Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Part I: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming Part I

The Family Romanov is historical nonfiction written for younger readers, although many adults will find this book of interest.

Fleming sets the stage for this fascinating account of the Russian Royal family by describing a grand costume ball held on the night of February 12, 1903 in honour of the two-hundredth anniversary of St. Petersburg's founding as the Russian capital. In attendance were members of what was known as the belaya kost - the 870 families who made up Russia's wealthiest citizens. They "represented only 1.5 percent of the population, but owned 90 percent of all Russia's wealth." These people were well educated and could trace their roots "back to the ancient princes who had ruled the country centuries earlier." Their homes were filled with priceless works of art, antiques and many luxuries. They wore designer gowns and vacationed on the French Riviera. French or English was the language of choice as Russian was considered coarse. The ball, hosted by Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra saw their guests dressed in costumes of rich fabrics and decorated with jewels. This wealthy segment of Russian society was insular and uninformed about the rest of the Russian people. They had no idea how the vast majority of their fellow Russians, in a country that stretched from Poland in the west to Japan in the east, lived.

The main disconnect between the nobility and the peasants was ignorance about what life was like for eighty-four percent of Russians at the beginning of the twentieth century. The wealthy including the tsar believed that the peasants' lives were comfortable and pastoral. As Fleming indicates it was a very romanticized view of life that came about because the nobility had virtually no contact with the poorer classes. The reality was that most peasants lived in small huts with little furniture or bedding and had little eat. Peasants struggled to support themselves because they did not have enough land to grow sufficient food. As the population grew, this situation only worsened and the peasants saw acquiring land from the nobility as the only solution. Because of the poverty, people began to move to the cities to find work in the new factories. However, life in the city was much worse, characterized by long hours, poor wages, dangerous working conditions, crowded homes, disease and pollution.  Into this world, Nicholas  was born.

Part One: Before the Storm
This section explores the early life of Nicholas II and his marriage to Princess Alix of Hesse. By the time Nicholas came to the throne, the Romanovs had ruled Russia for almost 300 years in a form of government known as autocracy, where one person rules exclusively. The Romanovs claimed their right to rule was God-given. Thus Russia had no constitution, congress, court of appeal or supreme court. The tsar was required to follow the laws of succession (only a male relative could rule) and to follow the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church. The tsar was head of the Imperial Cabinet consisting of thirteen ministers who were noblemen appointed by him. The country was divided into thirty-four provinces, each with its own governor, imperial army and police force. A large imperial bureaucracy existed to enforce laws, impose fines and fees, and keep records." Poorly paid bureaucrats meant they were easily corrupted and therefore despised by the people. The tsar maintained his hold on power by strict control over his people; the imperial army and the police silenced all political dissent.

Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III was a harsh ruler who was not eager for his son to succeed him. He neglected to prepare Nicholas to rule Russia and to develop as a statesman. And Nicholas himself did not look forward to ruling Russia either. He was shy, gentle and enjoyed reading. Nicholas originally met the girl who was to be his wife in 1884 when he was sixteen and she was twelve. Born Princess Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice of Hesse Darmstadt, she was a happy, smiling child nicknamed Sunny until the death of her mother at age six. Afterwards her personality changed. Nicholas and Alix met again five years later and this time both were completely smitten. Five more years passed in which Nicholas traveled the world. In April 1894 Nicholas proposed and after a brief hesitation over changing her faith from Lutheran to Russian Orthodox, Alix agreed. The couple married November 26, 1894 a month after the death of Tsar Alexander III died.

Nicholas was terrified of becoming tsar of Russia. "What is going to happen to me...to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of how to even talk to the ministers."  From the beginning both Nicholas and Alexandra (her new Russian name) struggled. Alexandra appeared aloof and unapproachable and she was shocked by Russian society leading her to disinvite many of Nicholas's friends and cousins. The couple moved to the Imperial Park at Tsarskoe Selo, living in the less grand Alexander Palace. With Nicholas unable to comprehend his duties as tsar and Alexandra revolted by the excesses and bad behaviour of the Russian court, the two withdrew to the enchanted estate of Tsarskoe Selo. From 1895 to 1901, Tsarina Alexandra gave birth to four daughters. Although Nicholas was at first happy with the births of the daughters, the need for a son soon became their most pressing concern. Each pregnancy was becoming more difficult for Alexandra and so they began to seek the help of holy men, prayers and mystics, some of whom were of questionable character. With the birth of Alexei in 1904, Nicholas and Alexandra were thrilled. But soon it became apparent that the little boy had hemophilia, a genetic disorder with no treatment in 1904 and which could be life threatening. It was a disease passed down through Alexandra's side of the family. They withdrew even further from society and kept his condition a secret.

Part Two: Dark Clouds Gathering
This section covers the period from 1905 until 1913 of Nicholas II's reign. In 1905  the increased literacy of the workers led to increased recognition of and demand for a government that responded to their needs. No longer content to be slaves to the monarchy, the people wanted a say in how their vast country was ruled. The event that would turn out to be of greatest significance came to be known as Bloody Sunday. A peaceful march to St. Petersburg's Winter Palace was organized by a young priest known as Father George Gapon to present a petition by the workers directly to the tsar. The petition asked Nicholas II to address the problems workers in Russia faced. Like most workers in Russia, Fr. Gapon still believed that the tsar was the father of Russia and cared for his people. The tsar was not blamed for the greed, despotism and cruelty of the factory managers and landowners towards the workers and peasants. It was Nichola's response to Fr. Gapon's march on January 22, 1905 that would ultimately be his undoing.

Informed of the march and the request that he receive the worker's petition, Nicholas II instead sent soldiers to greet the marchers and did not attend. Approximately 120,000 men, women and children, peacefully marching were confronted by soldiers who eventually opened fire on them, killing up to 200 people. This unwarranted attack which came to be known as Bloody Sunday changed the Russian people's minds about their tsar. Nicholas, hearing of the tragedy did not accept blame and would not consider the advice of his advisers and even Count Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author who advised his tsar, "...what great evil you will bring to yourself and to millions if you continue on your present course."

The unrest spread to other areas of Russia with rotating strikes which led by October 3, to massive strikes that shutdown cities. Printers and railroad workers were followed by "factory workers, schoolteachers, postal workers, telegraph operators,,,, doctors, lawyers, bankers, even the ballerinas of St. Petersburg's Imperial Mariinsky Theatre." Prime Minister Count Sergei Witte gave Nicholas II an ultimatum; either crush the rebellion in a bloody show of force or give the people the right to freedom of the press and speech and the Duma, an elected legislature they were demanding. Threatened by his cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich's suicide if he did not concede Nicholas finally agreed. He signed into law the right to "freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association" and the formation of a Duma,  in what was known as the October Manifesto. But Nicholas believed that the problem was not the autocracy but the fact that the people of Russia were being punished for their sins against his rule.

The supporters of the tsar believed the Jewish population were responsible for the unrest and repression. It was this belief that led to numerous pogroms. "In the two weeks after the signing of the October Manifesto, there were 694 separate pogroms across the country." Both Nicholas II  and Alexandra also believed the Jewish citizens were responsible. Jews living in Russia were already restricted by numerous laws including one that limited the number of Jews who could attend school.

Around this time a man who would become a famous revolutionary began to come into his own. Vladimir Ulyanov, whose father was a bureaucrat, became a professional revolutionary following in the steps of his brother Alexander who was hanged for plotting to kill Tsar Alexander III. In 1895 Ulyanov was sent to prison and then to three years exile in Siberia for his part in organizing workers' strikes. After his exile, he traveled throughout Europe gaining a reputation as a leader of the communist movement. He wrote and edited and newspaper called Spark under the pen name of Lenin. A student of Karl Marx's theories, Lenin believed that the only way Russia could become communist was through the strong leadership of a few revolutionaries. The Social Democrats who followed Lenin were known as Bolsheviks, those who believed in a more gradual change and who opposed Lenin where known as Mensheviks. Lenin returned to Russia hoping to start a full scale revolution but he was eventually forced to leave after the second uprising in December and retreated to Finland.

After the October Manifesto the attempted arrest of the soviets resulted a mass revolt in Moscow against the autocracy that included all the Social Democrats. Nicholas ordered his troops to put down the rebellion by any means possible, including the use of artillery and the shooting of any one found in the vicinity of the rebellion. He did not stop there. Revolutionaries were hunted down and imprisoned or exiled or executed. Workers against the tsar were fired. Groups of soldiers undertook actions known as Punitive Expeditions into the countryside, killing villagers and burning villages. But Nicholas II could not accept the reality of sharing power with the Duma. Between April 1906 and November 1907 the Duma closed twice resulting in three Dumas. The first Duma consisted of a decent representation from all of Russia's classes including the nobility, the land-owners, the workers and the peasants.By the Third Duma, the nobility, landowners and businessmen dominated this legislative body. It was this Duma, supportive of the Romanov autocracy that would sit for the next five years.

In 1905, the Romanov family became acquainted with Father Gregory Rasputin, a starets or holy man. Desperate to obtain help for Alexei and his hemophilia, the tsar and tsarina had tried doctors, priests and various mystics from all over Europe. In Rasputin's presence, Alexei seemed to recover and this was enough to convince the Alexandra. Because of this, the tsar and tsarina were blind to Rasputin's true nature and his reputation. Rasputin had a reputation with the ladies and he was distrusted by Prime Minister Peter Stolypin who ordered an investigation into his activities. Even when the report confirmed Stolypin's suspicions, Nicholas II refused to act resulting in the Prime Minister banishing Rasputin from St. Petersburg. Stolypin was murdered at the Kiev Opera House. It was only when letters between the royal family and Rasputin began circulating that Nicholas and Alexandra refused to see Rasputin. But that would change when Alexei had a serious bleed that almost cost him his life that Alexandra contacted the starets.

At the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule, Nicholas II and Alexandra believed that they were deeply loved by the Russian people. "But while the people acted curious or reverent, on only one occasion was the family greeted with spontaneous good feelings."

Discussion

The first part of this detailed work on the Romanov family focuses on their life before the revolution, with emphasis on the conditions in Russia that led to the collapse of the Romanov autocracy. The focus is on Nicholas's belief that his rule was divinely given and how this belief led him to vehemently resist any attempt to change how Russia was ruled. He was warned repeatedly by his ministers that he threatened to undo a thousand years of history by his obstinance. Both Nicholas and Alexandra retreated from the people following their marriage. It was this distance that made him appear uncaring. This situation alone suggests that Nicholas, who was ill prepared to assume the throne, was not fit to rule. He refused to accept that the conditions for the ordinary workers and the peasants were unjust and fell back on blaming the Jewish population for the social unrest. Especially interesting is the portrayal of the four grand duchesses and the crown prince and their relationship with their parents and their tutors.

Fleming's writing style is appealing and she quickly engages the reader's interest in a country with such a fascinating history. After setting the stage in the first two parts, the next two will focus the Russian revolution. Fleming has included a detailed family tree of the Romanovs, a map of the Russian empire, a detailed Bibliography, Notes and and index.

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