The Martyr Tsar
Nearly a century ago, in a basement in the Urals, Communist revolutionaries gathered the Romanov royal family along with a handful of their loyal servants and retainers. White Army troops, committed to the defeat of the Bolshevik government, were only a few miles away from the village where they had been held since the Tsar had been forced from his throne. Still a symbol of reverence to many throughout Russia, the revolutionary government knew that to allow the Romanovs to be rescued by the Whites, a disparate collection of former Imperial troops, Cossacks, and peasant militias united only by their resolve to restore Nicholas II to his rightful throne, would be possibly a mortal blow to the war effort. Lenin had once asked “How can you have a revolution without firing squads?”, and on this occasion he was perfectly willing to answer that question himself. The Tsar and his young son died quickly. His wife and daughters, shielded from the assassins’ bullets by the heavy jewels sewn into their gowns, were bayonetted to death. The royals’ personal maid fainted at the first round of bullets, only to come to afterwards and cry out “God has spared me!” with her proclamation prompting the assassins to prove her wrong. And that was it. On that terrible day, a royal line that had governed a continent for centuries was snuffed out in a matter of minutes; a crime that would stain Russia ever after.
When I vocalize such sentiments, the grief I feel at the murder of a royal family and those who would not forsake the vows of loyalty they swore to them, I am often met with confused disbelief by those around me. After all, my Russian ancestors were serfs seeking to scratch a living out of the land, and Jewish ones at that. How can I mourn the passing of the Tsars, when they were agents of oppression that my grandparents fled from? As it often is, the answer is far more complicated than people would like to hear. Yes, Tsar Nicholas II did not particularly care for Jews. Yes, Tsarist agents committed pogroms against them. But to follow that logic through to its conclusion I must denounce practically every historical figure to hold high office prior to 1945. Kaiser Wilhelm also was reputed to dislike Jews, but no one would argue that his line remaining on the German Throne following World War One would have been unquestionably preferable to the unspeakable nightmare that filled the chaotic void of his abdication. The Bolsheviks too were hardly a respite to Russia’s Jews. Stalin despised them so much he all but disinherited his daughter when she had the audacity to marry one, and refused to ever allow the man into his presence. There’s ample historical evidence that at the eve of his death he was making plans for the mass deportation of Russian Jews to Siberia (a second Holocaust in all but name). Anti-Semitism is a cross to be borne by the entirety of the West, but to selectively apply it to only those figures we disagree with, while excusing it among others is unfair.
And it is also beyond question that whatever one can say about Tsarist Russia, what came in the aftermath of its fall was a horror beyond imagination. This often gets lost in the pop culture depiction of the Russian Revolution, which modern day students are taught was some kind of revolt against a police-state tyranny. Sheer nonsense, of course, but the myth remains. The reality is of course very different. At the time of the revolution, Russia’s entire police force numbered a few thousand at most for a nation that stretched from Europe to China. The great irony around our perceptions of absolute monarchies is that the Enlightened Despots of the past wielded far less power over their subjects than our democratically elected governments of today. The absolute nature of past monarchies applied very much to the political realm, which in practice applied to the royal court and often little else. To the average man of the village commune the interference in his day to day life was minimal. Yes, he had to labour upon his noble master’s fields and pay the penny tax for firewood, but it is not like taxes are an alien concept today either (or any less onerous even if the form of them has changed).
The scars left by this heinous act still linger on Russia today. Edmund Burke argued the nation was an organic organism, a covenant between those dead, those living, and those yet to be born. Each nation was something unique, molded by its history into something original like a snowflake; beautiful, original and so very fragile. Imperial Russia was one such snowflake, with a history that traced back to Rurik who was the first of the Varangians . The Bolsheviks destroyed it utterly, and we can see the aftereffects even now. The great palaces, cathedrals and icons of the Russia of old sit empty, inhabited by ghosts of days past, while the Russians of today float listlessly. Russia itself is a petro-state ruled by playboy oligarchs and secret policemen, grown fat with the spoils looted from what occurred. Its people live in dead industrial cities of crumbling factories and concrete tenements, numbing the pain with alcohol and drugs which have become an epidemic while living in constant fear of the FSB, the modern day evolution of the assassins who snuffed out the Romanovs decades ago.
All this comes from the fact that modern Russia simply has no sense of itself. The memory of past glories linger, hyped up by Putin through his warmongering in Eastern Europe. The appearance remains, but the essence is gone. What makes a nation, a real nation, is more than laws written upon paper and tax collectors, but an identity and a hope. It is, as Burke put it, a covenant that spans generations. The Tsars used to embody that covenant, but the Tsars are dead and gone. What remains is a zombie, dead but still lingering. Russia remains, but what it means to be Russian is gone.
That covenant is what a Tsar…a King…an Emperor, truly embodies. He is more than a war leader and a bureaucrat. He is a priest, the living vessel of the traditions and rites that his people revere, and his lady is his priestess. Laws are made by men, for on their own they are but words written on paper, and men are given their purpose by this essence. It promises continuity and something more than the day to day struggle to fill ones belly and survive to see another sunrise. It is a history and a future. That is what was destroyed on that dark day all those years ago. That is what I mourn. That is what I remember.