Murder of the Tsar

It was on July 17th 1918 that the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, was murdered by Bolsheviks while in captivity, along with his family and some retainers. The executions came on the orders of Lenin, whose Bolsheviks had staged the October Revolution of 1917. That revolution was not against the Tsar, but against the moderate provisional Menshevik government led by Kerensky. The Tsar had already abdicated following the February Revolution of 1917.

Lenin's revolution was done to put power into the hands of a small group of professional revolutionaries led by himself, with a large fringe of non-party supporters. It was called "the dictatorship of the proletariat," in Marxist terms, but it was in fact the dictatorship of the party leadership, achieved through the armed violence that Lenin had always thought essential. He established the Cheka to identify and punish "enemies of the people," consciously following the pattern of the French revolutionaries.

As the upheavals, murders and deliberate mass starvations followed, the New York Times' man in Moscow, Walter Duranty even used the French justification, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." He was one of the apologists that Lenin had called "useful idiots." Millions of eggs were to be broken as the attempt to collectivize the Russian industrial economy and agriculture went ahead, ruthlessly murdering all who stood in the way, and subjecting peasant farmers to mass starvation by seizing their food supplies for the more radical urban masses. Lenin was followed by Stalin and then by others. Communist control of the Soviet Union was to last 72 years until 1989, but there was never any sign of an omelette, despite all the broken eggs.

It could have been different. An industrial revolution was under way in Russia from the late 19th Century. An urban middle class had developed, one that formed the basis of several radical political parties that agitated for reform. Russia's pre-revolution aircraft production was massive. Agriculture was being transformed from a subsistence economy into one geared for the shipping of produce for sale via the new railroads that were making their way into its heartlands.

It was the first World War that tipped the balance, with poorly led and inadequately armed soldiers returning home disillusioned with the authorities, and forming a core of potential revolutionaries to aid Lenin's plans. In the absence of the Leninist coup, Russia would almost certainly have proved a fertile and profitable magnet for foreign investment, investment that would have modernized its industry and its agriculture as it did in other countries.

While hypothetical counter-factuals can be entertaining and even instructive, we have to work with the one reality we know about, the one that happened. The Soviet Union did not match the West in the production of consumer goods or in generating the wealth that enriched the whole of society. It did manage to develop military technology, but at the price of diverting for the aims of its rulers the resources that would otherwise have gone toward improving the life of its peoples. It kept its people poor, and such goods that did reach its shops were poorly-designed and of low quality.

Communist rule was maintained by a vast apparatus of terror and oppression. People disappeared into the Gulag system of labour camps, or were shot as dissidents for wanting to improve conditions. When people had finally had enough, they overthrew it, succeeding because the leaders had themselves lost their nerve and any faith in their future.

There is an epilogue. Nine years after the fall of Communisms, and 80 years to the day after their murder, on July 17th 1998, the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family were buried with full state honours in St Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg. The funeral was attended by Prince Michael of Kent, representing the Queen, and more than 20 ambassadors. Russian President Boris Yeltsin said, "Today is a historic day for Russia. For many years, we kept quiet about this monstrous crime, but the truth has to be spoken."