Lessons of Russian History: The last days of the last Tsar (Part I)
by Olivia Kroth
Parallel to the events of the Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II wrote his private diary. In spite of the dramatic political situation his “Journal intime” is very intimate indeed, very private, hardly taking notice of what was happening around him in the outside world. He began to write in 1881 and stopped in June 1918, a few days prior to his execution. He filled 51 booklets, bound in black leather. After his death, these documents were transported to Moscow by the Bolsheviks and locked up in the Kremlin archives. The first French edition appeared at Editions Payot, Paris 1931. A new pocket version was published by Editions Perrin, Paris 2020, with a foreword and commentary by Jean-Christophe Buisson: “Nicolas II – Journal intime”. The following quotes have been translated into English, the dates are given according to the old Julian calendar as well as the new Gregorian calendar in Russia.
As the editor notes, Tsar Nicholas II wrote in a rather banal and naive style. His entries are short, mostly refering to the weather, his food, daily acitivities and family members. Nevertheless, the diary is interesting to read, as it helps us to understand why the Romanov dynasty was doomed and ended, in 1918. It had exhausted itself. Nicholas II was a weak, timid, unrealistic man, out of touch with reality, not fit to rule such an immense country as the Russian Empire.
He appears to have been a mama’s son, often writing letters to his “dear mama”, the widowed Empress Maria Fyodorovna (1847-1928), born Dagmar of Denmark. She survived the Russian Revolution and spent the rest of her life first in London, then in her native Denmark. The other strong-willed woman, who influenced him, was his German wife Alexandra Fyodorovna (1872-1918), born Alix von Hessen-Darmstadt. She was executed with him and the children, in 1918.
The last Tsar’s mother, Maria Fyodorovna:
23.02./08.03.1917: “I woke up in Smolensk, at 9:30 a.m. It was cold. The sky was free of clouds but a strong wind blew. I read a French book about the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar” (Journal intime, p. 59). A truly prophetic reading. Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC) was murdered in the Senate of Rome on the Ides of March, the 15th of March, 44 BC. The Ides of March was a traditional holiday in ancient Rome, also a deadline for settling debts. Sixty conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, entered the Senate and stabbed Julius Caesar to death. According to the historian Plutarch, a seer had warned Caesar that he would be harmed on the Ides of March.
24.02./09.03.1917: “At 10:30 a.m., I went to the report, which ended at noon. Before lunch, … brought me the Cross of War, sent by King Albert I of Belgium. The weather was bad, snow storm. I went for a short walk in the garden” (Journal intime, p. 59). While the last Tsar received the Belgian Cross of War, in the Russian capital of Petrograd – formerly Saint Petersburg – riots broke out, due to the lack of food. The Petrograd garrison joined the revolt. This revolutionary activity lasted eight days, with demonstrations and violent armed clashes.
27.02./12.03.1917: “In Petrograd riots broke out, a few days ago. To my great discontent the troops also took part. How awful, to be so far away and to receive only fragments of such bad news. (…) I took a walk in Orcha” (Journal intime, p.60). Orcha, today a town in Belarus, belonged to the Russian Empire, when Nicholas II visited it. The settlement was founded in the 11th century. In March 1917, it comprised 16.000 inhabitants. The distance from Orcha to Saint Petersburg is 710 km.
The Tsar stayed overnight in Orcha, which belonged to the Russian Empire (now Belarus):
Mutinous garrison forces sided with the revolutionaries. A regiment of the Cossacks refused to shoot into the rioting crowd. A battalion of the prestigious Preobrazhensky Regiment even helped the revolutionaries. This was the Tsar’s Life Guard Regiment, one of the oldest and most elite guard regiments of the Imperial Russian Army. It also served as the Tsar’s secret police. In 1906, this regiment started to mutiny. On the 12th of March 1917, it participated in the revolutionary actions which led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.
The Preobrazhensky Regiment was disbanded in December 1917 and reestablished in 2013 as the 154th Preobrazhensky Independent Commandant’s Regiment. Today, it is stationed in Moscow and serves as the main Honour Guard unit of the Russian Armed Forces. The Preobrazhensky Regiment March is one of the most famous Russian military marches, often used in modern Russia, especially during the annual Victory Parade, for trooping the colours and the inspection of troops.
March of the Preobrazhensky Regiment:
01.03./14.03.1917: “Tonight, arriving at Malaya Vishera, we had to turn around. Lyuban and Tosno are in the hands of insurgents. We went through Valday, Dno, Pskov, where I stopped for the night …. Gatchina and Luga are also occupied by insurgents. What a shame! Impossible to reach Tsarskoye Selo but my heart and my thoughts are always there” (Journal intime, p. 61).
Pskov is one of the oldest cities in Russia. Its earliest mention comes in 903. The importance of the city made it the subject of numerous sieges throughout its history. Pskov withstood a siege by the Swedish in 1615. It served as a seat of the Pskov Governorate since 1777. During World War I, Pskov became the centre of much activity behind the lines. It was at a railroad siding in Pskov, aboard the imperial train, that Tsar Nicholas II signed the manifesto announcing his abdication.
During the Tsar’s absence from Petrograd, the Soviet issued its order number 1, which directed the military to obey only Soviet orders, exclusively. Of course, the Tsar did not know this. He did not realize that the last days of his rule had begun. One day later, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. He noted in his journal: “The situation in Petrograd demands my abdication. To save Russia and maintain the order of the front troops (in World War I) it is necessary to take this decision. I have agreed” (Journal intime, p. 61, 62).
After the Tsar’s abdication, his brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich (1878-1918), refused to ascend the throne. He probably knew what would happen to him, if he did. He was killed in 1918, anyhow. Thus, the Romanov dynasty’s reign ended in 1917, after more than 300 years. During the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, the autocratic monarchy of the Russian Empire had failed to modernize its archaic economic, political and social structures. The last Tsar probably ignored these facts. He was a shy, passive, weak man, taking either the wrong decisions or no decisions at all.
Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia:
In his journal Nicholas II does not write down his thoughts about causes and reasons for the monarchy’s failure. He turns towards his mother for solace. 04.03./16.03.1917: “At noon, I went to the train station to meet my dear mama, arriving from Kyev” (Journal intime, p.63). 05.03./17.03.1917: “At 10 a.m., I went to church. Mama came later. We had lunch together, she stayed until 3:15 p.m. I took a walk in the garden. At 8 p.m., I went to dine with mama” (Journal intime, p. 63).
This back and forth with mama goes on for a while. Nicholas and his mother have lunch, tea, dinner together and play cards. Finally she departs, taking the train back to Kyev. 08.03./21.03.1917: “At 10:15 a.m., I signed the ukase to tell my armies good-bye (after the abdication). At noon, I went to see mama in her train carriage. I lunched with her in her suite and stayed with her, until 4:30 p.m. I feel very depressed, lonely and sad” (Journal intime, p. 64, 65).
Red Petrograd – Revolution in the factories (1917 and 1918):
When the last Tsar arrived back at Tsarskoye Selo, the Red Guard on duty saluted him with an ironic “Citizen Romanov”, instead of his former title. Nicholas II had to ask for authorization to enter his palace, which had turned into a prison for him and his family. He did not know that the new government had assigned him as prisoner to his former residence, while debating about his future. They were not sure yet, what to do with him.
09.03./22.03.1917: “I arrived at Tsarskoye Selo, at 11:30 a.m. Good God! What a change! In the streets around the palace, in the park, Red Guards everywhere! I went upstairs to find my beloved (wife) Alix and my dear children. Alix looked good, not depressed at all. The children, however, had all lied down in a dark room” (Journal intime, p. 65, 66).
The Tsar shoveled snow in winter:
Slowly but surely, Tsar Nicholas II discovered that the world around him had changed forever. He had lost all authority and lived as a prisoner in his own home. His fate had not been decided yet. Would it be exile or execution? He hoped that he and his family could escape to England.
23.03./05.04.1917: “The weather has become nice, the ice is thawing. In the morning, I went for a short walk. I arranged my belongings and books, I began to prepare everything that I want to take with me to England” (Journal intime, p. 71).
Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia from his exile:
30.03./12.04.1917: “A violent wind blew in the afternoon, chasing the clouds away. We saw a funerary celebration for the ‘victims of the revolution’ in the park, in front of the Alexander Palace, not far away from the Chinese Pavilion. We heard the sounds of a funerary march and the Marseillaise” (Journal intime, p.73, 74).
The Marseillaise is a patriotic song of the French Revolution, sung for the first time by its author, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, in 1792:
“Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised,
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They are coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!”
“To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Water our furrows!”
“What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conspiring kings want?
For whom have these vile chains,
These irons, been long prepared?
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage
What furious action it must arouse!
It is to us they dare plan
A return to the old slavery!”
Author of the Marseillaise, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836), on a French postage stamp:
18.04./01.05.2017: “Today, it is the 1st of May in western countries. Our idiots have decided to celebrate this holiday too, marching through the streets with music and red banners. Of course, they entered the park and placed wreaths on the tomb of the ‘victims of the revolution’! The weather turned nasty during their ceremony, snow fell in big flakes” (Journal intime, p. 80, 81).
International Workers’ Day is a celebration of the working classes, promoted by the international labour movement, every year on May Day. The date was chosen in 1889 for political reasons by the Marxist International Socialist Congress, which met in Paris and established the Second International as a successor to the earlier International Workingmen’s Association. The 1904 Sixth Conference of the Second International called on trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically, on each First of May, for the legal establishment of the eight-hour-day, the class demands of the proletariat and universal peace.
Workers in Petrograd, on the 1st of May 1917:
06.05./19.05.1917: “I turned 49 today. Almost half a century! Today, my thoughts went more than ever towards my dear mama. How awful not being able to communicate with her! I have no news from her, other than stupid, defamatory newspaper articles” (Journal intime, p. 88, 89). Almost half a century old, the last Tsar was still his mama’s child, pining and whining to have lost contact to her.
The last Tsar was an educated man. He was able to read intellectual literature in several languages and give private history lessons to his son Alexei. And yet, he seemed to be emotionally unable to let go of his mother’s skirts, clinging to her forever. Of course, it could have been a form of regression under stress. However, the psychological defence mechanism did not improve his situation. It did not help to save him. His infantile personality was not taken seriously by the Bolsheviks, who finally decided to put an end to his life.
Tsar Nicholas II with his son Alexei:
His childish ideas of escape, his frustrations and unrealistic expectations show his inefficacy to act as a ruler, taking responsibility for the Russian state and society. The editor, Jean-Christophe Buisson, remarks in his commentary that Nicholas was not made to rule Russia and said about himself after his father’s death: “I am hardly prepared to be the Tsar. I never wished to take this position.” Nevertheless, he was crowned in 1896, then stumbled from one disaster to the other.
The editor writes that Tsar Nicholas II was never a conqueror like Ivan III or Ivan the Terrible. He was never a builder like Peter the Great. He was never a reformator like his grandfather, Alexander II. If he was none of those, who was he then? Could the Romanov dynasty have been saved, in the 20th century? This seems doubtful, since the last male child of the reigning family, Tsarevich Alexei, was a bleeder.
Alexei Nikolaevich (Алексей Николаевич, 1904 -1918), heir apparent to the throne of the Russian Empire, was born with haemophilia. He inherited the illness from his mother Alexandra, which she had acquired through the line of her maternal grandmother, the English Queen Victoria. This hereditary condition affected males. It was known as the “Royal Disease” because so many descendants of the intermarried European royal families had it or carried it.
Alexei Nikolaevich of Russia (1904-1918):
The hemophilia of Tsarevich Alexei was so severe that even small injuries such as a bruise, a nosebleed or a cut were life-threatening to him. His parents constantly worried about him. In addition, the recurring episodes of illness and long recoveries interfered greatly with Alexei’s childhood and education. Clearly this boy was physically unfit to rule Russia. Thus, the Romanov dynasty had become useless and weak, degenerated and decadent, in the eyes of the revolting Russian people. …
To be continued: “The last days of the last Tsar” (Part II) will appear in July 2021.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia. Her blog:
This text was also published in THE DURAN: