Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Roots of Disaster: Why Grand Duke Nicholas Was Forced to Go

Grand Duke Nicholas

By Daniel W. Graf

One of the few military policy questions which had not been decided prior to the outbreak of the war was who would assume the awesome responsibility of commanding the army and hence governing the western borderlands. Jealous as ever of his imperial prerogatives, Nicholas II had shied away from designating anyone for the post of supreme commander-in-chief, although at least some of his generals were adamant in insisting that this decision too had to be made well in advance of any war if mobilization was to run smoothly. There is no doubt but that the tsar toyed with the idea of assuming the post himself in the event of a European war. He almost did. Only after vigorous protestations by members of the Council of Ministers, who argued that the tsar was needed in St. Petersburg, did Nicholas reverse himself and appoint Grand Duke Nicholas to command the operational army. According to General Polivanov, the grand duke, a man of great emotion, wept bitterly on receiving word of his new appointment, realizing how unprepared he was for it.

It must be admitted that the grand duke's position could have been properly filled only by a genius of superhuman abilities. After all, he was responsible not only for the conduct of military operations on both land and sea but for the government of a good part of European Russia as well. More specific, Grand Duke Nicholas became a virtually independent viceroy presiding—at least theoretically—over all aspects of the civil administration of the theater of operations. The regulations granted him unlimited "extraordinary authority" subject only to his ultimate responsibility to the tsar himself. When things turned out badly, as they did in 1915, the Grand Duke was thus placed to bear all responsibility and receive all criticism for the declining fortunes of the nations.

The mounting disillusionment and ultimate despair of the members of the government during the summer of 1915 are compellingly documented in the records of the ministerial sessions. The situation deteriorated so rapidly that already on 8 July, at a meeting of the Council of Ministers chaired by the tsar, the ministers were insisting on the need to convene another general meeting with the senior military commanders. As the dimensions of the military disaster and the adverse effects of the policies being pursued in the theater of operations grew, the ministers continued to insist on "an urgent and immediate conference of the tsar with his generals and ministers."

The story is an ironic one. The emotional attacks on Stavka which the ministers launched during the demoralizing summer of 1915, when thrown into the balance alongside the empress's violent hatred of the Grand Duke Nicholas, the emperor's scarcely suppressed urge to lead the army, and the disastrous showing of the Russians during the great retreat, tipped the scales against the supreme commander. Nicholas II decided, at the end of July or the beginning of August, to assume personal command of the armed forces.

The Tsar and the Grand Duke

The ministers, whose verbal blasts at Stavka were in part a spontaneous expression of frustration and in part a hopeless attempt to precipitate some reform of Stavka's ways, including the removal of Nicholas's key assistant, General Nikolai Ianushkevich if possible, neither foresaw nor desired the grand duke's dismissal. Once they learned of the tsar's decision on 6 August, almost all of the ministers engaged in persistent and increasingly desperate attempts to save the grand duke his command. Some of the more liberal ministers apparently continued to hope that the grand duke, once secured in his position at Stavka and freed from the pernicious influence of Ianushkevich, would resume his role as their political ally. All of the ministers feared the psychological consequences of the assumption of command by the tsar at a time when the army was in headlong flight and hopes of slowing the Germany advance appeared nonexistent. The ministers' complaints about headquarters, by themselves, need not have led to the dismissal of the grand duke, even though the members of the government frequently failed in their frustration to make it clear that Ianushkevich, and not the grand duke, was the real subject of their displeasure. However, in persistently criticizing Stavka, the ministers unwittingly added their support to the fevered denunciations of the grand duke to which Empress Alexandra continually subjected the tsar.

The hostility between Empress Alexandra and Grand Duke Nicholas was rooted in their respective views of the self-styled holy man, Rasputin. An early enthusiast, the grand duke had become one of the most outspoken critics of the starets. From that point on, the empress viewed the grand duke both as a personal enemy and as an "enemy of God." Her suspicions of the grand duke were greatly intensified by persistent rumors emanating from Stavka in 1915 that the supreme commander-in-chief was discussing the possibility of a palace coup with the chief of His Imperial Majesty's Field-Chancery, Prince V. N. Orlov. The preponderance of evidence suggests that Grand Duke Nicholas and Prince Orlov, a man of little discretion, did indeed discuss the desirability of freeing the tsar from the pernicious influence of his wife and Rasputin. However, the discussions apparently remained highly theoretical as neither the grand duke nor the prince was willing to contemplate the use of force.

Whether by design or from fears and presentiments honestly held, the empress managed to strike a responsive chord in her insecure husband by reiterating in later letters the belief that the grand duke was plotting to upstage the tsar and usurp his prerogatives. She put her case strongly: he meddles in civil affairs, gives orders to members of the tsar's own suite, and even "words his telegrams, answers to governors, etc. in your style—his ought to be more simple and humble and other things." Another recurring theme in the tsaritsa's correspondence is that as a person who has turned against a man of God, Grand Duke Nicholas's advice must be bad and his plans doomed.

The Imperial Family, Absent the Tsar, with Rasputin

On 23 August 1915, Nicholas II assumed the supreme command from Grand Duke Nicholas, and the opportunity was taken to rid the tsar of two other perceived liabilities as well. At the request of the grand duke, General Ianushkevich was assigned to him as military assistant to the viceroy of the Caucasus, and Prince Orlov, that avowed opponent of Rasputin, was dispatched to the Caucasus as the new viceroy's civil assistant In any case, the tsar's assumption of supreme command presumably relieved the empress' more immediate anxieties while at the same time putting her in a position to assume a much more active role in politics in Petrograd. Nicholas wrote from Stavka on 25 August giving her leave to assume political leadership.

Source: Relevance, Winter 2010

1 comment:

  1. Stavka was the Imperial Russian High Command, very roughly comparable to the German General Staff.