Russia has over the past two weeks gone to war — and so far, it seems to be losing. At least two generals have been killed, up to four thousand Russian soldiers have also died, and Ukrainians seem to be stealing their tanks with tractors. As Russia teeters on the edge of ruin, in large part due to leadership problems, it seems like a good time to talk about the two people who lost the Russian Empire the first time around, in the 1917 Revolution(s): Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Romanov.
To the degree that Americans know about the Romanovs, they’re portrayed sympathetically, as in the 1997 film Anastasia, where Nicholas II treats his family with kindness and (unbelievably) stands up to Rasputin. Some of this was true. Nicholas was a caring husband and father. Had he lived as a private citizen, or even as a royal who did not inherit the throne, things would perhaps have been different.
But filial obligations aside, Nicholas and Alexandra are far different — far worse leaders — than popular culture depicts them. Their decisions led to the downfall of the Russian Empire, and perhaps more importantly, set the stage for a revolution that would ultimately usher in not democracy but a different kind of autocratic rule. Now, with war in Ukraine, their downfall is surprisingly relevant.
A good entry-level (though long!) introduction to their history is the 10th season of the Revolutions podcast, focusing on the Russian Revolution(s). Podcaster Mike Duncan traces the history of the Russian Revolution from its origins in Marxist thought and the socialist, revolutionary experiments of the mid-1800s, such as the Paris Commune, through the October 1917 Revolution and beyond into Civil War.
According to Duncan’s podcast, the (late) Russian Empire was built on the back of the slogan Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality. Coined after the failed Decemberists’ revolt, the slogan situated all authority in the Tsar alone, the divinely-appointed leader for the Russian people. The Tsar, and the project of Russian Empire which he embodied, had God’s stamp of approval, and no challenge was legitimate.
Clearly, given its origins, the belief in the Tsar as a spiritually anointed leader of a nation blessed by God could not help but lead to oppression. Indeed, the Decemberists and others perceived as insurgents were killed or banished to Siberia for their crimes against the Tsar, often in dramatic ways meant to burnish the Tsar’s image. (Fascinatingly, among those banished was the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Arrested with others for reading supposedly subversive literature, he and his comrades were gathered for execution, lined up, reprieved at the very last minute, and then banished to Siberia instead, a move intended to make Tsar Nicholas I (ruled 1825-1885) seem beneficent.)
So long as the Tsar remained a competent leader, the slogan did not absolutely prohibit change. Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881), the so-called “Tsar Liberator,” used his role to plan for and (partially) enact the emancipation of Russia’s many peasants, a move long overdue, thanks to the weight the Tsars gave to the nobility’s financial claims. Even when the move stalled out, it did not mean the end of progress for Russia; it was under Alexander II’s son (Alexander III, ruled 1881-1894) that the Trans-Siberian Railway was built. To an outside observer, then, the centrality of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality to the Russian Empire could on first glance suggest nothing but prosperity. Yet in anointing the Tsar the unchallenged and unchallengeable ruler, it sowed the seeds for the Empire’s destruction. Particularly as Russia edged first towards parliamentary systems and then towards popular democracy and revolt, the Tsarist death-grip on their own certainty that they alone are blessed by God to rule the nation unwove the Empire, thread by thread.
These seeds came to fruition in Nicholas II (ruled 1894-1917), by all accounts a sincere man who loved his family and who was nevertheless completely incompetent as any kind of a ruler, let alone ruler of an Empire that stretched from one corner of the globe to another. Nicholas’s commitment to the idea that he alone was ruler was absolute, to the point that (as Duncan describes) he burdened himself with minutiae of state, reviewing and signing documents that a better leader would have delegated to subordinates. To trace all of Nicholas’s faults, even within the framework of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, would be far too unfocused; three examples are worth mentioning here, to parse out how the Tsar’s belief that God was on his side combined with other character traits in ways that led to Russia’s ruin.
The Russo-Japanese War
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire was aiming to expand its territory in the Far East. Already occupying Manchuria, through which the growing Trans-Siberian Railway ran, it now sought to expand into Korea, denying Japanese claims to the peninsula and threatening war. Though, as Duncan notes, Tsar Nicholas II did not really want war: his autocratic position and assumption that he was acting on God’s behalf to preserve the divinely-blessed Russian Empire, pushed him — and all Russia with him — into disaster.
Negotiations ran long, and as they did, Nicholas, like the wicked kings of ancient Israel and Judah, was plagued with poor advice from worse advisors. In particular, Kaiser Wilhelm (the same Wilhelm about to start World War I in Europe) argued to Nicholas in favor of the war, persuading him of his moral and spiritual obligations to commit to war. As Duncan notes, the Kaiser “was writing a steady stream of letters to [the Tsar], saying this wasn’t just about timber concessions and access to markets, it’s about the fate of Christendom itself” against the non-Christian Japanese people that Europeans perceived as a threat to Western civilization. As the Kaiser framed it, Tsar Nicholas had the chance to be “the savior of” white, Christian Russia. This argument took hold of Tsar Nicholas in part because he had previously visited Japan and “fancied himself an expert on the Japanese” — though, all Nicholas was actually an expert on was anti-Asian racism. But that racism, combined with Nicholas’s perceived knowledge about Eastern affairs, combined with the Kaiser’s advice to make war, ultimately, very attractive to the Tsar. Defeating the Japanese was, apparently, God’s will for the Russian Empire.
Of course, defeating the Japanese was not foreordained at all. In fact, Russia suffered a stunning defeat, its attack on Port Arthur ending with the entire Russian Navy (outside of a few boats in the Black Sea) at the bottom of the ocean. The defeat stoked resentment among the populace, whose sons had been sent to die in the Russo-Japanese war for nothing. Only a few years away from global war, Nicholas’s belief in his own authority and reliability left the great Empire of Russia with no sea power and with an uneasy, agitated populace.
The General Strike
Yet, convinced of his right to rule, Nicholas II did not learn from his failures in the East, even as they led towards revolution in Russia. Over the year(s) during and immediately after the end of the Russo-Japanese War, the mood in St. Petersburg and Moscow increasingly turned against the rule of the Tsars and towards democracy, with people hungry for better working conditions, an end to war, and more political freedom. Tensions boiled over to include political violence, when (early in the winter of 1906) the priest Father Gapon led a protest on the Winter Palace to urge the Tsar to relieve their suffering. Instead, the Tsar’s military opened fire, leading to likely more than a hundred deaths. Forced in the wake of “Bloody Sunday” to make concessions, Tsar Nicholas, the presumptive divinely-appointed king of the entire Russian Empire, did so grudgingly, agreeing only to an advisory committee and holding off actual democratic reform. There was little hope that a man who fancied himself an imperial leader, charged by God, could allow democracy to challenge his status.
The reforms were not enough. That autumn the unrest devolved into a General Strike which included not only blue-collar workers but white-collars workers as well — accountants, lawyers, and more, walking off the job to articulate the urgency of more expansive reforms. As Duncan describes, the “Russian Empire was effectively shut down. In every major urban center, economic activity ceased, and people just stayed home.” The consequences were not pleasant for the Russian people, of course, with food, medicine, electricity, and even safety increasingly hard to guarantee as the Strike stretched throughout October 1906. But people remained committed to it; “it was the whole of Russia uniting against an isolated Russian regime, that they all hated equally.”
Faced with this crisis, Nicholas II found himself backed into a corner, forced to agree to a series of reforms. This included the requirement for an elected Duma (a representative council guided by a Prime Minister) to play an active role in statecraft — a move which, as Nicholas observed, would unseat him from the throne of the Empire, reducing him to a symbolic head. Duncan records that the Tsar was “deeply unhappy” about these reforms, “believ[ing] that it was his sacred duty to retain the divine principle of autocracy that had been passed down to him from his ancestors and which originated from God.” Though Nicholas ultimately accepted the reforms, he did so only under great pressure from his own family members, who more clearly recognized the political pinch that Russia was in.
Tsar Nicholas spent much of the rest of his reign looking for ways to unravel the reforms he had accepted and undermine the increasing rise of democracy in Russia. The Duma was elected, yet Nicholas repeatedly quarreled with it and even dismissed it, seeking ways to (re)claim possible authority, restoring the glory of the old, autocratic regime and his own charge to rule. His actions would ultimately bring about the 1917 Revolutions and, from there, the rising Bolshevik power.
But perhaps Nicholas’s most obvious misstep, one of the last he would ever make, came in his commitment to Rasputin, a commitment strengthened both by Nicholas’s deep faith and his assurance that God ordained him to rule Russia. Rasputin, usually portrayed as a menacing sorcerer with magical powers, was little more than a conman from a remote village in southern Russia. Only partially literate (but deeply cunning), he easily figured out that he could use his spiritual habit to cozy up with the Emperor and Empress, blinding them to his faults, and manipulating them for his own ends. At first, the royal couple came to trust Rasputin for his apparent deep piety and avowed faith, a spirit they sensed was lacking among the rebellious populace; Rasputin was proof that the peasantry still saw them as appointed by God. These ties were strengthened as Rasputin preyed on their fears for their son, the Tsesarevich Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia and who alone was the Romanov heir to the throne. Every time Alexei would take a turn for the worse, doctors would predict his death; Rasputin would intervene with prayers or encouraging words, and Alexei would recover. From that point on, the Empress in particular would never hear another word against Rasputin.
Yet words against Rasputin mounted. Evidence emerged suggesting that he preyed sexually on young women and even girls, but the Emperor and Empress closed their ears to it. Rasputin was divinely sent by God, they were God’s divinely-appointed leaders of Russia, and any possible criticism was read simply as an attack on that foundation. This belief would lead to Russia’s ruin. When, finally, Rasputin was murdered at the hands of two right-wing royalists who could see more clearly than Nicholas how his influence was bringing down the monarchy, Duncan reports that people were so happy they sent the murderers letters of congratulation. But it was too late. Only a few months later, in February 1917, Revolution began, and the autocracy of the Tsar ended forever.
Nicholas II and Putin — and Us
Nicholas II is, in many ways, quite different from contemporary Russian dictators. Deeply religious and less nakedly corrupt, the incompetent Tsar resembles a character from an ancient Greek tragedy, brought to his knees by his own fatal flaws — among them, his racism and his assumption that he ruled the Russian Empire as its unquestioned, divinely-appointed sovereign. His error proved to be his undoing, and eventually Russia’s as well. Believing he could do no wrong, believing that the Russian Empire had upon it the blessing and mandate of God, Nicholas increasingly alienated his advisors, drawing his circle in on himself. At the last, he proved unable to self-reflect, unable to recognize error, or move forward in a productive and humane way.
These flaws live on as Russia’s rulers maintain a stranglehold on the reins of state, putting their own ego and the maintenance of Empire above the actual good of the nation, its neighbors, and even its own people. For years now, Putin has ruled Russia with unchecked power, like the imperial Tsars. Invading Ukraine, a territory that Russia surrendered in early 1918 to reach a cease-fire with Germany and then subsequently reclaimed in the early 1920s as part of the emerging Soviet Union, signals that Putin is trying to recreate the old Russian Empire. Ukraine, of course, is its own sovereign state and does not deserve to be either colonized by Russia or destroyed for resisting colonization. Yet Putin fancies himself, as he has long fancied himself, to be a historical autocrat. Much less religious than the Romanovs (who, interestingly, have since been sainted), he nevertheless touts the same unquestionable authority and demands the same commitment to the imperial Russian nation that they did.
Though the war may be going against Russia now, it will not quickly be over; Russia’s long involvement in Syria gestures towards how devastating the conflict may be. But at the same time, the history of Tsar Nicholas II confirms that the power of autocracy always carries with it the seeds of its own defeat, sowing among the people the possibility for resistance and maybe, maybe, change. As I write this, it is only a day or two after International Women’s Day. A little more than a century ago, on International Women’s Day, women rose up against Nicholas II — and started the February 1917 Revolution which toppled imperial Russia. Today, many Russians admire Putin, true, yet others risk imprisonment, defying him as their ancestors may have defied the Tsar.
As believers, many of us probably in the United States, this history ought to call us to consider how we too can defy autocracy, standing up instead for those who are oppressed, in prison, or in danger. Too often Christians in the United States have sought, and still seek, to use the power of the state to accomplish their ends. Too often Christians prioritize what we (often erroneously) perceive to be the truth, rather than empathy and compassion for others. Yet our faith does not call us to be leaders like Tsar Nicholas II, placing presumed authority from God over the well-being of the people with whom we dwell, whether at church, in our neighborhoods, or in our cities. Nor should we as Christians let abusive and/or manipulative leaders out for their own gain, like Rasputin, dictate our actions.
Authoritarianism is pervasive in the church, especially lately, as for instance scholar Chrissy Stroop documents in her description of how pastors — fighting over what they wrongly perceive to be the moral high ground — bully trans people and women on social media. Other pastors are alleged to have used the claim that they are defending the gospel to publicly shame women who are abuse victims in their church. Such actions are not aligned with Christ, who lifted up and empowered those who are oppressed and did not seek this world’s power. Such actions are instead aligned with Putin, with Nicholas II, and with all who claim that God is behind them and then use that claim to justify evil. Particularly now, as we pray for and support Ukraine from afar, and as we contend with a global rise in autocracy, our way as believers is not to seek power but to do justice, and to love mercy, for the sake of all who are powerless and needy.