Just after 9:00 p.m. on March 15, 1917 at a railroad siding in the city of Pskov in western Russia, two men entered the Imperial train of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. These men had come to ask for Nicholas’s abdication from the throne. Soon after they began speaking, Nicholas intervened. In a calm and stoic manner he stated, “I have decided to renounce my throne today.” Not long after these words left his lips, Nicholas removed himself from the room in order to write an abdication manifesto. When he returned over an hour later, Nicholas handed over a document which said among other things, “Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war… In these decisive days in the life of Russia, we thought it our duty of conscience to facilitate for our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma, we have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power.”
From Autocracy to Anarchy –From Witness To Experience
Since that time, much has been made of the fact that Nicholas’s abdication brought an end to over three hundred years of Romanov rule over Russia. While that is certainly true, of even greater consequence was that the abdication sent Russia into a spiral of chaos, lurching wildly from autocracy to anarchy. It took five epically violent years for the chaos to subside and solidify into a communist dictatorship. This was not the end though, greater catastrophes were to follow. At the time, Nicholas’s abdication manifesto struck an official and patriotic tone – a version that the Provisional Government saw fit to suppress. Meanwhile, remarks Nicholas made in his private diary at the end of that same night would turn out to be much more prescient. He scrawled, “All around me I see treason, cowardice and deceit.” What Nicholas saw was his recent past, but he might as well have been predicting the future of Russia. Ironically, this sentence by Nicholas could have been written by its forthcoming leaders, the ultimate ideologue, Vladimir Lenin and the ultimate dictator, Josef Stalin.
In retrospect, of all the words in Nicholas’s abdication manifesto, “the speedy attainment of victory” was the one phrase furthest from what actually occurred. In the decades following the abdication, Russia experienced an unfathomable degree of loss. One of the places where the loss was greatest, happened to be where Nicholas abdicated, Pskov. Pskov’s brush with one of the most important historical events of the 20th century was brief. Nicholas’s train moved out that night, never to return. The last Tsar might as well have taken peace with him. The city had unwittingly been a silent witness to history. It would now move from witness to experience. Historical forces would transform the area over the next thirty years, leaving wounds that irreparably scarred Pskov and from which it has never quite recovered. With the fall of Tsarism, a violent array of competing armies, nationalities and ideologies spent the following three decades passing through, occupying or attempting to destroy Pskov.
Birthrights to Blood Rites
The Soviets left the most lasting impression, but not before they vanished and reappeared on multiple occasions. It was a historical act worthy of magic, black magic. They fought revolution, civil war and two world wars in the streets of Pskov. They just could not leave it alone. Neither could many others. To be on this eastern borderland of Europe was to be constantly vulnerable. Pskov was not so much a birthright as a blood rite. Consider the life of a Pskovian born in 1914. By their thirtieth birthday they would have experienced three foreign occupations, two World Wars and one of the deadliest dictatorships in human history. Rather than give medals to anyone surviving this endless succession of cataclysms, many got the Gulag instead. Pskov was too close to the enemy without and within.
Twice during the 20th century the German Army occupied the area. The first occupation, following the end of the Great War on the Eastern Front, was relatively benign. This iteration of Germanity was more interested in extraction than execution. Pskov happened to be on one of the main rail routes the German Imperial Army used to ferret out men and material from the east. It was all done in vain, supporting an army fighting towards defeat on the western front. Less than a quarter century later, the experience was different, not by degrees, but by extremes. In the intervening years the German Army had morphed into a juggernaut. Pskov and its surroundings were soon overrun. In the army’s wake came the virulent ideological strain of Nazism.
From July to July, 1941 through 1944, the city’s inhabitants experienced thirty six months of pure hell. This time the occupier’s war aims were both ideological and racial. They wanted to cleanse and purify Pskov as well as the vast lands beyond of both Slav and Jew. The latter were all but executed by any means available. The former suffered horrible excesses, but reappeared with a vengeance three years and tens of thousands of lives later. Pskov was never the same again. It had lost a huge proportion of its population. In the aftermath of the war, the Soviet’s poured in resources to the rebuilding effort. The Stalinist architecture was soulless, an attempt to reshape the city in forms of concrete. Pskov never returned to the prosperity it had enjoyed before the thirty years of catastrophe which had engulfed it. Eventually with the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union it went back to its distant past, as a border city. Today it is just a fifteen minute drive from the Estonian border, but in a larger sense it is a world away. It belongs to Russia and for better or worse always has. As shown by its calamitous 20th century history it probably always will.
The End of the Beginning
Today, on a wall of the Pskov Railway station a historical plaque has been mounted which states that the Last Tsar, Nicholas II abdicated at here in March 1917. That is an interesting fact, but does not do justice to the importance of the event. What that plaque does not say is that the Tsar’s abdication at Pskov was not really about the end of something, but instead the beginning of much worse. The importance of Pskov in the historical drama of Russia’s 20th century is not just what happened here, but what was to come.