An intimate view of the last Russian Tsar and his family
The cataclysm of the First World War ultimately swept away many of the great monarchies of Europe, but none of the casualties were more tragic or poignant in their passing than the Romanovs of Russia. The violence of the Russian Revolution brought about an inevitable regicide which dispatched the entire royal family in the tawdriest circumstances. Students of the period have always been fascinated by the story of the doomed Romanovs, and this book, written by a Swiss academic and French language tutor to the five children of the Tsar, Nicholas II, has become a classic on the subject. It offers intimate and invaluable insights into the personal lives of the last reigning Russian royal family, and into the politics and personalities—including the infamous Rasputin—that surrounded them. Details of those turbulent times, as the storm of disaffection in Russia grew to become a clamour for great change that consumed the centuries-old established order, are graphically portrayed. The final chapters of this book are especially touching, as they concern the period during which the author experiences the final departure of the by now powerless captive family on the journey which would lead to their deaths in a cellar at the hands of the communist revolutionaries.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
In spite of the successes gained by the Russians in Galicia in the autumn, the situation was very uncertain in the spring of 1915. On both sides preparations were being made for a fierce renewal of the struggle to which the fighting of January and February was only the prelude. On the Russian side it looked as if everything possible had been done to strengthen the army’s fighting power and assure the normal flow of supplies. The Czar, at any rate, believed that it was so, on the faith of the reports he had received. He had placed all his hopes on the success of this spring campaign.
The Austrians were the first to take the offensive, but the Russians counter-attacked vigorously, and their superiority was soon made manifest all along the front. In the first fortnight of March their successes were continued. On the 19th they captured the fortress of Przemysl, The whole garrison and considerable booty in war material fell into their hands. There was tremendous excitement in the country.
The Czar returned from G.H.Q. on March 24th. He was in high spirits. Were the fortunes of war at length going to turn in favour of Russia?
In the middle of April Russian divisions stood on the crest of the Carpathians and menaced the rich plains of Hungary. The Austrian Army was at the end of its tether. But these successes had been bought at the price of enormous losses, and the mountain fighting continued under conditions which were extremely trying even for the victor. The prolongation of the war was also beginning to show effects on the population at home. It had begun to feel the high cost of food and the poverty of communications was paralysing all economic life. There must be no delay in finding a solution.
But Germany could not remain indifferent to the dissolution of the Austrian Army, and as soon as she clearly appreciated the danger she made up her mind to avert it by taking every step in her power. Several German army corps had been massed east of Cracow and placed under the command of General Mackensen, who was to take the offensive against the flank of the Russian Army and try to cut the communications of the troops operating in the Carpathians. The onslaught began in the first days of May, and under the pressure of the Germans the Russian Army of Western Galicia was obliged to retreat rapidly to the east. It had to accept the loss of the Carpathians, the capture of which had cost so much blood and effort, and descend into the plains. The troops fought with remarkable courage and endurance, but they were cruelly short of arms and ammunition.
The retreat continued. On June 5th Przemysl was lost, and on June 22nd Lemberg. By the end of the month all Galicia—that Slav land the conquest of which had filled all Russian hearts with joy—had been evacuated.
Meanwhile the Germans had begun a vigorous offensive in Poland and made rapid progress in spite of the fierce resistance of the Russians. It was a grave moment. The whole Russian front had been shaken and given way under the pressure of the Austro-German armies. Men wished to know who was responsible for these disasters. They called for the guilty and demanded their punishment.
The development of events had been a terrible blow to the Czar. It had been a shock, especially as he had certainly not expected anything of the kind. But he set his teeth against adversity. On June 25th he dismissed the Minister of War, General Sukhomlinoff, whose criminal negligence seemed to have been responsible for the fact that it was impossible to secure the army’s supplies. He replaced him by General Polivanoff. On the 27th he summoned a conference at G.H.Q., at which all the ministers were present. It was a question of rousing all the energies of the country, of mobilising all its forces and resources for the life-and death struggle with the hated foe.
It was decided to summon the Duma. The first sitting took place on August 1st, the anniversary of the declaration of war by Germany on Russia. The firm and courageous attitude of the Assembly did a good deal to calm the public agitation. But while calling on the whole nation to co-operate in the defence of the Fatherland, the Duma demanded that the guilty should be discovered and punished. A few days later the Czar appointed a “Commission of Enquiry” with a view to fixing responsibility for the nation’s misfortunes.
Meanwhile the German offensive in Poland had made further progress. On August 5th Warsaw was abandoned by the Russians, who withdrew to the right bank of the Vistula. On the 17th Kovno was lost. One after the other all the Russian fortresses fell before the onslaught of the enemy, whose advance no obstacle seemed capable of staying. By the end of August the whole of the Government of Poland was in the hands of the Germans.
The reverses assumed the proportions of a catastrophe which endangered the very existence of the country. Should we be able to stop the invading hordes or should we have to follow the precedent of 1812 and withdraw into the interior, thus abandoning Russian soil to the enemy? Had all our willing sacrifices brought us nothing?
The country was suffering from the incessant withdrawals of men and from requisitions. Agriculture was short of labour and horses. In the towns the cost of living was rising with the disorganisation of the railways and the influx of refugees. The most pessimistic news passed from mouth to mouth. There was talk of sabotage, treason, etc. Russian public opinion, so changeable and prone to exaggeration whether in joy or sorrow, indulged in the most gloomy forebodings.
It was just when Russia was passing through this acute crisis that Nicholas II. decided to take the command of his armies in person.
For several months the Czarina had been urging the Czar to take this step, but he had stood out against her suggestion as he did not like the idea of relieving the Grand-Duke Nicholas of the post he had given him. When the war broke out his first impulse had been to put himself at the head of his army, but, yielding to the representations of his ministers, he had abandoned an idea which was very close to his heart. He had always regretted it, and now that the Germans had conquered all Poland and were advancing on Russian soil, he considered it nothing less than criminal to remain away from the front and not take a more active part in the defence of his country.
The Czar had returned from G.H.Q. on July 11th, and spent two months at Tsarskoïe-Selo before making up his mind to this new step. I will relate a conversation I had with him on July 16th, as it shows quite clearly what were the ideas that inspired him at that time. On that day he had joined Alexis Nicolaïevitch and myself in the park, and had just been telling his son something about his recent visit to the army. Turning to me, he added:
“You have no idea how depressing it is to be away from the front. It seems as if everything here saps energy and enfeebles resolution. The most pessimistic rumours and the most ridiculous stories are accepted and get about everywhere. Folk here care nothing except for intrigues and cabals, and regard low personal interests only. Out at the front men fight and die for their country. At the front there is only one thought—the determination to conquer. All else is forgotten, and, in spite of our losses and our reverses, everyone remains confident. Any man fit to bear arms should be in the army. Speaking for myself, I can never be in too much of a hurry to be with my troops.”