Why is the anniversary of Tsar Nicholas II’s death a time for reflection?

17 July 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the murder of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family in a cellar in Ekaterinburg in the Urals. This centenary provides an opportunity to review the circumstances which led to the Tsar’s tragic end and to reflect on the importance of the event for the course of the Russian Revolution.

The Tsar abdicated in March 1917, but he was murdered 16 months later. The reason why he wasn’t ‘permanently removed’ until much later lies in the circumstances of the time. The new Provisional Government was dominated by moderates, and in the country as a whole, fear of divine retribution stood against action. Furthermore, Nicholas submitted to his loss of power without protest. Under house arrest in the Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, his diaries bear witness to his relief that the weight of government had passed from him. So, government attention was focused on the pressing problems of war and the economy; Nicholas II and his family were largely irrelevant.

However, the momentous political changes that followed made the ex-Tsar’s position less justifiable. The costs of his comfortable lifestyle incensed the up-and-coming Bolsheviks, and provided fodder for the Petrograd mobs. With threats of break-ins at the Palace, by mid-August, the Provisional Government could no longer guarantee the Romanovs’ safety. Since King George V’s  offer to give his cousin Nicholas asylum in England was withdrawn (for fear of offending the British Labour Party), the decision was taken to move the royal family to Tobolsk, about 3,000km away.

Evacuated together with their servants, this re-location initially made little difference to the family lifestyle. In Tobolsk, Nicholas was physically distanced from the dramatic events of October 1917 in Petrograd (formerly known as St Petersburg), but the establishment of Bolshevik rule there had profound repercussions. The country was rapidly torn by civil war and Nicholas was once more news: he was a potential rallying point for the anti-Bolshevik Whites, and a liability for the ruling Bolshevik Reds.

So why was the decision to execute the ex-Tsar not taken until July 1918?

Tobolsk fell within the jurisdiction of the pro-Bolshevik Soviet (council) of the Urals, based in Ekaterinburg. The President of the Council, Goloshchekin, was determined to have control of the royal family and tried to persuade his friend, Sverdlov (Chairman of the Congress of Soviets in Moscow), to grant this.

Sverdlov, however, had chosen to support a plan devised by Trotsky, to give Nicholas a show-trial in Moscow. The Tsar was summoned, for this purpose, in early April, although Nicholas naively thought he was being taken to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (ending Russian involvement in war).  Nevertheless, soon after he set off, Sverdlov changed his mind and on 30 April turned Nicholas and his family over to Goloshchekin. Why he did this, knowing that this would, in effect, mean the execution of the Tsar, we can only surmise, but certain factors stand out:

  • There were second thoughts among some Moscow Bolsheviks about the trial. Would putting the monarch on trial suggest the possibility of his innocence and undermine the moral legitimacy of the revolution?
  • Sverdlov was put under pressure by Goloshchekin because of the military situation: the ‘White’ Czech armies were nearing Ekaterinburg. The Bolsheviks later suggested that the Ekaterinburg authorities had more or less acted independently, seizing control of, and then executing, the Tsar to prevent him from becoming a White figurehead. Yet it is worth remembering that the White leaders had no plans to restore the Tsar.
  • A decision was taken in Moscow, most probably by Lenin, that there was little to be gained from keeping the Tsar alive, so Sverdlov acted in a way to expedite this and, perhaps, place the blame for the execution on the shoulders of others.

An account by Trotsky (although not written until 1935) supports this. He wrote of a conversation with Sverdlov shortly after the murder:

‘I asked, “where is the Tsar?”

“Finished,” he replied. “He has been shot and the family along with him.”

“And who made the decision?”

“We decided it here. Lenin thought that we should not leave the Whites a live banner.”’

In 1966, further details came to light. Goloshchekin sent a telegram to Sverdlov and Lenin, via Zinoviev, on 16 July 1918, informing them that he wanted to carry out the Tsar’s execution without delay. According to The Last Tsar (1992), written by the Russian history writer Edvard Radzinsky, the reply granting permission, although signed by Sverdlov, was written by Lenin himself.

So, how important is all this in understanding the course of the revolution? Although traditional Marxist historians, such as Edward H. Carr, have generally viewed the murder as peripheral to the main story, more recent historians both in USSR and elsewhere have seen the execution of the Romanovs as a turning point in the development of Bolshevik rule – and the official explanation a mere ‘cover-up’. The decision to execute showed how unimportant the lives of individuals were, compared to the victory of Bolshevism. It indicated that the Reds would spare no one who stood in the way of their victory – the victory of socialism. Once the Tsar had gone, it became easier to claim other lives. As the historian Orlando Figes has written, ‘Nicholas had to die so that Soviet power could live’.

The Revision Guide matching the Oxford AQA A Level History: Tsarist and Communist Russia 1855-1964 Student Book is now available. Find out more at https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780198421443/?region=uk  

GCSE links

AQA: Russia 1894-1945: Tsardom and communism

A Level links

AQA: Tsarist and Communist Russia 1855-1964

Sally Waller is an educational consultant who has written and edited textbooks for OUP and other publishers as well as contributing to the work of professional bodies seeking to advance the teaching of History in schools and colleges. She has many years’ experience as both a History teacher and senior examiner.