The Romanovs – (l to r) Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexie and Tatiana.
fNicholas II, Autocrat of all the Russians was forced to abdicate on the fifteenth of March, 1917 just days after demonstrations and riots broke out in Petrograd. It all began only a week before on the first International Woman’s Day when thousands of textile workers marched demanding peace and bread.
Within days the demonstrators were joined by the military garrison of the capital which refused to fire on unarmed civilians, making revolution inevitable.
An emergency Committee was set up by government ministers, including Alexander Kerensky while workers and soldiers revived their local committees from the 1905 revolution, known as Soviets, thus establishing two headed government. The Soviets ordered that the military not obey orders from the Emergency Committee which were in conflict with Soviet orders. Thus chaos was institutionalized.
Nicholas abdicated, not in favor of his son who was ill with hemophilia but in favor of his uncle, the Grand Duke Michael. Michael conditionally refused the throne; he would accept it only after the election of a new government and only if that new government offered him the throne.
Thus Romanov rule came to an end.
The Tsar and his wife Alexandra, their four daughters and the Tsarevich were placed under “protective custody” house arrest at their palace in Tsarskoe Selo under guard provided by the new Provisional Government.
In Russia generally, it was a time of hope. The people of Petrograd during those first few months after the fall of the Romanovs were astonishingly free of vindictiveness. The nobility not only kept their heads; they kept their estates. Arson and pillage in the countryside was far rarer than they had been in 1905. Disorder was commonplace, particularly in the army, but was seldom accompanied by violence, at least at first. The enjoyment of their newfound liberty kept the vast majority of Russians in relatively good humor. Russia became the Eldorado of the soap box.
But it was the Bolsheviks who were the most organized, most agitating and most devoted to the implacable Lenin. They didn’t care about the intellectuals, couldn’t win a majority of the masses; their strength lay with the revolutionary elites – soldiers and workers. And their effectiveness was vastly improved by the return of Trotsky from New York.
Into the summer Nicholas and his family remained at Tsarskoe Selo. The Petrograd Soviet established a local Soviet among the soldiers guarding the Palace and began agitating against the Imperial family. The Provisional Government just wanted the Tsar out of the country while the Soviets wanted him to stand trial.
“The Tsar is a criminal and the Provisional Government is too lenient in its treatment!” The Soviets sniped at the government for “pampering” the former autocrat. The Soviets wanted him executed while the Kerensky government simply wanted him exiled. Problem was finding a country that would take him. The British government turned down a request for asylum after he was characterized as a criminal; it also didn’t want any revolutionary ideas about doing away with monarchy spreading to the island.
Nicholas could judge the political climate in Petrograd by the worsening treatment by the guards throughout spring and summer.
In early August Kerensky warned Nicholas that he and the family would be moved away from the capital. Nicholas was neither surprised nor worried when he was finally told it was imperative that the move be accomplished without delay.
The actual departure on the morning of August 14 was tumultuous. The soldiers of the palace guard were indignant that the prisoners were being allowed to leave. The trial of the Romanovs would be taking place shortly they argued and it would be better if they stayed where they were “so that there was no chance of escaping.” It might even be better all around “if things were managed without a trial.”
It took all of Kerensky’s powers of persuasion to get the family to the station and the waiting train. All the while the Romanovs assumed they were being transferred to their estates in Crimea. It wasn’t until the train pulled out of Tsarskoe Selo that Nicholas learned that their real destination was Tobolsk, in western Siberia.
The Kerensky government had made a couple of tragic errors over the summer.
The first was its intent to continue the war against Germany. The army was in complete disarray and was no longer an effective fighting force. Soldiers diserted the front by the thousands.
The second was its response to a monarchist uprising on the right led by General Kornilov. He despised socialism and socialists, considering them more than criminals; he believed the Petrograd Soviet was an illegal gathering and that Lenin was a German agent working to destroy Russia from within. In summary, Kornilov was a figure of the old order rather than the new one.
Kerensky pleaded with the left for support – and he armed the Bolsheviks who gladly took the guns and feigned support. The uprising was crushed but now the Bolsheviks were armed. Kerensky naively believed he had no enemies on the left.
The decision to send the Romanovs to Siberia was an adroit move by Kerensky. The right believed he was moving the imperial family to Tobolsk to protect them and discreetly engineer an eventual move to Japan. To the left, Kerensky responded that he had sent them to Siberia – the place where thousands of leftists had been exiled during Nicholas’ days of power. What better place to send a criminal? It had overtones of prison camps and salt mines.
Kerensky knew that Tobolsk, off the main line to Vladivostok and then reachable only by steamer was virtually untouched by the revolutionary unrest that prevailed in European Russia. Nicholas and his family would be quite safe there and out of the public eye. And no one could accuse Kerensky of betraying the revolution by sending the Romanovs to Siberia.
The Romanovs in Tobolsk sitting in front of a fence and greenhouse. Tatiana, Olga, the little son of a servant, Alexie, Nicholas II and Anastasia.
For a short while life in Tobolsk was easier and more pleasant for the Romanovs than it had been in Tsarskoe Selo. They lived in the former residence of the Provincial Governor, a large two storied stone building, comfortable but not luxurious with a retinue of some 40 persons including domestic help. Food was plentiful. Nicholas sawed wood for exercise and the family felt less shut in than before and attended church each day. The services were open to the public, the guards were not intimidating and the townspeople treated their former rulers with respect.
The guard under the command of a Colonel Kobylinsky, a monarchist, were more civil to the family. The first hint of danger came with the arrival of two political commisars In September sent by Kerensky to watch over them, reflecting the grwoing influence of the left over the Provisional government. Both were Social Revolutionaries of rather extreme views, each of whom had spent time in Siberia under the autocracy. Alexandra felt they were no better than Bolsheviks.
The change in the attitude of the soldiers after indoctrination by the Commisars from mid-September was undeniable. The news of the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd in October was at first, was greeted with equanimity. They were after all, all Reds differing mainly on issues of the war and how quickly a communist utopia could be achieved. Nicholas, himself a nationalist, was most concerned that those in power were now internationalists and pacifists, ready for peace at any price.
And few expected the Bolsheviks to maintain their grip on power, seeing how it had been achieved. It was a premeditated coup directed by Lenin and engineered by Trotsky against a Duma freely elected; an election the Bolsheviks had essentially lost to orthodox socialists. Kerensky however, fled to Finland and vanished into history.
Tobolsk, isolated and far from the capital turned neither red nor white. The two Political Commissars presumable became Lenin’s Commissars and were neither arrested by Colonel Kobylinsky nor was he arrested by them. No orders arrived to execute the imperial family nor to return them to Petrograd for trial. The living allowance was suppressed by the new government and Alexandra and the Grand Duchesses were kept busy patching clothes and knitting socks to replace the Tsarevich’s last pair.
But the family did not lose heart. They imagined that plans to rescue them were nearing fruition.
“God Save the Tsar” – the official anthem of Tsarist Russia. The tune was incorporated into the final themes of the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky as a kiss-up to Tsarism and is now played at out July 4th Independence Day celebrations! Who da thunk it!