The insane Protopopov, Minister of the Interior, seized upon the death of Rasputin to increase his influence and consolidate his position with the Tsarina. He announced that the spirit of the martyred prophet had descended upon him; he had visions and went into ecstasy in public; at times, when conversing with the Empress, he would suddenly pause and point dramatically to the empty space behind her, saying that Rasputin was there hovering over them. At other times he would see Christ blessing the Empress and confirming her political wisdom.
But this riot of fantasy, this coinage of a disordered brain, did not impair the exercise of a shrewd wit. It is said that he had his agents compose letters of a flattering nature and mail them from different parts of Russia to the Empress. In these forged epistles the writers, simulating the style and the common errors of peasants, praised the Empress for her devotion to a holy cause and exhorted her to stand fast in her policy.
The die was cast. In the Duma, Milyukov was outspoken in his denunciation of the impossible régime. Within three months from the death of Rasputin the red flag of revolt was seen in the streets of Petrograd. More ominous still, rioting began before the food shops. 'An empty stomach has no ears,' runs an ancient Russian proverb. An epidemic of madness descended upon the government. Protopopov, in the final frenzy of reactionary bureaucracy, retaliated with all the apparatus of governmental suppression. Machine guns were mounted on the roofs and at the street corners of Petrograd. On March 8 there was a monster demonstration in the streets, and Protopopov's soldiers fired into the crowd. The mobs, in reprisal, murdered every police official that fell into their hands. On March 11 the Emperor, absent at the General Headquarters of the Army at Mohilev, attempted to dissolve the Duma. But the Duma refused to be dissolved. By this time the situation in Petrograd was so out of hand that Rodzianko, President of the Duma, wired the Emperor as follows:--
The position is serious. There is anarchy in the capital. The government is paralyzed. The transportation of fuel and food is completely disorganized. The general dissatisfaction grows. Disorderly firing takes place in the streets. A person trusted by the country must be charged immediately to form a ministry.
No answer from Mohilev. The letters of the Tsarina, with their scorn of the growing popular outcry against a corrupt and inefficient government, had blinded the judgment and paralyzed the will of her uxorious consort. One generous gesture might have saved Russia and changed the course of history.
On March 12, Rodzianko sent a second telegram: -
The position is getting worse. Measures must be taken at once, because to-morrow will be too late. The last hour has struck, and the fate of the Fatherland and of the dynasty is being decided.
The same day, toward noon, the Tsar's only brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, telephoned from Petrograd that the formation of a new government meriting the confidence of the country was imperative and should be granted at once. By way of reply the Tsar instructed General Alexeiev to thank the Grand Duke for his advice, but to say that he himself was quite capable of deciding what was to be done. On the heels of this fraternal warning a telegram arrived from Prince Golitsyn, President of the Council of Ministers, identical in tone with the message of the Grand Duke. The Emperor's reply took the form of an order to send fresh troops to Petrograd to stop the rioting.
Immediately after these significant events, and before definitely answering Prince Golitsyn, the Emperor spoke for more than one hour with someone over a private telephone. Now there were two direct lines from General Headquarters, one connecting with Petrograd, the other with the Tsarina at Tsarskoe Selo. On finishing the protracted conversation with his unseen confidential counselor, Nicholas prepared a peremptory telegram in answer to Prince Golitsyn in which he informed the President of the Council that absolutely no modification could made in the existing government. The telegram ended by ordering the immediate suppression—in the usual way—of all revolutionary movements and revolts among the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison. As this answer was sent by telegram to Petrograd, it is reasonably clear that the Emperor had not been speaking, just before, on the direct line to the capital. Otherwise the telegram was superfluous. The generals surrounding the Emperor concluded—and so must posterity—that Nicholas held that most important conversation, his last state council, with the Tsarina.
But Nicholas soon began to show apprehension, which was aggravated by a telegram from the Empress, at Tsarskoe Selo. She now wired that concessions were inevitable. For the first time she, too, began to see the end. Too late! The Tsar, on March 13, attempted to reach Tsarskoe Selo by train, but revolting troops sidetracked the imperial car and diverted it across country to Pskov. Late in the night, March 14, Nicholas established telephonic communication with Rodzianko and began to speak of concessions. But Rodzianko at the other end of the line, with tumultuous shouts from the streets proclaiming the revolt of each successive regiment as it went over to the revolution, replied: 'It is too late to talk concessions; it is time to abdicate.' By evening of the following day, March 15, two delegates of the Duma, Gutchkov and Shulgin, arrived at Pskov, and in the Emperor's private car announced to him the irrevocable will of the people. The Emperor, bowing his head, murmured, 'I have been deceived,' and signed the abdication.
The historic document was signed by the Tsar in pencil, between eleven and twelve o'clock on the night of March 15, 1917.
When we had read and approved the formula [Shulgin testifies] it seems to me that we shook hands ... but at that moment I was undoubtedly very much moved and I may be wrong. I remember that when I looked at my watch for the last time it was ten minutes before midnight. This scene of supreme importance, therefore, took place between eleven and twelve o'clock in the night of the 2/15 to the 3/16 March.1
We then took leave. It seemed to me that on neither side was there any ill feeling. For my part, I felt an immense pity for that man who had just bought back, with a single act, his past faults. The Tsar was in full control of himself, friendly rather than cold.
We had agreed with General Russky that there should be two copies of the Act signed by the Emperor, for we feared lest, in the troublous times through which we were passing, the document we bore should be lost. One copy was kept by the General; we kept the other. As I have said, the signature of the Tsar was in pencil, while the Lord Chamberlain [Count Frederiks] countersigned in ink.
It is of importance to note that Nicholas named as successor to the throne, not his son, the Tsarevitch, but his own brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich. It was, in point of fact, a double abdication.
That very day, before the arrival of the Duma delegates, he summoned into his presence Professor Feodorov, one of his personal physicians.