The first words and phrases that come to mind are ostentatious, vulgar, over the top, obscene and grandiose. Even if I snuffed tobacco, it is difficult for me to imagine why I would need 2,000 snuff boxes to support my habit. But then I realize that my mindset may not be aligned with that of the Romanovs, Russia’s czarist dynasty.
A visit to St. Petersburg will do that to you. It challenges all of your previously held conceptions of wealth, opulence and power. And while it is interesting to look at all the gold, diamonds and priceless artwork the Romanovs possessed during their long reign on the Russian throne, it is also a mind-bending exercise to understand how they could have surrounded themselves with all that wealth while peasant farmers and factory workers lived in severe poverty and worked under appalling conditions.
I love it when historical facts, which were quite abstract to me for most of my life, suddenly become alive. The bits and pieces you remember from history class fall into place and you understand why things happened the way they did. You see, the Romanovs ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. The leadership of the Russian Empire was passed down from generation to generation. Needless to say, there were plenty of murders and political intrigue, marriages that didn’t produce an heir to the throne, tragic illnesses and introduced bloodlines from other countries, especially Germany. Some czars ruled for a short time, others for many decades.
The last czar was Emperor Nicholas II. He must have been a terrible leader because it was during his reign in the late 19th and early 20th century that the Romanov dynasty started to fall apart. Or perhaps the time had come for the Romanov's autocratic rule to end, regardless of Nicholas' leadership skills. The first signs of trouble came with demonstrations in January 1905. People were unhappy with the monarchy and took to the streets. Nicholas II suppressed the demonstrations with force, killing hundreds of unarmed protestors in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) during the Bloody Sunday Massacre. But rather than controlling the upheaval, the brutal attacks the czar directed towards his own people made it worse. Crippling strikes eventually forced Nicholas II to introduce a democratically elected parliament, the Duma.
To understand how the situation unraveled from here, one has to look at the Romanov’s mindset. Over the three centuries of autocratic rule, the czars came to believe, that they were infallible and their role was saintly. To rule the Russian Empire was a Divine Right given to the Romanovs. Nicholas II, who was the last czar, was very much out of touch with his people. He believed that they were completely devoted to him and obeyed with unquestioning loyalty.
However, while the people of Russia had a very strong desire for democratic reforms and high hopes the Duma would be a vehicle for progress, Nicholas II was in no mood to relinquish his power. It quickly became clear that he didn’t like many of the Duma’s decisions. Often, the czar either vetoed them or dismissed the Duma altogether when the legislative body proved uncooperative. Further unrest was fueled by starvation and poverty together with Russia’s dismal performance and heavy casualties suffered in the First World War against Germany. This eventually spelled the end of the czar’s reign. He abdicated the throne on March 2, 1917 and was executed together with his wife Alexandra, his children, the Romanov’s physician and several servants. The Russian people had enough of the hardships in their daily lives while the rich and powerful continued to accumulate obscene and unimaginable wealth.
Russia’s monarchy gave way to a lengthy civil war, Lenin’s eventual rise to power, the establishment of a Marxist regime and the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. People demanded democratic reform and their fair share in the country’s wealth and resources.
Knowing what we know now, the events of the early 20th century did not end the suffering of the Russian people. Even today, almost 100 years after the unjust czarist regime ended, the Russian Republic still places only 55th on the Global Quality of Life Index, rating similar to other developing nations like the Philippines, Brazil and Egypt. With widespread poverty still a problem in Russia, it is interesting to note that the country is governed by Vladimir Putin, a man born among the Romanov’s luxurious palaces in St. Petersburg. With estimates of his personal net worth in 2016 ranging from $70 to $200 billion, he could easily be considered the world’s richest man. His official position might be president, but in the eyes of many, he still is just another czar who is out of touch with his people.
Such wealth would make even the Romanovs blush.