The tsarist empire that preceded the revolutions of 1917 is often thought of as a medieval throwback. Yet reactionaries in Russia also pioneered modern methods of counterrevolution, inspiring Europe’s fascist movements.
Russia is usually thought of as an improbable birthplace for the world’s first communist revolution. Indeed, the Bolsheviks’ fantastic ambitions of revolution across the planet often overshadow the reality that, over the immediately preceding decades, the Russian Empire had been the bulwark of reaction in the industrialized world.
Though the dubious credit for inaugurating the modern authoritarian playbook is usually awarded to Benito Mussolini’s Italy, there is a strong argument that the last thirty-six years of the Russian Empire — the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II, from 1881 to 1917 — provided the ultimate laboratory for state-of-emergency rule and reactionary terror. From weaponized prejudice to paramilitary street terror and the castigation and censorship of the written word, the arsenal of reaction was well developed already in Russia’s late nineteenth century.
With the quasi-enforced exile of almost the entire ruling class after 1917, creating a global diaspora of almost 2 million people, many of its ideas and methods spread around the world — with some fertilizing the political soil for fascism and Nazism.
Beard of Reaction
Following the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881 — after seven different attempts, including basement bombs in the Winter Palace and street shoot-outs — the Russian state was thrown into a tailspin from which it could never right itself. The so-called Tsar Liberator’s program of autocratic liberalism, featuring the emancipation of the serfs (along with modest property reform and land redistribution), selective civic advancement for Jews, localized self-government, and an independent judiciary (progressive by West European standards), was quickly vitiated by a concerted program of counterreform.
The new emperor, Alexander III, marked himself ready to break even with the most long-standing and characteristic traditions of the Romanov dynasty. Smashing the unbroken line of beardless rulers since Peter the Great’s original beard ban and accompanying beard tax of 1698, the new ruler not only appeared with an imposingly long beard but also had himself photographed dressed theatrically in the standard outfit of a Russian muzhik or peasant — a clear populist signal. His building program embraced an anti-modern visual style that hearkened back to the Byzantine and the Old Muscovite, again severing the emulation of the neoclassically oriented European style, which had gone largely unquestioned for two centuries. His historical escapism and fantasy were a new and finely tuned form of turning politics into theater, a staple of modern reaction — and fitting for a ruler who prided himself on never missing a dress rehearsal at the Marinsky Theater.
This new regime had stumbled onto a fundamental truth of modern reaction: that conservatism could be radical, too. And the true brain behind this vision was the Ober-Curator of the Holy Synod and the personal tutor of the last two emperors, Konstantin Pobedonotsev, something of a cross between Dick Cheney and Darth Vader. The critical realist painter Ilya Repin famously depicted him as a living mummy, and the symbolist Russian Jewish poet Alexander Blok envisioned him as a vampiric grand inquisitor, once writing:
In those distant, deaf years
Slumber and haziness reigned in the heart
Pobedonostsev’s owl wings
Stretched over Russia
There was no day or night
Only the shadow of those vast wings
He drew a spellbinding circle
Around Russia, gazing into her eyes
With the vitreous stare of a sorcerer
Pobodonostev labeled popular sovereignty as “the great falsehood of our time.” Decades before Joseph Goebbels, he spoke of the French Revolution as the ultimate nemesis, whose repeal he openly sought. He crafted a concerted program of censorship and vilified the intelligentsia, with dozens of newspapers banned. Further, this Ober-Curator crafted a state ideology explicitly hostile to the notion of education. He and the new emperor decisively ended both university autonomy and any higher education for women. In their correspondence, they were overtly contemptuous of secondary teaching for former serfs, and at the new network of church schools, founded by Pobodonostev, no subjects were taught other than learning to read the Bible. Any student already in university found to be political in any way was to be sent directly into military service.
Alexander III’s rule brought something of an experimental right-wing project. For the first time, a major European state would be ruled under “temporary regulations,” meaning an indefinite and conveniently undefined “state of emergency.” This empowered the state to search for and court-martial anyone deemed a threat to state security. In practice, this meant the ruthless enforcement of what would be known, somewhat speciously, as “Russification” — in essence, a form of nationalist terror. Finns lost their autonomous army and post office, nothing could be printed in Ukrainian, the universities in Warsaw and Vilna were shut down, Polish could no longer be used in high schools (even Polish literature was studied in Russian), and Lithuanians began to lose the right to use the Latin alphabet.
Perhaps more familiar to Americans are the waves of pogroms that followed the assassination of Alexander II — kindred to American lynchings and race riots — infamous for triggering the largest mass exodus in modern Jewish history. Almost half of a 5-million-strong population now saw flight as their only way out. “Pogrom,” derived from “thunder,” is one of the few words in Russian to have gained international currency, especially in its problematic adoption to describe Nazi antisemitic acts. Less understood is the program of apartheid-like lawfare unleashed against the Jewish minority. Hundreds of laws passed as “emergency decrees,” known as the “May or Interim Laws,” stripped the right to vote and to own land, and enacted harsh quotas in all public educational institutions, even restricting Jews’ freedom to adopt Christian names. Officially coordinated mass expulsions from multiple cities followed; newly appointed governor-generals of major cities, like Moscow and Kiev, began their terms with expulsions of Jews.
The early Russian Social Democrat and star of Russian letters, Maxim Gorky, who fled the country in 1906, said in response to recent events:
Is Europe really so unconcerned about having as its neighbor a country of 140 million people whom the authorities are trying to turn into animals, instilling in them hostility and hatred for anything that is not Russian, inculcating not just cruelty and violence, but a passion for violence? Do Jewish bankers in Europe understand that they are giving money to Russia to fund Jewish pogroms?
The construct of modern antisemitism as the key, conspiracy-format reactionary ideology has a clear Russian provenance. The urtext which lays out the very idea and format for demonic conspiracies of global domination, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, called a “warrant for genocide,” first emerged as part of a larger text by the Russian mystic Sergei Nilus entitled “The Great within the Small and the Antichrist, an Imminent Political Possibility. Notes of an Orthodox Believer.” First serialized in Saint Petersburg newspaper Znamia in 1903, it was repeatedly reprinted thanks to the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, as part of a propaganda campaign in the subsequent decade. This forged document was introduced to Berlin as early as 1919, through Colonel Fyodor Vinberg’s radical right-wing publication Luch Sveta (Ray of light), and then to the United States, in 1920, by Boris Brasol, who provided the assist for Henry Ford’s Americanized version, published as The International Jew. Brasol, a future Nazi agent and member of the German American Bund, was a former tsarist prosecutor for the Ministry of Justice who had served the last major blood libel case in modern European History, that of Mendel Beilis in Kiev in 1913. More than a definitive text of antisemitism, it is also the most profound denunciation of the modern world found in any text of political propaganda. The Protocols frames any kind of political thought or mobilization of workers or the masses as symptom of an apocalyptic design for world destruction; the text aims to silence all critical thought. It was apparently found among the last personal effects on the bedside of the Russian monarchs before their execution in Yekaterinburg in 1918; the whole family are today saints of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The 1905 Revolution — which saw the first general strike, the first military mutiny (aboard the Potemkin, as immortalized by Sergei Eisenstein), and the first soviet, or workers’ council, in Russian history — brought a level of disorder, with waves of pogroms and riots, that almost toppled the regime. And while the tsar’s manifesto, in October 1905, brought the Russian Empire closer to a European standard of parliamentary governance, with some checks and balances and a protected civic sphere, this shift also triggered an even more radical wave of reactionary mobilization. In its wake emerged nothing less than Europe’s first fascist organization, the Union of Russian People (URP), more generally known as the “Black Hundreds,” founded in November 1905.
While the last two emperors are no longer thought by historians to have been behind any systematic program of pogroms, evidence abounds of their tacit support for these new political movements of the post-1905 radical right. The URP was no elite club but a mass political movement; populist and anti-bourgeois, they appealed to the peasant and the proletarian, and sought workers’ relief in the name of autocracy. Even Vladimir Lenin noted their “benighted peasant democratism,” as they expounded a form of racist anti-industrial capitalism that avoided challenging property relations of the landlord class, so familiar from later fascisms. Notably, their enemies were not just Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries but liberalism as a whole, including those conservative-minded liberals who sought a path to reform. Weapons were received from the police, subsidies from governors, and the last emperor even granted them a reception while he accepted their honorary badge. (At one time, Rasputin, the tsar’s “guru,” counted the miracle monk and Black Hundred spokesperson Iliodor as a close confidant.)
The Black Hundreds founded “combat groups” (boevye druzhiny) that wore yellow shirts (long before Mussolini’s Black- and Hitler’s Brownshirts), initiating street terror and strikebreaking, and pursuing an assassination campaign, especially against Jewish members of the liberal Constitutional Democratic (“Cadet”) Party. The Union unsuccessfully pursued the assassination of Prime Minister Sergei Witte, who had drafted the 1905 manifesto, and, during a thwarted attempt to kill Cadet leader Pavel Milyukov at an exile meeting in Berlin, Black Hundred members murdered Vladimir Dimitrevich Nabokov. A leading Cadet liberal, Nabokov, the father of the great novelist, helped to end the monarchy and the death penalty, and supported full emancipation of the Jews. His murderers, Black Hundred veterans, were sentenced but never served prison time, and went on to collaborate with the Nazis. Along with several former generals that pledged loyalty oaths to the Third Reich, these assassins even created a Russian version of the Hitler Youth under the aegis of the SS, with some ultimately fleeing to South America after the war.
Government terror after 1905 descended into mass murder, with at least three thousand hangings of “revolutionaries” in the Stolypin terror. Even such drastic measures could not stave off the near-total collapse of the Russian state into outright civil war after the February and October Revolutions of 1917. The counterrevolutionary “White” generals openly embraced — or were themselves veterans — of the Russian far right. Their reactionary program decayed into radical antisemitism replete with a biological worldview, with new “racial tests” applied for all those in the army and the provisional governments the Whites fleetingly established in the areas they occupied. The greatest outbreak of systematic killing on the European continent before the Holocaust occurred under the cover of the Whites, by the so-called Volunteer Army, in Ukraine. Organized into military operations, it murdered tens or even hundreds of thousands of Jews in Ukraine by 1921. As a rule, White military governors pardoned those implicated in the murders.
In the wake of their defeat by the Red Army, the Russian ruling class and the leaders of the White Armies formed a diaspora which some termed a “black international.” While few in number, imperial Russian exiles played critical roles in key moments during the birth of Nazism. Propagandists such as Vinberg, with his press outlet Crusade, based in Berlin, continued the civil war by other means. Described as a halfway house between the Black Hundreds and Nazism, he often spoke of the need to be free from both the red and gold internationals. Die Brücke, or Aufbauvereinigung, founded in Munich in 1918–19, was the organization that most firmly planted the Russian roots for Nazism, including press chiefs of former White Army generals and the later Nazi directors of press and foreign affairs. Historians trace Hitler’s conversion to the global conspiratorial element of his antisemitism to their materials.
Such cooperation and even unity among the terrorist German and Russian right had immediate and dire results: the Kapp Putsch in Berlin in 1920, the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, and the assassinations of Nabokov and foreign minister Walter Rathenau, both in 1922. The Russian dimension to the Beer Hall Putsch is largely forgotten, as the mastermind, Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, a Russian Baltic German and Aufbau editor, died in the attack.
If the term “Wilhelminism” emerged to indicate an imperialist archconservative, anti-socialist political climate in the German Empire, then perhaps “Pobedonotstevism,” or “late-Romanovism,” should be introduced as shorthand for the right-wing radicalization that reached its pre–World War I heights in Russia. When the anti-revolutionary Russian headquarters collapsed in defeat at the end of the Civil War, the resulting resentment was sent spiraling across Europe — with fateful consequences. This stands as a reminder that political concepts do not always only travel from left to right, and that it was the Russian world that first confronted the collapse of the promises of modern life. Underneath Nazi rhetoric or even the modern authoritarian playbook writ large, Russia’s counterrevolutionary past is not far under the surface.