Background story
1917. Romanovs & Revolution

St Petersburg in 1900

By 1900, St Petersburg was the kind of place that Peter the Great had envisaged when he founded the city in 1703: a busy, thriving metropolis where every kind of luxury was to be had. Many foreign entrepreneurs (like the sewing machine manufacturer Singer) were trading there and the cityscape was as European as Berlin, Vienna, London or Paris. Catherine the Great’s cultural policies back in the eighteenth century had turned St Petersburg into a destination of choice for European artists, who had contributed to the cultural life of the city. Works by them, often commissioned by the ruling dynasty and its entourage, adorned its interiors and exteriors. The nineteenth century saw the emergence of new artistic movements, producing a ‘Silver Age’ in the first two decades of the twentieth century (following the ‘Golden Age’ of Russian literature in the mid-nineteenth century). All over the city, people had establishing private museums, which were regularly open to the public. The wealthy aristocratic families also possessed residences outside Russia, enabling them to keep abreast of the latest European trends and to import them into their native city. In the nineteenth century, St Petersburg – like the rest of Europe – had seen the rise of a large middle class. Its members were keen to share the luxuries of city life like shopping in The Passage, an elite shopping arcade on the Nevsky Prospekt (opposite the renowned Gostiny Dvor department store), where they could buy everything from the latest fashions by Charles Poiret or the English House of Worth to the finest and most precious products of celebrated jewellers like Carl Fabergé. This conspicuous consumption stood in sharp contrast to the lives of the vast majority of the population: the peasants, petit bourgeois and factory workers. The disparity provided fertile ground for social unrest and street protests, which the Tsar had difficulty in controlling. Both before and during his reign, Nicholas II made a number of crucial errors that would, cumulatively, make revolution inevitable.

Nicholas and Alexandra

The heir to the throne, Nikolay Alexandrovich, and his wife Alix von Hessen-Darmstadt met in 1884 at the wedding of her elder sister Elisabeth and his uncle Sergey. He was sixteen and she was just twelve. The encounter led to a deep and reciprocal love that would result in their marriage ten years later. The match was not unopposed: Nicholas’s parents were against it, as was Alix’s grandmother, Queen Victoria. However, when the health of Tsar Alexander III suffered an unexpected and rapid decline, he changed his mind and pressed for the marriage to take place. Alexander died on 20 October 1894 (according to the Russian calendar; 1 November according to the Western European reckoning). As was customary in Russia, Nicholas immediately acceded to the throne. On 14 (26) November, he married Alix, who then assumed the Russian name Alexandra Fyodorovna.
Nicholas was emotionally and politically unready for his new role. On his father’s death, he said that he ‘didn’t know what was going to happen’, and that he was ‘not prepared to be a Tsar’. He was to adopt the autocratic style of his father but without benefit of the latter’s charisma, and obstinately opposed all political change. Deeply conservative, he believed passionately in his role as the God’s anointed and remained deaf to increasing calls for political change.

Laurits Tuxen, The Wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, oil on canvas, 1895
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

By nature, Nicholas was a mild man with a strong dislike of his royal duties. He preferred his private family life to such an extent that he moved the court from the Winter Palace in the heart of St Petersburg to the Alexander Palace outside the city. His widowed mother, Maria Fyodorovna, supported him in the early part of his reign, but stressed that he should rule as an autocrat. Although an extremely elegant and highly intelligent woman, she had unshakable convictions and perhaps too much influence over her ill-prepared son.
His wife Alexandra was famous for her beauty, but also for her aloofness and dislike of fashionable social life. She saw her role as that of moral compass for her husband and, like her mother-in-law, constantly reminded him of his exalted and inviolable position as emperor. Alexandra’s temperament was far from sunny; her children wrote about her sombre moods in their journals. Her first four children were daughters: Olga in 1895, Tatyana in 1897, Maria in 1899 and Anastasia in 1901. It was not until 1904 that she gave birth to a son and heir: the Tsarevich Alexey. It was an event of crucial importance, because only a male could accede to the Russian throne. But joy quickly turned to panic when it became clear that Alexei suffered from haemophilia, a disease widespread among Victoria’s descendants. In male children, the haemophilia gene can produce a fatal disorder that prevents blood clotting and therefore impairs the body’s ability to stop bleeding. Today, the illness is treatable (although still not curable) but then every bleed was potentially life-threatening. Nicholas and Alexandra had married for love, in the knowledge that this might be the consequence.
Inevitably, the health of the little Tsarevich was extremely fragile. In 1907, he fell and suffered such a severe haemorrhage that his desperate mother summoned faith healer Grigory Rasputin. Over the next few years, he would become a personal friend and be treated as such, or even as a ‘Holy Man’, by the Tsar and Tsarina. During the First World War, Nicholas II regarded letters from him as oracular, with all the inevitable consequences.

Grigory Rasputin with Empress Alexandra and her five children, and seated right governess Maria Vishnyakova. 1910, anonymous photographer
© GARF, State Archive of the Russian Federation

Coronation 1896

Nicholas’s precipitate accession to the throne meant that the traditional coronation in Moscow, which required lengthy preparations, could not take place until a year and a half later. The festivities were scheduled to take place between 6 and 26 May 18 May to 7 June) 1896). Nicholas’s uncle Sergey Alexandrovich, the husband of Alexandra’s sister Elisabeth (Elizaveta Fyodorovna), was put in charge of the arrangements.
The medieval Kremlin played a key role in the event. Virtually every tsar and tsarina since the time of Ivan the Terrible (1547) had been crowned in the Uspensky Cathedral. Apart from the many Romanov guests, the invitees from Europe and the East included a queen, three grand dukes, two reigning monarchs, twelve crown princes, and sixteen princes and princesses. For the first time ever, the celebrations were to be filmed.
On the afternoon of 9 (21) May, the solemn procession set off with Nicholas on horseback, his mother Maria Fyodorovna seated alone in the first golden coach, and Alexandra in the second (also alone). They proceeded from Peter’s Palace, just outside the city, to the Kremlin, where the Tsar and Tsarina remained in residence for five days before the actual coronation. The coronation service in the Uspensky Cathedral was marked by what was seen as an ill omen, when the Chain of the Order of St Andrew slipped from Nicholas’s shoulders and fell to the ground. Then, on 18 (30) May, a great popular celebration was scheduled to take place on the Khodynka Field, a military training ground dotted with trenches and holes, which had been roughly covered up for the occasion. Countless free coronation souvenirs were to be distributed to the crowds. By early morning, 500,000 people had already assembled when a rumour began to circulate that there would not be enough gifts to go round. Accordingly, when the pyramids of souvenir tankards were revealed, the crowd rushed forward ‘as desperately as though they were fleeing a fire’, as one eyewitness put it. Thousands fell and were trampled underfoot. The official casualty figure is 2690, including 1389 fatalities, but the true figures were probably far higher. Although Nicholas and Alexandra visited the wounded in hospital later that day, Sergey Alexandrovich persuaded them to go ahead with the planned festivities. This did nothing to increase the popularity of the Tsar, but still less that of his uncle, known henceforth as the ‘Prince of Khodynka’.

Ilja Repin, Portrait of tsar Nicolaas II, 1895, oil on canvas
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Winter Palace

Early in Nicholas’s reign, he and Alexandra lived alternately at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, just outside the city. Increasingly, they preferred the latter and reserved the Winter Palace for administrative duties and official entertaining. Only a small section of it was converted for domestic use, one room being turned into a Gothic-style library for Nicholas to use as a study. Alexandra had the other family apartments redecorated in the modern, art nouveau style. She also had a garden laid out to prevent the public staring into the windows of the family apartments. The garden still exists, between the Winter Palace and the Admiralty.
The Tsar and his wife almost gave up holding grand balls, a fact hugely resented by the St Petersburg nobility, who valued such occasions as forums for networking and meeting each other. But the Tsarina despised and distrusted the local aristocracy: ‘St Petersburg is a rotten town, and not one atom Russian.’
From 1905 – following the birth of Alexey, a failed attempt on the Tsar’s life in Japan, and Bloody Sunday (see below) – Nicholas was nervous about the threat of terrorist attacks. Consequently, the family made the Alexander Palace their permanent home. However, they moved around constantly: in March to Livadia in the Crimea; in May to a villa next to the great palace at Peterhof; in June, to cruise on the imperial yacht, the Standart; in August to the royal hunting lodge in Spala (Poland), and in September back to Livadia, before settling down once again to spend the winter at Tsarskoe Selo.

Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarevich Alexey, c 1910
© GARF, The State Archive of the Russian Federation, Moscow

1905

Revolutionary activism in the cities encouraged growing political and social unrest among workers, peasants and ethnic minorities. Moreover, Russia suffered severe losses in a war with Japan, producing economic depression and shortages. On Sunday 9 (22) January 1905, unarmed demonstrators led by a priest called Georgi Gapon tried to deliver a petition to Nicholas II at the Winter Palace. Afraid of riots, he had left the city. Faced by the large crowds, the palace guards panicked and opened fire. Many people were killed. Official sources spoke of 130 dead and 299 wounded but Lenin later talked about thousands of victims and journalists claimed that they numbered 4,600. Nicholas called the occasion ‘painful and sad’. The event became known as Bloody Sunday and prompted a series of major strikes and insurrections, the suppression of which claimed thousands more victims. In the army and navy, mutinies and desertions multiplied rapidly. Over the next few years, a wave of terrorist attacks – which had started as far back as 1902 – would kill thousands of policemen, army officers, officials, priests (like Father Gapon), ministers (including the famous Sergey Witte and Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin), and governors. In February 1905, the ‘Prince of Khodynka’, Sergey Alexandrovich, was assassinated.
This revolutionary atmosphere forced Nicholas to issue repeated promises of reform, such as the introduction of a constitution and a parliament, the State Duma. However, right from its first meeting in 1906, the Duma was hamstrung by Nicholas’s systematic blocking of its activities and refusal to make any real concessions. To suppress budding political opposition, he repeatedly used his right to dissolve the Duma. The fourth and last Duma survived until the October Revolution of 1917, but had little real political influence. A constitution was never introduced.

Demonstrators gather in front of the Winter Palace in Petrograd, formerly St Petersburg and later re-named Leningrad, during the Russian Revolution. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Russian participation in the First World War

In 1914 the Russian Empire entered the First World War in response to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on its ally, Serbia. Russia was one of the Allies and fought on various fronts against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and, somewhat later, the Ottoman Empire). On the outbreak of war, St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, because of the German sound of the original name (‘Sankt-Peterburg’).
From 1916, after initial successes, the war went increasingly badly for Russia. The arms industry lacked the capacity to supply the troops with sufficient weapons, munitions and even footwear. The government printed money, putting eight times the previous amount into circulation and leading to hyperinflation. Moreover, large parts of the country’s transport system were reserved for military use, meaning that much food lay rotting in the countryside. The resulting food shortages produced still more social unrest. Confidence in Nicholas reached an all-time low. To improve his image, Nicholas decided in the summer of 1915 to assume supreme command of the armed forces. At a time of severe losses at the front (by early 1917 Russian losses already numbered six million), government of the country was left in the hands of the unpopular Alexandra and – still worse – of Rasputin. The wildest rumours circulated about the Tsar and Tsarina (who was said to be spying for Germany in collaboration with Rasputin).

Map of the 1914 war activities, edited by the Moscow magazine New Distorted Mirror
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The revolutions of 1917

The February Revolution began on 8 March 1917 (23 February according to the Russian calendar). It was International Women’s day and women were demonstrating for equal rights in the city centre. (In the Netherlands, this had happened on 18 October 1916.) Elsewhere in the city, other demonstrations started to take place, with men eventually joining in too. By the end of the afternoon, some 100,000 people were demonstrating in the city centre. The next day, 150,000 people were out on the streets and a day later all the major factories ceased to operate as some 200,000 workers joined the strikes and demonstrations. Demonstrators and policemen came to blows. Still at the front, Nicholas gave orders for troops to be deployed against the demonstrators. But many of the soldiers were joining the crowds and the Tsar’s order was ignored. Three days later, the President of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzyanko, reported that the capital was in a ‘state of anarchy’. Nicholas didn’t believe him, complaining that ‘that fat-bellied Rodzyanko has sent me a lot of nonsense again’.
Even so, Nicholas decided to return to Petrograd. It was too late. Virtually all the soldiers had joined the revolution and the Tsar’s train was halted. Nicholas realised that the situation was hopeless and the next day, still on board the train, abdicated in favour of his brother Mikhail. The latter declined the throne and, since female succession was banned by law, Russia was left without a tsar. Nicholas was banished to Tsarskoe Selo.
A Provisional Government was installed and, a couple of months later, came under the leadership of the moderate-socialist Alexander Kerensky. He worked from Nicholas’s former study, the Gothic library in the Winter Palace. The period between March and October was marked by economic crises, new insurrections, rivalry between the Bolsheviks and the other political parties, and the continuing war against Germany, which Kerensky was unwilling to end. The initial delight and relief of the population turned to dissatisfaction. The fanatical Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin took advantage of the new mood to seize power and unleash another revolution.

Preparing paintings for evacuation from one of the Italian Cabinets at the Hermitage. 1917, Alexey Popovsky
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Lenin and the April Theses

Lenin had spent some years in exile in neutral Switzerland. In 1917 he was able to re-enter Russia with the help of the hostile German government, which hoped that his return would weaken Russia. He arrived on 3 (16) April and, standing on an armoured car, made an impassioned speech to the socialists assembled to welcome him. A few days later, he published his April Theses, calling for all land to be given to the peasants, all power to the soviets (workers’ councils), all factories to the workers, and peace with Germany. Initially, the plan was unsuccessful and in July Lenin was forced to flee the country again, this time to Finland. In September, however, a Russian general attempted to launch a coup d’état and Kerensky appealed to the Petrograd Soviet for assistance, which in turn called in the Bolsheviks. Lenin was able to return and the Bolsheviks got their hands on military power, which they would never again surrender.
On the evening of 24 October (6 November), the Bolsheviks blockaded streets at strategic points in Petrograd. By early next morning they had control of the railway stations, telephone exchange, electricity station and telegraph offices. The Provisional Government barricaded itself inside the Winter Palace. At 9.40 p.m. the cruiser Aurora fired blanks from the other side of the Neva, as a signal to the Bolsheviks to attack the Winter Palace. At 2.10 a.m. the Bolshevik forces entered the council chamber, where they arrested all the ministers except Kerensky, who had just left to fetch reinforcements. The Provisional Government was deposed without bloodshed and the Bolsheviks came to power with Lenin and Trotsky at the helm. Lenin was able to make the changes demanded in his April Theses. The Communist era in the history of Russia had begun.
On 27 October (9 November), the Bolsheviks closed down the newspapers of the opposition parties and arrested their editors. Two days later, the railwaymen’s union issued an ultimatum to the Bolsheviks, demanding that they should begin talks with the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks with a view to forming a coalition government. The demand was supported by petitions from hundreds of soldiers’ assemblies, factories and garrisons. The union threatened to paralyze the entire rail network if the Bolsheviks failed to meet it. However, the talks were broken off on 6 (19) November, when – despite extremely modest concessions – the union reached an agreement with the Bolsheviks. This removed the last obstacle to Lenin’s assumption of absolute power.

Lenin speaking in Palace Square, Petrograd, 1920, The crowd was added in 1924 by picture editors who felt that the original photograph (taken by Viktor Bulla in 1920) showed too few people in the audience. The resulting photo-montage was given a fake date: 1917
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The final months

On 1 (14) August, the imperial family was moved to the governor’s mansion in the Siberian town of Tobolsk, 2,800 kilometres from Petrograd. They lived there in relative peace throughout the winter of 1917–18, although they were not permitted to leave the grounds. They spent the time in their accustomed manner. They read and engaged in amateur dramatics. The women did their needlework and kept their journals. Nicholas was frequently outdoors, where his favourite occupation was chopping wood, invariably accompanied by sickly little Alexey. Unaware of the chaos following the October Revolution and the civil war in which it was beginning to result, Nicholas began to recover from the stress of the post-1905 period, the First World War and the Revolution. His freedom from duties of state was clearly a relief, even at the price of exile.
At the end of April 1918, as anti-Bolshevik forces advanced, the family was moved to Yekaterinburg (an extremely pro-Bolshevik city). There, they were accommodated in a house confiscated from a military engineer called Nikolay Ipatiev. It was considerably smaller than the mansion in Tobolsk and had only a small garden, surrounded by a high, hastily erected fence. The windows were sealed and whitewashed and the family was allowed only two half-hour periods in the garden each day. The health of Alexey and Alexandra suffered, the boredom was atrocious, and the mood in the sweltering, airless house steadily deteriorated.
By this time, many other members of the Romanov family had been incarcerated in the Urals and in Petrograd. In June, Nicholas’s brother Mikhail was executed in Perm. When anti-Bolshevik White Army forces threatened to seize Yekaterinburg, the Ural Regional Soviet decided to liquidate the imperial family. In the night of 17 to 18 July 1918 Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatyana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexey were gathered together in a basement room and executed by a firing squad headed by Yakov Yurovsky. It must have been a ghastly scene, especially since the women were not killed outright; the first hail of bullets is said to have ricocheted off the jewels sewn into their dresses. The bodies were buried in a secret location in the woods outside Yekaterinburg. In the years that followed, every member of the House of Romanov who had not managed to escape was executed, either in the Urals (Alapaevsk) or in Petrograd (the Peter and Paul Fortress).
In 1976 – a year before Boris Yeltsin, as leader of the Communist party of Sverdlovsk (the Soviet name for Yekaterinburg), was ordered to demolish Ipatiev House – a geologist called Alexander Avdonin discovered the remains of the Romanovs in the woods near a place named Ganina Yama. He kept the location secret until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In that year, the remains were exhumed and identified. Two members of the family were still missing. They were not found until 2007, when a 46-year-old builder called Sergey Plotnikov – a member of a team that had been searching for the two missing Romanovs for some years – discovered a hollow covered with nettles not far from the other burial place. In it he found the remains of a boy aged between 10 and 13 and a young woman aged 18 to 23. They proved to be those of the Tsarevich, Prince Alexey, and Grand Duchess Maria. With exception of these two, the members of the imperial family have since been reinterred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg. The entire family has been canonised.

Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna with their second daughter, Grand Duchess Tatyana. 1897, A. Smirnov
© GARF, The State Archive of the Russian Federation, Moscow

Collection

The exhibition includes several hundred objects from the State Hermitage Museum collection, like clothes worn by Nicholas and Alexandra and by their five children, paintings, photographs, prints, drawings (including childhood drawings made by all five siblings), sculptures and applied art. Also among these are many objects recently rediscovered in the collection, including Soviet decorations from the exterior of the Winter Palace, a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital from the Stroganov collection and portraits of Rasputin. Exhibited as well are objects of national historical importance from the collection of the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow and the Artillery Museum in St Petersburg, like Nicholas’ Act of Abdication (facsimile), historic telegrams, archival documents and weapons.

Tsar Nicholas II and his family, from left to right: Olga, Maria, Nicholas, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexey and Tatyana. 1914, Boissinas & Eggler
© GARF, State Archive of the Russian Federation

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