A century ago, on May 25, 1913, Tsar Nicholas II entered the Cathedral of the Assumption in Moscow’s Kremlin, where 300 years earlier his ancestor, Mikhail Romanov, had been crowned “Tsar of all the Russias.” Services in Moscow capped a series of events commemorating the Romanovs’ tercentenary, in what proved to be the dynasty’s last great celebration. Processions, religious ceremonies, and receptions in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and towns along the Volga River were replete with all the pomp of the imperial court.
Yet, as Nicholas sought refuge in the vaunted memory of Mikhail’s Russia, he did so at great peril to the future of his country and its people. Immersing himself in a celebration of the past, he turned away from the pressing problems of his rapidly changing empire and the swirling political currents that would ultimately engulf him and his family.
This month, a century on, Russians continue to grapple with the Romanov legacy as they search for a usable past after the turbulent twentieth century.
Mikhail’’s election in 1613 to the throne came at the end of Russia’s so-called “Time of Troubles.” Almost quaint-sounding in its English translation, the smutnoe vremia (or simply smuta) was a period of civil war, famine, and foreign intervention that followed the death of an heirless tsar in 1598. Warfare, starvation, and disease carried off as much as one-third of the Russian population. The smuta marked the end of one dynasty and laid the foundations for three centuries of Romanov rule. When Nicholas celebrated the family’s tercentenary, another smuta—the era of war and revolution between 1914 and 1922—lay just over the horizon.
But 1913 was a period of relative calm and prosperity, when many roads lay before the Russian Empire. Limited political reforms had quelled some of the discontent that had fueled the Revolution of 1905-6. For the first time, Russia had a constitution and a parliament (the Duma, with nearly universal male suffrage), and land reforms were transforming the countryside.
Nicholas, however, was inculcated by his tutors and his father (Alexander III) with a firm conviction in the virtues of autocracy. He resisted constitutional rule and never accepted the Duma’s legitimacy. He looked upon the parliament as an alien imposition, inappropriate to Russia, which obstructed the natural, holy bond between tsar and people. Nicholas—like his father—also embraced a variety of nationalism that stressed adherence to Orthodoxy and the aesthetic of Muscovite Russia. Both tsars appealed to a semi-mythical past, an era of supposed unity and national purity.
Nicholas’s tercentenary tour through the Russian heartland drew on his family’s links to old Muscovy. The imperial family cruised on luxury steamships along the Volga through ancestral Romanov lands. In mid-May they stopped at the Ipat’ev Monastery in Kostroma Province, where Mikhail Romanov had received notice of his election in 1613.
Here Nicholas knelt before the icon of his family’s patron saint, and crowds of peasants met him with cheers of support. (Ironically, it was in the house of another Ipat’ev that Nicholas and his family met their end at the hands of Bolshevik executioners in 1918.) The streets were decked in yellow and black, the colors of the Romanov standard. Excited by the acclaim of the spectators, the Empress Alexandra remarked: “you can see for yourself what cowards those State Ministers are. They are constantly frightening the Emperor with threats and forebodings of revolution and here … we only need show ourselves and at once their hearts are ours.”
The link between tsar and people was closely managed, however. Nicholas refused to allow Duma delegates to travel with the royal delegation and local officials’ requests to meet with the tsar were often rebuffed. When a local nobleman in Kostroma gave a speech that Nicholas deemed oppositional, the tsar brusquely cut him off.
He welcomed supplicant peasant elders, but Kostroma was part of a changing world, not a pastoral idyll. This “Russian Manchester” was instead a major hub of textile manufacture and had been the site of major labor unrest in 1905; factory workers were carefully muzzled in advance of the tsar’s visit. Celebration of the Romanovs’ heritage could draw support, even jubilation, but it could not turn back the clock, nor suppress the challenges of the 20th century: from industrialization, urbanization, expanding literacy, mass communications, and demands for political participation and social justice.
In the aftermath of the Soviet experience, the Romanovs have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, often in the service of constructing a coherent Russian national identity. In 1998, the remains of Nicholas and his family were identified and interred in the Romanov crypt in St. Petersburg. Far from the reactionary demons of Soviet historiography, the Romanovs have become saintly in many quarters. The double-headed eagle again adorns state buildings, and the pre-revolutionary “National Unity Day” (Nov. 4), marking the expulsion of Polish forces during the Time of Troubles in 1612, was reintroduced in 2005. The Orthodox Church, so important to Nicholas and his family, has returned to its central role in Russian spiritual life.
But just as Nicholas looked to his Muscovite forebears to reinforce his own reactionary views, so have some Russians embraced the imperial past selectively, in ways that are often not constructive. One again sees the Romanov yellow and black standards, but now they are flown by ultra-nationalist groups, advocating “Russia for Russians” and targeting minorities from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Concerns over declining birthrates, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS are often met with shibboleths about moral corruption, with the Church invoking family-oriented Nicholas as an ethical exemplar. Ties between powerful figures in the Church and the Kremlin are as strong as ever, with the former supporting President Vladimir Putin against peaceful demonstrators in the capital.
Today, the memory of another “Time of Troubles”—the decade following the Soviet collapse—is often invoked as an argument for more authoritarian rule. As Russians prepared to go to the polls in the winter of 2012, pro-Putin billboards posed a choice: “Stability or smuta?”—a deceptive reading of past that left voters with a stark dichotomy and few real options.
Gazing out at peasant onlookers in 1913, Nicholas’s cousin remarked that the peasants were “just as they were in the seventeenth century.” This was not true in 1913, and nor are Russians today what they were a century ago. One hopes that in seeking lessons from the past, Russian leaders will eschew the example of Nicholas II and turn to what made the Romanov empire, at its best, so successful over its 300 years—its flexibility, cultural vibrancy, pluralism, creativity, and willingness to change.