Peasant Letters to the Tsar: A Forgotten Russian Tradition

In the early 20th century, the Russian tradition of writing letters to the Tsar became a troubling signal of new and uncertain times.

May 18, 2022By Stefan Guzvica, MA Comparative History, BA Humanities, Society, and Culture
tsar nicholas portrait with group of people

 

If you lived in Russia and desired anything from a cow to parliamentary democracy, you could always rely on the age-old Russian tradition of writing a letter to the Tsar. This Russian tradition was rebirthed in the early 20th century, when the Russian population’s trust in the Tsar was quickly eroding…

 

The first-ever collective petition of the popular masses to the Russian Tsar took the form of a religious demonstration. On January 9th, 1905, 100,000 people marched towards the Winter Palace, led by Father Gapon, an Orthodox priest. They intended to present a set of moderate demands for universal equality and workers’ rights to be granted by the Tsar himself, in line with perceived Russian tradition. The procession carried white flags and icons to ensure the Tsar that they were not socialists, anarchists, or other such evil-doers, but the Orthodox faithful who respected his authority. The imperial police responded by firing into the crowd, killing almost 1,000 people. A distraught Father Gapon is said to have exclaimed: “There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar!”

 

Russian Tradition: The Good Tsar & Bad Boyars

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The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia by Alphonse Mucha, 1914, via USM Open-Source History Text via University of Southern California

 

Why did the clergy and the impoverished masses of Saint Petersburg believe that their antics would work? Didn’t they know that their society was a brutal autocracy? It may well be true that they did not. For centuries across Europe, monarchical regimes had maintained themselves in power primarily through the idea of divine right – the belief, actively supported by the various Christian churches, that monarchs have a God-given right to rule over their subjects. Such a belief, however, was not enough on its own.

 

A critical aspect of the monarchical myth was the faith in the benevolence of the ruler. Even if the subjects noticed injustice, poverty, or oppression, it was always far removed from the monarch. The wrath of the ruled was aimed at the aristocracy and figures of imperial administration. They had far more day-to-day interactions with the regular people and lacked the mystical veneer of the ruler. In Russia, this belief was even summarized in the popular saying, “Good Tsar, Bad Boyars.”

 

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A boyar was a member of the nobility of the highest rank in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe. In other words, if only the Tsar knew of the injustices that his underlings were committing over the people, he would immediately respond and correct them. The hundred thousand protesters in Saint Petersburg approached the Tsar’s palace with this idea in mind. Their naivety would go down in history as the Bloody Sunday of 1905.

 

What Did the Tsar Do?

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Father Gapon leads the crowds in front of the Narva Gate in Saint Petersburg in 1905, via Google Arts & Culture

 

Interestingly, Tsar Nicholas II did not order this massacre – he was not even in the Winter Palace at the time. This is not to exonerate him as a historical figure. Nicholas II was a brutal autocrat who earned himself the nickname Nicholas the Bloody very early on. Although it first became associated with him due to an accident – a stampede during his coronation ceremony – it later stuck because of famines, economic mismanagement, political repression, and senseless wars which Russia would all lose. However, for that particular incident in January 1905, Nicholas II was simply not present. He described the event in his diary as “a painful day.”

 

Nevertheless, those getting shot at in front of his palace did not know about this. For them, this was a clear response to their moderate demands, and this shattered their great respect for the Tsar. Some of them certainly believed that Nicholas himself ordered the massacre. Combined with the aforementioned famines, wars, and poverty which gradually eroded his legitimacy, the Bloody Sunday was a dramatic event that contributed greatly to the end of the myth of the “good Tsar.” It was the beginning of the First Russian Revolution, which, despite its brutal suppression, resulted in concessions from the autocracy. The first-ever Russian Constitution and the establishment of the national assembly, known as the Duma, resulted from it.

 

With the Forehead on the Floor

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Portrait of Tsarevich and Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich (the future Tsar Nicholas II) by Baron Ernst Friedrich von Liphart, 1889, via tsarnicholas.org

 

To preserve his crumbling legitimacy, Tsar Nicholas II re-institutionalized the writing of popular petitions. Petitioning the ruler had already been a Russian tradition, although direct contact with the Tsar had been limited in the 1700s, becoming the privilege of the upper classes. The poor could only petition their local administrators and nobility (perhaps one of the reasons for the stereotype of the “bad boyars”). These petitions and letters granted the upper classes a significant level of what would today be called freedom of speech and at least a sense of involvement in the political processes. Before a revolt of the city of Moscow in 1648, the citizens had sent the Tsar a petition outlining their grievances. This shows that on more than one occasion, the institution of the petition could even preempt revolts and that uprisings were seen as a last resort.

 

Before the 18th century, the letters were open to any subject of the Tsar. They were known as Chelobitnye (Челобитные). The colorfully-named Russian tradition literally translated into “forehead-bumping.” In other words, it was meant to evoke the situation of being in the physical presence of the ruler, which entailed the subject bowing with their forehead on the floor. The institution of letter-writing created the feeling of a direct line going straight to the Tsar, enabling every person in the Empire to have their voice heard and strengthening the impression of the Tsar’s benevolence. In 1608, for instance, a poor priest begged Tsar Vasili IV to force a local nobleman to give him a cow so that the clergyman could feed his family (Orthodox priests are allowed to marry). Though it may seem banal, such petitions were oftentimes a matter of life or death for the authors and perhaps stood between loyalty and open revolt against authority.

 

The Tradition of Petitions Returns

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Manifestation. October 17, 1905 by Ilya Repin, 1907, via Wikiart

 

In the 18th century, this Russian tradition gradually died out, or rather underwent a qualitative change: the rich were the only people who could petition the Tsar directly. Nevertheless, the image of the benevolent Tsar persisted, as did the belief in writing to him. The fact that only the wealthy wrote does not mean that the letters became limited to matters of the aristocracy. In fact, the liberal-minded sections of the nobility kept writing to the Tsars about issues of broader social importance.

 

Perhaps the most famous of the letters was written by Leo Tolstoy, one of Russia’s greatest writers, also of noble origins. Although an aristocrat, Tolstoy was deeply against a hierarchical feudal society and actively sought to alleviate the misery of Russia’s poor, especially the peasantry. He was a Christian anarchist and a pacifist, taking as the basis of his belief a literal interpretation of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

 

In 1901, Tolstoy wrote a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, which made it all the way to the New York Times. Tolstoy wrote to the Tsar to protest the mistreatment of Dukhobortsy (Духоборцы, the “spirit-wrestlers”), a pacifist Christian sect inspired by Protestantism. The existence of this radical religious group was no accident. It was a sign of the changing times and the upheavals to come. Tolstoy said so himself, writing prophetically in the second letter:

 

“It is possible that the present movement, like those which have preceded it, may be suppressed by the employment of military force. But it may happen that the soldiers and policemen, in whom the Government puts so much trust, will realize that to carry out their instructions in this respect would involve the horrible crime of fratricide, and will refuse to obey orders.”

 

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Ivan Alekseevich Vladimirov, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) (The Great Man of Russia), 1900, in the Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Prenton

 

Such a time came less than four years later. Already on February 18th, 1905, around forty days after the Bloody Sunday, Tsar Nicholas II permitted petitions “in the highest name” and on virtually any topic imaginable. These petitions are a fascinating historical source, painting a picture of popular grievances in a turbulent and indeed transformative era. We can read about the arbitrary rule of local lords and the belief in changes that the peasants in the countryside expected. As a significant portion of the population was illiterate, the letters were often a product of collective action, articulated at a village assembly. It would be signed by those who knew how to write, but it was the work of everyone who attended. These letters are thus a testimony of an impulse toward popular rule in a time when autocracy was in its death throes.

 

Petitions & Revolutions: Tradition as Subversion

 

By the end of 1905, the petitions rapidly grew in number. The fact that the Tsar promised a constitution and reinstated the tradition of letter-writing only reinforced the feeling of the population that their grievances were justified. The letters began containing veiled and not-so-veiled threats aimed at the monarchy. The peasants began self-asserting their collective identity, saying that they are a peaceful population but would not hesitate to rise to arms if their conditions were not met, given that they had already been condemned to insufferable living. They also began referencing more and more the political manifestos and proclamations of the day, both of the Tsar and the revolutionaries, showing greater political awareness and thus further signs of the destabilization of the regime.

 

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The Regional Court by Mikhail Ivanovich Zoshchenko, 1888, via runivers

 

1905 was a prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution, and its peasant letters were a sign of the radical changes to come: while aimed at the Tsar and reminiscent of ancient Russian tradition, they were a clear sign of modernity. Although ostensibly invoking the authority of the monarchy, they in fact exemplified its crumbling power and the political constitution of Russia’s underclass into a political force. The majority population was on the path to another uprising, even more volatile than the one in 1905.

 

Although it is a fascinating window into Russia’s past, the tradition of writing letters to the Tsars remains very much under-researched. The archives certainly hide plenty more outstanding sources that can reveal how ordinary people perceived the changing world around them. There is probably no better example for this than the history of the French Revolution. The French and the Russian revolutions, though temporally apart, had many things in common. Both were aimed against the monarchy, and both inspired political movements in their wake that left a mark on the entire ensuing century.

 

Interestingly, both took place when the literacy rate in their respective societies had reached fifty percent. This perhaps helps explain, in both cases, the newfound militancy of the peasantry, which became acutely aware of its unenviable social position. A greater understanding of the letter-writing of the Russian Revolution(s) might also bring color to the stories of the grim lives of the Russian peasants – thanks to reading about the problems of the French, for instance, we now know that a major concern for the peasants of Lorraine was that, apparently, the foul breath of the sheep was destroying the pastures.

 

I would like to thank my friend and colleague Aleksandr Korobeinikov for recommending me some of the sources used in the writing of this article.



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By Stefan GuzvicaMA Comparative History, BA Humanities, Society, and CultureStefan is a PhD student in history at the University of Regensburg, Germany. He is a researcher of communism and is currently finishing his dissertation on the Balkan communist parties in the interwar period. Aside from the history of communism, he is passionate about architecture and the avant-garde art of the 1920s. Stefan previously completed his MA at Central European University, Budapest, and his BA at the Anglo-American University in Prague. He is the author of Before Tito, a book on Yugoslav communism in the time of Stalin’s Terror.