Monday 22 April 2013

The weakness of Tsar Nicholas II

Ask any schoolchild or anyone with a passing knowledge of history to come up with one adjective they associate with Russia's last emperor and the majority of them will produce the word "weak." Nicholas II's weakness is as enduring an image in history as Cleopatra's sex appeal, Marie-Antoinette's frivolity and Winston Churchill's bullish patriotism. The idea that Nicholas was a weak-willed idiot was current in his own lifetime and eagerly encouraged by his enemies - particularly Leon Trotsky, the darling of the Bolshevik Left after they excused him for his complicity in the genocide of 1918 - 1921 in order to loudly proclaim that there would have been no genocide in the 1930s, had he, rather than Stalin, taken control of the Soviet Union after 1924. It was Trotsky who memorably proclaimed that Nicholas II had not had the intellectual capabilities necessary to run a village post office, let alone an empire. Anecdotes - like diary entries revealing that he played dominoes on the eve of the February Revolution or burst into tears in front of his cousin Sandro at the thought of inheriting the throne - are endlessly trotted out to prove that this was not only a man who couldn't rule, but who didn't want to, either. Louis XVI, the king whose rule ended in the French Revolution, is supposed to have made a similarly uninspiring start to his reign, when he and his wife Marie-Antoinette fell to their knees in prayer and asked God to guide them, because they were too young and inexperienced to reign. At the time, everyone saw the couple's actions as pious and humble; it was only once both of them perished on the steps of the guillotine that hindsight decided to endow their earlier prayer with a more ominous tinge - a clear sign that, even then, Louis XVI had known he was not up the job. In much the same way, in 1894, Nicholas's tears on becoming emperor seemed understandable in the context that his father had died very suddenly after a short illness and only an idiot would have looked upon the awesome task of ruling one-sixth of the Earth without reflecting on his personal capacities. By 1918, those tears had been re-written, even by Sandro, the main witness, who now claimed to have experienced an uneasy moment of foresight when he saw his cousin-tsar crying in front of him.

Nicholas II's weakness - his stupidity, his inability to make a decision, his incompetence - are often juxtaposed by the sympathetic assertion that allow he was a bad monarch, he was a good man. His devotion to his wife and their five children, coupled with the fact that hundreds of family photographs and letters managed to survive the revolution, are used to draw a clear distinction between his public failings and private virtues. Nicholas's love of physical exercise - even chopping wood and shoveling snow in winter - are subtly woven in by biographers to suggest that here was a man too simple, almost too good, to be tsar. After all, what kind of sovereign would enjoy such unkingly activities? Edward II, the English king deposed and murdered in 1327, enjoyed brick-laying and digging ditches; Louis XVI famously enjoyed working in a blacksmith's forge and was apparently a talented amateur locksmith. All three were unsuccessful rulers, but it seems an unhelpful and reductive dichotomy to suggest that a political, and specifically a royal, leader cannot execute their vocation properly if they happen to be interested in pastimes that are less-than-regal. Abraham Lincoln got his start splitting rails; Elizabeth I liked to do maths problems, linguistic translations and check her own household accounts; Frederick IX enjoyed conducting an orchestra; Prince Heinrich of Prussia could book-bind and Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria could drive steam engines. Equally, although many of history's great rulers were appalling family men, it does not necessarily follow that a being a faithful husband and attentive father with an interest in manual hobbies should equate with a dereliction of public duty.

The irony of the pervasive view that Nicholas II was chronically weak and indecisive is that it completely misrepresents Russian history - both the downfall of four hundred years of tsarism and the rise of eight fraught decades of Communism - because had Nicholas II been as malleable as Trotsky, Sandro and popular historiography suggests, his reign and the fate of the Russian monarchy would have been very, very different. In 1894, Nicholas dismissed calls for democracy in Russia as the agenda of "senseless dreamers." For an entire decade, despite mounting pressure, he maintained that position. It was only thanks to the near-total collapse of law and order during the riots of 1905, the assassination by nail bomb of his uncle Sergei and numerous government ministers, defeat in the war with Japan and the impassioned advice of his finance minister, Count Witte, that Nicholas gave way and granted Russia a constitution, a parliament and elections. He did so after much thought and under the assurance that this sacrifice would bring the uprising to an end. It did not and Nicholas never forgave Witte or the liberals for what he saw as an humiliating trick. Nonetheless, from 1906 until 1914, Nicholas stuck with the bastardized version of a constitutional monarchy that he and Witte had created. He was certainly as far to the Right as it was possible to go without actually being the wall, but he did not budge from that position. When it came to the matter of Rasputin, his wife's spiritual adviser ludicrously alleged to be her lover, Nicholas stuck to a middle course of allowing Rasputin access to the palace in order to pray over his haemophiliac son Alexei, which pacified the Empress and her clique, but refused to listen to Alexandra's increasingly-pious belief that Rasputin was in touch with the true will of the Russian people. Nicholas knew that his wife was on the verge of a near-permanent mental breakdown because of their son's health and that she blamed herself; her belief that Rasputin was a saintly, practically virginal, peasant man of God plucked from Siberia like the shores of Galilee was unshakable and although Nicholas did not agree with her, he always seemed to regard Rasputin as absurd but inoffensive and slightly quaint. He allowed Alexandra to talk about him, but until the final months of imperial rule, he never, ever listened to her too seriously.

It was only in the last two years of his rule, between assuming direct control of the imperial armies in 1915 and his abdication in 1917, that Nicholas began to show signs of being unfit to rule. The overwhelming impression that emerges from his surviving letters is here was a man suffering from war fatigue, exhaustion and nervous distress. The patriotic fervour of 1914 had given way to the horrifying realization that Russia was fighting two, and then three, and then four, enemies on the Eastern Front, single-handedly. The casualty figures were astronomical and, with little sleep and no way out apart from surrender to Germany, Nicholas seems to have shattered under the unheard-of pressure. That may not have been how his father would have reacted, but the point of this article is not to argue that Nicholas II was a great tsar. He wasn't. But he was, for the most part, an adequate one.

Had Nicholas been as spineless as he is so often presented, the Russian autocracy might have died in 1894 or 1906. It did not. Nicholas did everything he could to keep as much of it alive as possible. That decision turned out to be a disastrous one, but it was one he stuck to devotedly, even as it cost him much of his physical and mental health. He had neither the charisma nor chutzpah of earlier Russian sovereigns like Catherine the Great or Alexander I, but he was dedicated to his office and tireless in the amount of work he put into it. The image of a man caring for the devoted and unwell Alexandra, four beautiful daughters and one sickly son as his archaic empire fell apart around him is arresting, but it is also misleading. Nicholas II loved his wife, he loved his children, but he also loved his country and his dynasty and he did his best for them. 

Nicholas II was strong in his beliefs. Perhaps too strong. He ignored the advice of family members, even, at times, Alexandra's and his mother's, both of whom he's often accused of being dominated by. He was an ultra-conservative, who only moved briefly into the liberal camp because he believed it was best for Russia. He cracked under the pressure of the First World War, but before that he had defended and supported very talented men in his government - chief amongst them Peter Stolypin. It was that strength, bordering on obstinacy, which brought about some of the successes and many of the failures of Nicholas II's reign, which should not solely be remembered by the final two months that brought it to an end. So often reduced to a simplistic dismissal - "good man, bad tsar, weak and unprepared" - Nicholas II's reign deserves to be understood as far more complicated and far more nuanced than either his romantic defenders or his most vicious critics allow. Nicholas II's successes and failures are a reminder that all history is more complex than it's usually given credit for.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Meryl Streep's statement on the death of Lady Thatcher

Actress Meryl Streep, who won the Academy Award for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in the motion picture The Iron Lady (above), has issued a very moving and fair statement on the death of the former Prime Minister.

Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics. 
It is hard to imagine a part of our current history that has not been affected by measures she put forward in the UK at the end of the 20th century. Her hard-nosed fiscal measures took a toll on the poor, and her hands-off approach to financial regulation led to great wealth for others.  
There is an argument that her steadfast, almost emotional loyalty to the pound sterling has helped the UK weather the storms of European monetary uncertainty. 
But to me she was a figure of awe for her personal strength and grit. To have come up, legitimately, through the ranks of the British political system, class-bound and gender-phobic as it was, in the time that she did and the way that she did, was a formidable achievement. To have won it, not because she inherited position as the daughter of a great man, or the widow of an important man, but by dint of her own striving. To have withstood the special hatred and ridicule, unprecedented in my opinion, levelled in our time at a public figure who was not a mass murderer; and to have managed to keep her convictions attached to fervent ideals and ideas – wrongheaded or misguided as we might see them now – without corruption – I see that as evidence of some kind of greatness, worthy for the argument of history to settle. To have given women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream: the real-life option of leading their nation; this was groundbreaking and admirable. 
I was honoured to try to imagine her late life journey, after power; but I have only a glancing understanding of what her many struggles were, and how she managed to sail through to the other side. I wish to convey my respectful condolences to her family and many friends.
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