I just finished reading The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar. It’s historical fiction about the last days of the Romanov family, spent under house arrest in Yekaterinburg, leading up to their execution. It’s roughly accurate historically until the last couple of chapters. The book takes some historical (and romantic) liberties, and proposes an alternative ending to the fate of the Romanovs. I won’t spoil it for you beyond that.
I started thinking about Tsar Nicholas II, Russia, and the Revolution. I wondered about the lives of the Romanovs, and whether the Tsar was a wine lover.
But first, how did Tsar Nicholas II and his family end up under house arrest?
The speed version: Back in 1905, some frustrated workers/peasants staged a mostly peaceful demonstration in St. Petersburg. They wanted stuff like improved working conditions and a popularly elected assembly. Tsars don’t like the notion of elected anything, so this didn’t sit especially well. So, Nicholas II decided to suppress the demonstrations, violently. And this became known as Bloody Sunday (not the same Bloody Sunday Bono sings about). More uprisings and more suppressions ensued. Nicholas II eventually agreed to a Duma (an elected legislature), but he was also convinced his rule was ordained by God, so he refused further reforms, and eventually nullified existing ones. He really wasn’t very good at Tsar-ing. The frustrations of the workers/peasants were set on simmer. Oh, and the Tsar exiled a revolutionary pest named Lenin (that’s important later).
Fee-fii-fo-fum. I smell a Revolution. (That sort of rhymes, just go with it.)
World War I was a disaster for Russia. Unfathomable casualties and a tanked economy make for a dreadfully unhappy home-front. By February of 1917, the Duma (with urgings and support from Comrade Lenin afar) turned on Tsar Nicholas II. There were riots, chaos on a spectacular scale, and the Tsar’s forces couldn’t do anything to contain it. And so, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate.
At that point, the Tsar and his family were essentially prisoners, and they were sequestered in Yekaterinburg, in the house of a local merchant. The Bolsheviks called it the House of Special Purpose (and now we all know exactly what that special purpose was). By April of 1917, Lenin had returned to Russia (with an assist from the Germans), and he and his band of Bolsheviks started stirring (frothing, really) the revolutionary pot. As forces loyal to the Tsar moved closer to the House of Special Purpose, the Bolsheviks panicked (thinking the Tsar might be rescued) and decided the Romanovs had to go. All of them. Who gave the order? Probably Lenin. Though, until 1991, the only thing the Soviets acknowledged was that the Tsar had been executed. They said the family had been taken to a safe place (the bottom of a mine shaft is pretty safe). Cue the theories about missing Tsarinas turning up all over the globe.
How does all of this relate to wine?
The main residence of Tsar Nicholas II (and the Russian Tsars before him) was the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. To give you an idea of the scale of the palace, it has over 1,500 rooms. Tsars need a lot of rooms. The Winter Palace also had a massive wine cellar, possibly the largest in the world at that time. The estimated value of the cellar was somewhere around $4,000,000 (that’s roughly $75,000,000 in today’s dollars). What kind of wines were inside the cellar? Not Russian Thunderbird. Tsar Nicholas’ favorite wine was Château D’Yquem, specifically the 1847 vintage. And Nicholas’ father, Tsar Alexander III, was a huge fan of Roderer’s Cristal Champagne. You can imagine the rest of the treasures in that cellar.
In October of 1917, Lenin ordered an assault on the Winter Palace. The Bolsheviks gave orders not to touch anything (Comrades, these treasures belong to the people, revolutionary discipline, blah, blah, blah.) As it turned out, Bolshevik soldiers didn’t have much discipline. The palace was pillaged. And then . . . they found the wine cellar. Over the course a month (a month!), the soldiers broke, drank, and looted tens of thousands of bottles of wine and vodka. Soldiers sold vodka to the crowds outside the palace, which meant there were drunk people inside the palace and out. And drunk people make terrible decisions. More pillaging, more looting, more violence. Things were out of control in St. Petersburg. (Even Bacchus would have pleaded with them to pull it together.)
The Bolsheviks tried to seal the wine cellar behind a wall, but the soldiers broke through it. Then they tried to funnel the wine out of the palace and into the Neva River (I’m nauseous — Yquem and Cristal, poured down the palace drains?!?), but once people discovered that, they congregated around the palace downspouts (revolutionary punch for everyone!). They even tried to sink bottles of wine in the river, but people jumped in after it. The Bolsheviks finally imposed marital law to restore some kind of order to St. Petersburg. But what really stopped the wine orgy? They finally ran out of wine.
Good times, right? Which brings me (finally) to today’s words, from University of London Professor of History, Orlando Figes. He’s widely considered one of the guys on the Russian Revolution. I wish I could sit in on his Russian Revolution classes (minus the papers and exams).
The quote, in its entirety:
For several weeks the anarchy continued – martial law was even imposed – until, at last, the alcohol ran out with the old year, and the capital woke up with the biggest hangover in history.1
They also woke up to the Red Army and a Civil War. And a do-not-pass-go ticket to Communism. But that’s a story for another day.
1Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924.