”Let them eat caviar” supposedly said by Czar Nicholas II upon learning that the peasants were starving. Although there is no record of these words ever having been uttered, it is plausible that he could say them….
Many nefarious claims have been made about Rasputin, and perhaps not all of them are undeserved, but he was not the monster with a hypnotic gaze later hack writers tried to turn him into.Still, he remains a divisive figure that continues to arouse passion and acrimony and the circumstances around his assassination in 1916 leave several gaping loopholes. There were many temptations that came with his success, including alcohol and adultery, and if the Czar’s secret police can be believed, and that’s certainly a big “if”, he succumbed to them; though he was hardly an exceptional case. His daughter Maria, wrote a biography of her father years after his death, and claims he was a pious man and dismisses the stories about him. Rasputin got involved in political intrigue and was in over his head, but whether he was pushed there or not remains a question for the ages.
Was the ”holy devil” of Russian legend just a well-meaning peasant with a good psychiatrist’s gift for healing and unusual opportunities for sexual conquest? Perhaps, just perhaps, the czar might have done better to have listened to him more, and not less.
It was taken for granted by the soldiers at the front in WWI that the Empress Alexandra was the mistress of Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian wanderer and ”man of God” or the ”mad monk” . Many knowledgeable people such as Sir Bernard Pares, disdained the notion, yet were embarrassed , both as a gentleman and as an historian , by certain documents from Alexandra to Rasputin.
Alexandra was a Victorian; a German princess, she was put under Queeen Victoria’s tutelage at the age of six, and grew up to be that very model of a reserved and proper young Englishwoman. As a person,she was a bit limited; not the sharpest knife in the drawer. She had very little imagination, a short attention span, tired quickly, and had very little capacity for empathy beyond the circle of her family and a few friends. She also suffered from depression and was dependent on opium to calm her. She felt briefly and vaguely, and fleetingly, for the mangled soldiers whom she attended as a half-trained nurse in a hospital near the palace, but was unable to contemplate the meaning of what she saw multiplied by hundreds of thousands. War to her, was something abstract; The war itself she tended to regard as a personal affront. She thought Wilhelm the kaiser ought to be ashamed of himself.
As for politics, Alexandra was perfectly sure of one cardinal point; God had indeed anointed her husband as the absolute ruler of all the Russias, and any challenge to his authority should be ruthlessly cut down. She made little distinction between liberal politicians, red conservatives, anarchists, and outright revolutionaries.Anyone with an open mind were all of the left and ought to be destroyed; a choice between they, or Russia she felt, a Russia based on the natural rule of kings, inherent entitlement and the rule of force. This, she firmly believed and she persistently admonished and nagged her husband to be more autocratic and ruthless.
The man to whom her many letters, epistles, were sent, was a small, trim looking, affable person, almost invariably courteous and calm, at least outwardly. His inward demeanor may be more accurately reflected by his remarking to his mother that he often thought he was going to be sick just before a public appearance. ”… and the impression of imperturbability he conveyed was in reality apathy—the indifference of a mind so shallow as to be all surface. When a telegram was brought to him announcing the annihilation of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, he read it, stuffed it in his pocket, and went on playing tennis.” (Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Presidio Press, 1962, pg. 71.)
It was the importunities of royal responsibility that upset him czar Alexander II; and for this he had no stomach. Nicholas became czar unexpectedly early, when his tall, domineering father, Alexander III, died quite suddenly in 1894. The young man was not ready to step into those iron heeled boots, but then, he never would have been ready. By temperament he was barely interested in problems of government, and he chose what only appeared to be the easiest course, which was maintaing the principle of autocracy established by his father without modification. However, it was not in him to do so.
Leon Trotsky, whose contempt for Nicholas was naturally Gargantuan, quotes with satisfaction Rasputin’s pithy characterization: ”He lacks insides”. That was probably too harsh. The emperor had his inner life, but it was not adjusted to his larger obligations. He was genuinely and immensely fond of his family, the four pretty girls the empress bore him before producing, finally, a male heir; he was even fonder of the boy. To Alexandra herself he was unshakably devoted, in a more quiet way as the years went by, perhaps, but without deviation.
Of his official duties, the only ones he really enjoyed were those involving the army and navy. he loved his many fancy uniforms; he loved military bands; he loved parades and reviews. Fine horses prancing, lances flashing in the sun, a thousand visored heads turning smartly as one, to receive his Imperial Majesty’s pleased and benevolent appraisal.
And Nicholas did try to follow his father’s footsteps. To be a successful autocrat in a gigantic nation teeming with the revolutiuonary impulses of a backward society awakening to a new knowledge and a new technology, however, requires stark concentration. The carrot and stick, the rewards and punishments, must be timed with a view to the consequences; maintain power while jacking Russia out of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. He listened to his father’s best advisor, Sergei Witte, but not enough. He ventured into the Japan conflict of 1904-05 under the pretext it would unite the nation and cool off revolutionary ardor after a quick victory, yet the opposite happened. When Witte suggested real political concessions, under intensifying revolutionary pressures, Nicholas balked and Witte fell into disfavor.
How backward was Russia? The czar knew almost nothing of the state of life in the far reaches of Russia, but he did have the intelligence to finance the project of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944), a Russian pioneer in the science of colour photography. Between 1909 and 1915 Prokudkin-Gorskii travelled around the Russian Empire in a custom-built darkroom railway carriage provided by Tsar Nicholas II, documenting the empire in photographs. The pictures are stunning in the quality of their colour and in their clarity: many of them look as if they could have been taken yesterday. Prokudin-Gorskii’s method of colour photography, was a form of two-strip technicolor applied to prints. The technique was to take three separate negative images through blue, green and red filters in rapid succession. These were then printed onto glass slides as positives and the three images were projected together onto a screen, uniting them in a full-colour image.
Nicholas’s ruthlessness was born of indifference and inattention rather than the deliberate despotism of his father. Even more than his spouse, he was deficient in empathy. His impressions of his subjects’ sufferings were always terribly vague, very hard to keep in mind for more than a moment.A complete disconnection from reality. When hundreds of peasants were trampled to death in a crowd gathered to celebrate his coronation in 1896, Nicholas looked the other way and proceeded to a glamorous ball.
He was in the middle of a set of tennis when, in 1905, the news was brought to him that a whole Russian fleet had been destroyed by the Japanese at Tsushima; he remarked ”What a terrible disaster” and went on to finish the set. And after the infamous ”Bloody Sunday” of 1905, when hundreds of petitioning peasants and workers were killed or wounded by over eager police as they peacefully approached the Winter Palace, Nicholas allowed a delegation of workers to visit him and hear his reaction. He scolded them severely about their faltering loyalty to their czar. ”What a fine fellow!” he noted on a report complaining about a provincial official who had been executing suspected seditionists without trial.
Was he then incapable of any deep feeling? Was it pathological? Not at all. ”The whole day after it happened I never stopped crying,” he wrote his mother in 1902 when ”dear old Iman” , his favorite dog died. Into the midst of this looking glass Camelot abruptly walked Grigori Rasputin. It was the autumn of 1905. Not only had the royal couple been badly shaken by the failure of the Japanese War and the establishment of the Duma, but they were in a state of anxiety about Alexis, the czarevitch. The little boy, Russia’s heir apparent, had inheited through his mother that curse of European royalty, hemophilia. The empress prayed for a saving miracle; and lo, Rasputin appeared! …. The Produkin-Gorski photos really convey the kind of backwoods society that spawned the faith healers, miracle workers, magicians, and mystics that Russia is known for.
”In 2001, the number of glass plates have been scanned and, through an innovative process known as digichromatography, brilliant colour images have been produced. Virtual exhibition The Empire that Was Russia attracted millions of people throughout the world. When I first saw Prokudin-Gorskii’s photographs, I was so amazed and fascinated that immediately decided to try digichromatography myself. I have downloaded and restored over 60 images that you can see on this website. Please note that these images are NOT colorized black and white photographs. They were actually taken in colour about hundred years ago!”
Because of many years of negligent storing, most of the negatives are in very poor condition, and it takes me hours of scrupulous work to restore their original brilliance. It is just the beginning of the work and I am going to continue. Hundreds of unique colour images of the past are still waiting to be returned back to life. (Alex Gridenko)