Monday, 10 July 2017


THE LAST OF THE TSARS: Nicholas 11 and the Russian Revolution


Macmillan, 2017, 382 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

At Tsarskoe Selo, the Romanov monarchy’s palatial rural retreat where the former ‘Tsar of all Russia’, Nicholas 11, was detained after being forced to abdicate by the February 1917 revolution, the once all-powerful autocrat found much to get annoyed about.  In particular, Nicholas disliked the military bands which serenaded him with rousing renditions of the anthem of liberation, The Marseillaise, and, with black humour, Chopin’s Funeral March. 

In The Last of the Tsars, Oxford University history professor, Robert Service, recounts how the Tsar’s guards had lost all deference towards their former ruler, refusing to shake hands with someone who, during his reign, had refused to take theirs when they had beseeched the ‘Little Father’ for help when respectfully protesting their democratic and economic impoverishment only to find the reform-shy Nicholas ordering his troops to open fire on them.  Poor Nicholas, always hopelessly out of touch with the lives and the hopes of his subjects, found their handshake rebuff “bewildering and painful”. 

As the anti-Tsarist February revolution gave way to the socialist October revolution, Nicholas became increasingly aggrieved as the relative luxury and indulgence during his detention relocations to Siberia and finally to Ekaterinburg (the capital of the Urals region) was replaced by more austerity, including the removal of pudding from his three-course evening meal (at a time when the lack of sugar was the least of his fellow citizens’ material hardships). 

Citizen Romanov was also to be held accountable for his criminal past.  The Bolshevik-dominated Council of People’s Commissars (equivalent to our parliamentary Cabinet) resolved to bring Nicholas to trial in Moscow when the crises afflicting revolutionary Russia (blockade, invasion, civil war, famine) allowed.  Service, an inveterate anti-Bolshevik,  instinctively calls the proposed trial a “show trial”, conveniently reading back into the pre-Stalin era the judicial terror of late-1930s Stalinism. 

The trial option receded, however, as monarchist rescue plots were hatched in conjunction with counter-revolutionary ‘White’ armies which made sweeping territorial gains.  It was the swift advance of the ‘Czechoslovak Legion of ex-POWs’ into the Urals which sealed the Romanovs’ fate.  Unable to evacuate their prisoners from Ekaterinburg, the Urals Bolshevik leadership resolved to execute the Romanovs.  They sought Moscow’s sanction before carrying out the decision but it never came as time ran out.
This is where Service gets to his main, and usual, business – conducting his own show trial of socialist revolution and the Bolsheviks in general and Lenin in particular.  Despite his laborious investigations, however, Service finds no gun still smoking in Lenin’s hand.  Forced to concede that “no unequivocal sanction” to proceed with the execution was given by Lenin, that there is “still no verification” and that “documentation is slender about Lenin’s culpability”, Service is forced to resort to the generalisation of the “bloodthirsty tirades” of Lenin “creating and endorsing an environment of violence”, a “climate of opinion” which made murder a Bolshevik political principle as they delivered “catastrophe” and mass terror to Russia.  

Service allows no mitigating circumstances in his prosecution of the Bolsheviks.  He does not admit any military exigencies which confronted revolutionary Russia with the threat of violent extinction and forced extreme and peremptory measures in response.  Any context that might explain Lenin’s advocacy for harsh treatment of the revolution’s key enemies is disallowed, such as the Bolsheviks’ extraordinary early generosity to the counter-revolutionary Tsarist Generals which was ruthlessly returned with artillery, bullet, pogrom and mass executions. 

Another historical sleight-of-hand by Service is his focus on the Tsar’s captivity.  More as an ironic chuckle about the jailer becoming the jailed, Service briefly acknowledges (it gets one sentence in a 400-page book) that popular hostility to Nicholas existed because he had “despatched thousands of political prisoners” to forced labour, imprisonment, exile or execution. 

There is, however, no detail given to explain the Tsar’s nicknames of ‘Nicholas the Bloody’ or ‘Hangman Nicholas’, no political indictment of the rabid anti-Semite, anti-democrat and reactionary nationalist who had spilled the blood of millions of Russians in disastrous wars and who ran a police state relying on repression and censorship to keep order. 

There is no recognition by Service that, for the year and a half of the Tsar’s detention, all that stood between the deposed tyrant and a vengeful people was the top leadership of the ‘murderous’ Bolshevik Party.  Instead, the end-game takes centre stage starring an almost innocuous Nicholas as victim and the Bolsheviks as the perps. 

Nevertheless, Service still convicts Lenin, not Nicholas, of political immorality.  Although Service can’t quite pin the Tsar’s execution on the revolution’s top dog, it seems that anti-socialist fervour, including amongst establishment Oxford dons, will suffice to trump scholarly history.

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