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Tuesday 19 January 2010

"The Weak & Ignorant Tsar"

There have been so many television programmes - not to mention the countless books and forums and websites - in which professors sit in their university studies making pronouncements about the weakness of the 'ignorant' Tsar Nicholas II. On one such programme a 1 minute clip of film footage of the Tsar dancing with his daughters on the Imperial Yacht was used to demonstrate that he spent his life in the lap of luxury frittering away the hours in amusements. Interesting how an oft-repeated lie is taken as truth.

Imagine if you - and only you, one person - were faced with trying to sort out the the present situation in Afghanistan and the recent conflict in Iraq , together with all that happened in Serbia and Bosnia a couple of decades ago, and on top of that you were personally responsible for the well-being of 180 million people from different cultures in one of the largest empires on earth, and in the middle of a time of great change through industrialisation and the speed of advances in technology...oh and you also had a son, whom you loved very deeply, who was seriously ill and a wife who was badly treated by your own family, and that same family had, for the most part, decided not to support you...Well, that is a little of what the 'weak' and 'ignorant' Tsar Nicholas faced every day. It wasn't his choice. He would have liked to have lived a simple life on a Dacha somewhere, caring for his family and spending his time outdoors, but he had been saddled with this responsibility and with more moral courage than any of his contemporaries he tried to rise to that challenge.

In 1913, while King George V (who is never described as 'weak' or 'ignorant') shot over 1000 pheasants in one day for 'sport' or pored over his precious stamp that had cost him over £1000, and while Kaiser Wilhelm strutted around in his uniforms, laughing too loudly and playing at being a king, the weak Tsar, Nicholas, who frittered his life away in luxury, was spending all day and most of the night trying to resolve the crisis in the Balkans. He wrote to the Kings of Bulgaria and Serbia, offering to arbitrate between them and even when 'Foxy Ferdinand' of Bulgaria, refused to listen and sent his troops into a disastrous campaign, Nicholas had the foresight to realize that if the Bulgarians were humiliated by their defeat, it would lead to resentment and future carnage. Nicholas successfully persuaded his ally, Serbia, to relinquish some of their gains to Bulgaria. Meanwhile, he was faced with the problems of German interests in Persia (Iraq) and trying to maintain the balance of power to prevent the outbreak of war.

These are some of the most complex problems in modern history and even today they have not been resolved no matter how many government departments have tried to resolve them. Nicholas faced these problems alone and spent his time in his simple surroundings (so different from how they appeared to the outside world - see Marie of Roumania's description of how the glittering appearance of palaces changed the minute one stepped over the threshold into the simplicity of his surroundings) working from dawn till dusk trying to do the best for his people. Would any of those professors in their ivory university towers have been more capable of solving so many issues? Would they have been willing to sacrifice all that they really wanted in order to carry out their duty as Nicholas did?

A weak Tsar? Well, was Kaiser Wilhelm ever described as weak? No, he just liked to dream of power and loved his uniforms and strutting about, so he must have been strong. Was George V ever described as weak? No, he shot thousands of birds and so proved himself to be a real man! Franz Ferdinand, Franz Josef, Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Ferdinand of Roumania....was any other ruler at the time described as 'weak'? No, only Nicholas, and I have yet to hear one single reason why he, the strongest of all of them, deserves the horrendous epithet of 'the weak Tsar.'


Anonymous said...

Without necessarily disagreeing with your basic premise that he is frequently judged too harshly, would you not agree that his decision to hold on to absolute power - which was very much his own decision and required considerable effort on his part - contributed to his own problems?

Had he handed more power to the Duma, as he could have done after 1905 when they would have been under the guiding hand of Stolypin, he could have let them run the country and sort out its problems. They might not have been successful, but there would have been more people to work on it and alternative people to replace them if they became discredited. Meanwhile, he could have led the life of a country gentleman as George V did. He chose to enforce his will on the Duma, and from thereon in I would argue it was his own fault he was overworked and struggled to impose his will more generally.

I think another problem is sexism - he was widely regarded by the Russians at the time, and by a number of historians in the period from 1917 to 1960 as being unduly influenced by his wife, and therefore somehow was "less than a man". That's leaving aside the fact that she was a German and therefore congenitally damned. Although that has now been partially corrected by changes in the historical tradition over the last 50 years, it leaves a lingering impression.

Finally, he was also a military leader in World War One, having direct command of the army and a generally unsuccessful one - which in a male-oriented world, was seen as a sign of weakness (King John...). Had he relinquished power to a Ministry of War, that would never have happened. But he was unwilling to do so.

Is it a sign of strength to wield power well - or a sign of weakness to have too much power and struggle to cope with it?

Christina said...

Thank you, doctorhuw for your very interesting and thought-provoking comment!

Your suggestion about the sexism of the time and the idea that Nicholas was dominated by his wife is especially intriguing and something that never occurred to me before. I also agree with you that it was perhaps a mistake for Nicholas to take personal command of his army, especially at such a crucial time and when he was also needed to make decisions at home. On the other hand, I believe he took that decision to show his loyalty to his troops and his own commitment to their cause. It would probably have been better to have left Grand Duke Nicholas remain in command because, even though his methods might have been rather out-dated, he had many years of experience and the full support of the army.

Re: Nicholas holding on to absolute power - Russian Orthodoxy played a very major role in Russian culture and Nicholas took his religion - and therefore his Coronation Oath - very seriously. Sharing his power would surely have suited him perfectly but, as a man of honour, I think he was incapable of breaking his oath. Have sworn to uphold the autocracy, he simply had to keep his word. (The same sense of honour drove him to abdicate rather than abandon his allies, to whom he had promised support, in the middle of the war). I think, too, Russian culture and government was so different from anywhere else in Europe. It was often said (and I even heard it said recently regarding President Putin) that Russians like to be 'ruled'. Growing up in that atmosphere, I think Nicholas felt he had been saddled with the duty to rule and - again, being a man of honour - he could not shirk that duty.

It did, as you say, require considerable effort on his part to avoid sharing power with the Duma and he was not naturally a man who had any desire whatsoever for power. His sole reason for upholding the autocracy was that he firmly and unequivocally believed that was his duty and he had sworn (before God) to do that and simply could not break his word....even though it cost him very dearly indeed.

Thanks again for commenting!

Martina from italy said...

I agree with you, completely.
Maybe beacuse Nicholas II' story is my passion since I was a young girl, but I've read so many books and seenn so many programms about "Nicky's weakness" and I've always been disgusted from it.
I know of course, that he hadn't his father strenght and was born far more to be a good husband, a good lover, and a wonderful father, than a good governor; but so few people can really understand how terrible situation in Russia in that period was.
It' so easy for them, judge and speak. Judge is always easy and, of course, fast.
None ever said that george V wa weak, cause he WON the war. HE WON and that's all.
And Wilhelm... he was so strong. So powerful. He had so many weapoons, and so modern ones. He LOST, of course, but none can say he wasn't powerful.
They were heros. And someone had to pay for them. That was Nicky, cause he wasn't arrogant at all.
The real problem is - historicians who write about Nicholas II are totally sure he was a idiot.
That can't absolutely be called "biography." That's judgment.

PS I hope you'll forgive my English, I know it's not so brilliant; I'm italian and my English's not so wonderful at all!

Christina said...

Grazie, Martina, parli bene Inglese....far better than my Italian! :-)

I agree with you! It is more of a judgement than a biography when people dismiss Nicholas so easily....because he was no longer there to defend himself!

His father left him with a very difficult legacy...and one that I do not believe anyone could have coped with. Sadly, it is so much easier to dismiss him with a glib comment like 'weak' and make him out to be an idiot when he was probably the most honourable ruler of his age.

Thank you so much for commenting! :-)

May said...

Thank you for making these points, especially as I have, to some extent, perhaps been guilty of the same dismissive attitude to Nicholas II. I agree, one should not make blanket statements like "he was a weak and ignorant Tsar."

I do think, though, that he was too stubborn about being an autocrat. There was some logic to it in Russia, which had no other tradition and where people in general were not yet prepared (politically, educationally, etc.) for a freer system, but Nicholas even tried to impose autocracy on areas (such as Finland) which had long traditions of self-government and autonomy, with harmful consequences.

The Finns, for instance, who had long been very loyal to the Tsars, began to become seriously alienated as a result of Nicholas' "Russification" policy. I think the idea behind it was to keep the Russian Empire together, and prevent it from splintering along ethnic lines, by strengthening the centre of power rather than the outlying areas, but the effect was the opposite of what was intended.

Have you read the memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim? He was a Finnish-Swedish nobleman and a Tsarist officer under Nicholas II, who later, of course, had to escape from Russia during the Revolution and return to Finland, which he led in several wars against the USSR. He had many interesting things to say about the situation in Russia during the last days of the Tsars. He was very loyal and devoted to Nicholas II and his family, but also critical of some of the Tsar's policies.

Christina said...

Thank you for your interesting comment. I feel that Nicholas' adherence to the autocracy was nothing to do with his wanting power and everything to do with his upbringing and sense of responsibility. He had been taught by that dreadful Pobednostev whose views on the autocracy had been instilled into Nicholas since his childhood and, though it went totally against the grain of all he felt himself to be (he would, surely, have been happier living a simple life and he knew that) Nicholas was imbued with a sense of being responsible for playing his role as Tsar and following in his father's footsteps.

I have not read Mannerheim's book (and now would really like to) and appreciate what you have written about 'Russification' and bringing self-governing areas of the Empire into line. Yes, I agree, that is a big mistake...and I think a response to the sense of fragmentation of society at that time. The huge shift to industrialisation, the movement from rural communities into over-crowded and ill-prepared cities, the advances in technology and the availability of printed materials, alongside the coming of the railways, facilitating migrations had led to a deep sense of the crumbling of the 'old order'. This was true of all the old Feudal systems in Europe - the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, each different culture demanding separate rights; the rise of the Irish Independence movement in Britain, alongside the the socialists and suffragettes, for example - whereas Germany, the 'new nation' was founded on quite different principles and was way advanced of the old order. It seems like it fell to rulers like Nicholas and Franz Josef to try to hold the old world together - they saw it as their duty to create stability for their people. With hindsight, that was obviously a mistake and they would have done better to move with the time....but I think Nicholas learned that lesson. In the midst of WW1 he was actively involved, for example, in trying to create a free Armenia and the Armenians loved him for it. Had his life not been cut short so brutally, he might have gone down in history as a truly great Tsar who led his people into the new era but he did not have time to come to terms with the changing culture and to grow beyond and adapt the beliefs instilled in him in childhood.

Thank you so much - I really appreciate your views and comments.

May said...

Thank YOU, and I hope you will keep writing about these topics!

Sadly, it often seems that it is the monarchs of the finest personal character in a dynasty that are the ones who get overthrown, exiled, murdered. Nicholas II is one striking example of this, but certainly not the only one.

I have some excerpts from Mannerheim's memoirs on my blog, Sword and Sea, for instance, here:


And his account of Nicholas' coronation (M. was in the procession as one of the Chevalier Guards):


elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Christina! Great blog, great post!

Christina said...

Thank you,Elena, your comment is greatly appreciated.

Thank you, too, Matterhorn, for providing the extracts from Mannerheim - which are very interesting (I am still in the process of reading some of them) and for your fascinating blog, which I am now very much enjoying! Thanks!