The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution, Robert Service, Macmillan, 382pp, £25
What President Putin’s government calls the “Great Russian Revolution of 1917” was triggered by the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, bringing 300 years of Romanov rule to a precipitate end. Although hailed as the beginning of a democratic revolution, Nicholas’s renunciation plunged Russia into a maelstrom of violence, chaos and social upheaval. Into this tumult strode Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who returned to Russia from exile in April 1917 intent on a socialist revolution that would replace Tsarism with people’s power under the leadership of his Bolshevik Party.
Nicholas II may have been an autocrat but he was also a patriot and a true believer in the virtues of Tsarist-ruled Russia. He despised politicians but revered his armed forces. Russia was in the midst of the first World War when he resigned in March 1917, prompted by his military commanders. They had advised such a step was necessary in order to stabilise the domestic political situation since the Tsarist authorities had been overwhelmed by a popular revolt and by a soldiers’ mutiny in the country’s capital, Petrograd.
Nicholas abdicated in favour of his brother Michael but the Grand Duke didn’t want the throne and power passed to a Provisional Government. Nicholas wanted to go quietly into exile, preferably to Britain. The problem was that the Provisional Government had to share power with the socialist leaders of the radical revolt in Petrograd, who were determined the Tsar should stand trial for his alleged crimes against the Russian people.
Nicholas and his family were placed under house arrest and came under Bolshevik control when Lenin seized power in November 1917. By this time the former Tsar and his entourage had been despatched to Siberia. Lenin wanted the public spectacle of a show trial in Petrograd but his ambition was thwarted by the outbreak of the Russian civil war. Instead, fearful that Nicholas would fall into enemy hands and become the figurehead for an anti-Bolshevik revolt, the Tsar, his family and a number of retainers were executed in Ekaterinburg in July, 1918.
Robert Service made his name as the author of an acclaimed three-volume biography of Lenin. More recently, he has published biographies of Stalin and Trotsky. His latest book focuses on what happened to Nicholas after his resignation and the Tsar's reflections on the unfolding Russian Revolution. Among Service's new sources is evidence of the books Nicholas read during the months he languished under house arrest. Deprived of his own book collection Nicholas borrowed from local libraries or read whatever was available in his various places of confinement. He had a penchant for history, especially military history and the lives of his Romanov ancestors. As a fan of Russian literature, Nicholas was so taken by Tolstoy's War and Peace that he read aloud to his family the novel's huge final section. And, like many of his compatriots, he believed in the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy to subvert civilisation.
While there is some hard evidence in his diary of what Nicholas thought about his reading matter, most of Service’s comments in this regard are pure speculation. More convincing is his utilisation of various memoirs and witness statements from which Service concludes that those who adjudge Nicholas as dogmatic and mentally rigid have a point. It seems Russia’s last Tsar learned little from his own downfall and failed to comprehend the revolution sweeping his country.
Service dearly wants to indict Lenin for the murder of the Tsar but has to admit there is no direct evidence he was complicit in the decision by Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg to execute the royal family. Service’s efforts to concoct a conspiracy theory about a cover-up of Lenin’s role in the Tsar’s killing are unconvincing. The simple truth is that Ekaterinburg was about to be captured by the Bolsheviks’ opponents. Cut-off from communications with Moscow, the locals took the initiative, confident their actions would be endorsed by Lenin.
Millions died in the Russian civil war and millions more were imprisoned or killed by Lenin and his successor, Joseph Stalin. Not until the 1950s did the Soviet regime evolve into a relatively mild authoritarian state. But the murder of the Tsar continued to be seen as one of the Bolsheviks’ most barbaric acts. In January 2016, Putin cited the execution of the Tsar’s family as a grotesque example of Soviet repression: “There could have been some ideological grounds to destroy possible heirs, I suppose. But why did they have to kill Doctor Botkin? Why kill the servants – people of a proletarian background? What for? To cover up the crime.”
The Russian Revolution: A New History, Sean McMeekin, Profile Books, 446pp, £25
Scott McMeekin also has Lenin firmly in his sights in his engaging and lively history of the Russian Revolution. From the moment he returned to Russia in April 1917, courtesy of a train provided by the Germans, Lenin was dogged by accusations he was a German agent whose mission was to disrupt the country’s war effort and open it to conquest by the enemy.
McMeekin’s spin on Lenin’s “Germangate” scandal is that the Germans were the ones manipulated. Lenin used German money to keep the Bolshevik printing presses rolling and to pay rent-a-crowd mobs in Petrograd. It was the Germans’ repulse of the Provisional Government’s military offensive in summer 1917 that paved the way for Bolshevik subversion of Russia’s armed forces. To survive in office Lenin’s government needed peace and the Germans gave it to him when they agreed a ceasefire with Russia in December 1917. A couple of months later the Germans resumed military operations and imposed a draconian peace on the Bolsheviks but left Lenin in charge of the Russian core of the former Tsarist empire. From this base Lenin was able to build the five-million-strong Red Army that won the civil war. But Lenin’s masterstroke was to persuade the defeated Germans to agree a trade deal in 1922 that averted his government’s imminent bankruptcy.
McMeekin likes Lenin even less than does Service. But he recognises Lenin’s “ferocious will to power” and admits that the Bolsheviks’ promise to end the war was a winning argument in Russia in 1917.
The great merit of McMeekin’s book is its interweaving of military and political events. Russia was a country at war in 1917 and military events shaped decisively its revolutionary upheavals. The same was true of the civil war: the Bolshevik victory had many causes but it was primarily a feat of arms.
In the book’s introduction McMeekin affects a lofty impartiality, presenting himself as a scholar seeking to use the facts to transcend the ideological and political debates that have bedevilled histories of the Russian Revolution. However, McMeekin’s fierce anti-communism is evident throughout the book and culminates with a warning that “the popularity of Marxist-style maximalist socialism is on the rise again in the United States and other Western ‘capitalist’ countries” a reference, it must be presumed, to Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
McMeekin’s conservative politics blind him to the driving idealism and utopianism of the Bolsheviks. Lenin and his comrades utilised political violence but it was not their preference. Nor was their aim from the outset to create a repressive state. The authoritarianism of Soviet socialism was shaped by its inception during a brutal civil war in which the Bolsheviks fought not only against their domestic enemies but also against large-scale military interventions by a grand coalition of capitalist states. Isolated and gripped by a siege mentality, the Bolsheviks pursued a blood-stained path to their version of socialist modernity.
McMeekin admonishes his readers to stiffen their defences and “resist armed prophets promising social perfection”. Another lesson of history is that those who isolate Russia and demonise its leader do so at their peril.
Geoffrey Roberts is Professor of History at University College Cork and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy