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. 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

Emperor Nicholas II at General Headquarters, Baronovichi, 1914.

Emper­or Nicholas II, cen­ter left, con­vers­ing with Infantry Gen­er­al N. V. Ruzsky, cen­ter right, at Gen­er­al Head­quar­ters, at Baronovichi, 1914. Lt Gen­er­al N. N. Yanushke­vich, Chief of Gen­er­al Staff, cen­ter.

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.1 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

Pho­to of Nicholas II in a win­dow of the Impe­r­i­al train, 1916. He is seen wear­ing the Order of St George, Russia’s high­est mil­i­tary order, pre­sent­ed to him in Novem­ber 1915 by the South­ern Army.

Whilst en route to Tsarskoye Selo the Tsar learned at Small Vishera2 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…” 3

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..”4 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.”5 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 Aftermath

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.”6 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.

Nicholas II in Tobolsk sitting outside with his children

Tsar Nicholas II and his chil­dren sit in front of a fence and a green­house dur­ing their cap­tiv­i­ty in Tobol­sk.

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.7

The Tsar and the Chaplain

Arch­priest Afanasy I. Belyaev

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?”8 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 ver­sts9 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.10

In his own diary, Tsar Nicholas remarked, “As is his wont, Father Belyaev has uttered a remark­ably truth­ful word about the present sit­u­a­tion.”11

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.