Editor’s Note: The following piece is excerpted from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, Node III: March 1917, Book 3, newly translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, and reprinted with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press. The Red Wheel is Solzhenitsyn’s multivolume epic work about the Russian Revolution told in the form of dramatized history. This, the closing chapter of Book 3, shows Emperor Nikolai II, just hours after his careless abdication on March 15, 1917, preoccupied with the health of his children rather than the fate of his abandoned people. He is roused by his Empress just enough to be force-paraded in front of a “Soviet” commissar whose overt malice portends the ruin to come.
Only outside guards from the 1st Riflery Guards Regiment had been posted. Inside, the palace remained as it had been. All the corridors and doors were free, one wing tightly inhabited by the royal family, then the empty formal rooms in the middle, corridors along both floors with side rooms for members of the suite—and in the far wing the ill Anya Vyrubova and everyone fussing over her.
They were supposed to go see her that evening—but these first hours they were with the children, first with the Heir, in his light-filled room. Aleksei had already recovered. Then with their daughters—the older grand duchesses recuperating. Then with the youngest, Anastasia, who was still ill. And in the entirely dark room of the seriously ill Maria, in a fever. She could not take in clearly that her father had arrived, first confirmed that he had, then talked deliriously about him not coming, and about the frightening crowd coming to kill her Mama.
Only after being in these rooms could Nikolai feel what his beloved had gone through looking after all her patients at once, and in times like these.
But Olya and Tanya exulted at their father’s arrival. Although they were still in bed, they assured him that they were all better now. For them, their father’s arrival had solved all their misfortunes.
That was how they talked, fidgeting on their pillows: now that we’re all together, we’re not afraid of anything, Papa, Mama!
Nikolai embraced his son, who had also cheered up, and held him close, in silence, trying to hide how lost he felt; he found it hard to speak.
He thanked Lili Dehn, that unexpected angel who had shared the Empress’s most difficult days. Lili began to weep.
In front of her, in front of Benckendorff, he tried to speak of inconsequential things—but all his self-possession and habit were not enough. Such a hollow ached inside him, he wanted only to shut himself away, close his eyes, and fall silent and numb. Only with Alix could Nikolai be alone now, incapable of showing any signs of life.
Once again they went down to their rooms.
Locked themselves in.
An outing was forbidden—Nikolai could regain some strength by spending a few hours with Alix, in silence, collapsed. He had to pass through this period of neither speaking nor moving if he was to be reborn.
Aleksandra tucked him in on the couch. She sat by his side, applying cool, damp cloths to his brow.
The Empress’s chambermaid did not knock but peeked through the door:
“Your Majesty . . . Count Benckendorff is so bold as to ask for you.”
Alix rose quietly and went out.
Count Benckendorff—his narrow side-whiskers were trembling—confused and agitated, was going on incoherently. The Emperor had to appear before some new arrival, a commissar from the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.
“What do you mean, ‘appear’?” The Empress was indignant, still feeling some strength inside, all the more responsible the less strength her most august spouse had. “The Emperor has not scheduled an audience with anyone!”
The count kneaded his fingers. As if he, an old courtier, didn’t understand that! But the new palace commandant said there was no other way. Might Her Majesty wish to receive the commandant and let him explain?
As was ever her lot: a man’s duties, a man’s decisions. In the state Nicky was in, he was unfit to decide anything.
The Empress went into the green drawing room, still wearing her now usual sick-nurse dress, and received Staff Captain Kotzebue, who had already been given a favorable recommendation by Lili Dehn, and now looked intently at him with her pained, weary eyes. They, too, apparently, the last to hold up in the family, would soon cease to function.
In this state you cannot get a good look at anyone new. But Kotzebue held himself very respectfully and his tone was one of concern—like all their former fine officers around them.
He explained that he had no choice, he didn’t have the forces to quarrel with the Petrograd Soviet. And the Soviet wished to ascertain that the Emperor was indeed here.
It was enough to make you choke!
“But where do they think he has gone? Where else might he be?”
Kotzebue would not retreat, though. If there were a clash with the Soviet’s forces, that would not be good for anyone. With great difficulty, however, they had found a peaceful solution. This was a very minor procedure and would not be onerous for the Emperor. He did not have to receive or speak to this commissar. He did not even have to greet him. They had devised the following. At the intersection of corridors upstairs, where the picture gallery was, the Emperor would pass through without stopping, down one corridor, and this commissar would watch from the other, and that would be all. The commissar would be surrounded by armed officers from the watch regiment and so could not move or hurl an insult.
She had to agree, it seemed. Their status as prisoners did not allow for much choice.
However, the Empress knew what a weakened, mute state she had left the Emperor in. Was he in any condition to show himself?
Could they not postpone this procedure for a couple of hours? An hour at least?
Alas, alas, no, the staff captain was deeply worried. An hour might mean the loss of a peaceful outcome. Her Majesty could not imagine the dangers that had been averted.
It was obvious she would have to concede.
Aleksandra went to ready Nicky. He was lying on his back in a heavy doze, his mouth half open, groaning. Her heart was breaking. Why had this added suffering and humiliation been sent him?
Taking his head in both hands, she stroked and roused him.
He could not fathom it. Why? Where must I go? What for? But he believed her.
And with difficulty, great difficulty, he sat up. Hiding the traces of his weakness, she herself rubbed him down and washed him.
In the bedroom he changed out of his house robe and into his Life Guards uniform. He always changed clothes easily and quickly, out of military habit.
His eyes and the many wrinkles on his dark face were like pits.
Alix made the sign of the cross over him, and he went out to join Benckendorff and Dolgorukov—whether understanding or still in a gray state of not understanding.
Thank God, he did not have to say anything to anyone.
This was like a brief walk down the hall, since the park was now forbidden to him.
But how shameful to go for a walk dethroned! . . .
They went up to the second floor. Benckendorff respectfully explained to the Emperor where he had to go and how—as far as the room of the valet Volkov. And he had to remove his headgear.
Did he understand or not? . . .
He removed his hussar cap and placed it on the corridor window.
Benckendorff himself and Dolgorukov hurried forward to take their positions. The Emperor was supposed to wait a few minutes here.
Then he started—utterly as if in a swoon, as if asleep, as if he himself were neither present nor participating.
He himself opened the panel of the wide doors, and the farther he went, at the intersection of the corridors, under the glass ceilings, which faintly let through the light of the closing day, lamps burned brightly, all the ones there were there.
Nikolai squinted in pain.
He walked slowly and aimlessly.
Three steps from the intersection, the commissar stood—sideways, wearing the uniform of a military official but also a large, shaggy, tall Caucasian hat, one short leg forward.
Standing, guarding behind him were two tense officers with their right hands in their pockets, an unusual position, he could not fail to notice.
And also an Uhlan staff captain.
Neither he nor the other officers saluted, but they did stand at attention. So did Benckendorff.
But the commissar did not budge or remove his tall hat. He stood there with the same wild look, foot forward, as if he had started to move toward the Emperor. And no one told him—or was it too late already?—to remove his hat.
And no one could bring himself to knock it off.
It got so quiet you could hear the breathing.
The Emperor was walking not very precisely, not at all his usual steps, and with the faint, sonorous jangling of spurs. He was walking and his very walk expressed perplexity and ignorance of the right way for him to do this.
The lack of a cap was odd. And his head did not sit firmly, military-fashion.
A tormented look, enflamed eyelids, and bags under his eyes. His mustache drooped. How he had aged!
All he needed to do was to cross the intersection of corridors as quickly as possible, without looking back or sideways—and go, be done with it.
But the Emperor could not pass without noticing the tense group to the side. He naturally turned his head to those there—and then slowed down—and then changed direction—a half-step, and another half-step this way, looking at all the faces in confusion—for the first time perplexed. Why were they standing like that? In that combination? And who was this in the tall snake-curl hat?
Starker yet were his snake eyes, they burned with hatred. The commissar’s face twisted, and he was shaking feverishly.
In front of this vivid appearance of malice, the Emperor stopped, woke up—and felt it. On his face, puffy with weariness, the meaning became apparent—as did his exhaustion.
He swayed a little from foot to foot. He jerked one shoulder. And was about to turn and go—but couldn’t, out of politeness, not nod to the group in parting.
And walked away, his step unsteady—but rather than go very far forward, in the direction he had been heading, he went back to from whence he had come.
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