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The book explores how key words and symbols took on different meanings in various social and political contexts. 'Democracy', 'the people', or 'the working class', for example, could define a wide range of identities and moral worlds in 1917. In addition to such ambiguities, cultural tensions further complicated the revolutionary struggles. Figes and Kolonitskii consider the fundamental clash between the Western political discourse of the socialist parties and the traditional political culture of the Russian masses. They show how the particular conditions and perceptions that coloured Russian politics in 1917 led to the emergence of the cult of the revolutionary leader and the culture of the Terror.
Orlando Figes was Professor of History at Birkbeck College, London. He is the author of 'Peasant Russia', 'Civil War' and 'A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924'.
Boris Kolonitskii was Senior Researcher at the Institute of History of the Academcy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.
The Desacralization of the
Monarchy: Rumours and the
Downfall of the Romanovs
The Russian monarchy had always based its power on divine authority. It was more than the `divine right of kings'. In his propaganda — and the minds of many of his peasant subjects — the Tsar was more than a divinely ordained ruler: he was a god on earth. Popular belief in the sacred nature of the Tsar underpinned the monarchy's authority until this belief collapsed, quite suddenly, in the final decade of its existence. Two events were at the heart of that collapse: the `Bloody Sunday' massacre of 1905, which profoundly shook, if it did not quite destroy, the popular belief in the `benevolent Tsar'; and the various rumours of sexual corruption and treason at the court which swept through Russia in the First World War. As we shall argue in this chapter, these rumours played a major role in bringing down the Russian monarchy.
That at least was the considered view of many at the time. A detailed survey commissioned by the Temporary Committee of the Duma, based upon the reports of its provincial agents for the first five months of 1917, concluded that the spread of 'licentious tales and rumours' about Rasputin and the `German' Empress had done more than anything to puncture the belief of the peasantry in the sacred nature of the monarchy. The Romanovs themselves were of the same opinion. It no doubt suited them to blame their catastrophe on the spread of false and malicious gossip, since this made their downfall appear both unnecessary and beyond control.
Rumours played a more important role in the February Revolution than most historians have so far acknowledged; or perhaps care to know. Indeed, this is probably the case in all revolutions. Rumours acted as a means of spreading vital information (and disinformation) where there were no other means. They created a `mood' and helped to organize the people in the streets (who generally believed what they wanted to believe). Hence there was a tendency to amplify those rumours, however false they were, which played upon the fears and prejudices of the crowd. Rumours could galvanize the crowd into decisive actions, from which otherwise they might have refrained. Would the Bastille have been stormed without the rumours — false, as they turned out, but playing none the less on the people's fears — that the authorities were filling it with soldiers and munitions to crush the Paris rising?
Recent historians of the French Revolution have shown how sexual gossip and pornographic satire stripped the Bourbon monarchy of all authority. The sexual decadence of the royal family — Marie Antoinette's uncontrollable libido, the king's `impotence' — served as a metaphor for the moral and political degeneration of the old regime. A similar political pornography robbed the Romanovs of their sacred image and authority. As pornography, it was much more tame than its French equivalent (there were, it seems, no explicit pictures and only innuendoes in the text) — a fact still remarked upon by S.P. Melgunov even for the period after February. It was no doubt a result of the relatively repressive publishing conditions that still obtained in Russia, despite the relaxations of the laws of censorship since 1905, and the stiff penalties that continued to be imposed for any defamation of the Tsar. None the less, in the years leading up to 1917 there was a booming market for anti-dynastic political satires, mostly with a sexual cutting edge, and, just as in France, they had revolutionary consequences for the popular perception of the monarchy.
The Market-place for Rumours
The market was exploited in many different forms. Pornographic cartoons and verses circulated by hand. Home-typed copies of spicy stories such as `The Restless Saint and Horse-Thief Grigorii' (written in December 1915) or `The Holy Devil' by S. Trufanov (a.k.a. the monk Iliodor) were reproduced in their thousands. Iliodor claimed that Rasputin was the real father of the Tsarevich, that he was the effective ruler of the country, and that he was responsible for starting the war. The monk tried to sell his story to the Germans, and there was talk of air-dropping copies of it to the Russian soldiers at the Front. New and more daring stories and verses appeared after Rasputin's murder:
And rumour had it that at his grave It was ordered to plant only a lily And write an epitaph: `Here lies A member of the Imperial Family'
After the February Revolution newspapers printed extracts from these tales and verses, satirical ditties and anecdotes. The more daring editors published documents, which were clearly forgeries, purporting to show the sexual liaisons between the Empress and Rasputin, or printed fabrications of her `treacherous telegrams'. Street traders grew rich from the sales of pamphlets such as `The Secrets of the Romanovs', `The Life and Adventures of Grigorii Rasputin', and `The Tsarina and Rasputin', which sold between 25,000 and 50,000 copies each. There was even a best-selling `historical' novel on the subject.
Then there were the smutty postcards — drawings of the nude Tsarina lying with Rasputin; the cabarets and circuses, satires, plays and farces, with such suggestive titles as `Rasputin's Night-Time Orgies'. This had audiences laughing in the aisles at its sexual innuendoes (PROTOPOPOV: `Rasputin has enormous talent'; MADAME VYRUBOVA: `Oh, I know, an enormous talent') in two performances every day for nearly two months in 1917. Alexander Blok, who attended one such play, noted in his diary on 1 June: `Yesterday evening in the little theatre — a show about Rasputin and Anna Vyrubova. Cruel stuff from the streets. Despite the poor acting and coarseness, there was a grain of truth. The audience (there were a lot of soldiers) was hysterical with laughter.'
As one would expect, the political pornography of 1917 was much more daring and expansive than that of the previous years. The myths it peddled, after all, had become almost part of the official version of events leading to the downfall of the monarchy in so far as, after the February Revolution, they were freely repeated by the press as `facts', and to some extent believed by people such as Blok who sat on the Provisional Government's Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry into the malfeasance `of the court (on which more below). However, the productions of 1917 took nearly all their plots and ideas, themes and motifs from the productions of previous years.
During the spring of 1917 there was an outpouring of scandal-mongering about Rasputin and the licentious royals. The cinemas were packed with audiences ogling at cheap-thrill movies such as The Secrets of the Romanovs, The Secret Story of the Ballerina Kshesinskaia, The Shame of the House of Romanovs and Traitors of Russia.
To Russian public sensibilities, unused to the sort of cheap erotica that could be found in any back-street cinema or theatre in the West, much of this appeared like cheap pornography (which no doubt much of it was). There were frequent calls to ban performances, and sometimes scuffles broke out in cinemas and theatres. Cinema employees appealed to the Minister of Justice, Alexander Kerensky, to clamp down on `shameless businessmen', who took advantage of the liberated people's joy to put out films, made in two or three days, on the filthy subject of the deposed monarchy. Censorship of films was introduced in a piecemeal fashion during 1917. Some of the most offensive scenes were cut — although, interestingly, this was often because the scenes in question had offended not just the sexual but the moral and political code. For example, the Provisional Committee for the Regulation of Theatrical Life in Moscow ordered the film company of I.G. Libkin to cut the scenes from its film Dark Forces in which Rasputin `gave a lesson in humility' to a group of society ladies in the baths.
This sort of censorship was an exception. There was little control of the media in 1917. In any case, it would have been impossible to censor more than a small fraction of all such productions in the press and journals, cinemas and theatres, throughout Russia. By 1917 there had developed an independent street culture that was simply too pervasive to control. Its purveyors claimed to know the truth about the court, and this gave the people, who believed them, a real sense of power — manifested, as is carnival, in mockery and defamation of the monarchy.
Theme I: Moral Corruption
The stories of sexual corruption at the court served as a metaphor for the diseased condition of the Romanov regime. The Tsarina, like Marie Antoinette, was accused of cheating on her husband. She had `committed such debauchery', it was claimed in The Secrets of the House of the Romanovs, `that she eclipsed the most depraved libertines [rasputnikov i rasputnits — word-plays on Rasputin] in the history of humanity.' Various names of lovers were offered — from Orlov to Sablin — and sometimes the imagination was permitted to run wild:
In the Tsar's bedroom our dark little flower Has opened up her petals of pleasure. In the Tsar's tower our little Alexandra Has been plucked by all the Guards.
Most often, of course, it was claimed that the Tsarina was Rasputin's lover. Rumours of the affair spread throughout society. They were of particular concern to the military censors, who feared for the effects on soldiers' morale, and it was forbidden to show any films in the army's cinemas that might give rise to ribald comments about the Tsar's absence from his family. When the film was shown of Nicholas awarding himself the St George Cross, comments in the dark were sometimes heard: `He's with George — and she's with Grigorii.' After the murder of Rasputin one soldier told his officer: `... the peasant [Rasputin] was alright until that old woman came along, and of course the Tsarina is only a woman, and she needed it because her husband was at the front.'
But it was not just the common people who believed the rumours. The poet Zinaida Gippius was equally convinced, as she wrote in her diary on 24 November 1915: `Grisha is governing and getting his way with the ladies in waiting ... And with Fedorovna [the Empress], as usual.' As in pre-revolutionary France, the rumours were believed and disseminated by the malcontents of high society. A.N. Mandel'shtam, an official of the Foreign Ministry, claimed that he had at his disposal information `proving an affair between the Empress and a "spiritual adviser"'. No objections or doubts were raised by his colleagues. When the historian S.P. Mel'gunov went before the censors for permission to publish fragments of Iliodor's pamphlet, `The Holy Devil', he found the bureaucrats in full dress uniform poring like a group of dirty-minded schoolboys over its smutty tales about the Empress and Rasputin.
After the February Revolution this topic became the favourite theme of the booming gutter press. The story of Rasputin's affair with the Empress was repeated so frequently that it came to have the status of an accepted truth. Even Blok was surprised to learn that it was not true when he questioned courtiers on the Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry. `So it turns out, after all, that he lived neither with the Empress nor with Vyrubova,' Blok wrote in his diary on 8 June. Anna Vyrubova — lady-in-waiting to the Empress and loyal follower of Rasputin — was a constant participant in the `orgies' that were said to have occurred between the three (and more), even though this naive and dim-witted spinster was medically certified to be a virgin by the Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry in 1917. In some versions Vyrubova was the lover of Nicholas, while the Empress carried on with Rasputin, and this too was believed widely — even in intelligentsia circles. Blok, who was present at her interrogations by the Extraordinary Commission, wrote in his diary: 'She thought of herself as Orthodox, and firmly believed this. What an interesting combination, if, as they say, she slept with Nicholas.'
The political effect of all these sexual scandals was manifold. The rumours served to tarnish the image of the court, to desacralize the monarchy and strip it of all claims to divine authority, let alone the respect of its citizens. Laughter and mockery deprived the Tsar of power; and this was symbolized by his sexual impotence, which, according to the stories, had driven the Tsarina into Rasputin's arms. A man who could not rule or satisfy his wife could not be taken seriously as a tsar.
Theme 2: Who Rules Russia?
Loss of manliness was the subtext of the question, `Who rules Russia?' — the second major theme of this political pornography. The rumour was that the Empress was the real ruler of the country: `The Tsar reigns but the Tsarina governs.' It offended the patriarchal (not to say misogynistic) attitudes of the peasants and upholders of tradition to see the Tsar relinquish power to his wife. Tsarist power was growing weak because it was being feminized.
The belief that the Tsarina was the country's real ruler was almost universal. Even the British Ambassador, George Buchanan, claimed in a despatch to London on 5 February 1917 that she was in fact running the country. The widespread belief that Alexandra liked to compare herself to Catherine the Great served as the pretext for satires such as this:
Oh, how I've made so many plans To become a new `Catherine' And for so long I have wanted To call Petrograd Hesse.
Once mention of Catherine had been made, it was but a short step to conclude that Alexandra, like her German predecessor, was preparing a palace coup to name herself as regent and promote the Germans at her court. Many people believed in this rumour, coming as it did from a lady close to B.V. Stürmer, President of the Council of Ministers. It was said that Alexandra would name Stürmer the `Premier of Her Royal Highness'.
According to some rumours from the yellow press, Alexandra even planned to murder her husband. She was supposedly intending to bring about a `revolution with the help of German bayonets'. Peasants bluntly said that Nicholas had gone into a monastery, that the country was being ruled by the `German woman' and her lover Rasputin, and that the Tsar `had given Grishka the deeds of the kingdom'.
Rasputin himself was deemed to be the dark force behind the government. He was the `Chancellor of the Russian Empire', the `uncrowned king', `Gregory the First'. Iliodor called him `the unofficial Russian Tsar and patriarch'. Of course Rasputin, by his constant boasting of his influence at court, helped to spread these rumours.
According to the liberal opposition, it was the circulation of such rumours in the popular press that undermined the monarchy's authority among the lower classes of society. But the rumours were seemingly confirmed by the testimony of high-placed officials and dignitaries, generals and politicians, which gave them credence in the popular mind. In November 1915, for example, the Minister of War, A.A. Polivanov, claimed in public that Rasputin was `ruling Russia'. Further evidence of this widespread conviction in the government was given to the Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry in 1917 when M.S. Komissarov, the General of Police, told it that Rasputin `was the Chancellor'. General I.G. Erdeli quoted General Diakov in a private letter of November 1916: `I see that Russia will perish, everything is moving to collapse and ruin, the German organization is playing its part ... There is nothing surprising about all these evils, given that the country is being ruled by Grishka Rasputin.' Moreover, the image of Rasputin as the country's secret ruler was exploited by the propaganda of the revolutionary opposition and this too gave credence to the various rumours on the widest scale.
Whatever their credentials, the effect of all these rumours was revolutionary. The Tsar's authority, as the divine and omnipotent sovereign, was completely undermined by the popular belief that the Empress and Rasputin were ruling in his stead. Gossip turned these stories into `facts', coarsening and simplifying them in the process. Nicholas was said to be a `degenerate', `an alcoholic like his father', and a `puppet in the hands of the corrupt peasant, Rasputin, and his own ambitious German wife', Among the peasant soldiers, in particular, it was widely held that the Tsar had been deceived and exploited by his wife, who was cheating on him with the `filthy Grigorii'; and that Nicholas was blind to everything. A front-line soldier wrote in 1916: `Our father-tsar cannot live by the light of this world, since he has no eyes, the Germans plucked them out, and covered up his holes with black glasses' (inside the letter was a portrait of the Tsar with his eyes scratched out).
In all these popular versions, Nicholas was weak-willed and impotent. He had `degraded himself', in the words of one mass-circulation pamphlet of 1917, `by passively surrendering his throne to Rasputin — and not just his throne but his wife as well'. He lived `in terror' of his `manly wife' — to the extent, in the words of one best-selling pamphleteer, that `when she appears in the study of the Tsar, he — and I am not exaggerating — literally jumps under his desk to hide from her'. Foreigners and criminals were rumoured to have the `weak-willed little Nicholas under their thumbs' and, in some `of the wilder versions of the tale, kept him `plied with drugs'. Yet such was the climate of opinion in the final months of the dynasty — when everything was rumoured and nothing known — that even this was believed within the highest circles. The British Ambassador, in a despatch to the Foreign Ministry on 30 April, reported, as if fact, a rumour he had heard from Felix Yusupov and the Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich that Rasputin's hold over Nicholas was, indeed, maintained with the help of drugs. Lord Hardinge, the Deputy Foreign Minister in London, noted the report as `extremely interesting'.
Once again, as with the stories of sexual corruption, it was Nicholas's `unmanliness', his pitiful relinquishing of power to his wife, that undermined his image and set the people's mood on the eve of the February Revolution. The pathetic figure of Nicholas did not correspond to the patriarchal ideal of the autocrat in official propaganda or the peasant mind; and this was a huge relief to the people, inviting them to laughter and mockery. Peasant soldiers poked fun at the `hen-pecked Tsar who had been cuckolded by the peasant Grigorii'. The army medic (and future Soviet writer) D.A. Furmanov noted in his diary in 1917 that the peasants' attitudes towards the Tsar were nearly always `mocking', based on their belief that he was an alcoholic, that he was commanded by his `evil German wife', and that he was powerless to prevent her and Rasputin from doing what they liked. `Their basic image of the Tsar was of a simpleton, a man forever drunk and unhappy, ensnared in a net, deceived and intimidated by his wife.'
It is ironic that Nicholas was mocked for failing to live up to the model of the `real Tsar' in the peasant consciousness, because this was the image he projected through his own propaganda in the final years of the dynasty. He was not the patriarchal Tsar traditionally expected and revered. Indeed, it was a paradox that the Tsar should fall victim to the peasants' antimonarchism in this way, for it was itself a `monarchical' expression of the peasantry's ideals. This `monarchical psychology' could coexist with antimonarchism in the peasant consciousness, as we shall explore further in Chapter 5.
Theme 3: Treason
Treason was the third major theme of all these rumours, and perhaps the key in unifying all the opposition forces against the monarchy. The idea of treason in high places, which started in 1915 with the Miasoedov Affair and the Great Retreat, gained momentum in 1916 as rumours spread of the existence of a `Black Bloc' at court, which was said to be seeking a separate peace with Berlin. The large number of German names at court, Stürmer's rise, in particular, to the status of virtual `dictator' of the government, and Rasputin's well-known sentiments against the war all helped to fuel such speculation. But `the German woman' was the focus of these rumours. It was said that she was a German spy, that she told the Kaiser of her husband's military plans, and that she `rejoices when our soldiers die and cries when the enemy is killed'. In some wilder versions of these tales Bismarck had arranged the Tsarina's marriage so that she could act as a German spy.
Rumours such as these were widely circulated — often in much coarser forms — by soldiers at the Front, resulting in huge problems of discipline. Judging from the letters home, demoralized soldiers and officers were prepared to believe that the Empress did not speak a word of Russian; that the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (the elder) and the ballerina (and mistress of the Tsar) Mathilde Kshesinskaya both passed on military secrets to the Germans; that Stürmer had been paid by the Germans to starve the Russian people to death; that Count Fredericks, the Minister of the Imperial Court, had agreed to sell the western half of Russia to the enemy; and that Rasputin was a German agent. People unfortunate enough to share Rasputin's name were equally suspected of treachery. A rifleman of the 80th Siberian Regiment, L. Rasputin, appealed to change his surname for this reason: `I am mistrusted in a war situation,' he wrote to the Temporary Committee of the Duma on 21 March 1917. `My comrades don't trust me to watch the trenches or to watch the activities of the enemy.'
No one ever managed to discover any proof of Rasputin's collaboration with the German secret services. Samuel Hoare, head of British military intelligence in Petrograd, carried out a special investigation to uncover links between Rasputin and the enemy, but found no evidence. However, there were suspected spies in Rasputin's entourage, and it is possible that German agents picked up information from his table-talk, which was always loud and boastful. He regularly dined at the house of a Petrograd banker whom the French Ambassador believed to be the leading German agent in Russia.
None the less, the point of all these rumours was not their truth or untruth, but their ability to unify and mobilize an angry public against the monarchy. And here there was an astonishing degree of acceptance at all levels of society that the treason allegations were already proved.
Even the most educated believed them. Zinaida Gippius noted in her diary in September 1915: `In the final analysis the government is not even fighting the Germans — it does not care about Russia.... The Tsar is a traitor ...' Academician V.A. Steklov called the Tsar a `German lackey and traitor' in his diary. And A.N. Rodzianko (the wife of the President of the State Duma) wrote in hers on 12 February 1917: `It is now clear that it is not just Alexandra Fedorovna who is guilty of treason - the Tsar is even more criminal.' Politicians were equally convinced. A.N. Khvostov, the former Minister of the Interior, was the source of many of the rumours about Rasputin as a German spy — and this lent them credence among other politicians and diplomats. Kerensky, for one, the moving force behind the Provisional Government's Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry, initially believed the treason allegations against the Romanovs. N.K. Murav'ev, the Commission's chairman, thought that the Empress had foiled her husband's plans to launch a new offensive against the Germans by giving details of the Russian troop movements to the Kaiser.
The same notion was widely circulated in the newspapers after February. Indeed, after the revolution such rumours became the `public property' of the tabloid press. Russkaia volia, for example, reported that the Empress and her `Germanized husband' were building up a `nest of treason and espionage' at the court. Interviews with disaffected Romanovs and courtiers lent even greater credence to these theories. `I have asked myself on numerous occasions whether the Empress is an accomplice of the Kaiser Wilhelm,' the Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich confessed to one journalist, `and each time I have tried to drive this awful thought from my mind.' Then there was the gossip of high society, which was also picked up by the press, that the Empress was to blame for Lord Kitchener's death: it was said that she had informed the Germans of the route to be taken by his ship when it was sunk in May 1916 (Rasputin may have been the source of this rumour when he shocked a dinner party with his view that Kitchener's death was a blessing since he might have brought harm to Russia). It was even asserted in the press that there was a secret radiotelegraph station at Tsarskoe Selo which the Empress used to pass on information to Germany. Counter-espionage officials made several efforts to locate the station at the palace but were always stopped by the palace commandant. Of course there was no radio apparatus. Yet such was the power of the myth that for many years after the revolution, when the palace was turned into a museum, visitors would ask to be shown it.
The conviction of Russia's political élite that the court was engaged in treachery was passed on to foreign diplomats — and by them to foreign governments. The British Ambassador George Buchanan was only too aware of the court's `pro-German sympathies'. He complained to the Duma President, M.V. Rodzianko, in November 1916 that he found it difficult to get an audience at court, and expressed his view `that Germany is using Alexandra Fedorovna to set the Tsar against the Allies. Elsewhere, however, Buchanan stated his view that the Empress was `the unwitting instrument of Germany'. The English MP, Major David Davies, who visited Petrograd in January 1917, wrote in his report to the British king and cabinet: `The Tsarina is thought to be, correctly or incorrectly, an agent of the German government.' He recommended that every possible measure should be taken to persuade her to leave the country until the cessation of the war. Similar rumours — of Allied plans to kidnap the Tsarina and send her into exile — circulated in Russian high society. It was said to be all the talk in fashionable salons, army headquarters and guards regiments. The rumour spread throughout the Allied world. Lord Bertie, the British Ambassador in Paris, for example, wrote about, the Empress immediately after the February Revolution: `The Empress is not only a Boche by birth but in sentiment. She did all she could to bring about an understanding with Germany. She is regarded as a criminal or criminal lunatic and the ex-Emperor as a criminal from his weakness and submission to her promptings.'
|List of Illustrations||vi|
|List of Abbreviations||viii|
|1 The Desacralization of the Monarchy: Rumours and the|
|Downfall of the Romanovs||9|
|2 The Symbolic Revolution||30|
|3 The Cult of the Leader||71|
|4 Languages of Citizenship, Languages of Class: Workers and|
|the Social Order||104|
|5 The Language of the Revolution in the Village||127|
|6 Images of the Enemy||153|