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By John Helmer, Moscow

Niccolo Machiavelli once called moral philosophy the child of civil war. That also makes moral philosophy after the fact, after the crimes. War winners write histories; losers and martyrs write philosophies.  

Tsar Nicholas II (lead images) was killed, along with his family, because the Romanovs were a dynasty threatening the revolutions which had transformed Russia from the start of the year 1917. They did not just represent their own interest to retake power and fortune. They represented the anti-democratic side among Russians. They also represented the aims of the outside powers, including ally Britain and enemy Germany, whose forces invaded Russia during the sixteen months between Nicholas’s abdication on March 15, 1917, and his death on July 17, 1918.

Dynasts who have relied on the divine right to rule can’t voluntarily resign God’s commission; retire to the Crimean beachside; take a ticket of leave for Paris, London or Berlin. Nicholas believed God had given him power to rule; and that he was above Russian law, too. Because he felt free to overpower the human rights of his mortal subjects, he could hardly claim their human rights.  Not to be executed for crimes one was not tried for nor convicted of was a human right in Russia in 1917 — but Nicholas didn’t qualify for it. If Nicholas had human rights like other Russians, after his death he would no more qualify for sainthood than millions of other Russians, who suffered his fate no less nobly.

As it happened, the records show Nicholas accepted the Russian General Staff’s advice that if he did not give up autocratic power, the war with Germany would be lost, and there would be civil war.  It was the Russian Army, not the government nor the revolutionaries, which toppled Nicholas. But Nicholas tried to break the Romanov law on succession by refusing to allow the General Staff’s candidate, the ailing 12-year old tsarevich Alexei, to succeed him; he tried naming his brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail,  instead.  Mikhail signed his renunciation less than twenty-fours later. “This is the end!” the Grand Duke Sergei was heard to say at Army HQ. And it was. Russia became a democratic republic; it still is. 

Had there been a Russian revolution without civil war and without foreign military invasion,  it’s likely Nicholas would have been indicted, tried, convicted, sentenced to prison, or shot. The rest of the Romanovs might have been spared their lives, but hardly their freedom to attempt a restoration.

Their execution was ordered in Yekaterinburg, and authorized in Moscow, because the Czech Legion, was within miles and hours of capturing the city, with the intention of restoring the Romanov monarchy in a Russia they and their international allies were bent on breaking up. Their plan was to turn the prisoner tsar into a puppet tsar. Through the day and night before the pistol shots which ended Nicholas’s life, the firing of the Czech heavy artillery could be heard in the city. Its citizens were already fleeing, taking as much of their valuables as they could.  Nicholas  understood that the value of himself had dwindled by then to the foreign armies, to domestic counter-revolutionaries, and to God. He ended up with the third variant.

A new history by Robert Service, published a few weeks ago in London, explains what happened, and why.  Service reports from evidence not accessible in Russia for almost a century, and also missed by western researchers. “Copious fresh material” Service reports in his introduction. And yet apart from a couple of interviews in Russian with Service himself, no Russian historian and no Russian book reviewer have mentioned the book, reviewed its evidence, or analysed its lessons. Therein lies a lesson of its own.

Service’s history is being studiously avoided in Russia because to do otherwise can only reignite the  civil war,  at least in debate, and especially between the Kremlin and the Church. President Vladimir Putin has pushed the Kremlin closer to the Church than at any time since the 1917 revolutions. With the presidential election campaign already under way, and the vote due in five months, Putin has dissuaded public debate of the issue of legitimacy to rule and the fate of the last tsar. The Church has encouraged icon worship of Nicholas as a martyr, though that’s explicitly not the status the Church adopted when it decided on sainting him. 

Service (right) is an each-way bettor – that’s putting money on winner and loser at the same time. He’s an Oxford University professor of Russian history, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. In 2011, in the London High Court, Service was engaged by the lawyers for  Roman Abramovich to testify to a version of oligarch history since 1991 against Boris Berezovsky’s version. Service objected to the use of the term “oligarch” and to the media evidence for their power. “It is my job here,” the court transcript records Service saying, “ to be picky.”  Service even thinks of himself as a martyr when “someone is wealthy and malicious enough it is possible to tread on the throat of free and open discussion in this country almost with impunity. I  was close to caving in at times simply because I lacked [a rival academic’s] financial resources.” 

Service’s history of Nicholas II presents freshly uncovered papers on the tsar’s abdication, including General Staff  logs, reports, cables, diary entries,  and several abdication drafts by Nicholas himself, as his mind kept changing and his wife couldn’t get through to him. 

The new material also includes records of what Nicholas and his family ate in their three places of confinement — at the Alexander Palace of Tsarskoe Selo, outside St. Petersburg; at Freedom House in Tobolsk; and at the Ipatev House, Yekaterinburg.

“Russian Revolution Private Tours -- Find out all the secrets that deal with the exile of the Russian royal family and even visit the places where they spent their last years” for just $3,300 per person, click and book. 

There are the lists of books Nicholas read to himself, and those he read aloud to his family, including the thoughts he scribbled in the margins. The depositions of witnesses in Yekaterinburg in the last days; telegrammes between Moscow, Tobolsk and Yekaterinburg; and other documents covering the decision on execution have also been reopened from the investigation commission supervised by the White General Mikhail Diterikhs, and undertaken by the Omsk judge, Nikolai Sokolov, in 1919. 

According to Service, Diterikhs was a military commander without legal experience. He was also “a passionate nationalist, a believer in the greatness of the ‘Christian Russian people’, and a rabid anti-Semite.” Sokolov “was known for his attentiveness to fact and detail. Above all, Sokolov was Russian born and bred, a Christian, a patriot and a monarchist…[he] deeply sympathized with the murdered monarch, but once he took on his duties, he put aside most of his feelings and concentrated on establishing the verifiable facts…Everyone could see that Sokolov was a true professional, punctilious about details and reluctant to accept statements at face value….This was not to endear him to his superiors in the longer term, especially Diterikhs, who came to want to monopolize the credit for the investigation…”

Left: Mikhail Diterikhs; right, Nikolai Sokolov.

By 1922, at the head of a small army in the fareastern Altai region, Diterikhs made the last effort to restore the Romanov monarchy on Russian soil. His army defeated, he then fled to China and subsequently died in Shanghai. The investigation archives went ahead of him from China, through the British consulate in Harbin, by French and British naval escort, until the archive boxes and Sokolov reached France. Sokolov published his findings in French in 1924. Dieterikhs’s papers went through his family to the US.  

Most of Service’s source material can’t be read in Russia. It is tucked away in the 26 sets of papers held at the Hoover Institution, part of Stanford University in California.

For the Hoover Institution’s image of itself as the curator of Russian history, click

“In the last sixteen months of [Nicholas’s] life,” Service concludes at the beginning of his history, “this modest, inadequate , rigid ex-ruler  suffered personal tragedy in a country he had played no small part in bringing to catastrophe”.

Serve the nincompoop right , you say – but that isn’t what Service judges. “Nicholas has enjoyed a tenacious afterlife,” Service concludes at the end of the book. “As with Lenin …myths about the last tsar compete fiercely against the demonstrable historical record”.

Left: BBC illustrates a report last month on protests by Russian Orthodox fundamentalists against the film Matilda, which depicts Nicholas in a pre-marital affair with a ballet dancer, Matilda Kschessinskaya,  in St. Peterburg between 1890 and 1894.   Right:  Nicholas and the German princess Alix were married on November 26, 1894, while Matilda, whom her ballet director called a “nasty little swine”, went on to alliances with other Romanov dukes. She was not exceptional, even as a dancer. The history of the imperial ballet theatres in the late 19th century St. Petersburg and Moscow was one of  sex farms --  harems without the cost of squabbles over inheritance. To the Russian court then,  they were what seminaries and convents were to the Catholic priesthood until recently. Read more

 “[Nicholas’s] competence to oversee the governance of Russia,” Service writes, “had never been better than average, and his autocratic wilfulness wrecked any chances of a gradual transition to a more balanced constitution. The widespread image of him as a blameless monarch is unconvincing. In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and virulent anti-Semite… In captivity he had the time to recognize any of his mistakes and rectify his basic analysis. In fact he did nothing of the kind.”

Service tries to give every source a say in the assessment, and not only of what exactly happened to Nicholas.  Service allows the reader to know that the BBC trumped up “the entire story of  the murder of Nicholas and his family… The evidence was slim and their attempts at annotation were pitiful… Although the British seem to have cornered the market in outlandish narrative  about the Romanovs, American authors have started to compete with them.”  As for Russian researchers, he dismisses some of the historians for “monarchist sympathies”.  He passes over the Romanov hagiography by Edvard Radzinsky (right) who made money popularizing the monarch as soon as he thought it safe to do so after the start of the Yeltsin period.  Radzinsky is notoriously vague about the causes of death in which he has been more directly involved. 

Service also notes in a line, two pages from the end of his book, that “Patriarch Alexi [sic] was loyal to the memory of the Romanovs and canonized them as ‘passion-bearers’ who sought to live by the principles of the Gospels.”  Service ignores the controversy within the Church – the church inside Russia and the so-called Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia – over whether Nicholas was a martyr for his faith, or something less – a passion bearer, according to the Church doctrine.  

Unlike martyrs, passion bearers are not explicitly killed for their faith, though they hold to that faith with piety towards God. Thus, although all martyrs are passion bearers, not all passion bearers are martyrs. The Russian Church’s press releases, like the priesthood, regularly slip in the term martyr for Nicholas, although of evidence that he was shot because of his religious belief there is none at all.  At least none Service has found in every Russian and foreign record he reports finding.

Although Service doesn’t mention it, and apparently hasn’t read it, the report on which the patriarch’s and the synod’s decision to canonize the Nicholas was based, came to the same conclusion. Entitled “R E P O R T OF THE HOLY SYNOD COMMISSION ON THE CANONIZATION OF SAINTS WITH RESPECT TO THE MARTYRDOM OF THE ROYAL FAMILY”,  the report of the Synod Commission headed by Metropolitan Yuvenaly (Vladimir Polyakov) was first presented on October 10, 1996. It can be read in full here

President Putin awards Metropolian Yuvenaly the Order of Merit for the Fatherland (2nd Class) at a Kremlin ceremony on September 22, 2016.

According to Yuvenaly, Nicholas’s history recorded that he had built churches and canonized saints, demonstrating thereby his “personal piety” and “religio-ethical principles”. However, his formal responsibility for the killing of demonstrators, including priests, in the January 1905 St. Petersburg demonstrations, leading to the first anti-tsarist revolution, and his calculated “inactivity in these events”, were morally culpable.  Nicholas’s failure to  remove “the Rasputin phenomenon” was also a blot on his escutcheon, Yuvenaly reported to the Synod.  “It is evident that the Sovereign repeatedly attempted to get rid of Rasputin, [but] he stepped back each time under the influence of the Empress who found it necessary to resort to Rasputin for the healing of the Heir. It can be said that the Emperor found it impossible to go against Alexandra Feodorovna who was tortured by grief over the Heir’s illness.”  Summing up, the synod commission concluded that it “did not find sufficient grounds for his canonization.”

So that was the tsar’s life. But it was his death that attracted the Church: “[There were] two uneven periods, in duration and in spiritual significance,  namely, the period of his reign and the period of his confinement following his abdication…[so] the Commission turned to a detailed analysis of the Royal Family’s last days, which were burdened with severe suffering and the martyrs’  death of its members….The liturgical and hagiographic literature of the Orthodox Church applied the term ‘passion bearer’ to those Russian saints who in the strict sense were not martyrs for Christ, but who ended their lives at the hands of persecutors and killers…” This was the category for which Nicholas qualified. He was one of the “people who suffered and, in spite of all the insults and abuse, led a devout life. In the confined Royal Family, we see people who sincerely strived to bring out the message of the Gospel in their lives.”

Reading between the ecclesiastical lines, it turns out that the death, and the public opinion that has been mobilized since 1991 by the Church and by media promoters like Radzinsky,   which have turned into the rationale for sainthood. “All this bears witness to the growing veneration of the murdered Royal Family throughout Russia. For example, on 3 September of this year [1996] His Grace Nikon, Bishop of Ekaterinburg and Verkhotursk reported to the Commission on canonization about the broad public veneration of the Royal Family in the Ekaterinburg diocese, where the tragedy took place. Already for decades, the veneration of the Royal Family has been observed in Serbia as well as in the Russian diaspora. Having examined the found in literature information about miraculous events in connection with the veneration of the Royal Family, the Commission considered several of them to be trustworthy…” 

“In the many sufferings borne by the Royal Family during their last days we see the light of Christ’s truth ever-conquering evil, the light which was manifest in their tragic death, just as it shone in the lives and deaths of millions of Orthodox Christians who suffered persecutions, tortures and a martyr’s end in the period of Russia’s new time of troubles…Their true magnitude did not come from their royal status but from that remarkable moral magnitude, which they gradually attained. They themselves became a forth of an idea. And in their humiliation they were a striking manifestation of that remarkable clarity of the soul, against which all violence and all fury were powerless, and which triumphs in death itself.”

The canonization decision was taken initially with President Boris Yeltsin’s approval; then with the backing of Prime Minister Putin. The formal canonization ceremony occurred three months after Putin’s first election to the presidency, on August 20, 2000. 

Service’s evidence reveals no sign of suffering on the part of Nicholas or his family until the very end, nor was there among their guards any persecution.  The petty thieving in the three households was minuscule compared with the norm in the imperial palaces before 1917.

Service’s findings make nonsense of the Church’s claim that “the Imperial Family devoted a lot of time for spiritually beneficial reading, primarily the Holy Scripture, and in regular – practically continuous – attendance at Divine services.” According to Service, Nicholas “strove to make sense of his experience by reading historical literature… He also introduced himself to books that told him about those social classes in his empire with which he had negligible acquaintance… neither Nicholas nor Alexandra gave adequate thought to the causes of their fall from power, and in so far as Nicholas tried to understand what had happened, he blamed alien forces that had deceived and manipulated his former subjects.” 

That’s either a delusional, or a nincompoop. Nicholas didn’t atone for his sins, because he didn’t recognize he had committed any, at least not in the way he had ruled Russia. In the end the churchmen decided to canonize him as a symbol of the Church itself, reviving after the communist policy of secularism had ended.

Last week Putin made a rare statement on the events of 1917 – certainly his first during this centenary year. He wasn’t speaking to the Russian people, but to a group of American and other academics paid out of the Kremlin’s budget to assemble annually at what is called the Valdai International Discussion Club. In the past, Putin’s speech has been in a relatively informal dinner-table format. This year it was a formal platform presentation. Also on the platform to make speeches were a former Afghan president,  a Chinese billionaire, and a NATO-financed think-tanker from Norway.  

Read Putin’s remarks in full at http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55882

“Revolution”, declared  Putin, “is always the result of an accountability deficit in both those who would like to conserve, to freeze in place the outdated order of things that clearly needs to be changed, and those who aspire to speed the changes up, resorting to civil conflict and destructive resistance.”

“Today, as we turn to the lessons of a century ago, namely, the Russian Revolution of 1917, we see how ambiguous its results were, how closely the negative and, we must acknowledge, the positive consequences of those events are intertwined. Let us ask ourselves: was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at a cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives.”

That is an implied rebuke to the tsar who, according to Service’s history, made an evolution in Russian governance impossible. Putin doesn’t want to say so. But neither is he taking the Church’s side in condemning the Bolsheviks. “The largely utopian social model and ideology, which the newly formed state tried to implement initially following the 1917 revolution, was a powerful driver of transformations across the globe (this is quite clear and must also be acknowledged), caused a major revaluation of development models, and gave rise to rivalry and competition, the benefits of which, I would say, were mostly reaped by the West.”

“I am referring not only to the geopolitical victories following the Cold War. Many Western achievements of the 20th century were in answer to the challenge posed by the Soviet Union. I am talking about raising living standards, forming a strong middle class, reforming the labour market and the social sphere, promoting education, guaranteeing human rights, including the rights of minorities and women, overcoming racial segregation, which, as you may recall, was a shameful practice in many countries, including the United States, a few short decades ago.”

And so it turns out that Putin chooses to be an each-way bettor, like Service the historian.  It also appears from last Thursday’s speech that some of the Kremlin staff who worked on Putin’s text are White, others Red — or at least as pink as,  say, presidential advisor Sergei Glazyev.   The result is that Putin decided to declare that what is more important today is to condemn the outcome of the Russian revolution of 1991 than argue about the revolution of 1917. This is how, for the time being,  Putin breaks free of the passion-bearing doctrine of the Church and the martyrology of  the monarchists, and proposes common cause with Russian nationalists. It’s the United States the Enemy, he is saying — the American Great Satan.

“Following the radical changes that took place in our country and globally at the turn of the 1990s, a really unique chance arose to open a truly new chapter in history. I mean the period after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Unfortunately, after dividing up the geopolitical heritage of the Soviet Union, our Western partners became convinced of the justness of their cause and declared themselves the victors of the Cold War, as I just mentioned, and started openly interfering in the affairs of sovereign states, and exporting democracy just like the Soviet leadership had tried to export the socialist revolution to the rest of the world in its time.”

“We were confronted with the redistribution of spheres of influence and NATO expansion. Overconfidence invariably leads to mistakes. The outcome was unfortunate. Two and a half decades gone to waste, a lot of missed opportunities, and a heavy burden of mutual distrust. The global imbalance has only intensified as a result.”

Putin followed with his inventory of US misdeeds, betrayals, deceptions, and warfare by all means. He concluded: “Today, new centres of influence and growth models are emerging, civilisational alliances, and political and economic associations are taking shape. This diversity does not lend itself to unification. So, we must strive to harmonise cooperation. Regional organisations in Eurasia, America, Africa, the Asia-Pacific region should act under the auspices of the United Nations and coordinate their work.”

In such a scheme of the future, there appears to be no place for the restoration of the Russian monarchy, let alone a Romanov with divine right.  But do the Russian monarchists and the churchmen  who promote the kissing of his icon and wave his flag in protest for one reason or another – the takeover of St. Isaacs Cathedral in St. Petersburg;  the film Matilda in Moscow – have Putin’s favour?  The answer is yes, and also no.

“Each association,” the president he added in his Valdai address, “has the right to function according to its own ideas and principles that correspond to its cultural, historical and geographical specifics. It is important to combine global interdependence and openness with preserving the unique identity of each nation and each region. We must respect sovereignty as the basis underlying the entire system of international relations.”

If that sounds like a doctrine of pluralism and tolerance, perhaps it is. Inside Russia, does that mean Putin is committed to leaving St. Isaacs Cathedral in state hands, as the people of St.Petersburg wish?  No. Does Putin mean he will go publicly to the cinema this week to watch the film Matilda,  despite the Church protests. No.

That’s two-way betting, again.


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