In July Netflix came out with a series called The Last Czars, which chronicles the final days of the 300-year reign of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. It’s only six episodes and in total about five hours in length, detailing everything from the rise and fall of Czar Nicholas II (who is literally the last Czar), to the rise and fall of Rasputin, to Russia’s futile effort in World War One, and ends with the Russian Revolution and subsequent slaughter of the royal family.
You don’t really have to care about history, or Russia, or the Russian Revolution, to in some way appreciate The Last Czars. It opens with Oliver Dimsdale, whose character was once the teacher of the Romanov children, as he investigates a woman in a mental institution who claims to be Anastasia, who at the time was thought of to be the last living member of the royal family. That’s kind of in the background the entire time, even though anyone who knows anything about the legend of Anastasia knows the woman was nothing more than an imposter.
The series is presented as part show, part documentary, where the actors reenact semi-real events while various Russian historians cut in to give commentary. It’s not the best format, but it beats the generic violence and sex filler that dominates most in the genre. (Though there is still plenty of violence and sex for you to enjoy.)
The Russian Revolution has been a minor preoccupation of mine at a few different stages in my life, so I more or less knew what to expect. (***Spoiler***: it doesn’t end well for the Romanov’s.) I was first turned onto Russia when I was in high school — about 15 years ago — when I watched a History Channel series titled Russia: Land of the Tsars. More recently I’ve seen a 45-minute documentary on Netflix called, plainly, The Russian Revolution, and about a year ago I read Leon Trotsky’s book that dealt with the revolution, as well as his own ideology, titled The Permanent Revolution.
For a late-20-something year-old white millennial socialist atheist cuck, I can’t help but get excited over the romantic elements of a good old fashion government overthrow. If ever there was a demographic for someone who would be into the politics of early-1900’s Russia, it would be me. And it’s because it’s someone like me, who’s paid attention to this type of shit and has found it a worthwhile endeavor, that I found a lot of things that I didn’t like about The Last Czars. I’ll get into that in a bit.
What the show did do a good job of capturing was just how incompetent and in-over-his-head Czar Nicholas II was. His father, Czar Alexander III, died prematurely, thrusting Nicholas into a position he wasn’t prepared for. Moreover, although the show didn’t make mention of it, it isn’t clear that Nicholas even wanted to be Czar in the first place. He took the reins because he had to — he was, after all, ordained by God — and in a way it’s fitting that he was the last autocrat of Russia. He stands as a perfect illustration for how bad of an idea it is to rule by bloodline.
The Last Czars spends a shitload of time on the religious nut and mystic guru Rasputin, which is relevant on the one hand but takes away from the story of the Romanov family and, what I was most interested in, the revolution itself. Rasputin is obviously a fascinating character in history, given that he came from a poor background and went on to use the guise of religion to vault himself into being one of the most powerful men in Russia. Ultimately the show kind of needs his character to provide entertainment, what with all the sex and alcohol and weird religious cult shit he is involved in, but I would have preferred something like a quarter of his screen time be dedicated to revolutionary figures like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky — the latter of which was, if I’m not mistaken, not even mentioned.
The drama of the Romanov family has plenty of layers, but their biggest problem was producing a male heir. Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, had three daughters before a son, Alexei, came along. The tragedy is that once he was born the family had to hide the fact that he was a hemophiliac. Meaning any cut, any bruise, and any time he did something as simple as falling down, he was at risk to bleed out and die.
This of course put all kinds of stress on both Nicholas II and Alexandra, who happened to govern at a time when the industrial revolution was in full swing. Workers and peasants had next to no rights, and struggled for the most basic human needs as bread and shoes. Meanwhile, the Romanov’s were some of the wealthiest people in the world, enjoying the fruits of abundance unlike any regular person could ever dream of.
Nicholas II also had the misfortune of entering a war that he and his country weren’t prepared for even in the slightest. Many Russian soldiers didn’t have basic necessities, like weapons, or shoes, or food, and the German army had little trouble dispatching of them by the millions. In a way you want to feel sorry for Nicholas, who made wrong decision after wrong decision — both domestically and abroad — but then you realize just how distanced he was from understanding the problems of the peasants and working people, and you realize there’s not much reason to pity the man who had it all.
History is a never ending circle, and that’s why a hundred years ago in Russia is so interesting to me. The struggles of the poor and working class in Russia from the early-1900’s are not all that different from those of the poor and working class in present-day America. (Relatively speaking, of course.) At a time when the wealthy are living as well as they ever have, and poor people can’t afford life’s basics, let alone decent healthcare or education, it’s almost a miracle that the United States hasn’t already devolved into some form of revolution.
Where The Last Czars fails so miserably is in their negligence in sympathizing with the revolt of the workers. I don’t mean that in the sense that they should inherently adopt the left position, and thus side with Lenin (and Trotsky) and the Bolsheviks. What I mean to say is that so much of the language used by the “historians” — which I hate to put in quotations so as not to sound like they aren’t legitimate — painted the revolutionaries as “radicals,” “extremists,” and “terrorists,” as if their sole purpose was to murder the royal family.
Which, yeah, that wasn’t a very good look for them. But I’m less concerned with the end results, the slaughter of the Romanov’s, as I am with the root causes that drove the Bolsheviks to overthrow the autocracy in the first place. It’s clear that the show wanted to frame the Romanov’s as the “good” guys, and the Bolsheviks — or revolutionaries — as the antagonists.
This is seen most clearly in the sinister way the show chooses when and when not to deploy heavy Russian accents amongst its characters. Everyone is speaking English, of course, but when the royal family is involved it’s with that very gentle British accent, and when it’s the Bolsheviks they go all out with the guttural, cliché Russian accent that you typically hear in movies and TV shows. It would be one thing if everyone used the friendly and calm British accent, and it would be another if everyone used the harsh-sounding Russian accent. Instead The Last Czars wanted to make it abundantly clear that the Bolsheviks were the villains, little more than terrorists and murderers.
I can excuse plenty of things — and indeed plenty of things about this show require excuses — but the fact of the matter is that life for working and poor people in early-1900’s Russia was complete and utter misery. The reason it was so bad was because the bourgeois — led by the Czar — had spent the previous hundred years hoarding all the wealth and constantly waging war against the lower classes. For this, I have little sympathy for Nicholas II or the Romanov dynasty as whole. And for The Last Czars in any way to paint them as the victims is not only a charitable way of revising history, but entirely misleading.
Do I believe that killing the royal family’s innocent children was the answer for the Bolsheviks? Obviously not. But do I understand the symbolic nature of uprooting, once and for all, the autocracy that caused so much pain and hopelessness to the poor and working classes of Russia? I can at least make an attempt.
* * * * *
In the story of The Last Czars, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks were clearly the bad guys. Historically speaking I would argue that they weren’t. They acted rationally given the economics and living conditions of the time. Some would call it Marxist propaganda, but the Bolshevik slogan was Peace, Land, and Bread. It was a rallying cry for all those workers who spent their days in unimaginably horrible factory conditions, and for all the rural farmers and peasants of the who were driven to poverty during the rapid industrialization at the turn of the 19th century.
We remember Russia for Joseph Stalin, The Gulag, and the tens of millions of Russians who died during the darkest hours of Stalin’s power. Some people (who are wrong) blame this on the idea that Stalin was an Atheist. Others (who are also wrong) blame this on Socialism. In reality, Stalin was backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, and he was an evil, insecure man who went on to cut a deal with Hitler during World War II. (Hitler, too, was neither an atheist, nor a socialist, despite what idiots may say.) Lenin and Trotsky may have ushered in the revolution, but they had a very different plan than what ultimately and regrettably transpired under Stalin.
What Lenin and Trotsky had for the future of Russia was an idea. One where the workers had the power and everyone would share in the enormous wealth that the country produced. They figured that there was enough money and food to go around such that millions of people wouldn’t have to live in poverty while a small percentage at the top owned nearly everything.
This idea failed, but not simply because socialists were power hungry, or wanted to keep all the wealth for themselves. It failed because, to accomplish such a feat, it required the participation of more than just Russia. Trotsky’s concept of a “permanent revolution” meant that this was an international cause. It meant that workers all around the world would have to come together.
The Russia Revolution never fully realized since their European allies weren’t in a position to overthrow the governments of France, or Germany, or Great Britain. And Trotsky himself, who was quite prescient, even to this day, noted that international socialism would never work until the United States came on board. As he wrote in The Permanent Revolution:
The big bourgeoisie has one last desperate measure in its arsenal: fascism, which preserves profit by nationalizing banks and industry under capitalist control. Fascists prey on fear, using scapegoating and violence to mobilize a petty-bourgeois mass movement to break up workers’ organizations and destroy unions and civil liberties. But fascism cannot come to power without first defeating the working class. Its threat is real, although not immediate. We’ll have our chance to win socialism first. It is an accomplishment well worth the effort and sacrifice.
Present day, as with the United States-backed coups in South America during the 1970’s, the capitalist goal is to crush workers and workers-backed governments. Venezuela is the best contemporary example for why Socialism fails, but only because it was never meant to succeed. It was Barack Obama — you know, the guy who was supposedly a “lefty” — who placed economic sanctions on the country. This made it harder for Venezuela to get medicine and food into the country, thus creating a death sentence to the poor, the old, the young, and the weak. Socialism didn’t do that to them; it was that the capitalists in the United States chose to make life harder on them. Because they couldn’t get their hands on all the Venezuelan oil. (Don’t worry, they will keep trying.)
This was the same problem the Bolsheviks faced after they overthrew the Romanov dynasty. Had they received support from their European allies, or the United States, or both, Socialism would have stood a puncher’s chance. Without their help, they had no fucking shot. Lenin inevitably died, Stalin took over and ultimately assassinated Trotsky while he was in exile in Mexico, and Russia (and socialism) will forever be remembered for the countless millions of people who died.
Lenin and Trotsky’s socialism was absolutely the real deal. It called for completely abolishing private land, private ownership, and giving the workers control over the means of production. By American standards I’m about as far-left as they come, and even I say that true, pure socialism is not the answer.
However, there is a happy medium here. Despite what millionaire pundits in the media may try to sell you, the United States can afford for everyone to have healthcare, and education, and still have plenty left on top. The problem is 60% of American tax dollars go to the military to wage endless wars with countries who don’t pose an existential threat to any of us. Billionaires in America do believe in socialism, but only for the rich. It’s a country rooted in corporate welfare, where the billionaires and bankers continually crash the economy, knowing full well that the taxpayers will bail them out with their hard-earned tax dollars.
What they don’t believe in is socialism for the poor. They don’t believe their tax dollars should be spent paying for working class people to get healthcare, or single moms to get decent childcare, or low-income families to get higher education. America has been overdue for a revolution for the last half-century, at a time when profits for the wealthy have been at an all-time high, and where life for the poor and working classes is as bad as it’s been since before The Great Depression.
As with most advances in society, this shit is not going to cure itself. It’s going to take a mass movement involving millions of people coming together to demand that the rich pay their fair share of taxes. Led by Bernie Sanders in 2016, the American left is starting to understand its power. Teacher strikes over the last couple years have been successful across the board. Amazon workers have gotten their minimum wage raised to $15 an hour. Next up are Wal-Mart employees, fast food workers, and those who slave for massive corporates who live off government assistance.
It was John F. Kennedy who said “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” America isn’t quite ready for a full-blown Bolshevik-style revolution, and if I’m being honest — even as an American Socialist — I’d say it isn’t at all what I or my side wants. We come from the Martin Luther King Jr. school of civil disobedience. If we are going to win, we want to do it both politically and peacefully.
With that said, if the United States continues on the same trajectory we’ve been on since the 1980’s, it won’t be terribly long — maybe another two-three decades? — before the guillotines arrive. In the meantime the billionaire class, those who have it all, have a decision to make: Do they want to retain some of their capital, and raise the floor for the poor or working class? Or do they want many millions of people in the streets, and at their doors?
This same dynamic didn’t end well for the Romanov family. For once, I would appreciate if history didn’t repeat itself.
One thought on “The Last Czars, and The Last Capitalists”
Wow, very insightful and helpful. Thanks writing this.