, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is the first in a series of posts about Anglo-Russian relations in the 1910s and 1920s, exploring themes and stories connected to my book, The Secret Twenties: British Intelligence, the Russians and the Jazz Age (published by Granta, September 2017).

Young Nicholas

Nicholas II, pictured in 1895, still young and perhaps hopeful early in his reign.

A century ago this week, Russia found herself in a state of turmoil with all her society, everyone from princes to peasants, frantically struggling to work out what the Tsar’s sensational abdication meant for them. Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor of All the Russias, had clung doggedly to his throne for more than twenty-two years, offering only a minimum of concessions to those of his subjects who wanted a fairer society while punishing many who dared to campaign for basic freedoms and a less autocratic regime. Revolution had long been prophesied but, when it came, it was nonetheless a great shock. Hundreds of years of unbroken one-person rule suddenly ended and the future was riven with insecurity.

This sense of uncertainty was international, spilling over Russia’s borders into the rest of Europe and beyond, with governments and individuals in dozens of countries left to wonder how the revolution would affect them and what response it would be appropriate to have. A major upheaval in the internal affairs of any great power tends to have wider ramifications, but this was even truer than normal in the unique context of 1917, with the Great War raging between Germany and Austro-Hungary on one side and Britain, France and Russia on the other.

An immense amount has been written about these events, both at the time and afterwards. In the run-up to this centenary, an exciting stack of new books has been hitting shelves (see, for instance, Robert Service’s The Last of the Tsars; Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, 1917; and Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train).

In this post, I want to share the words of one key eyewitness to the Tsar’s demise, Sir George Buchanan, Britain’s ambassador in wartime Petrograd and a man who saw and spoke to Nicholas II often.

Sir George was a career diplomat who served as the British government’s representative to the Court of the Romanovs from 1910 onwards. In the years after the outbreak of the war, his job had become much more stressful due to the presence in the Tsar’s retinue of numerous pro-German and anti-British advisors who constantly wanted Russia to switch allegiance or reduce her role in the conflict. Sir George could see that the hostilities were placing an unsustainable strain on Russian society and felt that significant reforms were urgently needed in order to protect the regime from collapse. His first priority, naturally, was to ensure that the Russian Empire continued to make as big a contribution to the Allied war effort as possible, but he was also concerned on a point of principle that the Tsar and his family should bring Russia more fully into the modern world and govern their 150 million subjects less harshly.

Almost daily during the first weeks of 1917, the ambassador sent telegrams to his bosses in the Foreign Office in London warning of the deteriorating situation in Petrograd and discussing the possible implications for Britain. These texts are of enormous value to historians, allowing them to see developments in Russia from a unique vantage point. Inevitably, however, they focus on matters of state and strategy, meaning that it is to Sir George’s later memoirs, published in 1923, that we must turn for a more personal account of his reactions to the revolution.

A facsimile of the relevant volume of Buchanan’s memoirs can now be read, or downloaded, at the following link: https://archive.org/details/mymissiontorussi02buch. Below I have reproduced what struck me as the most illuminating passages, including one in which, just a few weeks before the Tsar’s demise, the ambassador himself implores Nicholas to enact reforms before it is too late; another where Sir George describes his personal (gloriously understated) experience of the streets of revolutionary Petrograd; and a third where he reflects on Nicholas’s legacy.

‘The abyss that lies ahead of you’

‘On January 12 […] I proceeded to Tsarskoe in a special train, accompanied by one of the Imperial chamberlains, and was on arrival shown into one of the large reception rooms, where I remained some little time in conversation with several of the high officers of the Court. As I was looking out of one of the windows I saw the Emperor leaving the palace and taking a brisk walk in the snow, as was often his habit between audiences. On his return, some ten minutes later, I was conducted to his presence. […] His Majesty began the conversation by expressing the deep regret with which he had that morning received the news of the death of Count Benckendorff, who had done so much to promote Anglo-Russian friendship [the Russian ambassador in London]. He would, he said, be very difficult to replace; but he mentioned Sazonoff, whose appointment was announced a few weeks later, as an Ambassador likely to prove agreeable to His Majesty’s Government. Speaking next of the importance of the Allied Conference that was about to meet at Petrograd, His Majesty expressed the hope that it would be the last one which we should have to hold before the final peace conference. I replied that I saw but little chance of it proving to be the precursor of the peace conference, as the political situation in Russia did not encourage me to expect any great results from its deliberations. […] As His Majesty protested that such apprehensions were unfounded, I explained that co-ordination of our efforts would not suffice unless there was in each of the Allied countries complete solidarity between all classes of the population. We had recognised this fact in England […] In Russia it was very different, and His Majesty, I feared, did not realize how important it was that we should present a united front to the enemy, not only collectively as allies, but individually as nations.

‘”But I and my people,” interjected the Emperor, “are united in our determination to win the war.”

‘”But not,” I replied, “as regards the competence of the men whom Your Majesty has entrusted with the conduct of the war. Does Your Majesty,” I asked, “wish me to speak with my usual frankness?”

‘On the Emperor signifying his assent, I went on to say that there was now a barrier between him and his people, and that if Russia was still united as a nation it was in opposing his present policy. The people, who had rallied so splendidly round their Sovereign on the outbreak of war, had seen how hundreds of thousands of lives had been sacrificed on account of the lack of rifles and munitions; how, owing to the incompetence of the administration, there had been a severe food crisis, and – much to my surprise the Emperor himself added, “a breakdown of the railways”. All that they wanted, I continued, was a Government that would carry on the war to a victorious finish. The Duma, I had reason to know, would be satisfied if His Majesty would but appoint as President of the Council a man in whom both he and the nation could have confidence, and would allow him to choose his own colleagues. […] I […] ventured to observe that His Majesty of late changed his Ministers so often that Ambassadors never knew whether the Ministers of today with whom they were treating would still be Ministers on the morrow. […]

‘I had in the course of our conversation referred to the necessity of having a strong man at the head of the Government, and the Emperor now seized on this remark, saying that the situation undoubtedly required firmness and a strong man to deal with it. I told His Majesty that I entirely agreed, provided always that that firmness was not applied to enforce repressive measures or to obstruct the admirable work being done by the Zemstvos. While expressing his appreciation of the services rendered by the Zemstvos during the war, the Emperor said that he disapproved of the attitude and political speeches of some of their leaders. […]

‘Did His Majesty, I then asked, realise the dangers of the situation, and was he aware that revolutionary language was being held, not only in Petrograd, but throughout Russia? On the Emperor saying that he was quite aware that people were indulging in such talk, but that I made a mistake in taking it too seriously, I told him that a week before Rasputin’s assassination I had heard that an attempt was about to be made on his life. I had treated this report as idle gossip, but it had, after all, proved true. I could not, therefore, now turn a deaf ear to the reports which had reached me of assassinations, said to be contemplated of certain exalted personages. If such assassinations once began, there was no saying where they would stop. Repressive measures would, no doubt, be taken, and the Duma would be dissolved. Were that to happen, I should abandon all hope of Russia.

‘”Your Majesty,” I concluded, “must remember that the people and the army are but one, and that in the event of revolution only a small portion of the army can be counted on to defend the dynasty. An Ambassador, I am well aware, has no right to hold the language which I have held to Your Majesty, and I had to take my courage in both hands before speaking as I have done. I can but plead as my excuse the fact that I have throughout been inspired by my feelings of devotion for Your Majesty and the Empress. If I were to see a friend walking through a wood on a dark night along a path which I knew ended in a precipice, would it not be my duty, sir, to warn him of his danger? And is it not equally my duty to warn Your Majesty of the abyss that lies ahead of you?”‘ (pp.42-9)

Royal Family

The first family of Russia pictured while they were still in control of their vast empire.


‘We were… cheered by the crowds’

‘On February 27 the Duma met, and the opening sitting, which I attended, passed off so quietly that I thought I could safely take a short holiday in Finland. During the ten days which I spent there no rumours reached me of the coming storm. It was only as my wife and I were returning on Sunday, March 11, by the last train which got into Petrograd, that my servant brought us news, as we were nearing the capital, of a tramway and isvostchick (cab) strike. The part of the town through which we passed on our short drive to the Embassy was perfectly quiet and, except for a few patrols of soldiers on the quays and the absence of trams and isvostchicks, there was nothing very unusual about its general aspect. 

‘The situation, nevertheless, was already very serious. Owing to the coal shortage […] some of the factories had to close down, and there were consequently several thousand workmen unemployed. […] On Thursday, March 8, there had been a stormy sitting in the Duma, in which the Government had been violently attacked on account of its failure to revictual Petrograd; and it was the bread shortage that was at the root of the agitation which began on the same day to manifest itself among the workmen. In the evening several of the bread shops in the poorer quarters of the town were looted, and a patrol of Cossacks was for the first time seen galloping down the Nevski. […]

‘On Saturday – the 10th – the town assumed a more serious aspect. There was what almost amounted to a general strike, and the crowd of workmen who surged up and down the Nevski presented a more organised appearance. […] In the evening there was a little shooting […]

Revolution 1917

A crowd of protesters in Znamenskaya Square in Petrograd during the revolution.

‘During the night of Sunday there was violent agitation in the barracks, where the soldiers had met to consider what was to be their attitude on the following day. Were they to shoot down their own kith and kin if the order to fire was given? That was the question they were asking one another. The answer to that question was given on Monday morning, when the soldiers of one of the Guard regiments – the Preobrazhenski – on being ordered to fire, turned and shot their officers. The Volynski Regiment, that was sent to coerce them, followed their example. Other regiments did the same, and by midday some 25,000 troops had made common cause with the people. In the course of the morning the arsenal was stormed and its store of rifles, guns and ammunition seized. Then followed in rapid succession the burning of the law courts, the raiding of the central office of the secret police and the destruction of all its compromising archives, the release of both the political and criminal prisoners in the three principal prisons, and the surrender of the fortress of SS. Peter and Paul […]

‘On Monday at noon I went, as usual, with my French colleague to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While I was there General Knox [the British Military attaché] telephoned to tell me that a large part of the garrison had mutinied and was in undisputed control of the Liteini Prospect. I repeated this message to Pokrowski [the Foreign Minister], saying that Protopopoff [the Interior Minister] might congratulate himself on having brought Russia face to face with revolution by his provocative policy […]

‘[On Tuesday] the two principal events were the surrender of the Admiralty, after a threat that otherwise it would be destroyed by artillery fire from the fortress, and the attack on the Hotel Astoria in consequence of shots having been fired from it at a company of soldiers that was marching past with with the Red Flag at its head. Though shooting continued the whole day […] I was able to walk to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the morning to pay my farewell to Pokrowski, and on my way home with my French colleague we were, on being recognised, cheered by the crowds gathered on the quay. In the afternoon I again went out with Bruce to call on Sazonoff [the new Russian ambassador to Britain, who was still to take up his post], who was staying in an hotel on the Nevski; and, though the rattle of the machine guns overhead was not a pleasant accompaniment, we got there and returned without any incident.

‘The old Government had by this time ceased to exist, and all its members, with the exception of Pokrowski and of the Minister of Marine, Admiral Grigorowich, had been arrested, together with Stürmer [a former prime minister], the Metropolitan Pitirim, and a few other reactionaries.  By the evening the whole garrison, as well as all the troops which had arrived from Tsarskoe and the neighbouring districts, had gone over to the Duma, while many officers had also offered their services. So far as Petrograd was concerned, the revolution was already an accomplished fact.’ (pp.57-66)


‘One of the most pathetic figures in history’

‘The Emperor – who after his abdication had returned to his former headquarters at Mohileff – was now styled “Colonel” Romanoff, according to his official rank in the army. On March 22 he was brought [back] to Tsarskoe, where he and the Empress were placed under arrest […]

‘Though, during their stay at Tsarskoe, Their Majesties were under constant guard, and could not even walk in their private garden without being stared at by a little crowd of curious spectators who watched them through the park railings they were spared any ill-treatment. Special measures for their protection were taken by Kerensky, as at one moment the extremists, who clamoured for their punishment, had threatened to seize them and to imprison them in the fortress. In the first speech which he delivered at Moscow, Kerensky had declared that he would not allow more blood to be shed, and that he was not going to be the Marat of the Russian revolution. […]

Tsarskoe Selo - arrest - summer 1917

Nicholas, after his abdication, walking under guard around the grounds of Tsarskoe Selo, his summer palace. Pictured here third from left.

‘The Emperor Nicholas II is one of the most pathetic figures in history. He loved his country, He had its welfare and greatness at heart. Yet it was he who was to precipitate the catastrophe, which has brought it to utter ruin and misery. Had he lived in classic times, the story of his life and death would have been made the subject of some great tragedy by the poets of ancient Greece. They would have represented him as a predestined victim pursued, in each successive act, by some relentless fate, till the curtain fell on that heartrending scene in the basement of the house at Ekaterinburg, where, with his only son by his side, with his wife and daughters looking on, awaiting the same doom, he was brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks. The only ray of light in the dark picture is the fact that, united as they had been in their lives, they remained so till the end, and that in death they were not divided. […]

Nikolai and son Tsarskoe April 1917

Nicholas and his son Aleksei (Alexis) clearing snow in front of Tsarskoe Selo, April 1917.

‘Possessed of many gifts that would have fitted him to play the part of a constitutional Sovereign – a quick intelligence, a cultivated mind, method and industry in his work, and an extraordinary natural charm that attracted all who came near him – the Emperor Nicholas had not inherited his father’s commanding personality nor the strong character and prompt decision which are so essential to an autocratic ruler. […]

‘It was this besetting sin of weakness, combined with a lack of confidence in his own judgement, that made him the easy prey of those evil counsellors whom the Empress chose for the carrying out of her policy. […] It was his misfortune to have been born an autocrat when he was by nature so unfitted for the rôle. He never really governed Russia, and by allowing the ruling bureaucracy to disregard his promises of freedom of speech, meeting, etc., made in the October manifesto of 1905, he forfeited to a great extent the confidence of his people. The burden of his inheritance grew heavier as his reign progressed. A vast Empire, in which some seventy-five per cent of the population were illiterate, in which the revolutionary spirit of 1905 had never been laid, in which the Church, that had since the abolition of the Patriarchate by Peter the Great become a department of State, was rapidly losing its hold on the people owing to the scandalous appointments made through Rasputin’s influence, in which justice was ill-administered, and in which nearly every branch of the administration was as incompetent as it was corrupt; and then, on top of all this, a world war! The whole system was out of joint, and he, poor Emperor, was certainly not born to set it right.’ (pp.72-3, 75, 77, 85-6)

All quotations are from Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories, 2 volumes, vol. 2, 1923.