Lessons in Russian history: The end of monarchy in France and Russia (Part I)

Submitted by Olivia Kroth        

On the 21st of January 1793, the French King Louis XVI was decapitated in Paris, France. On the 16th of July 1918, Tsar Nicholas II was shot in Yekaterinburg, Russia. 125 years passed between these two events, which seem not to have much in common. However, the decapitation in Paris and the shots in Yekaterinburg were both the result and culmination point of the French Revolution (1789 – 1793) and the Russian October Revolution of 1917, which had been preceded by several minor revolutions, since 1900. The French got rid of the Capet monarchy, the Russians freed themselves of the Romanov dynasty.

Of course, we can detect a lot of differences between the course of events and procedures in France and Russia but also many astounding similarities, as if the Bolsheviks had copied the French revolutionaries. It looks as if the script, «How to end a monarchy», had been written in France, to be used later by the Russian revolutionaries.

In the foreword to one of his books about the French Revolution, Jean-Clément Martin writes: «Louis XVI is publicly guillotined in Paris. The machine, invented by the Revolution, decapitates the representative of a monarchy that had lasted a thousand years. The decision was taken by the Convention, born of an insurrection, on the 10th of August 1792. The event is considerable because of its radicality. … The Revolution is victorious» (Jean-Clément Martin, «L’exécution du roi», Edition Perrin, Paris 2021, p. 7).

Here we see differences to the events in Russia: the French King’s head was cut off by the blade of the guillotine, the Russian Tsar died from gun wounds. While the French King’s decapitation was executed in public, the last Tsar was shot secretly in a basement of a private house, at night. In Paris, the capital of France, a cheering crowd witnessed how the King’s head was severed from his body. In Yekaterinburg, in the Ural mountains, only 12 men of the Cheka, the Soviet Secret Police, witnessed what happened.

The French author Martin writes: «On Monday, the 21st of January 1793, a green coach comes to pick up King Louis XVI at the Temple, where he is kept in prison. The sky is clouded, the weather is cold» (Martin, p. 19). The French revolutionaries make a big show of this event, almost like a public parade: «As the coach is rolling towards Revolution Square, 100 men from the gendarmerie ride on horses in front, followed by 12 drummers. Behind the coach, 100 national guards ride on horses. This cavalcade is surrounded by 1.200 men from special sections» (Martin, p. 21).

In Yekaterinburg, 12 Chekists were sufficient to shoot Nicholas II. This happend far away from the capital city of Petrograd, in a cellar at night, without any witnesses except the executioners themselves.

Another difference: In France, Queen Marie-Antoinette was guillotined later, on the 16th of October 1793. In Russia, the Tsar’s wife Alexandra and his five children died at the same time with him.

The French seemed to enjoy the spectacle of seeing their King decapitated. A huge crowd had gathered for the event, it was like a public holiday for them: «The crowd has completely filled the square, some people have even climbed on lamp posts for a better view. The King takes a few minutes to get out of the coach. The steps leading up to the platform with the guillotine are steep …. At 10:20 in the morning, the King’s head is cut off and shown to the public, before being placed in a basket with the rest of the body» (Martin, p. 28).

At first, the crowd was silent, probably astonished that this was real. Such a monstrous execution had never happened before their eyes. Then they broke out into loud cheers. «The square is filled with shouts: Long life for the Nation! Long life for the Republic! Hundreds of people are dancing around the platform with the guillotine» (Martin, p. 29).

In Russia, the Bolsheviks tried to hide away the dead bodies of Nicholas II, his wife and five children. They were driven to a wood near Yekaterinburg, then cut into pieces, burned, and the leftovers dissoved with acid. Jean-Christophe Buisson, the French editor of the last Tsar’s diary, writes in his commentary:

«In the early morning hours, the bodies are transported to the ‘Four Brothers’ (a place with four large trees). The bodies are hacked into small pieces and burned. The next morning, those bones which did not burn are dissoved in acid. All the rests are dropped into the pit of an old mine» (Jean-Christophe Buisson, «Journal intime – Nicholas II», Edition Perrin, Paris 2020, p. 251).

Two of the first sentences in Jean-Clément Martin’s book are noteworthy: «The event is considerable because of its radicality» and «The Revolution is victorious.» This is also true for Russia, where the October Revolution of 1917 was victorious. The execution of the last Tsar and his family was radical, too.

Nowadays, readers might be shocked by so much cruelty. Why was it necessary to cut the French King’s head off in public? Why was it necessary to shoot, hack, burn and dissolve in acid the bodies of Nicholas II and his family? The Austrian author Stefan Zweig gives an answer in his biography about Queen Marie-Antoinette: «A new epoch is on the march, a huge and brutal, mighty and murderous epoch» (Stefan Zweig, «Marie-Antoinette», Insel Verlag, Leipzig 1922).

Revolutions in general tend to be bloody, brutal, huge, mighty and murderous. They are not for the faint-hearted. They arrive like thunderstorms to blow away all those that hold on for too long to their old privileges and self-proclaimed rights. This is true for the French as well as the Russian Revolution.

Like King Louis XVI in France, Tsar Nicholas II was not very sharp and perceptive. Both could not understand the concept of «liberté, égalité, fraternité», which became the slogan of the French Revolution. They did not like the concept of liberty: liberty of opinion and religion, liberty of the press, liberty of commerce and industry. Furthermore, they did not believe in human rights for the entire population and equality of all ethnic groups, races, social classes.

Stefean Zweig characterized King Louis XVI as follows: «He is handicapped by his timidity. He thinks and speaks slowly. He is sincere but awkward with words and easily confused. When he has enough time to sort out and coordinate his thoughts, when no quick answers are demanded, he will surprise his listeners with his sound judgment and moral integrity.»

The Austrian author continued: «Louis XVI reads a lot and with great pleasure. He has a good knowledge of history and geography. Besides French he has studied English and Latin. And yet, he is capable of writing such banalities in his personal diary like ‘Dear hunt … caught one … got some indigestion’.»

In a similar way, Tsar Nicholas II noted down trivialities in his diary: What he ate and drank, what he did or did not do because the prison guards would not let him. What his wife did, what his children did, all of his wife’s daily ailings, his children’s ailings … He makes them look like a family of hypochondriacs.

Reading these notes, we might be tempted to think that this is the diary of a simpleton but Tsar Nicholas II was a well educated person. He spoke several foreign languages and read plenty of books, just like King Louis XVI. What is missing in the Tsar’s diary, are the conclusions he drew. Did he understand what he read? How did he interprete what he read? He does not give us the slightest clue.

Stefan Zweig summed up his analysis of the French King’s personality: «Louis XVI was a man of average intelligence, little inclined to independence. He could have worked as an office clerk or a customs officer. His nature predestined him to some type of menial, mechanic work, at the marge of events, at whatever work he found, except that of ruling a country.

Just like the French King, the last Romanov Tsar was a person of average intelligence. He liked horseback riding and adored the military, he could have become a hussar in the Russian cavalry. He loved books, he could have worked as a librarian or bookshop keeper, anything except sitting on the throne of the Russian Tsars.

Stefan Zweig thought the true tragedy of Louis XVI was that he had lead in his blood, something heavy and rigid, obstructing his veins, nothing was easy for him. The true tragedy of Nicholas II seems to have been that he had too much air in his head, something light and flighty, like a balloon that tends to fly away. In his youth, things had been made too easy for him by his family, especially his «dear mama», who doted on him. Later, when the Bolsheviks imprisoned him, he could not understand why this happened to him.

Stefan Zweig wrote: «Still today, Versailles affirms itself as the grandest and most provoking symbol of royalty, apparently without the slightest necessity, a huge castle with hundreds of windows looking down on the park and its ingeniously constructed canals. This palace dresses itself with splendid folly in front of the astounded visitors’ eyes.»

The same is true for the palaces in Saint Petersburg, built by various Tsars of the Romanov dynasty. They were all splendid provocations in the eyes of those who lived in huts, shacks or communal flats. Just like Versailles in France, the palaces of Saint Petersburg in Russia are now properties of the state, open to visitors. They do no longer provoke us, since the French and the Russian royalties have been abolished.

The aristocrats of France and Russia regretted losing their privileges, when the monarchy ended. In France, the cities of Lyon, Orléans, Lille, Sedan and certain départements were «en deuil», in mourning. The French aristocrats fled abroad. The same happened in Russia. To escape the Bolshevik executions, many aristocratic families left their homes and settled in Europe, where their descendents are still living today.

To be continued: “The end of monarchy in France and Russia” (Part II) will be published in March 2023.

Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia. Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com

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