In retrospect, it was only a matter of time. Forced from power, the once almighty leader had been removed from his palace and imprisoned in a former merchant’s home. There he and his family were stripped of many of their luxuries and subjected to insults of his captors. Revolutionaries seldom are gentle to the deposed.
On July 17, 1918, Tsar Nicholas Romanov, his wife, his five children, and a host of aides were herded into the basement and executed by Bolsheviks acting on orders from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Those who survived the initial hail of bullets were bayoneted. Three centuries of Romanov rule were ended once and for all.
How Nicholas went from Tsar to dead in an unmarked group grave in a forest is a complex tale. His reign got off to a bad start in May 1896—a massive coronation party held in Khodynka turned into a stampede. Nearly 1,400 died. Although a bit of a modernizer, Nicholas was not a particularly able leader. He confidently took Russia into war against Japan and suffered a humiliating defeat. In 1905, his government’s soldiers fired upon an unarmed crowd peacefully protesting economic conditions. The last of the Tsars did little to professionalize Russia’s notoriously high-handed and corrupt government bureaucracy.
And, as richly described in the late Ronald C. Moe’s Prelude to the Revolution: The Murder of Rasputin (Aventine Press), the Tsar’s reign was being eroded by political extremism. On the right were reactionaries who rued Nicholas’ establishment of the Duma (legislature) in 1905 and sought to augment the Tsar’s powers. On the left were rabid anarchists and communists. “During the first decades of the 20th century,” Moe notes, radicals murdered “200 high officials, including two Ministers of the Interior and the uncle of the Tsar, Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich.” Spanning all ideologies were Anti-Semites, who were many. Pogroms erupted and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were published, commissioned, no less, than by the head of the Tsar’s secret police. Fears of mysterious “dark forces” and international conspiracies were, Moe shows, popular paranoias of the day.
Making matters incalculably worse for Nicholas was Rasputin, the scruffy mystic from the hinterland. Empress Alexandra was enraptured with Rasputin, whom she credited with faith-healing her sickly son, Alexei, in 1907. She was Rasputin’s patron and he was her “spiritual adviser” for over a decade. Rasputin further weakened the wobbly regime by lobbying the Tsar through Alexandra. The crafty holy man got high ranking officials hired and fired, and generally created governmental havoc. He was hated by many within the Tsar’s government, and his licentious behavior and corrupt activities enraged the public. Yet, the more opprobrium Rasputin evoked, the more the Empress defended him. For Russia, Rasputin was exactly the wrong man at exactly the wrong time. He appeared to be the very embodiment of the dark forces threatening Russia. He further isolated the aloof Romanovs from the public and undermined their legitimacy. Rasputin was murdered in late 1916, two months before the Romanovs were driven from power.
The demise of the Russian monarchy feels like ancient history, and it is difficult to drop a tear for the demise of an autocracy. Yet, the murderous end of the Romanov dynasty should not be forgotten. Alexander Kerensky, leader of the Duma, declared, “Without Rasputin, there could have been no Lenin.” Indeed, had Nicholas kept Rasputin away and better run his government, the 20th century might have been very different. Russia may have been spared Sovietism and the tens of millions of deaths it caused, and the world might have been far less ravaged by communism. Not least, then, July 17 is worthy of remembrance for what might have been.
Kevin R. Kosar is the author most recently of Ronald Reagan and Education Policy (2011).