When You Assume God Is on Your Aspect: The Fall of the Russian Empire


Russia has over the previous two weeks gone to conflict — and to this point, it appears to be dropping. At the least two generals have been killed, as much as 4 thousand Russian soldiers have also died, and Ukrainians seem to be stealing their tanks with tractors. As Russia teeters on the sting of damage, largely as a consequence of management issues, it looks as if a superb time to speak concerning the two individuals who misplaced the Russian Empire the primary time round, within the 1917 Revolution(s): Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Romanov.  

To the diploma that People know concerning the Romanovs, they’re portrayed sympathetically, as within the 1997 movie Anastasia, the place Nicholas II treats his household with kindness and (unbelievably) stands as much as Rasputin. A few of this was true. Nicholas was a caring husband and father. Had he lived as a non-public citizen, and even as a royal who did not inherit the throne, issues would maybe have been totally different. 

However filial obligations apart, Nicholas and Alexandra are far totally different — far worse leaders — than in style tradition depicts them. Their selections led to the downfall of the Russian Empire, and maybe extra importantly, set the stage for a revolution that might in the end usher in not democracy however a distinct type of autocratic rule. Now, with conflict in Ukraine, their downfall is surprisingly related. 

entry-level (although lengthy!) introduction to their historical past is the 10th season of the Revolutions podcast, specializing in the Russian Revolution(s). Podcaster Mike Duncan traces the historical past of the Russian Revolution from its origins in Marxist thought and the socialist, revolutionary experiments of the mid-1800s, such because the Paris Commune, by way of the October 1917 Revolution and past into Civil Battle.  

In response to Duncan’s podcast, the (late) Russian Empire was constructed on the again of the slogan Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality. Coined after the failed Decemberists’ revolt, the slogan located all authority within the Tsar alone, the divinely-appointed chief for the Russian individuals. The Tsar, and the venture of Russian Empire which he embodied, had God’s stamp of approval, and no problem was professional.

The Tsarist death-grip on their very own certainty that they alone are blessed by God to rule the nation unwove the Empire, thread by thread. 

Clearly, given its origins, the idea within the Tsar as a spiritually anointed chief of a nation blessed by God couldn’t assist however result in oppression. Certainly, the Decemberists and others perceived as insurgents have been killed or banished to Siberia for his or her crimes towards the Tsar, usually in dramatic methods meant to burnish the Tsar’s picture. (Fascinatingly, amongst these banished was the younger Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Arrested with others for studying supposedly subversive literature, he and his comrades have been gathered for execution, lined up, reprieved on the final minute, after which banished to Siberia as a substitute, a transfer supposed to make Tsar Nicholas I (dominated 1825-1885) appear beneficent.) 

As long as the Tsar remained a reliable chief, the slogan didn’t completely prohibit change. Alexander II (dominated 1855-1881), the so-called “Tsar Liberator,” used his position to plan for and (partially) enact the emancipation of Russia’s many peasants, a transfer lengthy overdue, because of the load the Tsars gave to the the Aristocracy’s monetary claims. Even when the transfer stalled out, it didn’t imply the top of progress for Russia; it was below Alexander II’s son (Alexander III, dominated 1881-1894) that the Trans-Siberian Railway was constructed. To an outdoor observer, then, the centrality of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality to the Russian Empire may on first look counsel nothing however prosperity. But in anointing the Tsar the unchallenged and unchallengeable ruler, it sowed the seeds for the Empire’s destruction. Notably as Russia edged first in the direction of parliamentary programs after which in the direction of in style democracy and revolt, the Tsarist death-grip on their very own certainty that they alone are blessed by God to rule the nation unwove the Empire, thread by thread. 

These seeds got here to fruition in Nicholas II (dominated 1894-1917), by all accounts a honest man who cherished his household and who was however utterly incompetent as any type of a ruler, not to mention ruler of an Empire that stretched from one nook of the globe to a different. Nicholas’s dedication to the concept that he alone was ruler was absolute, to the purpose that (as Duncan describes) he burdened himself with trivialities of state, reviewing and signing paperwork that a greater chief would have delegated to subordinates. To hint all of Nicholas’s faults, even throughout the framework of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, can be far too unfocused; three examples are value mentioning right here, to parse out how the Tsar’s perception that God was on his aspect mixed with different character traits in ways in which led to Russia’s damage. 

The Russo-Japanese Battle

On the finish of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire was aiming to broaden its territory within the Far East. Already occupying Manchuria, by way of which the rising Trans-Siberian Railway ran, it now sought to broaden into Korea, denying Japanese claims to the peninsula and threatening conflict. Although, as Duncan notes, Tsar Nicholas II didn’t actually need conflict: his autocratic place and assumption that he was performing on God’s behalf to protect the divinely-blessed Russian Empire, pushed him — and all Russia with him — into catastrophe. 

Negotiations ran lengthy, and as they did, Nicholas, just like the depraved kings of historic Israel and Judah, was plagued with poor recommendation from worse advisors. Specifically, Kaiser Wilhelm (the identical Wilhelm about to begin World Battle I in Europe) argued to Nicholas in favor of the conflict, persuading him of his ethical and non secular obligations to decide to conflict. As Duncan notes, the Kaiser “was writing a gentle stream of letters to [the Tsar], saying this wasn’t nearly timber concessions and entry to markets, it’s concerning the destiny of Christendom itself” towards the non-Christian Japanese those that Europeans perceived as a menace to Western civilization. Because the Kaiser framed it, Tsar Nicholas had the possibility to be “the savior of” white, Christian Russia. This argument took maintain of Tsar Nicholas partly as a result of he had beforehand visited Japan and “fancied himself an knowledgeable on the Japanese” — although, all Nicholas was really an knowledgeable on was anti-Asian racism. However that racism, mixed with Nicholas’s perceived data about Jap affairs, mixed with the Kaiser’s recommendation to make conflict, in the end, very engaging to the Tsar. Defeating the Japanese was, apparently, God’s will for the Russian Empire.

 After all, defeating the Japanese was not foreordained in any respect. Actually, Russia suffered a shocking defeat, its assault on Port Arthur ending with all the Russian Navy (outdoors of some boats within the Black Sea) on the backside of the ocean. The defeat stoked resentment among the many populace, whose sons had been despatched to die within the Russo-Japanese conflict for nothing. Only some years away from international conflict, Nicholas’s perception in his personal authority and reliability left the good Empire of Russia with no sea energy and with an uneasy, agitated populace.

The Normal Strike 

But, satisfied of his proper to rule, Nicholas II didn’t study from his failures within the East, whilst they led in the direction of revolution in Russia. Over the yr(s) throughout and instantly after the top of the Russo-Japanese Battle, the temper in St. Petersburg and Moscow more and more turned towards the rule of the Tsars and in the direction of democracy, with individuals hungry for higher working circumstances, an finish to conflict, and extra political freedom. Tensions boiled over to incorporate political violence, when (early within the winter of 1906) the priest Father Gapon led a protest on the Winter Palace to induce the Tsar to alleviate their struggling. As a substitute, the Tsar’s navy opened hearth, resulting in doubtless greater than 100 deaths. Pressured within the wake of “Bloody Sunday” to make concessions, Tsar Nicholas, the presumptive divinely-appointed king of all the Russian Empire, did so grudgingly, agreeing solely to an advisory committee and holding off precise democratic reform. There was little hope {that a} man who fancied himself an imperial chief, charged by God, may permit democracy to problem his standing. 

The reforms weren’t sufficient. That autumn the unrest devolved into a General Strike which included not solely blue-collar staff however white-collars staff as nicely — accountants, attorneys, and extra, strolling off the job to articulate the urgency of extra expansive reforms. As Duncan describes, the “Russian Empire was successfully shut down. In each main city heart, financial exercise ceased, and folks simply stayed house.” The implications weren’t nice for the Russian individuals, in fact, with meals, medication, electrical energy, and even security more and more arduous to ensure because the Strike stretched all through October 1906. However individuals remained dedicated to it; “it was the entire of Russia uniting towards an remoted Russian regime, that all of them hated equally.” 

Too usually Christians in the USA have sought, and nonetheless search, to make use of the facility of the state to perform their ends… Such actions are usually not aligned with Christ, who lifted up and empowered those that are oppressed and didn’t search this world’s energy.

Confronted with this disaster, Nicholas II discovered himself backed right into a nook, pressured to conform to a sequence of reforms. This included the requirement for an elected Duma (a consultant council guided by a Prime Minister) to play an energetic position in statecraft — a transfer which, as Nicholas noticed, would unseat him from the throne of the Empire, lowering him to a symbolic head. Duncan data that the Tsar was “deeply sad” about these reforms, “believ[ing] that it was his sacred responsibility to retain the divine precept of autocracy that had been handed all the way down to him from his ancestors and which originated from God.” Although Nicholas in the end accepted the reforms, he did so solely below nice stress from his circle of relatives members, who extra clearly acknowledged the political pinch that Russia was in. 

Tsar Nicholas spent a lot of the remainder of his reign searching for methods to unravel the reforms he had accepted and undermine the growing rise of democracy in Russia. The Duma was elected, but Nicholas repeatedly quarreled with it and even dismissed it, searching for methods to (re)declare doable authority, restoring the glory of the outdated, autocratic regime and his personal cost to rule. His actions would in the end convey concerning the 1917 Revolutions and, from there, the rising Bolshevik energy.


However maybe Nicholas’s most evident misstep, one of many final he would ever make, got here in his dedication to Rasputin, a dedication strengthened each by Nicholas’s deep religion and his assurance that God ordained him to rule Russia. Rasputin, often portrayed as a menacing sorcerer with magical powers, was little greater than a conman from a remote village in southern Russia. Solely partially literate (however deeply crafty), he simply found out that he may use his non secular behavior to cozy up with the Emperor and Empress, blinding them to his faults, and manipulating them for his personal ends. At first, the royal couple got here to belief Rasputin for his obvious deep piety and avowed religion, a spirit they sensed was missing among the many rebellious populace; Rasputin was proof that the peasantry nonetheless noticed them as appointed by God. These ties have been strengthened as Rasputin preyed on their fears for his or her son, the Tsesarevich Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia and who alone was the Romanov inheritor to the throne. Each time Alexei would take a flip for the more serious, docs would predict his demise; Rasputin would intervene with prayers or encouraging phrases, and Alexei would get better. From that time on, the Empress specifically would by no means hear one other phrase towards Rasputin. 

Rasputin, www.theromanovfamily.com

But phrases towards Rasputin mounted. Evidence emerged suggesting that he preyed sexually on younger ladies and even ladies, however the Emperor and Empress closed their ears to it. Rasputin was divinely despatched by God, they have been God’s divinely-appointed leaders of Russia, and any doable criticism was learn merely as an assault on that basis. This perception would result in Russia’s damage. When, lastly, Rasputin was murdered by the hands of two right-wing royalists who may see extra clearly than Nicholas how his affect was bringing down the monarchy, Duncan studies that individuals have been so glad they despatched the murderers letters of congratulation. But it surely was too late. Only some months later, in February 1917, Revolution started, and the autocracy of the Tsar ended ceaselessly.

Nicholas II and Putin — and Us

Nicholas II is, in some ways, fairly totally different from modern Russian dictators. Deeply non secular and fewer nakedly corrupt, the incompetent Tsar resembles a personality from an historic Greek tragedy, dropped at his knees by his personal deadly flaws — amongst them, his racism and his assumption that he dominated the Russian Empire as its unquestioned, divinely-appointed sovereign. His error proved to be his undoing, and ultimately Russia’s as nicely. Believing he may do no unsuitable, believing that the Russian Empire had upon it the blessing and mandate of God, Nicholas more and more alienated his advisors, drawing his circle in on himself. On the final, he proved unable to self-reflect, unable to acknowledge error, or transfer ahead in a productive and humane means. 

These flaws reside on as Russia’s rulers preserve a stranglehold on the reins of state, placing their very own ego and the upkeep of Empire above the precise good of the nation, its neighbors, and even its personal individuals. For years now, Putin has dominated Russia with unchecked energy, just like the imperial Tsars. Invading Ukraine, a territory that Russia surrendered in early 1918 to reach a cease-fire with Germany after which subsequently reclaimed within the early Nineteen Twenties as a part of the rising Soviet Union, indicators that Putin is trying to recreate the old Russian Empire. Ukraine, in fact, is its personal sovereign state and doesn’t should be both colonized by Russia or destroyed for resisting colonization. But Putin fancies himself, as he has lengthy fancied himself, to be a historic autocrat. A lot much less non secular than the Romanovs (who, apparently, have since been sainted), he however touts the identical unquestionable authority and calls for the identical dedication to the imperial Russian nation that they did. 

Nicholas II and Putin, tsarnicholas.org

Although the conflict could also be going towards Russia now, it won’t shortly be over; Russia’s long involvement in Syria gestures in the direction of how devastating the battle could also be. However on the identical time, the historical past of Tsar Nicholas II confirms that the facility of autocracy at all times carries with it the seeds of its personal defeat, sowing among the many individuals the likelihood for resistance and perhaps, perhaps, change. As I write this, it is just a day or two after Worldwide Ladies’s Day. A bit greater than a century in the past, on International Women’s Day, women rose up against Nicholas II — and began the February 1917 Revolution which toppled imperial Russia. As we speak, many Russians admire Putin, true, but others risk imprisonment, defying him as their ancestors might have defied the Tsar. 

As believers, many people in all probability in the USA, this historical past must name us to think about how we can also defy autocracy, standing up as a substitute for many who are oppressed, in jail, or in peril. Too usually Christians in the USA have sought, and nonetheless search, to make use of the facility of the state to perform their ends. Too usually Christians prioritize what we (usually erroneously) understand to be the reality, moderately than empathy and compassion for others. But our religion doesn’t name us to be leaders like Tsar Nicholas II, inserting presumed authority from God over the well-being of the individuals with whom we dwell, whether or not at church, in our neighborhoods, or in our cities. Nor ought to we as Christians let abusive and/or manipulative leaders out for their very own acquire, like Rasputin, dictate our actions.

Authoritarianism is pervasive within the church, particularly these days, as as an example scholar Chrissy Stroop documents in her description of how pastors — combating over what they wrongly understand to be the ethical excessive floor — bully trans individuals and ladies on social media. Different pastors are alleged to have used the declare that they’re defending the gospel to publicly disgrace ladies who’re abuse victims of their church. Such actions are usually not aligned with Christ, who lifted up and empowered those that are oppressed and didn’t search this world’s energy. Such actions are as a substitute aligned with Putin, with Nicholas II, and with all who declare that God is behind them after which use that declare to justify evil. Notably now, as we pray for and assist Ukraine from afar, and as we take care of a worldwide rise in autocracy, our means as believers is to not search energy however to do justice, and to like mercy, for the sake of all who’re powerless and needy. 

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