Friday, July 15, 2011
Monarch Profile: Tsar Nicholas II, Part III - Domestic Life
However, the perfect happiness the Imperial Family finally achieved was struck a blow when it was learned that the little Tsarevitch was afflicted with hemophilia. Nicholas called in doctors only to be told there was nothing they could do. This had to be kept a guarded secret since public knowledge of it would have undermined the empire and confidence in the future stability of the country. This was hard for the entire family but especially for the Empress Alexandra who, since the disease is passed by the mother, naturally but unfortunately blamed herself. When the doctors could provide no hope for a cure, she turned to God. As a result, this made Alexandra especially vulnerable to the influence of the self-proclaimed holy man Gregory Rasputin, a degenerate peasant from Siberia who claimed to have visions and the ability to heal the sick. Nicholas was somewhat wary of Rasputin but, through some power that has never been explained, Rasputin was able to help the Tsarevitch.
This was a terrible position for the Tsar and his family to be in. It is easy to criticize but not so easy to offer alternatives given their situation. It was for Nicholas who was a good-natured man who, like most such individuals, likes to believe the best about people. At first, Rasputin seemed to represent the devout faith and loyalty he most admired about the Russian peasantry but after he began to interfere in politics the Tsar began to have doubts that the stories might be true. He tried to convince Alexandra of this but to no avail. And who could blame her? Rasputin had succeeded where all others had failed. When her son was injured Rasputin was able to cure him and that was all that mattered to her. What mother would have agreed to dispense with the one person who had proven to have the ability to help their child when all other doctors and healers of every sort had failed? It is possible to exaggerate the influence Rasputin had but, undoubtedly, the Imperial Family suffered a great deal in terms of their public image because of his scandalous behavior and association with them, Alexandra in particular. Rasputin was finally assassinated but, by that time, the damage had been done.
Nicholas II had a very paternalistic view of the Russian monarchy. Today we are taught to think this was a bad thing but it would be hard to explain exactly why that is. For the peasants who made up the bulk of the population, the Tsar was “the Little Father” and Nicholas returned this affectionate sentiment. That is one reason why the revolutionaries largely stuck with trying to influence the urban workers rather than the peasant farmers -because they knew the peasants had a loyalty to the Tsar and a faith in the Russian Orthodox Church that was too strong to break easily. Nicholas felt the great burden that was on his shoulders as monarch yet, his people were his children and he could not forsake his duty toward them, a duty God had chosen him to carry out. In a way, this mentality also extended beyond the boundaries of Russia as the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe looked to Russia and thus to the Tsar for protection and justice. It was only natural that they do so and Nicholas became a focus for the growing pan-Slav sentiment that was growing rapidly, especially in Serbia which harbored dreams of uniting themselves with the Slavic peoples of Austria-Hungary to create a “Greater Serbia”.
France, however, continued to urge Nicholas to get involved (for their own reasons) and the war hawks assured him that with their massive army with millions of reserves the Germans could never hope to match them. In the end, there was simply no escaping the trap the various ministers of the various nations had set for themselves. Nicholas said resolutely in July 1914 that “in no case would Russia remain indifferent to the fate of Serbia”. But Austria was determined to invade Serbia and that was that. Russia would not permit Serbia to face Austria alone and Germany would not permit Austria to face Serbia and Russia alone. If Russia intervened in the conflict with Austria and Serbia it meant war with Germany. The fate of the world hung on the actions of those men in St Petersburg. A false report (just as a false report had prompted the Austrian Emperor to declare war) caused Nicholas to order mobilization. However, when the truth was learned he countermanded the order. In an effort to keep the fire from spreading, he asked about a partial mobilization against only the Austro-Hungarian frontier but the military experts told the Tsar this was impossible.
To be continued in Part IV...