The 400th Anniversary of the Romanovs – a Memorable Date in Russia’s History

Four hundred years have passed since Mikhail Romanov, the first tsar of the Romanov dynasty, ascended to the Russian throne. The 300th anniversary was marked by a nationwide celebration during the reign of Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor. One hundred years later, we are still evaluating the place and role of the Romanovs in our history. Director of the State Archives and Valdai Club expert Sergei Mironenko shared his views on the legacy of the Romanovs in an interview.

What importance does this date – the 400th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty – have for us? How do we see Russian tsars and emperors today? Are they part and parcel of our history, culture and civilization or some external apanage of the past with their enormous gilded palaces and ceremonies – in short, “balls, beauties, lackeys and junkers…”

I’d never call them an “external appendage.” Tsars and emperors were living people who worked for the benefit of the state with varying degrees of success. Take Peter the Great, for one. He has always been a controversial figure. He is often praised for “opening a window to Europe.” What does this mean? I think he was a conservative ruler. Yes, he made the boyars cut off their beards and dressed in the fashions of Western Europe, but he also completed the codification of serfdom by introducing the capitation tax. He established the police state in which we still live. He also created the Russian bureaucracy. These were all his doing, but he also did many good things. After Peter it was no longer possible to say that Russia faced the East. Before Peter, Muscovy had always taken pride in its ties with the Byzantine Empire from which it inherited the Russian Orthodox faith. Moscow called itself the Third Rome, and there was to be no Fourth Rome. Peter turned Russia to the West.

Whether we like it or not, since Peter’s times Russia has always looked to the West as an example to follow. Whether we have been successful is another matter.

History is a science, despite what anyone says. Mikhail Pokrovsky’s formula, “History is politics thrown into the past”, has done much damage to this country and to history as a science in general. But history exists. It is a serious science that relies on historical facts to explain our past.

The 400th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty is not celebrated officially but it is a memorable date in Russia’s history. I fully agree with this interpretation.

The civil war in the early 17th century that pushed Russia to the brink of destruction ended with the accession of the first Romanov to the throne. This is a landmark in our history and also a reason to remember the 300-year rule of the Romanovs. Last year an exhibition, “Romanovs in Service to the Fatherland”, took place in the Russian State Historical Archives. It described the life of many members of this boyar dynasty who played a tremendous role in the development of culture and science in this country. For instance, Grand Duke Konstantin was a wonderful poet and president of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He did much to help establish the Pushkin House and to acquire Pushkin’s manuscripts… Grand Duchess Yelena is one of the founders of the Russian Music Society and the Russian Red Cross. There are many more examples. So the Romanovs made a fairly large contribution to Russia’s history and Russian culture. The 400-th anniversary gives us a good excuse to recall this.

How did the Romanovs influence the formation of Russian statehood and political culture? Are there still some remnants of the tsarist regime?

Peter the Great needed the army and navy to realize his imperial ambitions. Catherine the Great took a loan from the Rothschilds to conquer the Crimea, but Tsar Peter did not have such an opportunity. He only had one option – to take everything the peasants had rather that squeeze “surplus produce” out of them, as we were taught during the dominance of Marxist historiography. Peter was a man of resolve, and his religious beliefs did not prevent him from turning church bells into cannons. Catherine secularized monastery lands, thereby undermining the economic foundation of the Russian Orthodox Church. But these were political decisions made after reflecting on Russia’s paths of development.

Tsar Alexander I was the main figure at the Vienna Congress in 1814-1815 where the fate of the world was decided. He played an active role in granting constitutions to different countries. We forget that Alexander I was a committed constitutionalist. He realized that serfdom was evil but failed to end it.

Alexander II conducted reforms that are called “great” in history and historiography. He abolished serfdom and carried out a judicial reform that led to the first jury trials in Russia. He also introduced local bodies of government – something we have been unable to streamline to this day. Alexander II reformed the military, replacing recruitment with general conscription. In education he reformed universities by granting them autonomy.

However, tsarist Russia had many negative traits, the consequences of which we still feel today – the excessive role of the state in all spheres of life and weak civil society, to name a few.

How did it happen that neither the church, nor right-wing political parties, nor the military support Nicholas II in 1918? Did he have a choice?

There is always a choice. History does not have a subjunctive mood. As I see it, the task of a historian is to explain why something happened as it did. In brief, Nicholas II proved to be a weak and short-sighted politician. During the first census in Russia in 1897, people were asked almost the same questions as now. When asked about his occupation, Nicholas said “master of the Russian land.” He could have called himself a sovereign or the emperor of all Russia but he preferred to call himself “master of the Russian land.” This was almost the 20th century, but he was still living in “the hoary past” and did not understand the need for change, the challenges of the time. He could not have been an effective ruler of a vast empire, but he happened to be at the wheel during the period of transition. This is one of the factors of the tragedy.

Nicholas II always made decisions too late. When the State Duma demanded a “responsible ministry” that would report to it, he rejected the idea and insisted that the government should report to him. Later he agreed to this demand, but State Duma Speaker Mikhail Rodzyanko said: “It is too late now. You must abdicate.”

Mikhail Alexeyev, the chief of the headquarters of the Supreme Commander, sent an inquiry to the commanders on the front during World War I: “The Duma believes Nicholas II must abdicate. What do you think?” All commanders supported abdication despite the war. They could be accused of committing treason for violating their oath of loyalty, but all of them understood that Nicholas II wasn’t fit for the emperor’s role. It appeared that they were short-sighted politicians. They didn’t think the institution of the monarchy would collapse as a result of his abdication, but they were wrong.

Did Nicholas II have the right to abdicate on behalf of his son as well?

He was the sovereign of Russia. His power was limited by certain laws adopted in 1906 but he was a sovereign nonetheless. His son Alexei was fatally ill and Nicholas II acted as a responsible man. As a devout patriot, he fully understood his responsibility to the nation. In the first draft of the manifesto he sought to abdicate in favor of his son. But when the surgeon Fyodorov told Nicholas that his successor “may die any minute” he instructed his subordinates to rewrite the text stating his own and his son’s abdication. I don’t know whether Nicholas can be blamed for this. Some may, but I don’t dare.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.