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HISTORY CORNER: Final days of Czar of Russia

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| February 6, 2022 1:00 AM

In the 1956 movie “Anna and the King of Siam,” Yul Brynner playing the king sings a song that includes the lyric, “It is a puzzlement” — referring to the perplexity of knowing what to believe.

That may also be said about the history of Russia’s Czar Nicholas II and his family who were murdered in 1918 by rampaging Bolshevik revolutionaries who shot and bayonetted them, doused bodies with acid, burned them and buried them in the woods.

Stalin-era propaganda paints Nicholas as weak, inept, prone to making bad decisions, leader of a corrupt government and living in luxury while the Russian people went hungry — and taking advice from a crazy, womanizing “Mad Monk” named Rasputin.

The Russian Orthodox Church calls Nicholas and his murdered family members saints — royal martyrs.

The Romanovs had ruled Russia for more than three centuries, a dynasty that included Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

Grand Duke Nicholas was born in 1868, in the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo south of Saint Petersburg, during the reign of his grandfather, Emperor Alexander II. He was followed by Alexander III, Nicholas’ father, who died at age 49 — leaving the throne to his 26-year old who would become Nicholas II.

Not fully confident he could handle the job, Nicholas asked his cousin and brother-in-law, “What is going to happen to me and all of Russia?”

His decision was to remain conservative like his father. After visiting London and watching Parliament, he admired how they functioned but decided against having a constitutional monarchy in Russia.

In 1894, Nicholas married Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse) who was born in Germany, and was a favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria. They had five children. One of them was a son named Alexei who had hemophilia, inherited from his mother.

Fearing her and Alexei’s condition, she turned to Grigori Rasputin, a mystic who supposedly had healing powers. Though never ordained, he was called the Mad Monk because of his strange looks, bizarre behavior and hypnotic eyes.

He is also said to have had undue influence in the affairs of state.

Vastly unpopular with the public, Rasputin caused sentiment to turn against Nicholas.

Shortly after becoming czar, a delegation of peasant and worker assemblies called zemstvos came to urge him to adopt various reforms, including adopting a constitutional monarchy — believing such changes would improve the political and economic life of the peasantry.

Nicholas wasn’t about to share power with any elected bodies.

In a later speech, the czar angrily rejected their request:

“I want everyone to know that I will devote all my strength to maintain — for the good of the whole nation — the principle of autocracy.”

The speech unsurprisingly infuriated public opinion, and within days the Ministry of the Interior resumed its persecution of the zemstvos.

Throughout most of Russia during the 1890s, there was unrest against the autocratic government system that resulted in strikes, frequent violence and persecution of minority groups.

Farmers were angered by restrictions on the small commune plots assigned to them that they could neither sell nor mortgage, and producing barely enough food to survive.

Urban workers deplored their working conditions, low wages, prohibition in forming unions and high-handed indifference by authorities who should have been addressing the issues.

University students also jumped in the fray — attracted by radical ideas in a changing Russia.

Russia had sought territorial gains across Asia since the 17th century, and in 1891 before Nicholas became czar, started building the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Asian east coast, to give them a warmwater port on the Pacific and access to more international trade.

The rail link would also give access to territories Russia wanted.

The 6,000-mile route was completed in 1904.

Japan also had territorial ambitions, and in that same year the two clashed in the Russo-Japanese War.

It ended the following year with a humiliating defeat for Russia — losing 100,000 men and nearly its entire navy fleet being destroyed — while Japan was victorious in 14 of 16 battles, and winning Manchuria and Korea.

Meanwhile during that same time, financial and domestic problems were also plaguing Russia, with the public blaming the czar and his government.

Historical accounts say it sowed the seeds of the Russian Revolution, seven years later.

Nicholas was intent on holding on to autocratic rule, and was aided by the aristocracy, the Okhrana secret police, the military and the Russian Orthodox Church.

What Russia needed was modernization — social, industrial, agricultural, political, military and infrastructure.

They also needed freedom:

Farmers were tied to small plots with limited potential, urban workers labored under deplorable conditions and minorities resented forced “Russification” and restrictions on their human rights.

Japan had a similar situation with the Tokugawa dynasty keeping Japan isolated and feudal for 264 years. When Meiji became Emperor, he began modernizing the nation with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and moved quickly.

Japan sent investigators around the world to learn how successful industrialized nations and industries functioned. Within a generation, Japan became a major player on the world stage.

Just 37 years after Emperor Meiji began his modernization plan, Japan in the Russo-Japanese War became the first Asian nation in history to militarily defeat a major European power.

Czar Nicholas did not follow Emperor Meiji’s example.

By neglecting to modernize Russia beyond a few reforms, he sowed the seeds of the Russian Revolution, when he and his family were massacred — bringing an end to the Romanov dynasty.

On July 17, 1918, the Romanovs and their servants held captive in Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, 833 miles southeast of Moscow, were told to get ready to move to another location.

As they were doing so, the guards opened fire on them, then bayonetted those who were still alive.

The bodies were taken to the Koptyaki forest, where they were stripped, buried and mutilated by grenades (other reports say acid) to prevent identification, according to the New York Times.

Accounts say the attack was on orders from Lenin and Bolshevik Party Chairman Yakov Sverdlov, who feared a rescue attempt by the Czechoslovak Legion anti-Bolshevik military unit heading toward Yekaterinburg.

The Legion was too late.

For years after the massacre, the Bolsheviks admitted only to the execution of Nicholas. The fate of the rest remained a mystery until 1979 when the burial site was discovered by an amateur sleuth, and identification confirmed by DNA analysis.

Two Romanov children were missing, but were found in another gravesite by amateur archeologists, and also identified by DNA.

Eighty years after they were assassinated, the family was officially rehabilitated as “victims of political repression,” and after a state funeral was reinterred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

Key members of the Russian Orthodox Church refused to attend the funeral, but later the Church canonized them.

Today, Czar Nicholas is fondly remembered in Russia, and many support a return to a monarchy.

British writer and founder of Royal Russia Paul Gilbert tells a brighter side of the tragic czar:

“His detractors continue to base their often negative assessment of Nicholas II’s life and reign by the tragedies which cast a dark cloud over his reign, in particular, the Khodynka Tragedy (1896) and Bloody Sunday (1905), among others.

“Sadly, much of the negative assessment of Nicholas II is further fueled by a steady stream of poorly researched books and documentaries by academically lazy historians, particularly those in the United States and Great Britain.”

Gilbert lists 70 accomplishments by Nicholas, including donating hundreds of thousands of rubles at a time to good causes, such as helping renovate Russia’s medical equipment, building new hospitals, primary and vocational schools, maternity wards and orphanages.

Though he was blamed, Nicholas wasn’t in St. Petersburg when “Bloody Sunday” riots by revolutionaries took place. But when he heard about it, he immediately contributed 50,000 rubles of personal money to the injured. Lenin said 5,000 were killed. It was only 130.

Post Script: Russia has long been the world’s largest nation in geographical size, yet it is still seeking more land.

Vladimir Putin has already orchestrated the takeover of Crimea without significant international recrimination, and now has amassed large troop concentrations on the Ukrainian border.

When will we heed the lessons of history?

That is a puzzlement …

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

• • •

Czar Nicholas the athlete…

Nicholas II was the most athletic Russian tsar, participating in daily exercise and walking, kayaking, racing horses, swimming, tennis, ice hockey and billiards. His favorite dogs were English collies.

During the reign of Nicholas II…

The famous Chanel No. 5 perfume was created by Russia-born chemist Ernest Beau, perfumer to the Romanov family. He emigrated to France after the Russian revolution of 1917, and was introduced to Coco Chanel by Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (1891-1942).

Did Anastasia survive?

There have been numerous imposters who claimed they survived the Romanov massacre — mostly claiming to be daughter Anastasia, Grand Duchess of Russia. The most notorious imposter was Anna Anderson, a Polish factory worker in Germany. Her real name was Franziska Schanzkowska, with a history of mental illness. She married an American and became an American citizen. After she died in 1984 in Virginia, DNA tests proved she wasn’t a Romanov.

The linguist Czar…

Nicholas II spoke five languages fluently: Russian, French, English, German and Danish, although he preferred to speak Russian. He spoke Russian to his children and wrote in Russian and French to his mother Maria Feodorovna. He spoke and wrote in English to his wife Alexandra Feodorovna.

— Paul Gilbert, historian

Promoting global peace…

Nicholas II was the originator of the first Hague Peace Conference and its Permanent Court of Arbitration. In 1901, for his efforts to limit armaments and promote peace among the great powers, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Russian Czaritza Consort Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse) (1872-1918) was granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and described as beautiful, intellectual and shy.

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Nicholas II, Czar of Russia, with (from left), Olga, Maria, Czarina consort Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei and Tatiana (c.1914).

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Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916), the Russian mystic who is said to have had control over the Romanov family because of supposed “faith healing” capabilities.

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Grigori “the Mad Monk” Rasputin after his murder (1916).

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Russian imperial palace in St. Petersburg, last home of the Romanov royal family before being arrested and executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

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REDDIT

Queen Victoria and her family, including King Edward VII, Czar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Empress Frederick (Kaiser Wilhelm's mother and Queen Victoria's eldest daughter), at a wedding in Coburg, Germany, in 1894; all of the families in this photo would be at war with each other 20 years later.

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UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN LIBRARY

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Kaiser Franz Joseph I of Austria were allies in World War I (photo c.1905).

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Czar Nicholas II, wife and son under arrest at Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, not expecting they and the rest of the family would be executed.

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Vladimir I. Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution in 1917, authorized execution of the Romanov family the following year.

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Bolshevik revolutionaries storming the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (1917).

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Painting by Ryzhenko Pavel Viktorovich of Czar Nicholas II bidding farewell to Russian troops during World War I in 1916 after he abdicated (painting 2004).

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Photo of Ipatiev house built in 1880 in Yekaterinburg in the Urals, 833 miles southeast of Moscow, where the Romanov imperial family and servants were massacred by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.

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GETTY IMAGES

Front page of French newspaper Le Petit Journal Illustre in 1926, depicting massacre of Czar Nicolas II of Russia and his family and servants by Bolsheviks in the half-basement room of Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg on July 17, 1918.

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The half-basement room of Ipatiev House where the imperial family was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

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Czar Nicholas and his military advisers underestimated Japanese military power and lost the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5).

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