Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism

Chapter 5
The Idea of a Palace Revolution

Why did not the ruling classes, who were trying to save themselves from a revolution, attempt to get rid of the tzar and his circle? They wanted to, but they did not dare. They lacked both resolution and belief in their cause. The idea of a palace revolution was in the air up to the very moment when it was swallowed up in a state revolution. We must pause upon this in order to get a clearer idea of the inter-relations, just before the explosion, of the monarchy, the upper circles of the nobility, the bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie.

The possessing classes were completely monarchist, by virtue of interests, habits and cowardice. But they wanted a monarchy without Rasputin. The monarchy answered them: Take me as I am. In response to demands for a decent ministry, the tzarina sent to the tzar at headquarters an apple from the hands of Rasputin, urging that he eat it in order to strengthen his will. “Remember,” she adjured, “that even Monsieur Philippe (a French charlatan-hypnotist) said that you must not grant a constitution, as that would mean ruin to you and Russia ...” “Be Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Emperor Paul – crush them all under your feet!”

What a disgusting mixture of fright, superstition and malicious alienation from the country! To be sure, it might seem that on the summits the tzar’s family could not be quite alone. Rasputin indeed was always surrounded with a galaxy of grand ladies, and in general shamanism flourishes in an aristocracy. But this mysticism of fear does not unite people, it divides them. Each saves himself in his own way. Many aristocratic houses have their competing saints. Even on the summits of Petrograd society the tzar’s family was surrounded as though plague-stricken, with a quarantine of distrust and hostility. Lady-in-waiting Vyrubova remembers: “I was aware and felt deeply in all those around us a malice toward those whom I revered, and I felt that this malice would assume terrible dimensions.”

Against the purple background of the war, with the roar of underground tremors clearly audible, the privileged did not for one moment renounce the joys of life; on the contrary, they devoured them greedily. Yet more and more often a skeleton would appear at their banquets and shake the little bones of his fingers. It began to seem to them that all their misery lay in the disgusting character of “Alix,” in the treacherous weakness of the tzar, in that greedy fool Vyrubova, and in the Siberian Christ with a scar on his skull. Waves of unendurable foreboding swept over the ruling class, contracting it with spasms from the periphery to the centre, and more and more isolating the hated upper circle at Tzarskoe Selo. Vyrubova has pretty clearly expressed the feelings of the upper circle at that time in her, generally speaking, very lying reminiscences: “... For the hundredth time I asked myself what has happened to Petrograd society. Are they all spiritually sick, or have they contracted some epidemic which rages in war time? It is hard to understand, but the fact is, all were in an abnormally excited condition.” To the number of those out of their heads belonged the whole copious family of the Romanovs, the whole greedy, insolent and universally hated pack of grand dukes and grand duchesses. Frightened to death, they were trying to wriggle out of the ring narrowing around them. They kowtowed to the critical aristocracy, gossiped about the royal pair, and egged on both each other and all those around them. The august uncles addressed the tzar with letters of advice in which between the lines of respect was to be heard a snarl and a grinding of teeth.

Protopopov, some time after the October revolution, colourfully if not very learnedly characterised the mood of the upper circles: “Even the very highest classes became frondeurs before the revolution: in the grand salons and clubs the policy of the government received harsh and unfriendly criticism. The relations which had been formed in the tzar’s family were analysed and talked over. Little anecdotes were passed around about the head of the state. Verses were composed. Many grand dukes openly attended these meetings, and their presence gave a special authority in the eyes of the public to tales tht were caricatures and to malicious exaggerations. A sense of the danger of this sport did not awaken till the last moment.”

These rumours about the court camarilla were especially sharpened by the accusation of Germanophilism and even of direct connections with the enemy. The noisy and not very deep Rodzianko definitely stated: “The connection and the analogy of aspirations is so logically obvious that I at least have no doubt of the co-operation of the German Staff and the Rasputing circle: nobody can doubt it.” The bare reference to a “logical” obviousness greatly weakens the categorical tone of this testimony. No evidence of a connection between the Rasputinists and the German Staff was discovered after the revolution. It was otherwise with the so-called “Germanophilism.” This was not a question, of course, of the national sympathies and antipathies of the German tzarina, Premier Stürmer, Countess Kleinmichel, Minister of the Court Count Frederiks, and other gentlemen with German names. The cynical memoirs of the old intriguante Kleinmichel demonstrate with remarkable clearness how a supernational character distinguished the aristocratic summits of all the countries of Europe, bound together as they were by ties of birth, inheritance, scorn for all those beneath them, and last but not least, cosmopolitan adultery in ancient castles, at fashionable watering places, and in the courts of Europe. Considerably more real were the organic antipathies of the court household to the obsequious lawyers of the French Republic, and the sympathy of the reactionaries – whether bearing Teuton or Slavic family names – for the genuine Russian soul of the Berlin régime which had so often impressed them with its waxed mustachios, its sergeant-major manner and self-confident stupidity.

But that was not the decisive factor. The danger arose from the vey logic of the situation, for the court could not help seeking salvation in a separate peace, and this the more insistently the more dangerous the situation became. Liberalism in the person of its leaders was trying, as we shall see, to reserve for itself the chance of making a separate peace in connection with the prospect of its own coming to power. But for just this reason it carried on a furious chauvinist agitation, deceiving the people and terrorising the court. The camarilla did not dare show its real face prematurely in so ticklish a matter, and was even compelled to counterfeit the general patriotic tone, at the same time feeling out the ground for a separate peace.

General Kurlov, a former chief of police belonging to the Rasputin camarilla, denies, of course, in his reminiscences any German connection or sympathies on the part of his protector, but immediately adds: “We cannot blame Stürmer for his opinion that the war with Germany was the greatest possible misfortune for Russia and that it had no serious political justification.” It is hardly possible to forget that while holding this interesting opinion Stürmer was the head of the government of a country waging war against Germany. The tzarist Minister of the Interior, Protopopov, just before he entered the government, had been conducting negotiations in Stockholm with the German diplomat Warburg and had reported them to the tzar. Rasputin himself, according to the same Kurlov, “considered the war with Germany a colossal misfortune for Russia.” And finally the empress wrote to the tzar on Arpil 5, 1916: “... They dare not say that He has anything in common with the Germans. He is good and magnanimous toward all, like Christ. No matter to what religion a man may belong: that is the way a good Christian ought to be.” To be sure, this good Christian who was almost always intoxicated might quite possibly have been made up to, not only by sharpers, usurers and aristocratic princesses, but by actual spies of the enemy. “Connections” of this kind are not inconceivable. But the oppositional patriots posed the matter more directly and broadly: they directly accused the tzarina of treason. In his memoirs, written considerably later, General Denikin testifies: “In the army there was loud talk, unconstrained both in time and place, as to the insistent demands of the empress for a separate peace, her treachery in the matter of Field-Marshal Kitchener, of whose journey she was supposed to have told the Germans, etc. ... This circumstance played a colossal rôle in determining the mood of the army in its attitude to the dynasty and the revolution.” The same Denikin relates how after the revolution General Alexeiev, to a direct question about the treason of the empress, answered, “vaguely and reluctantly,” that in going over the papers they had found in the possession of the tzarina a chart with a detailed designation of troops on the whole front, and that upon him, Alexeiev, this had produced a depressing effect. “Not another word,” significantly adds Denikin. “He changed the subject.” Whether the tzarina had the mysterious chart or not, the luckless generals were obviously not unwilling to shoulder off upon her the responsibility for their own defeat. The accusation of treason against the court undoubtedly crept through the army chiefly from above downward – starting with that incapable staff.

But if the tzarina herself, to whom the tzar submitted in everything, was betrayed to Wilhelm the military secrets and even the heads of the Allied chieftains, what remained but to make an end of the royal pair? And since the head of athe army and of the anti-German party was the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, was he not as a matter of duty chosen for the rôle of supreme patron of a palace revolution? That was the reason why the tzar, upon the insistence of Rasputin and the tzarina, removed the grand duke and took the chief command into his own hands. But the tzarina was afraid even of a meeting between the nephew and the uncle in turning over the command. “Sweetheart, try to be cautious,” she writes to the tzar at headquarters, “and don’t let Nikolasha catch you in any kind of promises or anything else – remember that Gregory saved you from him and from his bad people...remember in the name of Russia what they wanted you to do, oust you (this is not gossip – Orloff had all the papers ready), and put me in a monastery.”

The tzar’s brother Michael said to Rodzianko: “The whole family knows how harmful Alexandra Feodorovna is. Nothing but traitors surround her and my brother. All honest people have left. But what’s to be done in such a situation?” That is it exactly: what is to be done?

The Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna insisted in the presence of her sons that Rodzianko should take the initiative in “removing the tzarina.” Rodzianko suggested that they consider the conversation as not having taken place, as otherwise in loyalty to hi oath he should be obliged to report to the tzar that the grand duchess had suggested to the President of the Duma that he destroy the tzarina. Thus the ready-witted Lord Chamberlain reduced the question of murdering the tzarina to a pleasantry of the drawing room.

At times the ministry itself came into sharp opposition to the tzar. As early as 1915, a year and a half before the revolution, at the sittings of the government, talk went on openly which even now seems unbelievable. The War Minister Polivanov: “Only a policy of conciliation toward society can save the situation. The present shaky dykes will not avert a catastrophe.” The Minister of Marine Grigorovich: “It’s no secret that the army does not trust us and is awaiting a change.” The Minister of Foreign Affairs Sazonov: “The popularity of the tzar and his authority in the eyes of the popular mass is considerably shaken.” The Minister of the Interior Prince Sherbatov: “All of us together are unfit for governing Russia in the situation that is forming...We must have either a dictatorship or a conciliatory policy” (Session of August 21, 1915). Neither of these measures could now be of help; neither was now attainable. The tzar could not make up his mind to a dictatorship; he rejected a conciliatory policy, and did not accept the resignation of the ministers who considered themselves unfit. The high official who kept the record makes a short commentary upon these ministerial speeches: evidently we shall have to hang from a lamp-post.

With such feelings prevailing it is no wonder that even in bureaucratic circles they talked of the necessity of a palace uprising as the sole means of preventing the advancing revolution. “If I had shut my eyes,” remembers one of the participants of these conversations, “I might have thought that I was in the company of desperate revolutionists.”

A colonel of gendarmes making a special investigation of the army in the south of Russia painted a dark picture in his report: Thanks to propaganda chiefly relating to the Germanophilism of the empress and the tzar, the army is prepared for the idea of a palace revolution. “Conversations to this effect are opnely carried on in officers’ meetings and have not met the necessary opposition on the part of the high command.” Protopopov on his part testifies that “a considerable number of people in the high commanding staff sympathised with the idea of a coup d’état: certain individuals were in touch with and under the influence of the chief leaders of the so-called Progressive Bloc.”

The subsequently notorious Admiral Kolchak testified before the Soviet Investigation Commission after his troops were routed by the Red Army that he had connections with many oppositional members of the Duma whose speeches he welcomed, since “his attitude to the powers existing before the revolution was adverse.” As to the plan for a palace revolution, however, Kolchak was not informed.

After the murder of Rasputin and the subsequent banishment of grand dukes, high society talked still louder of the necessity of a palace revolution. Prince Yussupov tells how when the Grand Duke Dmitry was arrested at the palace the officers of several regiments came up and proposed plans for decisive action, “to which he, of course, could not agree.”

The Allied diplomats – in any case, the British ambassador – were considered accessories to the plot. The latter, doubtless upon the initiative of the Russian liberals, made an attempt in January 1917 to influence Nicholas, having secured the preliminary sanction of his government. Nicholas attentively and politely listened to the ambassador, thanked him, and – spoke of other matters. Protopopov reported to Nicholas the relations between Buchanan and the chief leaders of the Progressive Bloc, and suggested that the British Ambassador be placed under observation. Nicholas did not seem to approve of the proposal, finding the watching of an ambassador “inconsistent with international tradition.” Meanwhile Kurlov has no hesitation in stating that “the Intelligence Service remarks daily the relations between the leader of the Kadet Party Miliukov and the British Ambassador.” International traditions, then, had not stood in the way at all. But their transgression helped little: even so, a palace conspiracy was never discovered.

Did it in reality exist? There is nothing to prove this. It was a little too broad, that “conspiracy.” It included too many and too various circles to be a conspiracy. It merely hung in the air as a mood of the upper circles of Petrograd society, as a confused idea of salvation, or a slogan of despair. But it did not thicken down to the point of becoming a practical plan.

The upper nobility in the eighteenth century had more than once introduced practical corrections into the succession by imprisoning or strangling inconvenient emperors: this operation was carried out for the last time on Paul in 1801. It is impossible to say, therefore, that a palace revolution would have transgressed the traditions of the Russian monarchy. On the contrary, it had been a steady element in those traditions. But the aristocracy had long ceased to feel strong at heart. It surrendered the honour of strangling the tzar and tzarina to the bourgeoisie. But the leaders of the latter showed little more resolution.

Since the revolution references have been made more than once to the liberal capitalists Guchkov and Tereshchenko, and to General Krymov who was close to them, as the nucleus of the conspirators. Guchkov and Tereshchenko themselves have confirmed this, but indefinitely. The former volunteer in the army of the Boers against England, the duelist Guchkov, a liberal with spurs, must have seemed to “social opinion” in a general way the most suitable figure for a conspiracy. Surely not the wordy Professor Miliukov! Guchkov undoubtedly recurred more than once in his thoughts to the short and sharp blow in which one regiment of the guard would replace and forestall the revolution. Witte in his memoirs had already told on Guchkov, whom he hated, as an admirer of the Young Turk methods of disposing of an inconvenient sultan. But Guchkov, having never succeeded in his youth in displaying his young Turkish audacity, had had time to grow much older. And more important, this henchman of Stolypin could not help but see the difference between Russian conditions and the old Turkish conditions, could not fail to ask himself: Will not the palace revolution, instead of a means for preventing a real revolution, turn out to be the last jar that looses the avalanche? May not the cure prove more ruinous than the disease?

In the literature devoted to the February revolution the preparation of a palace revolution is spoken of as a firmly established fact. Miliukov puts it thus: “Its realisation was already on the way in February.” Denikin transfers its realisation to March. Both mention a “plan” to stop the tzar’s train in transit, demand an abdication, and in case of refusal, which was considered inevitable, carry out a “physical removal” of the tzar. Miliukov adds that, foreseeing a possible revolution, the heads of the Progressive Bloc, who did not participate in the plot, and were not “accurately” informed of its preparation, talked over in narrow circle how best to make use of the coup d’état in case of success. Certain Marxian investigations of recent years also take on faith the story of the practical preparation of a coup d’état. By that example we may learn how easily and firmly legends win a place in historical science.

As chief evidence of the plot they not infrequently advance a certain colourful tale of Rodzianko, which testifies to the very fact that there was no plot. In January 1917 General Krymov arrived from the front and complained before members of the Duma that things could not continue longer as they were: “If you decide upon this extreme measure (replacement of the tzar) we will support you.” If you decide! The Octobrist Shidlovsky angrily exclaimed: “There is no need to pity or spare him when he is ruining Russia.” In the noisy argument these real or imaginary words of Brussilov are also reported: “If it is necessary to choose between the tzar and Russia, I side with Russia.” If it is necessary! The young millionaire Tereshchenko spoke as an inflexible tzaricide. The Kadet Shingarev spoke: “The General is right, an overturn is necessary ... but who will resolve upon it?” That is just the question: who will resolve upon it? Such is the essence of the testimony of Rodzianko, who himself spoke against an overturn. In the course of the few following weeks the plan apparently did not move forward an inch. They conversed about stopping the tzar’s train, but it is quite unknown who was to carry out that operation.

Russian liberalism, when it was younger, had supported the revolutionary terrorists with money and sympathy in the hope that they would drive the monarchy into its arms with their bombs. None of those respected gentlemen was accustomed to risk his own head. But all the same the chief rôle was played not by personal but by class fear: Things are bad now – they reasoned – but they might get worse. In any case, if Guchkov, Tereshchenko and Krymov had seriously moved toward a coup d’état – that is, practically prepared it, mobilising the necessary forces and means – that would have been established definitely and accurately after the revolution. For the participants, especially the active young men of whom not a few would have been needed, would have had no reason to keep mum about the “almost” accomplished deed. After February this would only have assured them a career. However, there were no revelations. It is quite obvious that the affair never went any farther with Krymov and Guchkov than patriotic sighs over wine and cigars. The light-minded frondeurs of the aristocracy, like the heavyweight oppositionists of the plutocracy, could not find the heart to amend by action the course of an unpropitious providence.

In May 1917 one of the most eloquent and empty liberals, Maklakov, will cry out at a private conference of that Duma which the revolution will sweep away along with the monarchy: “If posterity curses this revolution they will curse us for having been unable to prevent it in time with a revolution from above!” Still later, when he is already in exile, Kerensky, following Maklakov will lament: “Yes, enfranchised Russia was too slow with its timely coup d’état from above (of which they talked so much, and for which they prepared [?] so much) – she was too slow to forestall the spontaneous explosion of the state.”

These two exclamations complete the picture of how, even after the revolution had unleashed its unconquerable forces, educated nincompoops continued to think that it could have been forestalled by a “timely” change of dynastic figure-heads.

The determination was lacking for a “big” palace revolution. But out of it there arose a plan for a small one. The liberal conspirators did not dare to remove the chief actor of the monarchy, but the grand dukes decided to remove its prompter. In the murder of Rasputin they saw the last means of saving the dynasty.

Prince Yussupov, who was married to a Romanov, drew into the affair the Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and the monarchist deputy Purishkevich. They also tried to involve the liberal Maklakov, obviously to give the murder an “all-national” character. The celebrated lawyer wisely declined, supplying the conspirators however with poison – a rather stylistic distinction! The conspirators judged, not without foundation, that a Romanov automobile would facilitate the removal of the body after the murder. The grand ducal coat-of-arms had found its use at last. The rest was carried out in the manner of a moving picture scenario designed for people of bad taste. On the night of the 16-17th of December, Rasputin, coaxed in to a little party, was murdered in Yussopov’s maisonette.

The ruling classes, with the exception of a narrow camarilla and the mystic worshippers, greeted the murder of Rasputin as an act of salvation. The grand duke, placed under house arrest, his hands, according to the tzar’s expression, stained with the blood of a muzhik, – although a Christ, still a muzhik! – was visited with sympathy by all the members of the imperial household then in Petersburg. The tzarina’s own sister, widow of the Grand Duke Sergei, telegraphed that she was praying for the murderers and calling down blessings on their patriotic act. The newspapers, until they were forbidden to mention Rasputin, printed ecstatic articles. In the theatres people tried to demonstrate in honour of the murderers. Passers-by congratulated one another in the streets. “In private houses, in officers’ meetings, in restaurants,” relates Prince Yussupov, “they drank to our health; the workers in the factories cried Hurrah for us.” We may well concede that the workers did not grieve when they learned of the murder of Rasputin, but their cries of Hurrah! had nothing in common with the hope for a rebirth of the dynasty. The Rasputin camarilla dropped out of sight and waited. They buried Rasputin in secrecy from the whole world – the tzar, the tzarina, the tzar’s daughters and Vyrubova. Around the body of the Holy Friend, the former horse thief murdered by grand dukes, the tzar’s family must have seemed outcast even to themselves. However, even after he was buried Rasputin did not find peace. Later on, when Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov were under house arrest, the soldiers of Tzarskoe Selo dug up the grave and opened the coffin. At the head of the murdered man lay an icon with the signatures: Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, Ania. The Provisional Government for some reason sent an emissary to bring the body to Petrograd. A crowd resisted, and the emissary was compelled to burn the body on the spot.

After the murder of its “Friend” the monarchy survived in all ten weeks. But this short space of time was still its own. Rasputin was no longer, but his shadow continued to rule. Contrary to all the expectations of the conspirators, the royal pair began after the murder to promote with special determination the most scorned members of the Rasputin clique. In revenge for Rasputin, a notorious scoundrel was named Minister of Justice. A number of grand dukes were banished from the capital. It was rumoured that Protopopov took up spiritualism, calling up the ghost of Rasputin. The noose of hopelessness was drawing tighter.

The murder of Rasputin played a colossal rôle, but a very different one from that upon which its perpetrators and inspirers had counted. It did not weaken the crisis, but sharpened it. People talked of the murder everywhere: in the palaces, in the staffs, at the factories, and in the peasant’s huts. The inference drew itself: even the grand dukes have no other recourse against the leprous camarilla except poison and the revolver. The poet Blok wrote of the murder of Rasputin: “The bullet which killed him reached the very heart of the ruling dynasty.”

Robespierre once reminded the Legislative Assembly that the opposition of the nobility, by weakening the monarchy, had roused the bourgeoisie, and after them the popular masses. Robespierre gave warning at the same time that in the rest of Europe the revolution could not develop so swiftly as in France, for the privileged classes of other countries, taught by the experience of the French nobility, would not take the revolutionary initiative. In giving this admirable analysis, Robespierre was mistaken only in his assumption that with its oppositional recklessness the French nobility had given a lesson once for all to other countries. Russia proved again, both in 1905 and yet more in 1917, that a revolution directed against an autocratic and half-feudal régime, and consequently against a nobility, meets in its first step an unsystematic and inconsistent but nevertheless very real co-operation not only from the rank and file nobility, but also from its most privileged upper circles, including here even members of the dynasty. This remarkable historic phenomenon may seem to contradict the class theory of society, but in reality it contradicts only its vulgar interpretation.

A revolution breaks out when all the antagonisms of a society have reached their highest tensions. But this makes the situation unbearable even for the classes of the old society – that is, those who are doomed to break up. Although I do not want to give a biological analogy more weight than it deserves, it is worth remarking that the natural act of birth becomes at a certain moment equally unavoidable both for the maternal organism and for the offspring. The opposition put up by the privileged classes expresses the incompatibility of their traditional social position with the demands of the further existence of society. Everything seems to slip out of the hands of the ruling bureaucracy. The aristocracy finding itself in the focus of a general hostility lays the blame upon the bureaucracy, the latter blames the aristocracy, and then together, or separately, they direct their discontent against the monarchical summit of their power.

Prince Sherbatov, summoned into the ministry for a time from his service in the hereditary institutions of the nobility, said: “Both Samarin and I are former heads of the nobility in our provinces. Up till now nobody has ever considered us as Lefts and we do not consider ourselves so. But we can neither of us understand a situation in a state where the monarch and his government find themselves in radical disagreement with all reasonable (we are not talking here of revolutionary intrigue) society – with the nobility, the merchants, the cities, the zemstvos, and even the army. If those above do not want to listen to our opinion, it is our duty to withdraw.”

The nobility sees the cause of all its misfortunes in the fact that the monarchy is blind or has lost its reason. The privileged caste cannot believe that no policy whatever is possible which would reconcile the old society with the new. In other words, the nobility cannot accept its own doom and converts its death-weariness into opposition against the most sacred power of the old régime, that is, the monarchy. The sharpness and irresponsibility of the aristocratic opposition is explained by history’s having made spoiled children of the upper circles of the nobility, and by the unbearableness to them of their own fears in face of revolution. The unsystematic and inconsistent character of the noble discontent is explained by the fact that it is the opposition of a class which has no future. But as a lamp before it goes out flares up with a bright although smoky light, so the nobility before disappearing gives out an oppositional flash, which performs a mighty service for its mortal enemy. Such is the dialectic of this process, which is not only consistent with the class theory of society, but can only by this theory be explained.

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Last updated on: 25 December 2014