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11-08-2015, 17:05


For the quarter century before crowds took to the streets in March 1917, Russia's problems had begun at the top with an inept and imperceptive monarch. In the words of historian Hugh Seton-Watson, "Nicholas was brought up to believe that it was his sacred duty to uphold the principle of autocracy."2 Thus, in January 1895, only two months after taking over the throne, Nicholas rejected a call by liberal landowners serving in the zemstvo (local governing body) in the province of Tver for some form of popular representation in the making of national policy. He dismissed this notably moderate proposal as "senseless dreams about participation ... in the affairs of internal government.'' Such statements set the tone for the next two decades. In early 1 905 the country plunged into revolution. The war against Japan, begun in February 1904, had brought a grim series of defeats for both the Russian army and the Russian navy. The strains the war placed on the civilian population brought unrest to a boiling point, first among the country's factory workers, then among the peasants and the military rank and file. The brutality of the government was on open display on January 22, 1905, the starting point for the revolution, when the workers of St. Petersburg and their families, marching to petition the tsar, were shot down on their way to the imperial palace. The toll of men, women, and children probably reached 200, with another 800 wounded. This barbarous treatment of Nicholas's subjects stripped away the traditional loyalty of the population to the country's crowned head. The Revolution of 1905, which the government managed to quell only in the last months of the year, forced the tsar to relax his opposition—albeit merely for tactical purposes—and he granted the Russian population a constitution and a Duma, a nationally elected representative body with limited powers of legislation. As late as the summer of 1914, however, he was openly in favor of turning the clock back by abolishing the Duma. The public image of the empress also speeded the decline of the monarchy's popularity and prestige. A German princess by birth, Alix of Hesse- Darmstadt, renamed Alexandra in 1 894 when she adopted Eastern Orthodox Christianity and married Nicholas, was even more opposed to political change than he. She detested public appearances and saw to it that the imperial family was isolated in the summer palace at Tsarskoe Selo outside St. Petersburg. Dominating her husband, whom she sometimes called "darling boysy" in their private correspondence, she offered him reactionary political advice in a frantic voice. During World War I, for example, she used her typical tone in urging him to appoint certain officials despite opposition by the Duma: "Be Peter the Great, John [Ivan] the Terrible, Emperor Paul—crush them all under you."4 Officials of the imperial government such as Prime Minister Ivan Goremykin saw themselves as the tsar's servants rather than as independent political figures. In all, the people surrounding Nicholas were a strong force encouraging him to keep all the safety valves closed as political tensions grew.