1 FEBRUARY 1916: Alex in Wonderland

The early part of 1916 wasn’t a good time for imperial leadership in Europe. The British government was dithering in search of strategic inspiration, and French political authorities were struggling to maintain credibility with an increasingly war-weary population. The pressures of total war under blockade conditions were forcing German society and economy into dangerous overdrive, and were destroying the socioeconomic unity of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.

In London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Constantinople, authorities were sharply aware that keeping the body politic onside and committed to victory was vital to national survival, so that even the Kaiser’s conservative and autocratically inclined regime tried to at least present military and sociopolitical changes as ultimately beneficial to Germans in general.

Over in St. Petersburg, none of that stuff bothered the Romanovs.

A century ago today, Boris Stürmer replaced Ivan Goremykin as Russian prime minister.  Unlike other changes at the top around Europe during the winter of 1915–16, the appointment had nothing to do with keeping opposition politicians, the national workforce or anyone else onside – and everything to do with keeping Tsar Nicholas and his wife happy.

It’s not that getting rid of Goremykin was an unpopular move. The veteran lawyer and bureaucrat, well into his seventies and in semi-retirement when appointed prime minister in early 1914, got the job because his ultra conservative views and ingrained subservience to the crown chimed nicely the Tsar’s preferences. For two years he’d performed as advertised, maintaining a complete disregard for popular opinion and a mutually hostile relationship with the Duma, Russia’s half-baked parliament.  To no one’s surprise, he had been the only civilian minister to support the Tsar’s decision to take personal charge of the high command, Stavka, in September 1915, and that display of automatic loyalty eventually cost him his job.

In the Tsar’s absence, court affairs fell under the control of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, a woman who combined strength, stupidity and a penchant for scheming to dangerous effect.  With liberal deputies in the Duma clamouring for the prime minister’s removal as the military situation went from bad to stagnant, she and Gregor Rasputin – the mad, monkish mystic behind most of her thinking – engineered Goremykin’s replacement by one of their trusted protégés, a man guaranteed to antagonise all but the most rigidly conservative royalists.

Another seasoned bureaucrat and courtier, Stürmer was a surprise choice, not one of the usual royalist suspects for high office, but in every other respect he was anything but a fresh start.  No less unbendingly conservative than his predecessor, and eight years younger, he was chosen because the Tsarina and Nicholas believed that unpatriotic opposition, its roar reduced to a murmur inside the blackout blanket of court life, could be silenced if the Duma was confronted by a more vigorous defender of royal privilege.  That Stürmer was a sick man, distinctly short on vigour, seems to have mattered less than his guaranteed obedience to Alexandra.

Stürmer lasted as prime minister for almost nine months, during which he did nothing whatsoever to sustain the regime he served.  Ill health interfered with his workload from the start, but that didn’t stop him adding the interior ministry to his portfolio in March and switching it for foreign affairs in July.  His general performance, reminiscent of the dilettante politicians of the Napoleonic era, attracted contempt from all sides, and his unpopularity on the streets ran a close second to that of the much more energetic (and genuinely loathsome) interior minister, Aleksandr Protopopov.

Detested by the Duma and many of his cabinet colleagues, Stürmer ignored accusations of incompetence and (false) rumours that he was German agent, and relied on the favour of the Tsarina to keep him in his jobs.  His policy, such as it was, amounted to ignoring dissent in the name of stability, and was dictated to him by the Tsarina.  Meanwhile, furious protests went unanswered amid economic chaos at a time of desperate national dependence on a cooperative workforce, and demands for his removal grew ever louder.  By November 1916, with opposition in the Duma coming to the boil, the Tsar and Tsarina were ready, albeit reluctantly, to dispense with his services.

The Tsar, who regarded any kind of parliament as an affront to the crown, had reconvened the Duma in July 1915 to provide fundraising for the government at a time of national crisis.  Now he, his wife and Rasputin wanted rid of it, but simply dismissing it risked turning opposition into open revolt, a dangerous prospect when so much power was so concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Instead, calls for Stürmer’s removal were answered in late November and the relatively moderate Trepov installed in his place. Though the hated Protopopov remained in office, the gesture appeased the Duma just enough for Trepov to secure its peaceful adjournment in late December, at which point he was fired.

Having secured a hollow victory by silencing the only legitimate voice of opposition, effectively putting their fingers in their ears, Nicholas and Alexandra then appointed a complete nonentity, Prince Golitsyn, as prime minister and carried on as autocrats, but not for long…

All of the above is a very sketchy, partial picture of a very complex pre-revolutionary situation in Russia – so don’t go mistaking it for anything like the full story.  All I’m trying to do emphasise an essential difference between Russia and the states of Western Europe, then and now.

Russia in 1916 was a mediaeval empire, with twentieth-century technology, ideas and political pressures grafted onto very few, highly concentrated hotspots.  The Romanovs, surrounded by mediaeval courtiers obedient to their godlike whim, existed in a bubble within a bubble.  Royals and courtiers were in turn surrounded by the seething, revolutionary modernity of the cities that housed their palaces, but quite rightly believed that beyond the cities lay a vast nation loyal to the old ways.

Under those circumstances, revolution was probably coming to Russia anyway.  The blinkered, factional behaviour of the Russian royal family, so often blamed for its fall and nicely illustrated by the prime ministerial change of January 1916 , was as much a symptom as a cause of revolutionary conditions.  The same peculiar preconditions mean that, much as I like to make connections between then and now, claims that the 1917 revolution was ’caused’ by the First World War are equally simplistic.

On the other hand, the crashing impact of total, industrialised warfare did speed the arrival and shape the character of a revolution that drove the political development of 1917’s vast, mediaeval nation up an isolated blind alley for the next three-quarters of a century.  From that perspective it’s not so hard to spot the direct link between the Great War and a modern Russia that, a century after Stürmer’s appointment, is being run by a would-be autocrat with a puppet prime minister.

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