Wednesday 5 August 2015

Alexandra the (Not So) Great

I’m not one of those people who subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, where everything happens owing to the influence of certain individuals in power, often out of all proportion to their actions, and in ways they never intended.

But there are some events which clearly would not have been set in motion but for the actions of certain people, events which turned the curse of history in unexpected directions. Like, for instance, the invasion of Iraq, which certainly wouldn’t have happened but for George W Bush and his dalliance with the agents of Halliburton and the military-industrial complex.

The Russian Revolution was probably the one most significant event of the last century. It’s difficult to imagine how things might have turned out if it had never happened. This isn’t the place to go into detail over all that, but I’ll just leave you to imagine a world where Hitler attacked a Russian Empire led by an incompetent haemophiliac with ministers selected by “holy men” and an army led by generals chosen on the basis of their sense of humour.

Seems too far fetched to believe? Just read on.

In the annals of recent history, Alexandra Romanova cuts a curious figure. A German Protestant princess who grew up in Britain and considered herself an upper class liberal Englishwoman, she - with some reluctance - married a Russian crown prince, Nicholas II, who was besotted with her, almost literally at his father's deathbed (he quite literally arose from said deathbed to bless their union, climbing into a dress uniform to do so, an effort which likely hastened his demise). 

Then, apparently overnight, this former upper class English-speaking liberal transformed herself into a fanatic Orthodox Church believer and an even more fanatically reactionary believer in the Tsardom. She ruthlessly opposed any signs of liberalism, filled her husband's ears with statements like "the Russian people like to feel the whip", and repeatedly impressed upon him that it was his duty to pass on his autocratic powers to their son Alexis. Nicholas II responded accordingly, crushed the Parliament, the Duma, and among other things appointed an army chief (Sukhomlinov) whose primary qualification for the post was that he could make Alexandra laugh.

I am not making any of this up.

Alexandra was also of a peculiarly susceptible disposition, going by her actions. One particularly malign influence on her was the starets Rasputin (he’s often called a “monk”, but he never was one; starets means something like “wandering holy man” and has nothing to do with membership in any religious or monastic order). Rasputin, who was almost certainly not her lover, still gained an immense hold on her by his apparent ability to heal her son Alexis, who suffered from haemophilia, the disease rampant among European royals of the day due to their fairly incestuous marriages. How much of this ability was genuine is open to question; the historian Bernard Parks, in The Fall Of The Russian Monarchy, implies that the young prince’s doctors attempted some radical treatment on at least one occasion when Alexis’ life was “despaired of”, and that Rasputin, who coincidentally sent a telegram saying the boy would be fine, got the credit. In either case, the starets was among several people – all of a strongly reactionary bent of mind – who gained a hold over Alexandra.

Once the First World War started, Nicholas II decided to play at soldiers and left for military headquarters, and his wife virtually became the power centre in the country. Unsavoury people like Rasputin (but not he alone; among the others was also a highly unscrupulous woman called Anna Vyrubova) used their influence on her to get their own candidates appointed to high office, and as things grew worse she became ever more convinced that she held a holy trust to ensure that her son became Supreme Autocrat of Russia, without any trace of liberalism or democracy. 

Widely despised during her rule - there were demonstrations by 1916, according to Alan Clark in Suicide Of The Empires, demanding that her husband be deposed and she, the "German woman", be locked up in a convent - she was probably more responsible for the fall of the House of Romanov than Rasputin, Lenin, Kerensky and the First World War put together. But for her, the Tsardom might have retained just enough popular support to weather the defeats of the First World War, and carry on into the post war world, where it would more than likely have safely reasserted its power in the global fascist resurgence of the 1930s. And that neo-Tsarist regime would have likely stood up to Hitler with all the power of a wet biscuit.

Instead, she ended up shot in a cellar and her body dumped in a mine shaft.

So it goes.


  1. As an older child, I read a book "Once a Grand Duke" by Alexander Mikhailovich ( Александр Михайлович ), who was brother-in-law to Nicholas II. The book is full of much of the history you mention, the growing horror of the Romanov household, as well as many details of daily life for the Romanovs going back to his childhood.

    I believe it was his son-in-law who, with some difficulty, killed Rasputin. In 1919, he was brought to Paris by the British where he wrote the book I mentioned as well as several others.

  2. Cool. I've thought about that - there just aren't many people who so shaped their times that history turned out differently than it otherwise would have. I'm not even sure that the big religious figures can really be credited with that.

    20th century Russian history is fascinating, and I learned almost nothing about it when I was in grade school and high school because, well, you know...


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