A Personal Reflection on the Abdication
of the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II
by Evgeni Vernigora
Holy Trinity Publications recently released The Romanovs under House Arrest: From the 1917 Diary of a Palace Priest.1An excerpt from the book was posted here several weeks ago. Fr Afanasy Belyaev, whose diary forms the core of this work, served as chaplain to the Russian Imperial family in the first period of their captivity following the forced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. This fascinating first-hand account was uncovered in the archives of the Russian Federation in Moscow following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The man behind this important discovery was Evgeni Vernigora, who has worked tirelessly throughout his life to honor the Imperial family and to reveal the depth of betrayal among the ruling class leading to the overthrow of the divinely anointed monarchy. We offer here Mr Vernigora’s personal reflections on this sordid period of Russian history, which ultimately led to the terrible sin of regicide barely one year after the events Fr Afanasy describes.
I write this in the hope that it will lead the reader to better appreciate the circumstances under which Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, and subsequently to live under house arrest, together with his family, in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, only to be exposed to humiliation. During this time Fr Afanasy, rector of the Feodorovsky Cathedral (located near the Alexander palace), was invited there to officiate at church services. In his diary, he relates very skillfully his observations of the humiliations to which Tsar Nicholas II and his family were subjected.
Prior to the Tsar’s abdication, in February 1917, while the Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna was enjoying the company of Sophie Buxhoeveden, her lady-in-waiting, Tsar Nicholas II walked into the room. He looked perplexed, unable to understand why General Alekseev should be asking him to come urgently to army headquarters. It was winter, and the army was not actively engaged with the enemy. General Alekseev was chief of the armed forces, whose supreme commander from 1915 was the Tsar himself. General Alekseev was thus the Tsar’s deputy at army headquarters.
Whispers of Mutiny
At this time General Alekseev has just returned from Sevastopol, in the south of Russia. The Tsar had been concerned about the General’s poor health and recommended he take a month’s leave. Whilst in Sevastopol the General was approached by liberal elements in the Russian state that tried to persuade him to take part in a coup d’état. Alekseev’s response was to say that he would neither oppose nor assist them. However, upon returning to headquarters he changed his mind, and inclined toward giving his support to the coup.
The liberals had also approached the Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, the uncle of the Tsar. Instead of having the plotters arrested, and alerting the Tsar, the Grand Duke asked the liberals for three days to make up his mind. The reply he eventually gave them was strange: He regretted not being able to accept the Russian throne as he felt the army would not understand or support him! It seems that the Grand Duke had no compunctions about his behavior. Everything was being readied for the last act. The notion that the revolution was not expected and came as a great surprise to everybody is not true. The Revolution was actively and unyieldingly being prepared. On February 22, 1917, Tsar Nicholas left Tsarskoye Selo for army headquarters in Mogilev. The day after his departure, riots began in Petrograd.2the name of the capital had been changed during the war from the German sounding Petersburg to Petrograd Preparation for treason by those that swore allegiance to the Tsar, were now in full swing.
Toward the end of this fateful week, reports began reaching the Tsar concerning disturbances in Petrograd. He could neither imagine, nor comprehend, that at a time of war some would be attepmting to subvert the government, rather than concentrate all their efforts on defeating the enemy. He ordered the riots stopped but soon was informed of the mutiny of the reserve armed forces in Petrograd. He decided to embark at once for Tsarskoye Selo with the intent of bringing this disorder to an end. When General Voeikov at the headquarters in Mogilev informed General Alekseev of the impending departure of the Tsar, General Alekseev responded sarcastically: “How is he going to go, will a whole battalion of armed forces clear the way?’ General Voeikov became concerned, and informed the Tsar of what he had heard. The Tsar’s reaction was at first surprise and later dismay. General Alekseev was invited to explain his statement, and replied that he had been misunderstood. The Tsar had infinite trust in General Alekseev, not knowing that at that time Alekseev was secretly corresponding with Alexander Ivanovich Guchkov, chairman of the third Duma and subsequently deputy of the fourth. Guchkov disliked Tsar Nicholas intensely and was actively working to topple the government.
No Way Out
Whilst en route to Tsarskoye Selo the Tsar learned at Small Vishera3a town in the Novgorod region — Ed. that the revolutionaries had occupied Lyuban and Tosno. The Tsar then decided to proceed to Pskov via Dno, headquarters of the Northwestern Army. Regarding the seizure of railway stations by the revolutionaries, the Tsar wrote in his diary with indignation: “What a shame and disgrace.” In Pskov the Tsar was treated with disrespect, being met without ceremony and with indifference by General Ruzsky, commander of the Northwestern Front. After the General suggested to the Tsar that it might be necessary to “surrender to the leniency of the victor,” Tsar Nicholas understood that he was trapped with no way out. Fr Afanasy records in his diary the words of Tsar Nicholas describing those fateful moments: “Alone, without close advisors, deprived of freedom, like a captured criminal…” 4The Romanovs under House Arrest: From the 1917 Diary of a Palace Priest, p. 26
In Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna’s letter of March 15, she writes to the Tsar: “The nightmare is that having no army behind you, you may be forced into it… they meanly caught you like a mouse in the trap — unheard of in history; kills me the vileness and humiliation.” The behavior of the army’s chiefs, and of the Duma’s “progressive” deputies, was truly unbefitting. Later, as Minister of War in the Provisional Government, Guchkov would boast that he had planned to stop the Emperor’s train half way to Tsarskoye Selo and force him to abdicate. In the event of the Tsar’s refusal to comply, Guchkov was ready to strangle him. What a terrible confession! But as we know Guchkov was granted his wish and as the representative of the Duma obtained in the Tsar’s signed abdication.
Tsar Nicholas wrote in his diary regarding his abdication: “…to save Russia and keep the army at the front quiet, such a step must be taken..”5Diaries and Letters — 1917 Diary of Nicholas II; March 15, Thursday The Tsar ends this same entry with a reflection on his internal state: “Left Pskov with a heavy feeling for what I went through. Everywhere is betrayal, cowardice, and deceit.”6ibid. Tsar Nicholas was right in his views regarding the treachery of the Duma and the commanders of the army. They were also responsible for the civil war that ensued later and covered Russia with the blood of innocent people.
Among the latter was the Grand Duke Kiril Vladimirovich, cousin of the Tsar. On March 14, 1917, he moved the Guards Unit from the Alexander Palace to Petrograd, to swear allegiance to the Duma, leaving defenseless the Tsaritsa and her children (who were suffering with measles), to the mercy of their fate. As this action took place a day before the abdication of the Tsar, it can reasonably be viewed as treason. Thus did the members of the Duma, the army commanders, and some of the Tsar’s close relatives succeed within the span of a week to resolve their personal feuds and force the Tsar to abdicate under the false pretense that this was done for the sake of the motherland. The Tsar did not wish to abdicate, contrary to popular belief that he had done so willingly. This belief prevailed then and continues even to this day.
The Tsar abdicated in favor of his brother, Michael Alexandrovich, who deferred his decision to accept the throne until the Constituent Assembly met. At first it seems naïve of the Grand Duke to believe that a fair judgment would be reached by the Constituent Assembly. But we should understand that the same cabal that had insisted on the abdication of the Tsar forced this decision on him. The actual reason was the inability — or rather, the unwillingness — of Alexander Kerensky, Minister of Justice under the Provisional Government, to assure the Grand Duke of his personal safety. The Tsar, not knowing the actual circumstances leading to the rather unusual decision by his brother, remarked in his diary: “It transpires that Misha [Grand Duke Michael] has abdicated. His manifesto ends with a four-tail formula (Universal, direct, equal, and secret suffrage. There was no definite time set for the Constituent Assembly) for the election of a constituent assembly within 6 months. God knows who put it into his head to sign such stuff.”7Ibid.; March 16, Friday In this case the same three words that the Tsar wrote in his diary may be repeated. After this last act Russia was unquestionably in the hands of the Provisional Government.
Under pressure by the Soviet of Soldiers and Workers, the Provisional Government decided on the 20th of March to arrest the Tsar and his family. General Alekseev informed Tsar Nicholas, “Your Majesty should consider himself as if arrested.” The General did not have the courage to pronounce the arrest without resorting to twisted language, but nonetheless he had the impudence to carry out the act. General Kornilov, the newly named commander of the Petrograd Military District informed Tsaritsa Alexandra of her arrest. He arrived at two o’clock in the morning at the Alexander Palace, requesting rudely that the “former Tsaritsa” be awakened, adding, that it was “not the time to sleep.” Guchkov, the Minister of War, accompanied Kornilov. Both displayed red bows on their chests.
The Tsar, upon his arrival at Tsarskoye Selo train station, must have noticed some of his retinue running off in different directions from the train. Their aim was to avoid being detected later as having accompanied the Tsar. It was an ugly sight. The Tsar was greeted at the Alexander Palace as the “former Tsar.” Generals, Ministers of the Provisional Government, officers, soldiers — in short, everyone — tried to surpass each other in their insults, debasements, and introduction of the prison régime to the Tsar and his family. From the generals down to the soldiers all behaved brutally. The humiliation to which the soon to be martyred Tsar and his family were exposed is described in the diary of Fr Afanasy.8Further information on the mistreatment of the Tsar and his family while imprisoned in Tsarskoye Selo may be found in Thirteen Years at the Russian Court: The Last Years of the Romanov Tsar and His Family, by Pierre Gilliard (North Stratford, NH: Ayer Co Pub,1970) ISBN 9780405030291.
The Tsar and the Chaplain
It is interesting to note that Fr Afanasy says to the Tsar, “Oh, Your Majesty, what good you would have done for Russia had you but given her a full constitution, and thereby fulfilled the wishes of the people.” The Tsar was amazed and replied: “Can this possibly be true?”9The Romanovs under House Arrest: From the 1917 Diary of a Palace Priest, p. 26 Fr Afanasy, like many others, was mistaken. Russia was not ready for a constitutional monarchy; regarding the “wishes of the people”, it is noteworthy to remember the comments on this subject of Premier Kokovtsov who said: “only in three cities of the Russian Empire were people engaged in politics, and no further than 30 versts10Approx. 20 miles — Ed. from outside these cities was there any interest in politics at all.” Most likely, this is why the Tsar was astounded at Fr Afanasy’s comments.
Fr Afanasy very often inspired the Tsar with his sermons. In his diary, Fr Afanasy described one such homily in his diary entry for the 16th of July, 1917:
Sharply delineating the current state of the Russian people, who had misunderstood the gift of freedom and had turned this divine gift into madness, bringing anarchy and degradation, [I compared it to] the state to which one of the higher spirits, the fall angel [Lucifer], had brought himself. He had rebelled against his God and Creator, and in his mad self-will had so debased himself that he decided to ask as a favor to be put into a herd of unclean beasts, a herd of swine.11[footnote]The Romanovs under House Arrest: From the 1917 Diary of a Palace Priest, p. 50
In his own diary, Tsar Nicholas remarked, “As is his wont, Father Belyaev has uttered a remarkably truthful word about the present situation.”12Дневники императора Николая II. Том II. 1905–1917; 16-го июля. Воскресенье. Editor’s translation
Fr Afanasy, who was very observant, noted that before the 24th of June, Alexei Nikolaevich, at the end of the church service, had kissed the cross after his parents and before his sisters. After the 24th of June, however, he kissed the cross after his sisters. The earlier order signified that Alexei Nikolaevich was heir to the throne. After the abdication of the Tsar, Alexei Nikolaevich was no longer considered to be the heir. It is probable that on the insistence of the sly guards he was asked to kiss the cross after his sisters; thus, in their view, he could be put in his place.
Fr Afanasy’s writings exhibit some confusion. At times he writes, “the former Tsar’s family,” “the family of the former Tsar,” “the former ruler,” “the former Tsaritsa,” “the former heir”, etc. At other times Fr Afanasy refers simply to “the Tsar.” The latter appellation is, of course, the correct one. As God’s Anointed, Nicholas Alexandrovich could not be displaced during his lifetime. Since the will of God was nowhere manifest, neither in the naming of Grand Duke Michael to the throne, nor in the Tsar’s signing of the instrument of abdication, his status as Tsar remained inviolate and unassailable.
Today the Tsar Martyr is our spiritual patron. He took under his patronage both Russia and its long-suffering people. O Holy Martyr Nicholas pray to God for us!
About the Author
Evgeni Vernigora was Director of the Recovery Foundation (Возрождение). He first made the discovery of Fr Afanasy Belyaev’s diary in the State Archive of the Russian Federation.