The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Russian Civil War began 100 years ago today. Russians are still fighting it.

The struggle to reconcile Russia's tsarist and Soviet past

Ninety-nine years after his execution, Czar Nicholas II is still at the center of Russian politics. (Associated Press)
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One hundred years ago today, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks took power in Russia, only eight months after Czar Nicholas II had abdicated the throne amid a popular uprising and soldier mutiny. One of the earliest acts of Lenin’s new regime was to murder Nicholas, as well as his wife and children.

The lives of the last imperial family have become an international legend — as the existence of a Disney movie and Broadway musical about Nicholas’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, can attest. But in Russia today the last czar and his fate play a larger and more complicated role in politics and culture. In fact, the most recent rendition of the story, the film Matilda, has led to a wave of lawsuits and arson attacks aimed at the theaters screening the film. The official Russian Orthodox Church — which canonized Nicholas and his family in 2000 —  does not criticize the movie, but its conservative fringes claim that the story of a love affair between Nicholas and Polish ballerina Matilda Krzesińska insults his family’s status as holy martyrs, since it (falsely) depicts Nicholas as reluctant to relinquish his mistress upon marriage.

More significantly, the movie has also been criticized for trying to undermine Russia politically. At stake is Russia’s current attempts to reconcile two large and diffuse ideologies that can roughly be described as “red” (or Bolshevik) and “white” (representing pre-Soviet tradition) — a tension still unresolved a century after the Bolsheviks took power and over a quarter-century after they lost it. Nicholas’s surprising prominence today has little to do with the person Nicholas II was and everything to do with his usefulness as a symbol — one that revolutionaries literally and figuratively murdered a century ago and that political leaders have since struggled to assimilate into a new national narrative.

The symbolic weight of the last imperial family and their deaths is of course not actually tarnished by Matilda and has nothing to do with Nicholas’s dubious achievements as a ruler. In fact, when he and his family were canonized (after being venerated by the émigré Russian Orthodox Church Abroad for decades), only 31 percent of survey respondents approved, and only a few percent of Russians thought positively about him as a ruler.

There are other czars who came to tragic ends and are more worthy of veneration for their policies, such as the reformist Alexander II who was killed by radicals in 1881. But Alexander lived openly with a mistress, and his death lacks the element of sacrificial inevitability that would make it possible for Nicholas II to embody not only moral rectitude and family values but also the suffering that revolution and civil war brought to all of Russia.

As other czars before him, Nicholas was the ceremonial head of Russia as well as a political leader. Ordinary Russians took this role seriously — for example, when Russia’s first Marxists were trying to rouse up factory workers in the 1890s, they discovered that they could bad-mouth the government and even priests at will, but risked a beating if they insulted the czar’s person.

Nicholas’s personal prestige plummeted during World War I as things went badly at the front under his leadership, and in February 1917, a revolution broke out in Petrograd. Nicholas’s abdication the next month was more than anything a voluntary  sacrificial act (though one urged by his top generals and politicians) that he took to save Russia and fulfill his ceremonial and religious duty.

When Bolsheviks seized control of the country from the provisional government months later, they were acutely aware of the symbolic implications of their policies, such as moving the capital to Moscow from Petrograd in 1918 or toppling czarist monuments. Destroying the “old Russia” that Nicholas represented and that he had sacrificed his power to save months earlier became conflated with physically destroying the Romanovs.

And so Bolshevik leaders Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Yakov Sverdlov ordered Nicholas and his family shot by firing squad to awe and terrorize nascent anti-Bolshevik forces. The murder was above all a symbolic, ritual act. By 1918, Nicholas had been out of power for more than a year and living under house arrest deep in the interior of Russia. He was no longer a direct threat to the Bolsheviks. But the murder of the czar and — in a display of vicious excess — his family proved an effective act of psychological warfare that had a lasting impact on national reconciliation.

The first attempts to reconcile “old Russia” with the newly formed Soviet Union began in the 1930s under Josef Stalin. He reversed his own earlier policy of eradicating pre-Soviet culture to celebrate a carefully culled list of pre-Soviet military and cultural figures. Aside from the zealous study and commemoration of Russia’s great poet, Alexander Pushkin, ordinary people were exposed to a selective rehabilitation of czarist heritage through the silver screen.

Popular movies like Chapayev (1934), Cruiser Variag (1946) and Two Comrades Were Serving (1968) depicted czarist military men as on the wrong side of history but in some ways deserving admiration, setting a trend that continued into the post-Soviet period. Matilda is the culmination of this genre, for the first time humanizing and romanticizing Nicholas II. But as the protests against it reveal, this new image conflicts with his significance as a religious symbol of Russia’s 20th-century suffering.

Today, the ruling elites in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are unable to let go of their weighty Soviet heritage with its focus on social and economic justice. But they also have to balance this inheritance with the values and symbols of pre-Soviet and anti-Bolshevik Russia, with which they actually hold much in common, including a commitment to capitalism and great-power geopolitics without the Soviet-era millenarian ideology.

A hundred years on, the conflict between Bolshevik “red” and traditional “white” forces unleashed in 1917 still rages in the Kremlin as Putin’s government tries to adapt and assimilate both parts of Russia’s heritage into a coherent path into the future.