How far did Rasputin contribute to the fall of the Romanov dynasty in March 1917?

Rasputin was a Starets, a religious elder of the Russian Orthodox Church, who in the eyes of Lynch, a revisionist historian, was a ‘fatal disease’ inflicting damage to the Tsarist regime. When doctors failed to cure Tsarevich Alexei’s haemophilia, Tsarina Alexandra sought the aid of Rasputin in 1905. Rasputin appeared to treat Alexei due to his oft pragmatic advice and, thus, was invited into the royal entourage. Later he claimed, via a revelation, that Russia’s armies in the First World War would not be successful until the Tsar took personal control – an action resulting in dire consequences. During the Tsar’s absence at his headquarters at Mogilev, most of the day-to-day governing was in the hands of the Tsarina. Gradually, Rasputin became the personal advisor and confidant of the Tsarina and began filling government posts with his own candidates. This merely widened the abyss between the royalty and people of Russia. Rasputin’s influence was utilized as a ploy to weaken the dynasty’s integrity. His public disputes with the clergy and lifestyle added to diminish respect of the ruling class by subjects. Both Rasputin and the Tsarina were political scapegoats for Russia’s declining economy, actually due to the continuing war and ossifying effects of feudalism and inefficient government bureaucracy.

However, the role of Rasputin in the fall of the Romanov dynasty was less significant than other factors, namely the impact of the First World War. There is evidence to substantiate the claim that Rasputin was merely a symbol of Russian despotism and  not a crucial character in its downfall or construction, for his murder resulted in little change in the governing of Russia, ‘nothing was changed with Rasputin’s removal; nothing improved either in affairs of the State or in the Tsar’s situation’.

Instead, staggering losses on the battlefield played a definite role in the revolution. Rampant discontent lowered morale which was further undermined by series of military defeats like the Battle of the Massurian Lakes in 1915 and the failure of the Brusilov Offensive in 1916. This crisis in morale, as argued by Allan Wildman, ‘was rooted fundamentally in the feeling of utter despair that the slaughter would ever end and that anything resembling victory could be achieved.’

However, the war devastated not only soldiers and, by the end of 1915, it was clear that the economy was collapsing under the heightened strain of wartime demand. The root of such issues was the combined destructive nature of food shortages and inflation. The most affected region was the capital, St. Petersburg, a result of the distance from supplies and poor transportation networks. The initial outcome of this was growing criticism of governmental administration not war-weariness and disillusionment. However, increasing heavy losses strengthened revolutionary notions. A report by the St. Petersburg branch of the security police, the Okhrana, in October 1916, warned bluntly of ‘the possibility in the near future of riots by the lower classes of the empire enraged by the burdens of daily existence.’ Nonetheless, little response was taken.

However, the Tsar was a symbol of morality in their lives while all catastrophes originated from meddling bureaucrats, functionaries and nobles. But, from the commencement of the First World War, the Tsar took active participation in government, tactics and administration. Therefore, he was personally blamed for many later crises and royalist support crumbled. In the summer of 1915, the Tsar became the new Commander-in-Chief of the army, in defiance of almost universal advice to the contrary. The result was disastrous: firstly, it associated the monarchy with the unpopular war; secondly, Tsar Nicholas II was an incompetent leader, vexing his commanders with interference and thirdly, while at the front, he was unable to govern. This left the reins of power to his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, and Rasputin, both ostracised and detested by the Russian people.

As discontent grew, the State Duma issued a warning to Tsar Nicholas in November 1916. It stated that, inexorably, a terrible disaster would grip the country unless a constitutional form of government was adopted. This was ignored. While the Tsar was at the front, the Tsarina was left in charge of governing. She proved to be an ineffective ruler in a time of war, announcing a succession of Prime Ministers and angering the Duma. ‘From Liberty to Brest-Litovsk’ (1918) by Ariadna Tyrkova, a Constitutional Democratic Party member, states that rumours stated ‘Germans were influencing Alexandra Feodorovna through the medium of Rasputin and Stürmer.’ It, also, describes the Tsarina as ‘haughty and unapproachable’ and a ruler who ‘lacked popularity’. Although such rumours may not have been true, it would have inevitably damaged the reputation of both the Tsar and Tsarina.

Moreover, the Tsarina’s trust on Rasputin on all matters, state or personal, was ruinous. Rasputin was hated by the people for his influence: ‘Russia and History’s Turning Point’ (1965) by Alexander Kerensky, describes ‘the Tsarina’s blind faith in Rasputin led her to seek his counsel not only in personal matters but also on questions of state policy.’ Such actions of the Tsarina would have alienated the majority of Russia, even loyal subjects. In addition, unfulfilled aspirations of democracy from the 1905 Revolution fuelled anti-imperialist revolutionary ideas and violent outbursts. The Tsar sought to quieten such political surges and mitigate social unrest though patriotic war against a common adversary of the Triple Entente, supporting its ally Serbia. Instead of restoring Russia’s political and military standing, the First World War undermined both the monarchy and society to the brink of ruin.

However, all these causes are interrelated: without the influence of diplomatic pressure, Russia would have not entered the First World War which itself worsened the internal stability of the state. Moreover, without poor social conditions, due to the collapsing economy and rapid urbanisation caused by the Industrial Revolution, revolutionary ideas would not have gained traction or without the obstinacy of the Tsar, the revolution would not have occurred. Different historians apply different emphases to each cause: liberal writers would prioritise the turmoil of the war while materialist histories would highlight on the irrevocability of change. However, it can be said with some certainty, that the character of Rasputin did not play a crucial part in the downfall of the Tsarist regime in 1917.

Contributed by Ali Qureshi

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