An empire going up in smoke

tsar and anastasia

A father and daughter joshing for the camera, the father giving the daughter a “go” of his pipe. Not the sort of thing we would celebrate in the politically correct 21st century.  But this is a 20th century image, probably taken around 1913 and the father in the photograph is Tsar Nicholas 11, known as bloody Nicholas for his inept handling of the Russian empire, pictured with his daughter,the then 12-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia.

(Anastasia was the subject of my novel, The Pretender, which has just been reissued as an e-book by Jonathan Cape.)

The Romanov family were inveterate photograph-takers – Nicholas himself was an amateur snapper – and this image belongs to a time just before the outbreak of the First World War when the Tsar’s hold on power began to unravel. (As the above photo demonstrates, Nicholas was a devoted family man, though a weak, deluded and vacillating ruler.)

The experience of war for Russians was catastrophic. Millions of men were removed to the front, farms began to fail and what food there was, was being used to fuel the army. Prices rose, and there was famine in the winter of 1916/17.

The military handling of the war led to huge Russian defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes and matters took a turn for the worse when in late 1915, Nicholas insisted on taking personal charge of the army, leaving government affairs in the hands of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra.  (The Tsar had reluctantly agreed to the setting-up of an elected legislative body, the Duma, in 1906.)  The religious Tsarina, however, was completely under the sway of the disreputable, self-proclaimed monk, Rasputin, whom she fervently believed could save their son, Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia. This concatination of the personal and political was ruinous.

In March 1917, workers in St Petersburg went on strike protesting against the war and the prevailing conditions.  The marches turned into full-scale riots in which over 1,000 people were killed.  At first troops fired on the crowds, but after several days they mutinied and joined the rioters.   The Duma, under Alexander Kerensky, took power into their own hands and set up a ‘provisional government’.

The Tsar, hoping to wrest back control, left the front for St Petersburg but his train was stopped en route by members of the Duma who forced him to abdicate in March 1917.

Despite the abolition of the monarchy, the provisional government came under pressure almost immediately because of its decision to carry on with the war.  In April, the exiled Bolshevik leader Lenin returned to Russia and promised the people ‘Peace, Bread and Land’; by September the Bolsheviks could claim two million members and the stage was set for revolution.

Meanwhile, the Romanovs had been detained at the Alexander Palace, their summer residence at Tsarskoe Selo on the outskirts of St Petersburg.   Their life in captivity was a far cry from their previous gilded existence as an imperial family.  Under armed guard, they spent their time, according to family sources, in religious activities and walks in the grounds of the palace.

Some photos from this time are believed to have been taken by Pierre Gilliard, the royal children’s tutor, and are accompanied by a narrative that describes the Romanovs’ daily life from March to August 1917 at Tsarskoe Selo.

“On the 13th day of May,” Pierre Gilliard wrote, “the family decided to change the lawn, near the residence, into a kitchen garden. All were enthusiastic and everybody, family retinue, servants, and even several soldiers of the guard joined the work. . . . In June, the results of their labour were clearly shown, for all kinds of vegetables had grown, including 500 cabbages.”

romaovs tsarkoe selo
In captivity at Tsarskoe Selo – the Grand Duchesses Tatiana, Anastasia and Marie and the Tsarevich Alexei.

However, their existence in the Alexander Palace – built for Catherine the Great, in 1796, and considered one of the finest neo-classical buildings in Russia – if constrained and more pared back than what they had been used to, was a great deal more comfortable than what was to come and they still had the benefit of a large household staff and a certain civility from their captors.

As law and order began to break down outside the palace walls, however, and the provisional government faltered, it was decided to move the Romanovs out of St Petersburg because, as Kerensky informed the Tsar, he could no longer guarantee the family’s safety.

A hundred years ago this month, they began their fateful journey eastwards. On August 14, at 6.10 in the morning, they set out for Tobolsk in Siberia.   It took two trains to accommodate the retinue (53 in all), their baggage, the government representatives, the jailers and soldiers. The trip took five days –  by rail to Tiumen, and then by river steamer to Tobolsk.

Ironically, on August 18, the boat passed Pokrovskoie, the birthplace of Rasputin, where they could see clearly the humble house where the so-called holy man had been raised. Rasputin was, by this stage, dead. He had been murdered in December 1916 by distant relations of the Tsar’s, but years previously he had warned the Tsarina – “My death will be your death”  –  words that must have haunted this most superstitious of women standing on the boat deck.

The next day, August 19, 1917, they arrived in Tobolsk.  They would be held there in the Governor’s Mansion behind a stockade, until March 1918, when they were moved for the last time – to the site of their execution.

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