Friday, May 18, 2018

Hope remains above all

‘The arrival of this “Red Guard,” as it is now called, or any armed detachment, excites rumors and fear here. It was simply amusing to hear what they say these last few days. The commander of our detachment apparently also was confused, since the last two nights the guards detachment and machine guns were brought in the evening. Hope remains above all in these present times!’ This is from the diary kept by Nicholas II, the last emperor of imperial Russia, in the months leading up to the execution of him and his family. Nicholas, who was born 150 years ago today, wrote in his diary nearly every day. An English translation has never been published as such, but one is available online thanks to Kent de Price, an arts student at the University of Montana in the 1960s, who wrote his dissertation on the diary. However, considering Nicholas’s imperial and dramatic life, the diary is an extraordinarily dull document.

Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov was born on 18 May 1868 in Alexander Palace, St Petersburg, the eldest son of Emperor Alexander III and Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia. He had five younger siblings. The family was closely related to other European royal families, making annual trips, for example, to Danish royal palaces to visit his mother’s parents - the Danish king and queen. He was educated at home by tutors with a military focus, and served in the army for three years, before touring Europe and Asia for the best part of a further year. In 1894, after the death of his father, he succeeded to the Russian throne. Days later, he married German princess Alix of Hesse, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. As Russian Tsarina and Empress, she became known as Alexandra Feodorovna. They had four daughters before a son and heir was born in 1904, though it soon became clear he suffered from the inherited disease of haemophilia.

Nicholas II proved an insecure and incapable leader, distrusting his ministers; and he was often dominated by Alexandra. It was she who sought the advice of spiritualists and faith healers, most notably Rasputin, who eventually acquired great power over the royal couple. At home, Nicholas ruled autocratically believing he had a divine right to do so; but he met rising unrest with intensified police repression. And, abroad, he took naive fateful decisions. In mid-1905, he concluded an alliance with the German emperor William II, yet Russia was already allied with France, Germany’s long-standing enemy at the time. To the east, his expansionist ambitions led to a disastrous war with Japan. Russia’s defeat led to discontent at home. After the army shot at a crowd of protesters in St Petersburg, Nicholas was forced to allow a constitution and to establish a parliament, the Duma. During the early years of the First World War, his position was strengthened by an alliance with Britain and France; however after mid-1915, when he took direct control of the army, he was increasingly seen as responsible for its military failures.

With Nicholas often away, German-born Alexandra became increasingly involved in domestic issues, but also the focus of public criticism, as was her mystic ally Rasputin. In late 1916, Rasputin was murdered, and by February 1917 there were widespread demonstrations in the capital. When Nicholas lost the support of the army, he had no choice but to abdicate. A provisional government was established, and the royal family were eventually imprisoned in the Ural Mountains. In 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the government, and after a punishing peace treaty with Germany in 1918, civil war broke out. In July of the same year, Bolsheviks executed Nicholas and his family. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, British Library, BBC, Encyclopaedia Britannica,, Spartacus, or the Alexander Palace Time Machine.

Historians note that Nicholas kept a daily diary, usually written at 11pm every night. A French edition of this, covering the years July 1914-June 1918, appeared in Paris in 1924. But no English edition followed. In the mid-1960s, a portion of the diary, from March 1917 to July 1918, was translated into English by Arlo Furnis at the behest of a student, Kent de Price, who was writing a dissertation on the diary for his arts degree at the University of Montana. This dissertation has since become freely available online at the university’s ScholarWorks and at Internet Archive. English translations of selected parts of the diary can also be found at the Alexander Palace Time Machine, though these differ markedly form those by Furnis.

Nicholas’s diary is very disappointing (considering his status), for it lacks any detail about political events going on in the country, and tends to be a dull roll call of domestic routines. Kent de Price says this: ‘He confided family events, people who visited him, and items of interest in his personal life. Nicholas has been criticised by many for saying little of importance in the diary. But the reader should remember that his entries were meant to be read by no one outside the family. Important events would, of course, be recorded in official court journals, of which Nicholas would retain a copy.’ Here are several extracts (though I’ve tried to choose some which are slightly more interesting than most).

11 March 1917
‘In the morning I received Benckendorf. I learned from him that we had stayed here long enough. It was a pleasant realization. I continued to burn my letters and papers. Anastasia had an earache, so now she went with the rest of them [the sick children]. From 3 o’clock until 4:30 I walked in the garden with Dolgorukov and worked in the garden. The weather was unpleasant with a wind at about 2 degrees above frost. At 6:45 we went to vespers in the camp church. Alix took her bath before I took mine. I went to see Anna, Lili Dehn and the rest of our friends.’

21 March 1917
‘Today Kerensky, the present minister of Justice, came. He went through all the rooms and wanted to see us. He talked to me for five minutes. He introduced the new Palace commander and then left. He ordered the arrest of poor Anna and took her to the city together with Lili Dehn. This happened between 3 and 4 o’clock while I was walking. The weather was disgusting and it corresponded to our mood. Marie and Anastasia slept almost all day. After dinner the four of us calmly passed the evening away with Olga and Tatiana.’

3 April 1917
‘It was a wonderful spring day. At 11 o’clock, I went with Tatiana and Anastasia to Mass. After breakfast I went walking with them and all during that time the ice was breaking up near our summer dock; a crowd of idlers again collected at the railings and from the beginning to the end observed us. The sun was shining warmly. During the evening I played “Mill” with Alexis and then read aloud to Tatiana.’

14 May 1917
‘It was in different surroundings that we celebrated the 21st anniversary of my coronation! The weather was 15 degrees in the shade. Until Mass I took a walk with Alexis. During the day from 2:00 until 4:30 we spent the time out in the garden; I went for a ride in the canoe, and in the boat; and I worked for a while in the vegetable garden, where I prepared the new beds, and later we were on the island. After tea and during the evening I read.’

3 June 1917
‘After tea Kerensky suddenly came by car from the city. He stayed with me for a while. He asked me to send to the investigating committee some papers and letters having relations to internal policies. After my walk and until lunch I helped Korovichenko in an analysis of those papers. During the day he was helped by Kobylinsky. We sawed up the tree trunks in the first place we cut. During that time something happened to Alexis’s toy rifle. He was playing with it on the island; the sentry walking in the garden saw him and asked the officer to take it away from him.’

5 June 1917
‘Today dear Anastasia turned 16 years old. I took a walk with all the children until 12 o’clock. We all went to prayer services. During the day we chopped down some big fir trees at the crossing of the three roads along the Arsenal. There was a colossal fire, the sun was reddish, and in the air was the smell of burning, probably from peat burning somewhere. We went sailing for a little while. During the evening we walked until 8 o’clock. I started the 3rd volume of Le comte de Monte Christo.’

28 June 1917
‘Yesterday we lost 3,000 troops and about 30 vehicles. Word of God! The weather became cloudy and warm. After my walk I gave a history lesson to Alexis. We worked out there again and cut down three fir trees. After tea and until dinner I read.’

31 July 1917
‘It is the last day of our sojourn In Tsarskoe Selo. The weather became wonderful. During the day we worked in the same place and sawed down four trees and sawed up yesterday’s. After dinner, we awaited the time of our leaving, which keeps being put aside. Unexpectedly Kerensky arrived and told us we were leaving.’

5 August 1917
‘During the trip along the Tura, I slept very little. Alix and I had one very uncomfortable cabin, and all the girls were together in the fifth cabin down the corridor. Further toward the bow was a good sitting room and a small cabin with a piano. Second Class is under us, and this is where all the soldiers from the First Regiment who are traveling with us stay. All day we went topside, and stayed in the pleasant air. The weather was overcast but dry and warm. In front of us was a mine sweeper and behind another steamship with the soldiers from the 2nd and 4th Infantry Regiments and the rest of the baggage. We stopped two hours to load firewood. Toward night it got cold. We have our kitchen staff here on the steamship. Everybody went to sleep early.’

24 August 1917
‘It was a nice day. V. N. Derevenko and his family arrived and that was the biggest thing that had happened for days. Unfortunately, bad news from the front was confirmed. We learned that Riga still stood but that our army had retreated far into the northeast.’

5 September 1917
‘Telegrams arrive here twice a day; many of then are composed so obscurely that it is difficult to understand them. Evidently in Petrograd there is great confusion. Again there has been a change in the staff of the government. Evidently no one escapes from the enterprises of General Kornilov; he himself sides part of the time with the generals and officers who are prisoners to their own army and part of the time with the army. He goes to Petrograd and then leaves again. The weather became wonderfully hot.’

25 September 1917
‘It was nice weather, 14 degrees above frost in the shade. During our walk the Commissar, his foul assistant commissar. Ensign Nikolsky, and three sentries searched our house looking for wine. Not finding any, they came out in half an hour and left. After tea we began to move our things which had arrived from Tsarskoe Selo.’

14 November 1917
‘Today was the 23rd anniversary of our wedding! At 12 o’clock services were held; the choir got confused and went astray. It must be that they had not been practicing. The weather was sunny, warm and with gusts of wind. After tea, I re-read my last diary. It was a pleasant occupation.’

14 February 1918
‘We have had to reduce our expenses significantly for food and servants because the use of personal capital is reduced to only 600 rubles a month. All the last few days we have been occupied calculating the minimum which we would be allowed to take, all in all.’

14 March 1918
‘The bodyguards here were dismissed when their term of service was finished. But nevertheless together with the guard detachment they had to be sent to the city. From Omsk they sent a command for this village. The arrival of this “Red Guard,” as it is now called, or any armed detachment, excites rumors and fear here. It was simply amusing to hear what they say these last few days. The commander of our detachment apparently also was confused, since the last two nights the guards detachment and machine guns were brought in the evening. Hope remains above all in these present times!’

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