Since toppling statues of Joseph Stalin, post-Soviet Russians have taken to building monuments to a different national hero in recent years: Tsar Nicholas II, the last emperor of the Russian Empire.
More than 25 shrines honoring Nicholas II have been erected since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Declared a saint and a martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church seven years ago, the tsar has been depicted in stone embraced by an angel; descending the steps of the execution room; in the company of his beloved wife and children; or just standing tall in full military regalia, sword in his hand.
But for Russia’s Jews, Tsar Nicholas II was far from a beloved ruler.
During his reign, pogroms broke out throughout the Russian empire resulting in the murder of approximately 3,000 Jews, according to Joshua Rubenstein, an Associate of the Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Nicholas II did nothing to stop the bloodshed, he said.
“It’s very hard for us to accept this deification of Nicholas II. It’s unfathomable,” said Rubenstein, adding that even the tsar’s execution by the Bolsheviks does not make him a saint. “It does not justify his elevation to sainthood.”
In addition to letting the perpetrators of the pogroms murder Jews, the Russian tsar also stubbornly refused to accept democratic reforms, such as the abolition of the Pale of Settlement, Rubenstein added.
“There were ministers advocating for the abolition of the Pale, but [the tsar] did not abide by that,” he said.
The refusal of Nicholas II to implement reforms is one of the factors that led to the Communist Revolution, Rubenstein added.
In Moscow, however, the spokesman of the Jewish community was more cautious in his remarks about the monuments to the tsar.
Speaking on behalf of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, Boruch Gorin said that he understands if the monuments are built out of respect for the lawless execution of Nicholas Romanov, as well as his wife, his innocent children, and his servants.
What he does not support, however, is the elevation of Nicholas II to sainthood and honoring him for having been a great ruler of the country, he said.
“He was executed without a trial — even his doctor and his son were murdered with him. That’s a terrible crime, that’s the start of the big terror, that’s what led up to 1937 [the year that saw the most Stalinist repression]. That’s why the monuments to his children and family do not offend me,” Gorin said.
“But another aspect is that the Russian Orthodox Church decided that the Romanovs are saints. As a result, there is a whole cult of tsar worship in Russia, the worshiping of the tsar as if he were God,” he said.
This elevation of a modern ruler to the level of sainthood prevents historians from properly studying and debating history, Gorin said.
There is a whole cult of tsar worship in Russia
“A hundred years ago, we couldn’t research the tsar because he was an enemy of the revolution, and now we also can’t study him because he’s a saint. Both are bad,” said Gorin.
While there are no documents that prove that Nicholas II ordered or directed the pogroms himself, he certainly did nothing to stop them, said Gorin.
“We can’t say that he advocated for anti-Semitism, but I think that the tsarist authorities are responsible because they didn’t stop the pogroms,” he said, adding that because Nicholas II was a weak and unpopular ruler was precisely why there was a revolution to overthrow him.
“To call a person like that a great ruler is to spit in history’s face,” Gorin said.
Monuments to leaders who murdered Jews
Though the tsar has been accused of apathy, he’s far from the only one consecrated who made life difficult for Jewish citizens. Here’s a look at some other monuments around the former Soviet Union of leaders who either spearheaded the wide scale murder of Jews or else failed to prevent it.
Symon Petliura (Vinnitsa, Ukraine) — A monument to Symon Petliura was erected in Vinnitsa, Ukraine this October. Petliura was the leader of Ukraine between 1917 and 1921 when between 50,000 and 200,000 Ukrainian Jews were murdered in pogroms.
“As a leader, he didn’t stop the pogroms, and in that way Petliura was responsible — just like Hitler is responsible for the Holocaust,” said Gennady Estraikh, a Jewish history professor at New York University.
A member of the Knesset asked the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel to remove the statue.
Ivan the Terrible (Oryol, Russia) — A year ago, Russia built its first monument to tsar Ivan the Terrible, who ruled in the 16th century. One little-known detail about this Russian ruler is that when he occupied the city of Polotsk, in Belarus, in 1563, he ordered that all the Jews who refused to be baptized be drowned in the river.
Anton Denikin (Moscow, Russia) — In 2005, the remains of Anton Denikin, commander of the White forces who fought against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, were honorably returned to Moscow and a monument was erected on Denikin’s grave.
The military forces that Denikin commanded during the Russian Civil War organized pogroms that are estimated to have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews including women and children.
“When his remains were brought to Russia, we were offended,” said Gorin, speaking on behalf of the Russian Jewish community.
Stepan Bandera (Ukraine) — There are at least 40 monuments in Ukraine honoring Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian political activist and leader who sided with the Nazis during the first years of World War II. His followers murdered thousands of Ukrainian Jews.
All of the monuments were built after the fall of Soviet Union, and interestingly, are almost exclusively located in Ukraine’s smaller towns — there are no statues of Bandera in Kiev, Odessa, or Chernivtsi.
Ion Antonescu (Romania) — After the fall of communism, Romania built at least six monuments to fascist dictator Ion Antonescu, who is responsible for the deaths of at least 250,000 Jews during WWII. In 2002, Romania passed a law mandating the removal of the six statues. However, whether all the monuments were indeed taken down is unclear. At least one statue of Antonescu was still standing in 2014, according to a Romanian television report.
Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Kiev, Ukraine) — A monument depicting Ukrainian leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky on a horse has stood in the center of the Ukrainian capital since 1888. In the 17th century, Khmelnytsky’s forces slaughtered nearly half of all Ukrainian Jews — or about 20,000 people. It was the bloodiest event in the history of Eastern European Jewry until the 20th century.