In March 1917, Nicholas II, the last Tsar of All the Russias, abdicated and the Romanov dynasty that had ruled an empire for three hundred years was forced from power by revolution.
On the 100th anniversary of the abdication, Robert Service, author The Last of the Tsars, takes us through the events which led to the Emperor relinquishing power over Russia.
In the night of 13–14 March 1917, Alexeev at GHQ telegrammed General Ivanov, who would be arriving in Tsarskoe Selo that morning; he wanted him to press for a deal between Nicholas and the Duma before it was too late.
In the course of the day Alexeev went further after coming to the conclusion that time was up for Nicholas and that he should step down from power. Although he felt bad about appearing disloyal, he could not see how the army could fight a successful war while the capital was in turmoil. At a time when Nicholas was on his train in Pskov, Alexeev took the unprecedented step of cabling commanders at the front to ask them whether they agreed with him. He expressed his fear that revolutionary militants were about to disrupt the entire rail network; he predicted civil war if drastic action were not taken. He promised fellow commanders to put his ideas to the emperor if they approved. Their swift replies were overwhelmingly in favour. Alexeev communicated this consensus to Nicholas in Pskov and added his own appeal to Nicholas’s sense of patriotic duty at a time when the high command had lost confidence in him.
If Nicholas had been aiming to cling to power, Alexeev’s telegram shattered his will to resist and he wired back that he would make whatever sacrifice was required for the good of Russia.
Even so, he had not yet reached the point of surrender, and nobody knew what he would do next. Recognizing this, Alexeev told the legal adviser Nikolai Bazili to draft a manifesto for Nicholas to sign which would empower Rodzyanko to select a new government. But the news showed that the authorities in the capital had lost all control. Alexeev, who had not properly recovered from a severe attack of influenza, concluded that any such manifesto would be too weak. Nicholas, he reasoned, would have to step down altogether. If he held on to the throne, there would be chaos. Nicholas had to go.
On 15 March 1917 a barrage of advice reached Nicholas in Pskov via a cable from Alexeev. The emperor’s cousin, Nikolai, told him bluntly that he should hand over his inheritance, presumably to Alexei. The word ‘abdication’ was not used. General Brusilov was somewhat less direct, saying that Russia would collapse unless he agreed to renounce the throne in favour of Alexei with Mikhail as the regent. Speed, Brusilov added, was essential.
Alexeev passed on both messages while sending one of his own. He could not bring himself to tell his sovereign what to do, but his meaning was clear enough: ‘I beg you without delay to take the decision that the Lord God inspires in You.’ He emphasized that he and his fellow commanders agreed on the need for him to abdicate. Whereas previously he had gently pressed the emperor to work in tandem with the Duma, now he could see no alternative to his agreement to relinquish the throne – and for the very first time Alexeev spelled out his opinions to Nicholas without the usual display of deference. Russia was being overwhelmed by political insurgency. At the very least there had to be a change of ruler if military effectiveness was to be maintained at the Eastern Front.
Nicholas put up no struggle. Whereas he had no high opinion of ministers and despised most politicians, he loved the armed forces and their high command. He also loved Alexandra, but she was in Tsarskoe Selo, not with him. There has been speculation that Rodzyanko and others in the capital exaggerated the intensity of the Petrograd disturbances when they wrote to him. Undoubtedly Rodzyanko was exasperated by Nicholas’s persistent refusal to work in cooperation with the Duma, and he was secretly plotting how to remove him from power. Even so, his messages to Stavka accurately reflected how workers and soldiers were acting in the capital, and now Alexeev was telling Nicholas that if the war was to be won, he himself had to step down.
For a ruler who cherished his country’s military achievements, this was an almost unbearable shock. The Union of the Russian People was no use to him, and anyway he had no regular acquaintance with its leaders. With the general staff he was in daily contact. When Alexeev revealed his considerations about the revolutionary situation, Nicholas had no reserves of political or emotional resistance left.
Before doing anything else, however, that afternoon he summoned Professor Sergei Fëdorov to his carriage. Fëdorov, a surgeon, had been involved in Alexei’s medical care since before the war – in discussion with Dr Botkin and a paediatrician called Dr Raukhfus, he had proposed trials of some more drastic procedures than the others thought prudent. This disagreement reflected the helplessness of the medical profession in the face of haemophilia: doctors were experimenting with treatments that often seemed to do more harm than good. But Fëdorov was a knowledgeable doctor who kept abreast of the latest theories in world medicine; he could also explain what he was doing in a reassuring manner and in language that lay people could understand.
In 1915 he had moved as Nicholas’s personal physician to GHQ, where he received his own coupé in one of the trains and was in regular contact with commanders and court officials. He had become one of the emperor’s most trusted retainers. Fëdorov received no alert about what the emperor wanted to discuss. The doctor could hardly believe his ears. The emperor was turning not to a minister or a general but to him, his mere physician, to consider the most momentous question of succession in the dynasty’s history.
It became clear that Nicholas took it for granted that twelve-year- old Alexei would continue to live with him. Fëdorov thought he was being naive: ‘Do you suppose, Your Majesty, that Alexei Nikolaevich will be left with you after the abdication?’ Nicholas asked: ‘Why ever not? He’s still a child and naturally ought to remain inside his family until he’s an adult. Until that time, Mikhail Alexandrovich will be regent.’ Fëdorov replied: ‘No, Your Majesty, that will hardly be possible, and it’s obvious from everything that you completely cannot count on this.’ Nicholas, obviously troubled, changed the subject to medicine and enquired: ‘Tell me frankly, Sergei Petrovich, your opinion about whether Alexei’s illness is really so incurable.’ Fëdorov was blunt: ‘Your Majesty, science tells us that this illness is incurable but many people live with it to a significant age, though Alexei Nikolaevich’s health will also always depend on every contingency.’ Nicholas, almost as if talking to himself, said quietly: ‘If that’s the case, I can’t part with Alexei. That would be beyond my powers . . . and, furthermore, if his health doesn’t permit it, then I’ll have the right to keep him next to me.’
After Fëdorov left, Nicholas pondered his options and quickly made a decision of equally historic importance: he would transfer his powers not to Alexei but to his brother, Mikhail. This way, at least, the Romanov dynasty would be preserved. Mikhail was his closest male relative after Alexei; he was also known for having reservations about the way that Nicholas had ruled the empire. This could help to ensure a peaceful transition as Nicholas disappeared into retirement. Nicholas was soon to justify his decision by pointing out that he had been training Mikhail for the throne until Alexei was born. Mikhail was therefore a suitable candidate for the throne.
While this made some medical and genealogical sense, it flouted the law on the succession introduced by Emperor Paul in 1796. Paul had hated his mother, Catherine the Great, and his legislation was one of his retributions for her maltreatment of him. He knew that she had connived in the murder of his father – her husband – Peter III. Paul aimed to make it impossible ever again for an ambitious woman to accede to power in such a fashion. Until then it had been open to the incumbent tsar to designate his heir, who might be of either sex. Paul changed all that with a stroke of the pen, laying down that the first son of the monarch should automatically succeed. If the monarch had no male offspring, succession would pass down the line of male relatives, starting with the oldest brother. The dynasty could be continued by an empress only in the unlikely event that it ran out of male candidates. Inadvertently, Paul deprived his successors of the right to influence what happened if any of them chose to abdicate. An emperor could lose power by dying or by abdicating, but he could not name his successor: the law alone prescribed who could occupy the throne.
But Nicholas was autocratic by upbringing, and desperate. He was tsar. He still believed that whatever he wanted, he could get. The draft abdication manifesto that Bazili prepared for Alexeev was transmitted from Mogilëv to Pskov a little before 7.30 p.m. on 15 March. At that time neither Alexeev nor Bazili was aware of Nicholas’s decision to exclude his son from the succession; their draft mentioned Alexei as emperor and Mikhail as regent. Tension mounted in Mogilëv as they waited for the response from Pskov. A small group including Grand Duke Sergei and Bazili congregated in the duty officer’s room next to the Hughes telegraph apparatus in the general staff building. General Lukomski looked in from time to time. After being notified about the imminent transmission of a message towards half past one on 16 March, the group sped to the apparatus and watched as it produced the final variant of the manifesto. In nearly every respect it was the same as that which Bazili had composed for Alexeev. The main difference, however, was of huge consequence. Nicholas passed the throne not to his son but to his brother, Mikhail. Grand Duke Sergei collapsed on the sofa; everyone was stupefied.
Bazili in particular knew from his undergraduate lectures by constitutional expert Professor Nikolai Korkunov at St Petersburg University that abdication was not mentioned in the entire corpus of Russian law, and whereas a potential emperor could forswear the throne, nothing was laid down about how an emperor could rescind it. What was clearly specified, however, was the automatic succession of the emperor’s first-born son. Nicholas had no right to cut Alexei out of the dynastic inheritance. His plan was utterly illegal.
Events had meanwhile prodded the Duma’s Provisional Committee into action, and in the night of 14–15 March it had chosen two of its members, Alexander Guchkov and Vasili Shulgin, to travel by rail to Pskov and call upon Nicholas to abdicate. The journey took them seven hours, being frequently disrupted by troops who crowded every station on the way. Guchkov and Shulgin reached their destination at 10 p.m. on 15 March 1917.
By that time the entire political environment had changed in Petrograd because the Provisional Committee, meeting early in the afternoon, threw its lot in with the revolution and established a Provisional Government with Georgi Lvov as minister- chairman. The new cabinet decreed freedom of the press, organization and assembly while committing itself to holding elections to a Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal adult suffrage. Ministers felt that Russia’s performance in the Great War would benefit from the revolution that they headed. They were convinced that Nicholas’s removal would allow them to rally patriotic support. Obviously it would ease the situation if he could be persuaded to step down without a struggle – and this sharpened the importance of the mission that Guchkov and Shulgin were carrying out.
They alerted General Nikolai Ruzski, who commanded the northern sector of the Eastern Front, about their intended arrival; but they gave no hint about what they intended to say to the emperor. The trip had been a tiring one, and Shulgin felt embarrassed about having failed to bring court dress with him. Nicholas was ready to receive them despite the lateness of the hour. Count Frederikhs ushered them into the imperial carriage along with Ruzski. The visitors from Petrograd were surprised by his calm, friendly demeanour as he sat at his small table and welcomed them to take a seat. Count Kirill Naryshkin stayed to take notes on the emperor’s behalf. Shulgin privily felt some concern that Guchkov might ruin the atmosphere by raking over the coals of past disputes. He need not have worried; Guchkov was at his most courteous, even though he scarcely looked at Nicholas – not out of diffidence but rather because of his habit of looking downwards when having to concentrate.
Guchkov talked frankly about the implications of mutiny in the garrisons. Nicholas, he told him, should accept how catastrophic it would be to hang on to the throne; he had to recognize that all was lost for him in Petrograd and that Moscow was already in a state of agitation.
There was no organized plot but rather a great anarchic movement of the people. Guchkov reported that Duma leaders had established a Provisional Committee to stabilize the situation and control the troops. The Social-Democrats already dominated events and were calling for a ‘social republic’. Promises were being voiced to transfer the land to the peasantry, and this could soon have an impact at the Eastern Front. If Nicholas wanted to prevent this, he had to abdicate in favour of his son Alexei with Grand Duke Mikhail as regent. Guchkov stressed that he was speaking on behalf of a group containing a majority in favour of a constitutional monarchy. He asked Nicholas to face up to reality: ‘You see, you can’t count on anything whatever. There’s only one thing left for you, which is to carry out the advice that we are giving you, and the advice is that you must abdicate from the throne.’
When he suggested that the tsar would require time to consider this, Nicholas courteously cut him short and said: ‘There’s no need to think anything over. I’ve made my decision to abdicate from the throne. Until three o’clock I was willing to move to an abdication in favour of my son, but then I understood that I cannot part with my son.’ A short silence followed, then he calmly added: ‘You will, I hope, understand this . . . That was why I’ve decided to abdicate in favour of my brother.’
Nicholas’s statement of intent threw Guchkov and Shulgin back on their heels. They had arrived expecting they would have a tussle over the question of abdication, although they hoped to proceed by persuasion – they were monarchists who thought they knew what was best for the monarchy. Guchkov later recalled that he had known that, if his enterprise came to naught, he would be arrested and might even be hanged, but he had resolved to persist, for he thought that a regency was Russia’s only salvation. He knew that it was going to be difficult to achieve his objective in the currently heated atmosphere of the capital. As he read the situation, the best thing would be to get the formal documentation completed at dead of night and announce the results to Russia in the morning. He refused to accept that this would amount to a coup d’état, but he and his sympathizers were clearly intent on clearing out the worst of Nicholas’s governing team: he had ‘the Shturmers, the Golitsyns, the Protopopovs’ in his sights. He did not want Mikhail to be a strong regent. On the contrary, he opted for him precisely because he thought him ‘lacking in will’. Mikhail in his eyes was a ‘pure and good person’.
Guchkov explained his thinking as follows: ‘We considered that the image of little Alexei Nikolaevich would be a mollifying factor in the transfer of power.’ As he later explained, the idea was to persuade Nicholas that this was the best way to wipe the political slate clean. Alexei was ‘a boy whom it was impossible to say anything bad about’, and the feelings of popular fury that were flooding on to Petrograd’s streets would soon subside. Guchkov was trying to ensure that the next emperor would exercise no genuine power, and Alexei was meant to be the lightning conductor that saved Russia from the political storm. But Nicholas’s unexpected remarks cast aside this whole scenario. There was a moment of mutual empathy as the two emissaries from the capital said that they appreciated the importance of a father’s feelings and would not put any pressure on him. They expressed agreement to the unexpected proposal for Mikhail to ascend the throne.
This consoled Nicholas, who asked whether they could guarantee that his decision would restore calm to the country. They answered that they foresaw no complications, and Shulgin handed over a draft act of abdication. They were leaving for Petrograd in an hour’s time and had to carry back a signed document with them. Nicholas took the draft away, returning to the carriage twenty minutes later. Guchkov and Shulgin read through the text that the emperor had received from Bazili at GHQ. They endorsed all of it, except that Shulgin wanted to insert a requirement for Mikhail to rule ‘in complete and unbreakable unity with representatives of the people in legislative institutions’. Guchkov added that Nicholas should include in his act of abdication an order appointing Georgi Lvov as chairman of the Council of Ministers.30 Nicholas consented, and went to his compartment to amend the wording. Guchkov took the opportunity to leave the imperial carriage and announce to those gathered in the open air: ‘Our Father Tsar [tsar batyushka] is in total agreement with us and will do everything that needs to be done.’ Bystanders raised a hurrah. Guchkov then went back into the carriage to wait with Shulgin for the emperor.
A legend was to arise that Guchkov and Shulgin had no idea what they were agreeing to. Shulgin would remonstrate against all this: ‘As regards the idea that we did not know the basic laws, I personally had a poor knowledge of them. But, of course, not to the point that I didn’t know that the abdication in favour of Mikhail did not correspond to the law on succession.’
At 11.40 p.m. Nicholas reappeared with the signed abdication manifesto in his hand. Without undue formality, he handed over a copy to Guchkov. So that it might not be said that he had acted under pressure, he pre-timed the manifesto at 3 p.m. the same day.
Guchkov and Shulgin received what they wanted. According to Alexander Kerensky, the leading lawyer and Socialist-Revolutionary activist, the news was immediately communicated that night by a direct line to Petrograd. Nicholas also wrote a letter to Prince Georgi Lvov putting his security into their hands.
It was over. The emperor of all Russia had stepped down from the throne without a fight. The man who had been clawing backing his autocratic powers since the 1905–1906 revolution was now reduced to the status of mere citizen. The strain on him was beginning to dissolve and although he was exhausted, he was also strangely relieved.
At 1.45 a.m. on 16 March 1917, he sent the following telegram to his brother Mikhail: ‘Petrograd. To His Highness – I hope to see you soon, Nicky.’ This was the first time that anyone had addressed the Grand Duke in this way.
No Romanov had abdicated in the three centuries of the ruling dynasty. Assassinations were another matter. Peter III had perished in the palace coup of 1762, Paul in 1801. A terrorist group killed Alexander III in 1881. This last incident was burned into the Russian public memory; it occurred on 1 March in the Gregorian calendar – or 14 March in the Julian one. Shulgin noted with relief that Nicholas had signed his abdication on 15 March and not on the anniversary of that last assassination.
A riveting account of the final eighteen months of the life and reign of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of All the Russias, as well as a compelling account of Russia in the aftermath of Alexander Kerensky's February Revolution, the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 and the beginnings of Lenin's Soviet republic.
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