Socialist Worker

Savagery and splendour under the Tsars

After the Tsar’s fall in 1917, a whole industry sprung up to paint his dynasty as martyrs. In reality, they were brutal dictators

Issue No. 2538

The last Tsar - and good riddance

The last Tsar - and good riddance (Pic: Royal Collection)


Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker will be running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution

Every week in 2017 Socialist Worker is running an article about an aspect of the Russian Revolution. Click here for the introductory article, and for the full list go to tinyurl.com/sw1917

The Socialist Workers Party will also be holding events throughout the year including a major conference on 4 November.

The dates of the Russian Revolution can be confusing. Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until 24 January 1918, when this was replaced by the Gregorian or New Style calendar. To convert Old Style dates to New Style dates, add 13 days. So 26 October 1917 Old Style becomes 8 November New Style. Importantly, the labour movement in Russia celebrated International Women’s Day and May Day on the same New Style date as workers elsewhere.


Russia under the Tsar was an extremely unequal and repressive society. The Romanov dynasty came to an end in 1917 after 304 years of a line of megalomaniacs.

The regimes were built on splendour at court and savagery everywhere else. They were inept, narrow-minded, antisemitic and repressive.

The brutality went to the top. Twelve Tsars were murdered. Paul I was smashed in the face with a golden snuffbox. The lives of everyone else were more violent.

The last Tsar Nicholas’s father, Alexander II, had his legs blown off by a bomb after he went to tell off an assassin for having the audacity of trying to kill him.

No Romanov could be bothered with the absurdities of democracy.

Russia was a vast empire. A massive peasant population lived in semi-starvation while land remained in the hands of rich landowners.

At the top of this decaying pyramid sat the Tsar and his family.

Grigori Danilovich was the “military governor” in charge of the young Tsar Nicholas’s education.

He told Nicholas that he would learn all he needed to know from the “mysterious forces” released by the “sacrament of taking the oath on the day of the coronation”.

Nicholas had once told the foreign minister Sergei Sazonov, “I try not to think about anything too hard and find that this is the only way to rule Russia.”

After the 1905 revolution, Nicholas responded with brutal repression and organised antisemitic pogroms.

Nicholas denied rights to the Jews because “an inner voice more and more firmly repeats to me that ‘the heart of the tsar is in the hands of God’. So be it.”

He also believed god made him a great war leader. The consequences were sometimes farcical. In 1904, the Russian fleet almost invaded Yorkshire.

It entered the North Sea and got lost in the fog on the Dogger Bank. It opened fire on a trawler, beheading two fishermen.

They believed they were steaming towards Japan. The fleet later worked out where Japan was and a disastrous war ensued.

The rest of Nicholas’ attempts at war weren’t much better. The inbred web of Europe’s reigning families meant the outbreak of the First World War looked to them like a family feud.

Nicholas took charge of the disastrous Russian war effort. Domestic matters were left to his wife and the eccentric holy man Grigori Rasputin.

As a recent biographer Douglas Smith put it, “The thing that made him such an extraordinary and powerful figure was less what he was doing and more what everyone thought he was doing.

“Rasputin stopped being a man and became the haunting personification of a terrifying era.”

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said that Rasputin’s career was a “scenario for people of bad taste”. The same could be said of the entire Romanov dynasty.

Aristocrats shot Rasputin—thinking it would allow the regime to continue more efficiently. In fact, the revolution would sweep away all the vestiges of pomp and repression of the Romanovs.

In late February 1917, Nicholas wrote in his diary, “Disorders in Petrograd began a few days ago. To my sorrow, troops also began to take part. It is such a horrible feeling to be so far away and to receive fragments of bad news! The weather stayed sunny.”

On 8 March 1917, the day after his abdication, his entry concludes, “The weather is frosty and windy. It’s miserable, painful and depressing.”

After their fall a whole industry grew up to portray the Tsars as saints and martyrs cruelly killed by the Bolshevik revolutionaries.

In fact, after centuries of brutal dictatorship their going made the world a far, far better place.


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