Last month, a news conference between President George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin garnered an unusual amount of attention. Most observers watched to see whether Bush would manage to chide Putin—for moving Russia in an increasingly authoritarian direction—without damaging his relationship with the prickly Russian leader. But the conference was a spectacle in another way as well, as two men of nearly opposite personalities struggled to find middle ground. In response to President Bush's rather heroic attempts at humor and affability, Putin maintained the steely, unresponsive exterior he has come to be known for. In the March 2005 Atlantic, Paul Starobin profiled Putin, and managed to get behind that exterior to shed light on the interior life of one of today's most inscrutable and powerful leaders.
Starobin is just the latest in a series of Atlantic authors who have scrutinized the Russian heads of state over the past hundred years—leaders who have been at the helm of a unique nation that in just a century routed monarchy and communism, and then embraced democracy, albeit tenuously. Each leader has wielded power of no mean consequence for Russia and the rest of the world. Articles on Tsar Nicholas Romanov II, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Starobin's on Putin have sought to explain who these men truly were and how their disparate personalities shaped their careers—in the process offering a unique approach to understanding the Russia of their times.
On July 16, 1918, Nicholas Romanov, deposed Tsar of Russia, his wife Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and their five children were executed by gunfire in the basement of the house where they'd been held prisoner by Bolshevik revolutionaries. Nicholas was the last of the Romanovs, who had ruled Russia from 1613 to March 15, 1917, when he had been forced to abdicate the throne. The stage for revolution had been set by Russia's devastating losses in war and the growing discontent and poverty of its people, but Tsar Nicholas's weakness of character and autocratic rule made that revolution inevitable. Following his abdication, the revolutionaries vied for power until the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, took command, laying the foundation for Communist Russia.
In a three-part article, "The Fall of the Russian Empire" (January, February, and March 1928), Edmund Walsh analyzed the misrule of the Tsars, describing with meticulous attention to detail the circumstances of Nicholas' abdication and eventual assassination. In the telling, he showed Nicholas to be an irresolute and feckless monarch who held obstinately to autocracy, ignoring both the reason of his counselors and the reality of a seething Russia. During his coronation even, staggering beneath the weight of his crown and gold robes, Nicholas let the scepter he held slip to the ground, an act perceived by many as a bad omen. His weakness was taken advantage of by many, not least his wife, and proved to be his undoing. As Walsh explained, "Never master of his own will, Nicholas spent his life awaiting the judgments of the Pobyedonoststevs, the Sturmers, and the Protopopovs who surrounded him, and of the Empress who ruled him."
For all the power vested in him, Nicholas was not a man to brandish it in his conduct with others. He was a civil and mannered man who retained his apparent calm even at the moment of his abdication. The men who presented him with the ignominious task of signing away his crown recalled that he expressed no ill feeling toward them, but was instead polite and cooperative. In "The End of the Monarchy" Walsh described Nicholas's attitude while he was imprisoned.
And here he was ... this well-intentioned and urbane, but woefully weak and indecisive monarch. Harassed and crushed by the weight of an inherited responsibility too heavy for his shoulders, wearily answering 'Yes' or 'No' to importunate counselors who knew how to play shrewdly on his fears, his prejudices, and his superstitions, he had lived, as it were, a phantom king in a haunted palace.
Both in his private and public life, Nicholas was dominated entirely by his wife. Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna was a German princess by birth, and much hated by the people for her apathy toward Russia and her tremendous power over the Tsar. She was far more than a consort; when Nicholas went to battle in 1915, she ruled in his place. Her domineering nature was the diametric opposite of Nicholas's shiftlessness. In "The Part Played by a Woman," the first installment of his report on the fall of the Tsars, Edmund Walsh describes Alexandra thus:
The domination that this imperious, proud, aloof, and resolute woman exercised over her irresolute and impressionable husband became such a menace that more than one grand duke, duchess and general cried out in warning against it.
She was also a mother driven to desperation by the health of her only son, Alexis, a hemophiliac and heir to Russia's throne. From this sprung her dependence on Rasputin, a "clever adventurer, a habitual drunkard and a licentious roué who utilized for his purposes some hypnotic or mesmeric power" that brought, to the amazement of Alexis's doctors, immense relief to the ailing heir. The intensely religious Alexandra was entirely subject to Rasputin's manipulations, as is evidenced in the following letter to Nicholas—a letter in which Alexandra, in turn, seeks to manipulate her husband, couching political advice in the most intimate and adoring language.
"I only long to hold you tight in my arms and to whisper words of immense love... Lovey, I am here... This is the beginning of the glory of your reign. He [Rasputin] said so and I absolutely believe it. As our Friend [Rasputin] says, the worst is over. Only get Nikolasha's nomination [his transference to the Caucasus] quicker done. No dawdling!..."
While the Tsar seemed to have abdicated "both in spirit and in truth," Alexandra was bitter and resentful of the family's loss, especially her son's, for Nicholas had given up the throne for both himself and Alexis. In "The Last Days of the Romanovs," Walsh described the royal couple during their incarceration.
Under the moral torture and physical confinement—toward the end the prisoners were allowed but five minutes in the garden each day—the ex-Tsar maintained that astonishing external calm and passivity which characterized his whole life. His health did not seem to weaken, nor did his hair whiten.... But the Empress never left the porch; she aged visibly, her health failed, and gray hairs appeared.
In the end, unlike the trusting, accepting Nicholas, Alexandra, always more astute, predicted with chilling prescience that they would all be killed.