This week in history: Nicholas II's coronation celebrations took a tragic turn
Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, held his coronation on May 26, 1896. A few days later, a terrible tragedy would bode ill for his reign.
Following Russia's defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Czar (or Tsar, a corruption of Caesar, meaning emperor) Alexander II believed that the victory of Britain and France owed much to Russia's political, social and industrial backwardness. In order to modernize his realm, Alexander II began a series of reforms, including the emancipation of Russia's serfs in 1861, two years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.
In 1881, assassins succeeded in murdering Alexander II, and his son, Alexander III, soon became czar. Unlike his father, the younger Alexander objected to any loss of czarist power. Though he could not reverse the freeing of the serfs, he did much to roll back the policies of liberalization that his father had begun. In 1894, not yet 50 years old, Alexander III fell ill with kidney disease and died. His son, the 26-year-old Nicholas, became the new czar.
Affectionately called "Nicky" by his family, the new czar did not feel up to the challenge of his new responsibilities, crying to a cousin, “What is going to happen to me and to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to the ministers.”
Nicholas ruled for a year and a half as an uncrowned monarch, awaiting the most opportune time politically and logistically for the grand ceremonies that would mark his coronation. Finally, on May 26, 1896, he received the crown and his official name as Czar Nicholas II.
In her book “King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War,” historian Catrine Clay quotes from Nicholas' diary: “A great, solemn day for Alix (his wife), Mama and myself. We were on our feet from 8 o'clock in the morning; though our procession did not move off till 9:30. Luckily the weather was heavenly. The Grand Staircase presented a glittering sight. Everything took place in the Uspensky Cathedral, and although it seems like a dream, I will remember it all my life!”
Clay wrote: “The priests went out onto the steps of the cathedral and to greet their Majesties, blessing them with holy water. Entering the cathedral, their Majesties bowed to the icons. At the alter the Tsar recited the Credo in a clear voice, then donned his purple mantle, raised the crown onto his own head, and took the orb and scepter, at which everyone sank to their knees.”
In a display calculated to both celebrate the coronation and showcase Russia's steps toward modernization, that night the Kremlin walls shined with electric lights. By any standard, the coronation had been a smashing success, and the young czar appeared pleased. Though Russia always had its share of revolutionaries and malcontents, for many Russians it appeared that the new czar's future reign looked bright.
On May 30, four days after the coronation, a tragedy occurred that foreshadowed later disastrous events in Nicholas' reign. The tragedy began with a show of generosity, as the new czar directed that a banquet be served to the Russian people just outside of Moscow, at Khodynka Field. A military training ground, Khodynka was chosen for its logistical advantages. Many thousands of Russian workers and peasants were expected to attend, and Khodynka was thought to be large enough to accommodate them all.
In addition to the free food, consisting of beer, pretzels and sausage, the organizers planned to distribute souvenir gifts to the crowd, including tankards carrying the date of the coronation upon them. Before sunrise an estimated half million Russians showed up for their food and gifts, far more than the organizers had planned for. As more and more people arrived, rumors began to spread that there was not enough to go around.
In his book “A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924,” historian Orlando Figes wrote: “The crowd surged forward. People tripped and stumbled into the military ditches, where they were suffocated and crushed to death. Within minutes 1,400 people had been killed and 600 wounded. Yet the tsar was persuaded to continue with the celebrations.”
Nicholas attended a ball that evening at the French embassy, and the week's festivities continued as planned. To most Russians, the czar's apparent lack of concern and sympathy was outrageous, and it significantly damaged his reputation with his subjects. It was a breach that never fully healed.
Sensing his people's outrage, Nicholas commissioned an investigation into the episode. The investigation singled out Grand Duke Sergius, Moscow's governor-general and the czar's brother-in-law, as the chief culprit in failing to adequately prepare for the crowds. When Nicholas considered punishing the duke, other nobles stepped forward to protest the punishment.
Figes wrote: “(The nobles) said it would undermine the principles of autocracy to admit in public the fault of a member of the imperial family. The affair was closed. But it was seen as a bad omen for the new reign and deepened the growing divide between the court and society. Nicholas, who increasingly believed himself to be ill-fated, would later look back at this incident as the start of all his troubles.”
As he predicted at the death of his father, Nicholas was not up to the role that fate had cast him. Lacking political subtlety and underestimating the forces of democracy, liberalism, nationalism and revolutionary socialism, Nicholas doggedly insisted upon retaining all of the traditional powers of his station, determined to hand them over to his son and heir intact when the time came. To this end, he repeatedly stifled attempts to create a Russian parliament until it was too late. By the time Russia did create a parliament, the Duma, in 1906, Nicholas had so estranged himself from the people that revolution was inevitable.
After the popular revolution of February 1917, in the midst of World War I, Nicholas was compelled to abdicate and the liberal-led provisional government announced its intention to create a republic. Workers councils, the Soviets, began to appear at the same time, calling for a more radical form of government. In October, Vladimir Lenin led a Bolshevik coup, dubbed it a revolution, and soon controlled the government. Nicholas and his family were soon arrested.
In July 1918, 22 years after his coronation, the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas along with his wife and children. The Romanov line, which had produced Russia's czars since 1613, came to an end.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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