “two needle dots on the map of our country.” Well, in terms of percentages he was certainly correct. It was his idea to rename St. Petersburg to Petrograd, because it was more Russian. But he believed, and I’ve already spoken about this a little bit, that the heart of the empire was Moscow, because it was the religious capital of the empire, and that the skyline was dotted with churches and not by government buildings.

Part of having a modern army and a modern navy was you had to have a bureaucracy. Petrograd was a bureaucratized city and “not truly Russian in its heart and in its spirit.” He didn’t spend much time in the famous winter palace, that of the siege in the Russian Revolution. When he went to his provincial resort on the sea, where I’ve been, but a long time ago, he had a new church built there but in the original Moscow style. Nicholas and Alexandra were raving anti-Semites. That’s why it’s amazing, this business — didn’t they canonize him as a saint or something? I really don’t know, but that’s horrific. He loved the Black Hundreds who had sparked — and in the pogroms, particularly in Crimea in 1905, and had beaten Jews to death. He thought that they represented the true heart of Russia.

His interpretation was that the pogroms were the “pious rage.” I think that’s Mark’s phrase, not his. Here’s his, unfortunately I quote, “The Poles and the Yids,” that is a slang, horrible, racist, ethnic denunciation of people who happen to be Jewish, “who had agitated and brought about the concessions of 1905.” That the revolution of 1905 and until he went to his grave, so to speak, he believed that the Russian Revolution was the work of Jews. Incidentally, because a fair number of the Bolsheviks happen to be Jewish, this played into the Russian Civil War because of the sheer brutality in the Russian Civil War of the “white forces” against the “reds,” or the Bolsheviks, was often part of, just sort of an extension of anti-Semitism run wild. Anyway, Nicholas wrote that the deaths of these people, of the Jews in 1905, was justified. “Harm befell not only the Yids, but also Russian agitators, engineers, lawyers, and all other bad people.” Anyway, it’s very sad.

There was lots of complexity built into his being. On one hand he’s supposed to be the czar of all the people. He’s supposed to be ruthless. He’s supposed to be tough, hard, etc., etc. On the other hand, he’s dominated by his wife. His wife is constantly urging him in her letters to him to be harsh, demonstrate “the power of your will and your decisiveness.” “Show you’re the complete autocrat, without whom Russia cannot exist. Ah, my love, when at last will you thump with your hand upon the table and scream at those who act wrongly. They do not fear you enough, but indeed they must, oh my boy. Make one tremble before you. To love you is not enough. They must obey you. Show to all that you are the master and that your will will be obeyed.” He signed one letter to his wife “ever your poor little hussy,” — that’s an odd choice of words — “with a tiny will.” With a tiny will.

She was born in Germany, a princess. These royals, as I’ve stressed, they’re all intermarried. She’s the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. She had identity with Hesse-Darmstadt, the part of Germany in which she was born. And, as I said, although she spoke English at home and with her children, she had been a convert to Russian Orthodoxy. She also feared or resented idleness. She thought it was important to work. She was a nurse for her children. She worked for her son, above all. She worked very, very hard. She wanted to keep her daughters “from foolish gossip” and away from being “idle and listless.” She was fanatically religious. She went to church everyday, and she was intolerant of those people who did not. Again, this turns them towards Rasputin.

Again, Rasputin did not make, by being who he was, the Russian Revolution. It’s a popular revolution. But still, he’s there lurking in the shadows. She said, “God has given Rasputin more insight, wisdom, and enlightenment than all of the czar’s advisors.” At home, she reinforces the idea that any kind of constitutional compromise was dangerous. She believed until the end that St. Petersburg, Petrograd, was a rotten town, not Russian at all. As for the Black Hundreds, who had murdered all the Jews, they represented “the healthy, right-thinking Russians.” “The Russian people loved to be whipped,” she said. She believed it was in the Slavic nature. They use over and over the word “childish” in describing other Russian people. The progressive block, which I sent around on the website, she believed that the existence of the progressive block, which wouldn’t have been really possible had it not been for World War I.

Chapter 4. The Fall of the Romanovs [00:30:10]

World War I gives opportunity to Russian dissidents to get together in ways that they couldn’t have otherwise. It makes possible the creation and operation of voluntary associations that are bringing people together to try to send food and letters to the front, to get news from the front that are not military secrets. These inevitably began to imagine a world without the czar. There were people in 1905 who could imagine a world without the czar. Again, there are lots of people who are thinking about the post-war world and who imagine or are beginning plan for a reformed czarism. It’s very hard to say how many people could comprehend the idea that Russia would not have a czar. Obviously, the Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Bolsheviks did feel that way.

All of these dissident groups want change, but only the liberals and particularly the Kadets, whom you can read about, want the czardom, the autocracy to continue. But until the very end, Nicholas is determined to defend the autocracy, trying to transfer power to his brother when the Revolution comes. Mikhail, who would be the regent for Alexi. Then, when told by his son’s physician, and imagine this, that his son would not recover, he tried to leave the autocracy in the hands forever of his brother, Mikhail. In fact, he abdicated the next day. He really wrote only, “All around me is treachery, cowards, and deceit.” What were they going to do with him? What do you do with the czar of all the Russians, and Alexandra, and their children? Predictably enough, the liberals and the Kadets want to have them protected. The Socialists basically want him to go on trial, that is the Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Bolsheviks. But for a couple days they don’t do anything at all. They’ve got other things going on. They’ve got the war.

I won’t discuss the attitude of the Provisional Government to the war, and the kinds of pressures from the Allies, of course, for them to keep the war going. That is handled in the textbook. There are more demands from the public and from the soviets, in particular, to arrest him. So, the provisional government wants to protect them. They finally order them confined to the resort, which is called Tsarskoe Selo, but the name doesn’t matter. Nicholas himself, he wants to go to Britain. One day he wanted to live out the rest of his life with his family in Crimea. Does the British government want the czar of all the Russian people to arrive in London? Not exactly. It might complicate the war effort. Labor will have no part of it at all. You’re dealing with a coalition in the war. You can’t have the czar. You’re not going to be coming in a 747 or something, but you can’t have him coming up the river in the Thames. How are you going to get him there in the first place? That simply is not practical. The liberals didn’t want the czar there either.

There were constantly rumors that the czar was going to be allowed to leave. There’s lots of protests about that. Kerensky says that the revolution should show its moral worth by seeing that no harm came to the royal family. By the way, just as an aside, Kerensky lived a very, very long life. At the end of his life, he taught this course at Stanford University. There’s a story that’s probably apocryphal. This is in very contentious times in American politics in the late 1960s. I can vaguely remember those days. A student, not realizing it was Kerensky, asked a question saying, “How could the provisional government be so stupid in their conduct of those operations?” And this clueless person had no idea that this was Kerensky, who was an historian and was trained as an historian. He died shortly thereafter. But that is really amazing to think. Of course, Lenin dies in 1924 or 1925, but Kerensky went on and on.

So, what they do, they’re in the resort, their little mini palace. They’re allowed to take walks. They could talk on the telephone, but only in Russian and only in the presence of a guard who spoke Russian. They could not speak German and they could not speak English. They separated the family for a while, fearful of the influence of Alexandra on Nicholas. Again, this is rather like the attitude that people had toward Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. People thought that the influence of Marie Antoinette was prenant, was overwhelming, on Louis XVI. Anyway, then they were put back together and they didn’t have much to do. They gardened. They taught the children, which they always had done. They wrote letters. They went to church.

They complained that the soldiers were more and more disrespectful. They were noisy. They were slovenly in their dress, their crushed caps were set awry on huge mops of unkempt hair. Their coats were half-buttoned and their nonchalant manner of performing their military duties was a constant irritation. They mocked them. They knocked on the door. “Who’s there?” The answer would come, “The czar of all the Russians.” A Latvian guard, “a mere commoner,” outside would be laughing uproariously. Once the czar was pedaling his bike and he goes by a guard who has a bayonet, and the guy sticks his bayonet into the spokes of the wheel. The czar of all the Russians went tumbling down and skinned his knees. But yet there were rumors of how well they were eating when nobody else was eating.

When the July Days mini-attempt at revolution comes, for their own safety Kerensky says they have to be moved. So, they decided on Siberia, almost inevitably, to a town called Tobolsk, where they would presumably be safe and they were moved on August 1, 1917, with their windows covered up for most of the trip. Like Lenin, when he comes back, is brought back by Germany to encourage the Russians to get out of the war, he goes on the famous sealed train, so people can’t see that it is Lenin, because people knew what he looked like. The same thing, the czar of all the people is not going to be seen by the masses, because what if they try to stop the train and pull them off that? Ironically, they passed by Rasputin’s home village, and indeed his house, as a steamboat took them via two rivers to this town of Tobolsk, where I have never been. This frightened them, especially Nicholas, because he is so superstitious. The salt falling, the stampede, the number seventeen, and all of this. When they’re pulled by the house, on the steamboat, of the dead Rasputin, his trusted advisor, it is a bad omen.

So, they could go to church when they arrived. They played cards. They performed plays, en famille, which they did a lot. But the counterrevolution was a very real threat. The Americans, and the British, and the French, after the Bolshevik revolution — one reason Stalin was so paranoid, he was clinically paranoid, just a complete dangerous crackpot, but they had a lot to be paranoid about, because the Americans, and the British, and the French kept trying to undo the Russian Revolution. Anyway, they were photographed and they had ID cards. Can you imagine the czar and the czarina having ID cards, like your Yale ID cards? They start seeing obscene graffiti written, new guards come that had even less respect for them than the other people. There were serious attempts to kidnap them and to get rid of them. There was one in which czarists were supposed to be hidden under the altar of the church when they were in the service.

This, again, is a throwback to the revolution. It was like in the French Revolution, where there is a massacre that starts at the Festival of the Federation when people are hidden under the church. So, there are articles in the newspapers calling for the surveillance of Nicholas “The Bloody Romanov,” and calls for him to be put on trial. The arrival of a certain Vasili Yakovlev, a name you don’t have to remember, obviously, sent by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet. He was a longtime revolutionary, rumored subsequently to have been an agent of the Germans, which is preposterous. Lenin was rumored to have been an agent of the Germans, by his enemies, because of the way he got back to Russia after the initial revolutions. He was the son of a peasant. He had that kind of curriculum vitae that lots of folks, including Stalin, had. He had participated in armed holdups to raise money for revolution and became a Bolshevik. He transferred the czar and family to a much smaller place.

The czar and his wife believed, naively, that they were going to be taken to Moscow because the provisional government — originally, before the provisional government is ended — wants Nicholas to sign the eventual peace treaty with the Germans. So, this Yakovlev was ordered to take his “baggage,” as they called it, that is the royal family, to this small town in the Ural mountains. But the Ural mountain Bolsheviks were harder to control. Remember, the Russian Revolution, both the first one and the second, have been aptly described as a revolution by telegraph. The vast reaches of the Russian Empire are so absolutely enormous that in many cases it was weeks, and in a few places months, before any revolutionary commissar arrived to sort of inform people what’s going on. So, lots of these Bolsheviks were sort of freelancers, and, for a party that was extremely hierarchically controlled from the top down, there was very little control over the Ural Bolsheviks. Nicholas had some trepidation about that, because he wrote that “there was a mood that was rather harsh” against him.

Conditions were worse. They used to like to photograph birds and things like that in bushes. Their equipment was taken away from them. They could no longer control their own money. The guards couldn’t talk to them at all, so they could only talk to each other. Some of the guards were just awful to them. There were plans afoot to put them on trial, a kind of show trial, but there was also this big possibility discussed that they might simply be killed. Trotsky asked that they be put on trial, so that the corruption and abuses of the autocracy could be revealed. The context is that there are large, massive armies being organized, the White Armies. Because foreign intervention was already underway, it’s conceivable, one could imagine why there was a national current within the Bolsheviks, but local in particular, and that’s what would count, that they should be executed.

It’s possible that a telegram came from Moscow ordering that they be executed, or simply that it was the Ural Bolsheviks — in the Ural mountain region — acting on their own. Recently, the archives have been opened up only in the last ten or fifteen years, and the people that have looked think that is mostly the case. In any case, the order came in July 1918, that there be a trial. If that was not deemed possible, they should be shot. A bloody execution on the night of, early morning really, of July 16-17, that number again. They actually died on the 17th of July 1918 in a horrific massacre with machine guns and pistols, a bloodbath in the basement of a house.

Almost immediately there were stories that Alexandra and her daughters had been seen taking a train away from there. Way into the 1980s the Russian community in Paris tended to settle around the Boulevard Montparnasse, where there is still a very good Russian restaurant that is there. There is a particular café called the Coupole on boulevard Montparnasse where sort of the Russian émigré wealthy people went. There were periodically women turning up who claimed to be the daughter, and then later, as the time passed, the granddaughter of the czar. It was only after what was left of the bodies, or the bones, them dry bones, were discovered in 1976, and forensic experts in 1991 were able to work with the DNA, that the victims have all been accounted for. None of them escaped. The others were in that long Russian tradition of false czars or false czarinas, the kind their loyalty to whom in the eighteenth century generated so many uprisings.

What can one say? He’s been canonized, this vicious, murderous, anti-Semite, by the Russian Orthodox Church. But that’s not my church. It’s not for me to say that. I don’t know. Yes I do. Anyway, tragic martyrdom? Were they heroic people, or simply human beings who were mowed down in a revolution that didn’t start out as a bloody revolution but became a very, very bloody civil war? Was it the first signposts of Soviet totalitarianism? No. It wasn’t that. Was it bloody vengeance for past misdeeds in the pursuit of justice? It depends on your viewpoint. I happen to believe the latter. See you on Wednesday. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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