Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

The Russian Revolution

"Weep, my holy Russia, weep!

For thou art entering into darkness.

Weep, my holy Russia, weep!

For thou shalt shortly die."

—Boris Goduvenov.

But if, to the world at large, the military situation in Russia was less acute, within, storm-clouds were gradually spreading through the land. Since the disasters of 1915, signs of disagreement had appeared between the Imperial Government and the people. Throughout 1916, internal affairs grew from bad to worse, and by the beginning of 1917 the relation between governor and governed was strained to breaking-point.

Nicholas II., the Tsar, was now fifty-eight, well-meaning but weak. He lacked the strength of character to carry through a war, difficult, long, and wearisome. The Tsarina, his wife, had been a German Princess on her father's side, a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria on her mother's, and was accused of being in sympathy with the land of her birth. Pro-German influences began to work at the Court, and she was said to be the centre of a party working for peace with or without victory. Both Tsar and Tsarina were also under the influence of a Siberian monk, Rasputin, who was held to possess supernatural powers. Moreover, to Rasputin was attributed the recovery of the little Tsarevitch Alexis from a dangerous illness some years before, which had raised him to high favour in Russian Court circles. His lightest word became law, and, ignorant peasant though he might be, he was consulted on high matters of State. "Few more squalid figures have ever reached supreme power in a great nation before."

This supreme influence in war and politics was bitterly resented by the Russian Duma or Parliament of the people. On 29th December 1916, Rasputin was murdered, and while the Tsar and Tsarina mourned deeply for their friend and adviser, the country applauded the deed with great joy and relief.

The death of Rasputin was the first act in the Russian Revolution. How would it all end?

The winter of 1916-17 had been exceptionally cold and dreary, with heavy falls of snow, and, amid general disorganisation, the supply of food had been scanty. Indeed by February the daily bread allowance in Petrograd was threatened with complete failure. Patiently the peasants waited for hours in the cold for bread, and long processions of helpless, hungry women begged food for their children.

The Duma discussed the vital question of food supplies, but March came in and nothing was done. Then they appealed to the Imperial Government to grapple with the problem; but nothing was done. Bread riots began, bakers' shops were looted—a crisis had been reached. People filled the streets, hungry, despairing, angry, and defiant. "The Government must go," was heard on all sides.

Petrograd was full of police, soldiers, and machine-guns. It was Sunday, 11th March, when the hungry people awoke to find a proclamation placarded over the city.

"During the last few days," it ran, "disorders have taken place in Petrograd, followed by violence. I forbid any kind of meetings in the streets. I warn the population that I have given the troops fresh orders to use their arms, and to stop at nothing to maintain order."

It was the old voice of Tsarism speaking—arrogant, unsympathetic. It was the last time it was ever to be heard. But the Government was alarmed. An urgent appeal was sent to the Tsar at Army Headquarters. "Condition serious —transport of food broken down—general discontent growing—firing proceeding in streets—delay is fatal." But all was silence. Then came a message suspending the Duma. Indignation ran high. The streets were thickly crowded. Then the Guards were ordered to fire on the mob, and the storm broke. The soldiers refused to obey. It was the revolt of human nature against an unnatural task. Mutiny was in the air. Soldiers and citizens mingled together.

"We are hungry, too," they cried. The confusion was indescribable. Amid sharp bursts of firing from the police, red flags were carried from street to street, the prisons were stormed, and criminals released. Another urgent message went to the Tsar.

"The situation is becoming worse. Measures must be taken immediately, for to-morrow it may be too late. The last hour has arrived, when the fate of the country and the dynasty is being decided."

"Can no one open the Tsar's eyes to the real situation?" they asked. "The Tsar is blind," was the despairing reply. Meanwhile the Tsar was returning to the Tsarina at Tsarskoe-Selo, when news reached him that the line to Petrograd was closed, and the Palace in the hands of the revolutionists.

"Moscow will remain faithful to me. We will go to Moscow," he replied. But Moscow, too, was in the hands of revolutionaries. The only solution was his abdication of the throne of all the Russias. "Nothing but the abdication of Your Majesty in favour of your son can still save the Russian Fatherland, and preserve the dynasty," he was told.

"I had decided to abdicate yesterday," replied the Tsar quickly, "but I cannot be separated from my son. His health is too delicate. It is more than I could bear. I shall therefore abdicate in favour of my brother Michael."

Then the Tsar signed his act of abdication. It was a memorable document.

"By the Grace of God, we, Nicholas II., Emperor of all the Russias, Tsar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, &c., to all our faithful subjects make known:

"In these days of terrible struggle against the foreign enemy who has been trying for three years to impose his will upon our Fatherland, God has willed that Russia should be faced with a new and formidable rival. Troubles at home threaten and have a fatal effect on the ultimate course of this hard-fought war. At this moment, a moment so decisive for the existence of Russia, our conscience bids us to facilitate the closest union of our Subjects and the organisation of all their forces for the speedy attainment of victory.

"For that reason we think it right—and the Imperial Duma shares our view—to abdicate the crown of the Russian State, and resign the supreme power.

"We appeal to all the loyal sons of Russia to do their duty at this moment of painful national crisis.

"May God help Russia!"

Amid the general confusion reigning in Petrograd, Councils of workmen and soldiers were being formed, known as Soviets—a word meaning Council. Into their power now fell the work of guiding the Revolution. They at once refused the Grand Duke Michael as their Tsar. "No more Romanoffs," they cried, "we want a Republic."

Meanwhile "Citizen Romanoff" and his wife were arrested for "working secretly for a restoration of the monarchy."

Snow fell heavily over the land during these critical days. The food question was still acute, and the red flag showed how matters were tending. In simple words the ex-Tsar bade farewell to his army:

"I address you for the last time, you soldiers who are so dear to my heart. May God help the new Government to lead Russia to glory and prosperity. For more than two years and a half you have continuously borne the hardships of an arduous service, and already the hour is at hand in which Russia and her glorious Allies will break down the enemy's last desperate resistance in one mighty effort. He who thinks of peace at the present moment is a traitor to Russia. May God bless you and lead you to victory."


But there was to be no victory under the new rule. Men had grown tired of the war and only wanted peace. Everywhere there was chaos. Men at the front refused to obey orders—soldiers no longer saluted their officers. Open mutiny reigned, and by the end of July, the Russian Army as a fighting force had ceased to exist.

For the moment it seemed that a "horror of great darkness" had fallen upon the land, and that the best life-blood of the country had been shed in vain. Then two men—Lenin and Trotsky,—German in thought and action, came on the scene, and the Russian Republic fell under the rule of the Bolshevists. One of their first acts was to sue for peace, and before the unhappy year 1917 was ended, Germany was dictating hard terms of peace to Russia at Brest-Litovsk. Germany was to have Poland and other Russian provinces; she made an arrangement which placed all Russian trade and products entirely in her hands, and extorted a sum of money from her, impossible of fulfillment.

But the disgraceful Treaty was signed on 24th February 1918, and with it the Allies lost all Russia's help to the end.

The last great tragedy of the Romanoffs now drew near. For the first five months following their arrest on 21st March 1917, the ex-Tsar and his family were kept closely imprisoned in the Palace of Tsarkoe-Selo, Petrograd. They were declared traitors to their country and believed to be in league with the Germans. Even when an examination of their papers showed this to be untrue, the poisonous rumour spread. They were ill-treated and persecuted by their guards, by whom the ex-Tsar's salute was always ignored. As the weeks passed on, and the power of the people grew, the Tsar became more and more unpopular.

"When the people stretched out their hands to you, you did not meet them." These were the bitter words in which the Tsar's downfall was expressed. At last it was decided to exile the family to Siberia. Six days' hard traveling brought them to Tobolsk. As Bolshevism spread over the land, so the sufferings of the ex-Imperial family increased. They were given starvation rations, and young Alexis fell ill again. Nicholas sawed wood in the courtyard; he wore peasant's clothes, a plain khaki shirt with the cross of St. George and his colonel's shoulder straps, till these were cut off, and the cross alone remained to symbolise his loyalty to Russia. This he still wore on the day of his murder. He taught his girls their lessons, while his wife Alexandra occupied herself with needlework and nursing her sick boy. Money was very short, and the young Princesses sold their needlework and drawings to eke out a livelihood.

As time passed, they all realised the desperate nature of their position. Pathetic letters and poems have survived the last great onslaught. Spring came and Alexis grew worse. Both his legs became paralysed and he could no longer walk. Then one day in May they were all moved again—for the last time. Evil influences were rapidly spreading over Russia. Their new prison-house was at Ekaterinburg, the capital of the Ural region and a stronghold of the Bolshevists.

"Citizen Romanoff, you may enter," was the rough welcome for the once Imperial ruler of all the Russias. Around the house was a wooden hoarding reaching to the upper windows, which were whitewashed. The lower floor was occupied by guards; the prisoners were to live upstairs. It was now 22nd May, and raining heavily. Alexis was carried up, but his sisters were made to carry their luggage from the platform to the house. Sentries were stationed both inside and outside, and machine-guns were posted at given points. The whole family were now in a trap, from which there could be no escape. There was no comfort—nothing but blank despair. The guards were coarse thinking men, who entered the prisoners' rooms at will. The poorest prison fare was provided. Alexis remained an invalid, unable to walk at all. As the weeks passed on, the whole family became overwhelmed with grief and dismay. At last the end came.

On 16th July 1917 the whole family went to bed as usual. At midnight they were awakened, and told roughly to dress and come downstairs. They dressed quickly, thinking they were going to be moved once again. The ex-Tsar carried his son downstairs in his arms; the youngest girl, Anastasia, carried his King Charles spaniel. They were all led to a basement room near the front entrance looking on to the garden. Machine-guns were posted at the door. The room was bare. Chairs were brought, and the suffering Tsarina sat down beside Alexis. Suddenly volleys rang out, and all the prisoners fell to the ground. In a few moments their sufferings were over. The ex-Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, Alexis, and their four young daughters lay dead.

"Surely the murder of the Imperial family is the most appalling crime in the whole annals of history!" said a Russian. The news leaked out slowly amid the din of the European War. The Revolution was complete. It had thrown over all creeds, all morals, and the habits of the people. Once renowned for its Christian spirit, the country gave way to barbarian cruelty and blind selfishness.

And still, like a great forest fire, Bolshevism spread over the once great nation of Russia.

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