Lecturer examines fate of Russia’s last royal couple

Matt Gardner
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The fall of Russia’s last imperial dynasty was the subject of the latest lecture in the Focus on Life Long Learning program this week.

Lecturer Clay Burlingham delivers his presentation 'The ill-fated rule of Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia' at the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library on Thursday as part of the Focus on Life Long Learning program.

Dr. Clay Burlingham -- who teaches history at both the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina -- provided his lecture, “The ill-fated rule of Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia,” on Thursday evening at the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library.

A scholar of European history, with a focus in the French and Russian revolutions as well as Enlightenment and 20th century history, Burlingham’s passion for his subject has made him a favourite among Focus on Life Long Learning participants.

Steering committee member Connie Gerwing invited Burlingham to deliver his latest lecture following two well-received presentations on the French Revolution and its aftermath.

“I did two on the French Revolution and I thought maybe … the leadup to the Russian Revolution would be a good topic … I think it’s something that interests a lot of people,” Burlingham said.

Noting parallels between the two historical periods, Burlingham’s latest presentation revolved around one key question.

“How did this couple lose the throne?” he asked.

“It’s only happened one other time, really, where you can look at a couple and say they not only lost the crown, but they lost their lives in the process -- and that would be Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and there are very much threads that connect them.”

To provide context for the fall of Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, Burlingham provided his audience with a sweeping account of Russian history up to that point.

From the establishment of the Eastern Orthodox Church and founding of Moscow as the “third Rome,” the lecturer described the often ambivalent relationship between Russia and the West leading up to Peter the Great.

Touching upon the establishment of a Russian revolutionary tradition through the Decembrist revolts of 1825, Burlingham noted that the assassination by radicals of Czar Alexander II in 1881 left an indelible impression on Nicholas’s father, Alexander III.

When that conservative monarch died of an illness in 1894, the young Nicholas became czar at the age of 26.

Burlingham argued that Nicholas was ill-prepared to rule and personally had little interest in being czar.

“He’d never been taken to any kind of cabinet meeting, he’d never been shown how to rule,” Burlingham said.

“He’d never been introduced separately, individually to the ministers. So all of a sudden you’ve got somebody that is thrown into power and he can really never escape the shadow of his father.”

It’s only happened one other time, really, where you can look at a couple and say they not only lost the crown, but they lost their lives in the process. Clay Burlingham

Meanwhile, the German-born Alexandra was widely seen as an outsider in Russia.

Desiring to prove her worth by providing a male heir to the throne, the health issues faced by her son Alexei left her vulnerable to the influence of “mad monk” Grigori Rasputin, who was widely despised by the Russian masses.

“Rasputin is absolutely central to this … What is it about this couple that they become so vulnerable to attack?” Burlingham asked.

“There’s got to be something and I think Rasputin is very central to that, because as much as he can stop the bleeding of a hemophiliac son, he’s seen in a very different way by Russians -- and I think that what is seen by others as absolute corruption is something that will very much affect the rule of Nicholas and Alexandra.”

The First World War, Burlingham said, accelerated the collapse of the Romanov dynasty as Russia bled to death on the battlefield.

With Alexandra losing all hope following the murder of Rasputin in 1916, the tottering monarchy was left vulnerable to the revolutionary upheaval that would dominate 1917.

Thanking Burlingham for his presentation, Gerwing noted the relevance of Russian history in the leadup to the Sochi 2014 Olympics.

Thursday’s lecture further underscored the breadth of subjects offered to Focus on Life Long Learning Participants.

“We’ve done history, local history and European history,” Gerwing said. “We’ve done lots of nature-related programs … We’ve done some aboriginal themes, aboriginal medicines and foods and just a real wide variety of stuff.”

Upcoming spring lectures will include something of a nature theme, ranging from discussions on gardening to mountain pine beetles.

Saulteaux/Nakoway First Nation member Glenda Brass will provide the next Focus on Life Long Learning lecture, “Perspectives in Religion and Spirituality Part 1: A First Nations Perspective,” which is scheduled to take place in the library on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at noon.

Attendance at the lectures is free and everyone is welcome.

Organizations: University of Saskatchewan, University of Regina, John M. Cuelenaere Public Library Eastern Orthodox Church Nakoway First Nation

Geographic location: Russia, Moscow

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Recent comments

  • Delin Colon
    February 01, 2014 - 12:23

    http:Rasputin was not hated by the masses and was a well-known healer long before he arrived in St. Petersburg. It was the aristocracy, the clergy and bureaucrats who hated him for: 1. being anti-war 2. advocating equal rights for the oppressed Jews when antisemitism was government policy 3. wanting the masses to have a say in government See http://therealrasputin.wordpress.com Read "Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History" and "Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary" by Aron Simanovitch - recently translated into English.