Author Topic: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?  (Read 224653 times)

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Offline TimM

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #45 on: August 30, 2010, 09:56:29 AM »
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And World War I, more than anything else, sentenced imperial, Romanov Russia to destruction, as it did so many monarchies in Europe.


Sometimes I wonder if 20th Century Europe would have been better off if the monarchies had remained intact.  After all, there were no major wars in Europe in the century between the final defeat of Napoleon and the First World War.  Okay, we had the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War, but they were regional.  Would Europe have been better or worse if the Old Ways had stayed.  I guess we'll never know.
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Offline Elisabeth

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #46 on: August 30, 2010, 11:33:01 AM »
I agree that Nicholas himself would not have been able to save the throne for the Romanovs. But he could have given others the power to do so. Witte and Stolypin were very successful until Nicholas lost confidence in them. When Nicholas felt they threatened his powers, they fell out of favor. But with a good team around him and enough mutual trust they could have come a long way. 

Maybe yes, maybe no. I think the political situation in early 20th-century imperial Russia was dicey, dodgy, in plain and simple terms, terribly tricky. One major problem with Stolypin was that he was not a good team player, in fact he tended to be somewhat autocratic in his own methods, so he alienated a lot of potential supporters in the political field and thus ultimately failed to build a real power base that could keep him alive as a political player in the event that he fell out of Nicholas II's favor. Which is why, when Nicholas II turned away from him, Stolypin didn't have a leg left to stand on and was fading so quickly from the political scene when he was assassinated.

It's also a point of much debate among historians of this period whether Stolypin's reforms had been moderately successful or an overall failure. One thing you're not taking into account is the Russian peasantry, which virtually every member of the educated elite (partly in reaction to the horrors of the Revolution of 1905-06) saw as a real hindrance to modernization and liberalization in Russia. This is very much reflected in authors of the period - Gorky (who himself came from the lower classes) despised the peasantry, and Chekhov wrote several stories in which Russian peasants are remarkable chiefly for their backwardness. So it's not remarkable if Stolypin's reforms were a failure, especially since a large segment of the peasantry were apparently opposed to them.

I don't know enough about Witte to make a judgment on him.

I think these two statesmen were geniuses. And geniuses are mostly not very good team players.

Who knows how Stolypins reforms would have worked out if he had been given more time. He wanted to change urban life so that the peasants were able to deal with the problems which made life so miserable for them. But this would have taken a long time. Which there wasn't.

I don't quite agree that either Witte or Stolypin were political geniuses on par with Peter or Catherine the Great, or for that matter, Lenin or Stalin - if they had been, they would have survived politically in imperial Russia, which they demonstrably did not. People can be extremely talented, as I believe these men certainly were, and still be sorely lacking in political nous, in this case, the ability to build coalitions and power bases and so on, which is the sine qua non of political genius, i.e., of achieving and maintaining real political power, in any given political system, but especially in an authoritarian (or for that matter totalitarian) one. It's my sense that both Witte and Stolypin were a little too full of themselves as political operatives, a little too self-satisfied with their own superiority, and they would have ended up on the scrap-heap of history no matter what political system they found themselves in. Because, let's face it, building friendships and coalitions and power bases is what politics is all about. How do you think Stalin came to power? It was completely through the good-old-boy network (he was extremely popular with the Bolsheviks, who saw him as much more friendly and approachable and normal than a hotheaded, arrogant, self-proclaimed "genius" like Trotsky).

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Offline Sergei Witte

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #47 on: August 30, 2010, 04:51:23 PM »
I agree that Nicholas himself would not have been able to save the throne for the Romanovs. But he could have given others the power to do so. Witte and Stolypin were very successful until Nicholas lost confidence in them. When Nicholas felt they threatened his powers, they fell out of favor. But with a good team around him and enough mutual trust they could have come a long way. 

Maybe yes, maybe no. I think the political situation in early 20th-century imperial Russia was dicey, dodgy, in plain and simple terms, terribly tricky. One major problem with Stolypin was that he was not a good team player, in fact he tended to be somewhat autocratic in his own methods, so he alienated a lot of potential supporters in the political field and thus ultimately failed to build a real power base that could keep him alive as a political player in the event that he fell out of Nicholas II's favor. Which is why, when Nicholas II turned away from him, Stolypin didn't have a leg left to stand on and was fading so quickly from the political scene when he was assassinated.

It's also a point of much debate among historians of this period whether Stolypin's reforms had been moderately successful or an overall failure. One thing you're not taking into account is the Russian peasantry, which virtually every member of the educated elite (partly in reaction to the horrors of the Revolution of 1905-06) saw as a real hindrance to modernization and liberalization in Russia. This is very much reflected in authors of the period - Gorky (who himself came from the lower classes) despised the peasantry, and Chekhov wrote several stories in which Russian peasants are remarkable chiefly for their backwardness. So it's not remarkable if Stolypin's reforms were a failure, especially since a large segment of the peasantry were apparently opposed to them.

I don't know enough about Witte to make a judgment on him.

I think these two statesmen were geniuses. And geniuses are mostly not very good team players.

Who knows how Stolypins reforms would have worked out if he had been given more time. He wanted to change urban life so that the peasants were able to deal with the problems which made life so miserable for them. But this would have taken a long time. Which there wasn't.

I don't quite agree that either Witte or Stolypin were political geniuses on par with Peter or Catherine the Great, or for that matter, Lenin or Stalin - if they had been, they would have survived politically in imperial Russia, which they demonstrably did not. People can be extremely talented, as I believe these men certainly were, and still be sorely lacking in political nous, in this case, the ability to build coalitions and power bases and so on, which is the sine qua non of political genius, i.e., of achieving and maintaining real political power, in any given political system, but especially in an authoritarian (or for that matter totalitarian) one. It's my sense that both Witte and Stolypin were a little too full of themselves as political operatives, a little too self-satisfied with their own superiority, and they would have ended up on the scrap-heap of history no matter what political system they found themselves in. Because, let's face it, building friendships and coalitions and power bases is what politics is all about. How do you think Stalin came to power? It was completely through the good-old-boy network (he was extremely popular with the Bolsheviks, who saw him as much more friendly and approachable and normal than a hotheaded, arrogant, self-proclaimed "genius" like Trotsky).

Geniuses always finish last, if they let it be known that they consider themselves geniuses. If there's anything the ordinary person hates more than a genius, I have yet to hear of it.

I don't think you can compare a statesman in Imperial Russia with some of the autocrats they were working for/with. The statesman always had to find his way between two opposing forces: the absolute rule of the tsar and the kind of progress they consider important for the future which mostly meant some erosion of the absolute power. So by definition they had an almost impossible task. The autocrat always had the last word and not because he was more genial but because he had all the power and didn't want to lose it.

How could they have a sound power base if the tsar always became suspicious and let them resign. Witte was not the first one that received this "treatment". The "fate" of Michael Speranski looks a lot like that of Witte. They had some things in common. One being that in their youth, they didn't belong to the establishment but got their way to the top by their talent and the support of Alexander I and Alexander III respectively. Both had liberal and forward looking ideas. And both were sacked when the tsar felt things became too hot to handle. (a difference between Witte and Speranski was that W was more a hard working bureaucrat with a global outlook while Speranski was more like a real intellectual in the spirit of the French Revolution). If you don't call men like these who stood almost alone in their struggle a genius then I guess it was impossible to be a genius in Imperial Russia. Do you know any?

The difference with Stalin is that in the twenties after the death of Lenin there was a power gap in the Communist Party. I guess the most ruthless one took all the power. So not comparable with Imperial statesmen.

Offline Elisabeth

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #48 on: August 30, 2010, 06:07:02 PM »
I don't think you can compare a statesman in Imperial Russia with some of the autocrats they were working for/with. The statesman always had to find his way between two opposing forces: the absolute rule of the tsar and the kind of progress they consider important for the future which mostly meant some erosion of the absolute power. So by definition they had an almost impossible task. The autocrat always had the last word and not because he was more genial but because he had all the power and didn't want to lose it.

How could they have a sound power base if the tsar always became suspicious and let them resign. Witte was not the first one that received this "treatment". The "fate" of Michael Speranski looks a lot like that of Witte. They had some things in common. One being that in their youth, they didn't belong to the establishment but got their way to the top by their talent and the support of Alexander I and Alexander III respectively. Both had liberal and forward looking ideas. And both were sacked when the tsar felt things became too hot to handle. (a difference between Witte and Speranski was that W was more a hard working bureaucrat with a global outlook while Speranski was more like a real intellectual in the spirit of the French Revolution). If you don't call men like these who stood almost alone in their struggle a genius then I guess it was impossible to be a genius in Imperial Russia. Do you know any?

The difference with Stalin is that in the twenties after the death of Lenin there was a power gap in the Communist Party. I guess the most ruthless one took all the power. So not comparable with Imperial statesmen.

I think there were actually plenty of geniuses in imperial Russia, it's just that most if not all of them were in literature, music, and art. As one of Russia's many great literary geniuses put it in so many words, Russian literature has traditionally been Russia's only real parliament... But your post did give me some pause, I think you've made an interesting point.

At the same time, it was obviously the very dependency on the ruler's favor of men like Speranskii and Witte that made them incredibly vulnerable to political backlash and isolation. I mean, what you are reciting is the same story, repeated over and over again, of a brilliant political statesman and reformer initially in the tsar's favor, who falls out of favor and ends his life in total obscurity, even ignominy. There was an obvious lesson in all this. You would think that by the early 20th century Stolypin would have learned it?

I do think it is possible, and one actually has to compare Russian politicians across the board, imperial and Soviet, otherwise how are we to draw any overall conclusions about anything in Russian history? Tsarist politicians seem to have been overly, even fatally dependent on the favor of the tsar. By failing to build up their own power bases they failed to maintain power and their reforms often failed to gain any real traction. That's the long and the short of it... Even the less clever American politicians, circumscribed in their powers as they are by the Constitution and massive legislation, never fail to build up a political base of support, entirely independent of the president. It's absolutely necessary if you want to have a long career and make some kind of difference in politics. It's obvious to any student of American Politics 101, which is why I'm surprised it wasn't obvious to such stellar political talents as Speranskii, Witte, and Stolypin, even if or especially since they were living in an autocracy.

By way of contrast, Stalin proved to be entirely independent of Lenin, although he pretended otherwise, after Lenin's first stroke. And Lenin went into conniptions about this, and even left an entire "Testament" on the theme of how rude and crude and unsuited for power Stalin was, and in the end, after Lenin's death, it made... no difference whatsoever, no matter how revered Lenin was (and he was very revered of course). Because Stalin had built a power base, he was the General Secretary, i.e., the chief personnel officer of the entire ruling party, and he had the entire Soviet secretariat filled with his own men, at his beck and call, and in addition, everybody who was anybody in the upper echelons of Soviet power thought he was a stand-up guy, completely reliable, salt-of-the-earth, hard-working and most of all charming as all get out - in short, all that stuff that matters so much in any actual struggle for power.

Stalin would make tons of mistakes, some of them quite major and unforgivable, as ruler of the Soviet Union, but I think his political maneuverings under Lenin prove that he was not taking Speranskii or Witte or Stolypin as his guides, rather, he was looking to role models like Napoleon after the French Revolution.
« Last Edit: August 30, 2010, 06:16:50 PM by Elisabeth »
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Offline TimM

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #49 on: August 31, 2010, 04:15:57 PM »
And considering the horror story that Stalin set up, Nicky, by comparison, was not bad at all.   As I have said elsewhere, the poor Russians had  a revolution to get rid of what they saw as tyranny.  Instead, they got tyranny ten times worse.
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Offline Elisabeth

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #50 on: August 31, 2010, 05:32:28 PM »
And considering the horror story that Stalin set up, Nicky, by comparison, was not bad at all.   As I have said elsewhere, the poor Russians had  a revolution to get rid of what they saw as tyranny.  Instead, they got tyranny ten times worse.

Tim, while I agree with you here, it's also true that there does exist an unspoken subtext to most Western histories of late imperial Russia and the Revolutions of 1917, which basically says (not generally directly, but reading between the lines as it were) that Nicholas II was to blame for everything that came after him. He had an opportunity, it seems, and he blew it. And tens of millions of citizens of the Russian empire suffered as a result, for almost a century to come.

A lot of Russian intellectuals I have met think the same way, but they are not afraid to say so openly and frankly, in my experience.

It's debatable whether this is a fair assessment of Nicholas II. For my part, I do think it's all but impossible as a rational, reasonable, educated human being of the modern age to read about NII's reign without coming away with the sense that yeah, this ruler had an opportunity and he did indeed blow it. Big time. My overall impression of NII is that he was a well-intentioned, well-meaning fool, but a fool nonetheless. And a fool for a tsar at precisely the wrong point in Russian history.

Still, all this doesn't necessarily mean that everything was his fault. As I've suggested in previous posts, the rot in the imperial regime went back for many reigns. NII seems to have become a convenient fall guy for almost everything that later went wrong in Russian history. Very unfair, especially since his father, Alexander III, an equally repressive and oppressive tsar, now gets accolades from Russians for being so "strong" and "tough" a ruler. As the current myth goes, World War I and the Russian Revolutions of 1917 would never have occurred on AIII's watch.

Complete and utter hogwash, as far as I'm concerned.
« Last Edit: August 31, 2010, 05:36:29 PM by Elisabeth »
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Offline TimM

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #51 on: August 31, 2010, 08:40:15 PM »
One can't blame Nicholas for Stalin, no one had any notion that things would get worse, not better.  It would be like blaming Kaiser Wilhelm II for Hitler.

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #52 on: September 01, 2010, 03:11:01 AM »
Hindsight is 20 20 but it is not the same thing as accurate historical analysis.  So why wasn't Kerensky or Lenin responsible for Stalin.  I see Nicholas as being responsible for Russia's participation in the First World War and the high rate of Russian casualties and fatalities, I see him as responsible for retarding Russia's political development at the start of the 20th century and I see him for inhibiting political talent that may have come up with solutions for Russia's problems but he is not responsible for Stalin.  He is, however, one link in a chain of historical causality.

Offline Elisabeth

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #53 on: September 01, 2010, 01:02:32 PM »
Hindsight is 20 20 but it is not the same thing as accurate historical analysis.  So why wasn't Kerensky or Lenin responsible for Stalin.  I see Nicholas as being responsible for Russia's participation in the First World War and the high rate of Russian casualties and fatalities, I see him as responsible for retarding Russia's political development at the start of the 20th century and I see him for inhibiting political talent that may have come up with solutions for Russia's problems but he is not responsible for Stalin.  He is, however, one link in a chain of historical causality.

I am in agreement with you and Tim here. However, I think it is only human nature to look at a reign like Nicholas II's, when so much was actually going right for a change in Russia - I mean, it's not called the Silver Age for nothing - and think, after reading about one major blunder after another committed by Nicholas, from the "senseless dreams speech" to the Russo-Japanese War to Bloody Sunday and so on - ohmygod this poor fool had no idea what was actually at stake. He was tsar, wanted to maintain the autocracy no less, and yet we're not supposed to hold him responsible on some level for losing Russia's last chance for democratization for almost an entire century, for Russia's descent into the abyss during the Civil War and subsequently, under the regimes of Lenin and Stalin ...

No, it's human nature to look for a fall guy, and I have to say, as much as I sympathize with Nicholas and Alexandra and especially their children (who were at any rate completely blameless), whenever I read a book about NII's reign I come away so angry and perplexed that I don't wonder that Russians, who themselves and their families and certainly their country were directly and adversely affected by these events, are angry and perplexed and now basically blame Nicholas for losing the old Russia, a Russia that was ultimately destroyed and can never return.

And while I think it is human nature, I'm not saying it's rational! When I look at the large scale events, I see that Russia had serious, entrenched, endemic problems that always threatened its political stability. Which means that by the time Nicholas II came to the throne, the dice had probably been thrown, and the Romanovs and autocracy (but also liberalism) were probably losing. Still, it is possible that Russia's transition from autocracy to constitutional monarchy to democratic republic would not have been so traumatic and ultimately disastrous with another, far wiser ruler initially at the helm.
« Last Edit: September 01, 2010, 01:27:55 PM by Elisabeth »
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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #54 on: September 01, 2010, 01:15:37 PM »
thats what I meant by he was a link in a chain of causality.  Some people approach history like a connect the dots picture but it is usually more complex than that.  Nicholas may have produced the conditions that Stalin eventually emerged from but he is not responsible for Stalin. 

Offline Elisabeth

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #55 on: September 01, 2010, 01:31:58 PM »
Certainly Nicholas II is not responsible for Stalin, Stalin is responsible for Stalin. And Lenin is responsible.

That said, sometimes I do think that the latter Romanovs would have been far wiser to throw caution to the winds and take a politically extreme path, whether right or left, but enforced by actual military might. (Much the same way but not even remotely as bad as the Soviets later enforced their own regime.) This would have necessitated an authoritarian government on the lines of some Latin American ones in the 1970s (which a lot of Russians I know said back in the early 1990s was the very best they could hope for their country, governmentally speaking). But under a dictatorship (like that of Peter the Great, in fact, who was never afraid to use force) a tsar could have become a figure either for real economic and social change (if not political, that would have been daring indeed) or a figure like Alexander III but tougher, upholding and reifying the past (in which case, I think the Romanovs would only have endured until 1929, tops, and the onset of the Great Depression).

Anyway, it's an interesting scenario to contemplate. I know it's dreadfully cynical, but it's one of my revisionist fantasies, I confess.
« Last Edit: September 01, 2010, 01:36:23 PM by Elisabeth »
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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #56 on: September 01, 2010, 01:49:03 PM »
Well an autocrat is essentially a dictator but Nicholas had some credibility in that he inherited a postion that was legitimised by the church.  A coup basically occurred with Kerensky at the head of it and it was ineffectual.  The only thing that might have prevented the onset of communism was not occupying Korea, not becoming involved in the Russo japanese War or not supporting Serbia and then entering the First World War.  Nicholas was not only a weak autocrat but someone with abysmal political judgement. 

Offline Elisabeth

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #57 on: September 01, 2010, 02:03:08 PM »
Yes, if Russia had actually turned inward roundabout 1900, this could have been a very good thing. It was quite doable, the Soviets later proved that in an age of mass media. If Russia had turned inward, avoided the Russo-Japanese War (easily done) and World War I (geez, not nearly so easily done), then the Romanovs and constitutional monarchy, or at the very least a new republic, had a chance of surviving well into the twentieth century, at least until the Depression, and even that might have made a huge difference to the fate of millions.

I know autocrats are on some level dictators (certainly Peter and Catherine the Great were dictators), but Nicholas, while he used dictatorial powers in crushing the Revolution of 1905-06, was not generally one to raise the sword in fighting his enemies. He was hamstrung by the Western press. Belonging by marriage (doubly) to the British royal family, and being of a mild and pacific temperament, he could hardly cock a snook at respectable constitutional monarchists and democrats in the West who believed in liberal values and progress. A stronger ruler might have done precisely that, however.

Of course World War I is the great stumbling block in all my revisionist fantasies of Russian history. There was really no way to avoid it. As one of my professors put it, so many years ago, "Russia was basically faced with two choices - either to become a virtual colony of Germany or to survive as a European power." No question but that most rulers, no matter how clever and politically savvy and astute, would have chosen to survive as one of Europe's major powers.

In other words, Russia was screwed, whoever was reigning. There was no way to avoid participation in World War I, if you still wanted your country to count after World War I.

And with World War I inevitably came revolution, as Lenin himself had predicted. So I am the first to admit that all my revisionist fantasies of Russian history are precisely that, fantasies.
« Last Edit: September 01, 2010, 02:05:36 PM by Elisabeth »
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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #58 on: September 01, 2010, 02:26:49 PM »
well Germany was looking for expansion but they were bound on the east by their ally Austro Hungary so no expansion was possible that way.  I think it was unlikely that Germany would have invaded Belgium unless it had a good reason to.  So if Russia had not mobilized it is highly unlikely that Germany or Austro Hungary would have had the legitimacy to invade Poland or Russia, therefore there may not have been a war.  Of course the Kaiser was spoiling for a war but he needed someone to take the bait.

Offline Elisabeth

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Re: What Could Nicholas II Have Done to Preserve the Imperial Throne?
« Reply #59 on: September 01, 2010, 02:55:29 PM »
But as I see it, the problem is that public opinion in Russia - and by that I mean urban, usually educated public opinion (which is really the only public opinion that counted in Russia in August 1914 - let's be blunt, the peasantry didn't count) was firmly and enthusiastically on the side of declaring war against Germany.

It wasn't just the Kaiser who was spoiling for war, plenty of ordinary people across central and eastern Europe were, too. I think it would have been difficult for any Russian monarch at this juncture to have refused to mobilize his troops. Remember those huge crowds that gathered (they were captured on film) when Nicholas II made his first public appearance after declaring war against Germany. I think those were the first truly enthusiastic crowds NII had encountered since his coronation (the 1913 tercentenary celebrations had been decidedly lackluster by comparison).




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