The Cult of Nicholas II

The Cult of Nicholas II

Russians' attitudes toward "Bloody Nicholas" have come a long way in one hundred years.


From this angle, those looking for the autocrat’s eternal return might consider themselves vindicated. For haven’t the benign and docile Nicholas and his sweet and loving family become nothing but props in the latest act of that capricious Russian state with whose heavy hand Stalin’s and now Putin’s images titillate foreigners?

Yet before his elevation to the patriarchal throne, Kirill seemingly belonged to that party of churchmen lukewarm about Nicholas and his family’s canonization. The homely character of Nicholas’s official life reflects the compromise reached with the cult’s enthusiasts: the tsar would be canonized but his cult would emphasize his personal virtues. It would glorify the man, not the imperial institution.


Moreover, the Church has never recognized the authenticity of the Romanovs’ bodily remains (the bodies of Nicholas, Alexandra and three daughters) discovered in a forest pit in the Urals and transferred in 1998 to St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, the traditional Romanov mausoleum, in a ceremony from which church leaders were notably absent. (At the Holy Synod’s insistence, the priest performing the reburial was forbidden to refer to his subjects by name.)

Last September, however, when a government-backed committee announced that what are believed to be the “missing” remains of Grand Duchess Marie and Tsarevich Alexei (only discovered in 2007 and since kept in Moscow’s State Archives) were to be laid to rest alongside those of their father, mother and siblings, almost a century after separation on the night of their execution in the basement of the Ekaterinburg mansion, the Church secured an investigation to verify the authenticity of all of the murdered family’s remains.

Should the tests prove positive (as is expected), the bodily remains of Russia’s last tsar and his family will finally be recognized as being saintly relics and a legitimate object of Orthodox veneration, the family reunited in a rite befitting its holy status that will surely attract president and patriarch alike. Results are expected in February.

Of course, the Romanovs’ hold over Russians shouldn’t be exaggerated. Only for a minority will the putative reburial represent a significant spiritual event. But for Russia as a whole, it will serve as another opportunity for the Russian Orthodox Church to signal its special relationship with the Russian state and its claim on the spiritual lives of all Russians.

This devotion to Russia’s last tsar will strike many in the West as macabre, and as a sinister piece of political theater—evidence of that “evil collusion” between church and state that smothers the shoots of freedom and democracy in a blanket of conservatism. Though elevating any political leader as far as sainthood is inconceivable in the modern West, its possibility in Russia highlights the cultural distance that separates it from the secular liberalism that defines life in the West today.

But does this distance make us overhasty in dismissing Nicholas’s cult as a prop on the stage occupied by Russia’s latest “strongman” ruler?

In an essay in The American Interest last year, Jakub Grygiel of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies explained the latest breach in Russia-Western relations as but the baleful consequence of the Russian autocrat’s “eternal return.” Grygiel’s inspiration was a 1905 essay by Joseph Conrad condemning tsarism as irrational, capricious and inherently warmongering. It’s only unusual inasmuch as, in the context of a so-called “New Cold War,” most commentators turn to more familiar Soviet models to explain Russia’s present-day behavior. Indeed, it is increasingly taken for granted that Putin is a latter-day Stalin. The erratic (and externally aggressive) tyrant, it seems, is the only kind of ruler Russians will obey.

Against this background, the cult of Russia’s Holy Imperial Martyrs reminds us that Russian history doesn’t begin with the Bolshevik revolution, and that reference to Soviet totalitarianism isn’t enough to explain everything about modern Russia since its collapse. With roots in Russia’s ancient Christian tradition, it presents us with a portrait of a Russian ruler quite unlike the neo-Stalinist tyrant onto which an increasing number of analysts project Putin’s aims and power. Into Western models of Russian leadership, it introduces the refreshing possibility of an “anti-Stalin.”

Though the tsar was in theory an autocrat, even before Russia received its first constitution in 1905 his powers were constrained, ethically and bureaucratically, by centuries of tradition and convention. Today, whatever “imperial” power structure the cult of Russia’s Holy Imperial Martyrs allegedly abets, the cult actually rests on a rejection of lawless tyranny: the sovereign is sainted because meekly slain; he is slain because he submits like Christ before his executioners to a divine law he can neither fathom nor control.

Preserved in the Life is an extract from a letter written by Grand Duchess Olga on her father’s behalf during the family’s imprisonment at Ekaterinburg. “Father,” she writes, “asks all those devoted to him and those over whom they have any influence not to seek revenge on his behalf, for he has forgiven all and prays for all. Neither should they avenge themselves but rather remember that the evil that is now in the world is growing stronger. Evil cannot defeat evil, but only love.”

Today’s tensions between Russia and the West have breathed new life into old caricatures that many thought had died with the Cold War. It would be ironic if in 2016 Russia’s only officially sanctioned leadership cult turned out to be one of peaceful nonresistance.

Matthew Dal Santo is a Danish Research Council post-doctoral fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, where he is leading a project on history and identity in modern Russia.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.