Thursday, July 14, 2011

Monarch Profile: Tsar Nicholas II, Part II - The Trouble Begins

With the sad end of the war with Japan, Tsar Nicholas II faced his first great crisis with the rebellions that broke out across the country in 1905 and 1906, later known as the Revolution of 1905. HIH Grand Duke Sergei (the Tsar’s uncle) was assassinated by terrorist bombers in Moscow, railway workers launched a general strike, sailors of the Black Sea Fleet mutinied and riots broke out across the country. However, one of the most evocative tragedies of the time was the shooting at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg known as “Bloody Sunday”. A great deal of misinformation has been spread about this tragic incident and it requires the establishment of a few facts because aside from the tragedy itself was the Tsar being given the unjust and undeserved nickname of “Bloody Nicholas” because of it. Everything started when Father George Gapon, a socialist priest, led an illegal march on the Winter Palace by disgruntled workers. The people carried Orthodox banners and pictures of the Tsar. Father Gapon carried a letter which the people thought was an appeal to the Tsar for protection from the factory owners but, in fact, it was a radical, revolutionary document.

The police made no effort to stop the marchers and they converged on the Winter Palace demanding to see the Tsar. A thin line of nervous soldiers confronted them and someone fired and then the troops opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Tsar was immediately blamed for refusing to see the protestors and even for ordering the shooting. However, the Tsar was not at the Winter Palace that day, in fact he was not even in St Petersburg but was at his country residence of Tsarkoe Selo. He had no idea about what had happened until it was over and he did meet with a delegation of the workers once he found out about it. However, that made no difference to the revolutionary agitators who had infiltrated the workers unions and who portrayed the Tsar as a callous murderer all in their own pursuit of power. The socialist priest Gapon, of course, survived, went into hiding and revealed his true intentions by blaming the incident he had started totally on the Tsar and calling for the overthrow of the Russian Empire.

In the wake of this crisis the Tsar called a representative assembly for Russia, the Duma, which was initially a purely advisory body but unrest continued. Finally, Nicholas II did concede in allowing a legislative role for the Duma, the granting of civil liberties and so on when he issued the October Manifesto but he still remained firm that he would not break his promise to maintain the autocracy that his father had handed down to him and the authority of the Tsar remained absolute. Nonetheless, for Russia the October Manifesto was a pivotal and unprecedented moment in history. However, the Duma soon caused Nicholas great problems. None of the concessions he had made seemed to satisfy them, they always wanted more, more power for themselves, more democracy, more revolutionaries released from prison and so on. This is important to remember when considering the problems Russia faced during the reign of Nicholas II.

Many, then and now, like to pretend that political ideologies are the answer to everything. The socialists and communists, for instance, argued that if they were given total power and could implement their ideology Russia would be peaceful, prosperous and ideal. The more moderates said the same and many still look at the problems Russia was going through and blame the principle of autocracy or the person of Tsar Nicholas II himself. However, this thinking totally removes the human element from the equation. No system is perfect and any system will fail if the people, certain people or enough people do wrong and behave wickedly. It is worth considering how many concessions the Tsars had made by that time. Serfdom had been abolished, there were elections, political parties, labor unions, civil rights and so on. Yet, none of this mattered because the revolutionary elements who did not really care about the people but who wanted power for themselves continued to foment discontent and rebellion against the Romanov monarchy. Nicholas II was a very good man, he was not cruel or oppressive or in any way malicious in the least, yet nothing he could have done would have changed the actions of the revolutionary agitators.

This was proven when the first Duma, which had been nothing but trouble, was dismissed and a second Duma was elected which was even worse and the Tsar closed it as well. Both produced nothing but confusion, discontent and agitation. Finally, after some common-sense electoral reforms, another Duma was called which was led by Pyotr Stolypin as prime minister, a moderate conservative. Nicholas II was pleased with this Duma and it is no wonder, it actually focused on reform and improvement rather than trying to destroy and tear down the Russian Empire. One of the real problems Stolypin tackled was food shortages. The old communal farms, for all their number, lagged behind the agricultural output of vastly smaller nations where farmers had an incentive to produce. So, he came up with a number of reforms to create a prosperous class of middle class farmers who could get out of the communal system and build up their own large, consolidated farms. This increased production and gave more people a real stake in the future of Russia. Stolypin estimated that it would take 20 years to reach full effect. However, he would not have that long as, due to his very success, revolutionary terrorists assassinated him at the Kiev Opera House in 1911.

A great opportunity had been lost, again, not because of anything bad that the government was doing, but because of its effectiveness. Nicholas II was a little troubled by some of the proposed changes and conservatives could justly argue that the Duma had not been essential in bringing about the changes that were enacted. However, the revolutionaries, power-mad fanatics that they were, wanted to tear down, not build up. They were opposed to anything that would be of benefit to the Russian Empire because that would ensure the survival of the monarchy. They specifically targeted those ministers who were most effective, whose policies worked or had the best chances of success. However, there was a period of calm and much credit for this goes to the Tsar. His crackdown on the revolutionary groups after their numerous assassinations left them weakened, disorganized and divided -often fighting amongst themselves. In 1913 there was also an upsurge in patriotic sentiment as the Tsar inaugurated the celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. He also encouraged the emergence of the “Union of the Russian People”, a movement started in 1905 to encourage support for the monarchy. As 1914 approached, there were problems, but also considerable reason for hope.

To be continued in Part III

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