MOSCOW - Ninety years after he was executed, Czar Nicholas II is leading a tight race to be named the greatest Russian in history.
His closest competitors? Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state that killed the last czar and his entire family.
Huh? Not Peter the Great, or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or Tchaikovsky or Sakharov, or Mendeleev, or Tsiolkovsky, or, well . . . anyone else?! (Lenin would be fine with me--just not Nicholas.)
Sadly, it is all part of a trend.
The announcement by Russian scientists, confirming their preliminary conclusion that remains discovered last summer were indeed those of the missing members of the czar's family, coincided with a major exhibition on the Romanovs, which is drawing adoring crowds:
As one might expect, it is a sad exercise in nostalgia and hagiography (quite literally):
The Moscow exhibition is at the Church of the Christ Savior, which itself is a symbol of Russian revival, having been torn down by Stalin and rebuilt in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union as Russia again embraced the Orthodox faith.Yes, Bloody Sunday, World War I: "a few mistakes." Details, Details.
In a museum in the church’s basement, mothers and daughters crowded around pictures of the teenage Romanov sisters. Grandmothers wearing long dresses and head scarves stood for long periods in front of every photograph and letter.
Ms. Milkhina, a petite woman whose white bangs peeked out from beneath her head scarf, began to cry when she spoke of the czar.
“Of course, as a government official maybe he made a few mistakes,” she said. “But as a man, as a Christian, he was a great figure.”
In history books, Nicholas II is often portrayed as naïve and weak. His regime could be brutal, as in the Bloody Sunday killings of peaceful protesters in 1905, and incompetent, as in its performance in World War I. In some quarters in post-Soviet Russia, however, he is depicted as a thwarted visionary and a beacon of the Russian Orthodox faith.
The best antidote for this sort of sentimental reactionary twaddle is Thomas Babington Macaulay's defense of the English Revolution and execution of Charles I in the brilliant youthful essay on Milton (1825):
They [the English revolutionaries] were compelled to choose whether they would trust a tyrant or conquer him. We think that they chose wisely and nobly.
The advocates of Charles, like the advocates of other malefactors against whom overwhelming evidence is produced, generally decline all controversy about the facts, and content themselves with calling testimony to character. He had so many private virtues! And had James the Second no private virtues? Was Oliver Cromwell, his bitterest enemies themselves being judges, destitute of private virtues? And what, after all, are the virtues ascribed to Charles? A religious zeal, not more sincere than that of his son, and fully as weak and narrow-minded, and a few of the ordinary household decencies which half the tombstones in England claim for those who lie beneath them. A good father! A good husband! Ample apologies indeed for fifteen years of persecution, tyranny, and falsehood!
We charge him with having broken his coronation oath; and we are told that he kept his marriage vow! We accuse him of having given up his people to the merciless inflictions of the most hot-headed and hard-hearted of prelates; and the defence is, that he took his little son on his knee and kissed him! We censure him for having violated the articles of the Petition of Right, after having, for good and valuable consideration, promised to observe them; and we are informed that he was accustomed to hear prayers at six o’clock in the morning! It is to such considerations as these, together with his Vandyck dress, his handsome face, and his peaked beard, that he owes, we verily believe, most of his popularity with the present generation.
For ourselves, we own that we do not understand the common phrase, a good man, but a bad king. [emphasis added] We can as easily conceive a good man and an unnatural father, or a good man and a treacherous friend. We cannot, in estimating the character of an individual, leave out of our consideration his conduct in the most important of all human relations; and if in that relation we find him to have been selfish, cruel, and deceitful, we shall take the liberty to call him a bad man, in spite of all his temperance at table, and all his regularity at chapel.