What Caused the Khodynka Tragedy?
Part 3 of a series on human stampedes and crushes
Why was Moscow the site of two particularly deadly human crushes? It’s where the very top of society reached out to the very low.
At the coronation of Tsar Nicolas II in 1896, thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of people were crushed while rushing towards free gifts. Some literature refers to this kind of crowd motion as a “craze”.
This kind of crush was the first well documented and it has come to dominate the imagination. It conjures images of a hungry crowd carelessly crushing the weak among them underfoot in their headlong greedy rush.
Despite this general perception, within Russia, the blame fell squarely on the monarchy. Whereas the wedding celebration crush of Louis XVI was seen as a bad omen, the connotation crush took on great significance for the revolutions that followed.
The day after Tsar Nicholas II’s official coronation, a large celebration was held in Khodynka Field outside Moscow. It was the same field where his father had celebrated his coronation just thirteen years earlier with very different results. In preparation for the event, temporary theaters, pubs, and stands were erected to provide one and all with a wonderful time.
The celebration held great political significance for the Tsar. The Russian Empire had evolved into a highly autocratic state where all power rested in the hands of a small aristocracy. The country was still in the process of abolishing serfdom, a system with many similarities to chattel slavery. Peasants who worked on private lands could be bought and sold by those landowners, beaten for any reason, and could not marry peasants on other estates. 10 million Russians lived in this condition, as much as 38% of the population.
Although serfdom was legally abolished and the crown had taken steps to alleviate its worst abuses, the country still had no formal civil rights, no formal representative bodies, and almost all land was held by a small minority of nobles. Contrary to popular belief, however, Russian income inequality wasn’t exceptional and was less extreme than inequality in America or Russia today (although this is more a reflection of the overall poverty of the country than anything). Political inequality dominated the concerns of the lower classes. They wanted more control over their personal fates.
The Tsar’s power rested on shaky foundations in a world where many of the myths of monarchy had been exposed. Nicholas did what autocrats have always done to alleviate the pressure for reform: he courted the affection of the lower classes. His continued survival relied on a magisterial but benevolent image: the king as protector of the people in a turbulent world.
As such, he invited all his people to share in the glory of his coronation. In the thirteen years since his father’s coronation, the population and Moscow had grown as well as the general transport infrastructure of the country. The celebration was more accessible to more citizens than ever. People began pouring into Khodynka field from across the Empire. Tens of thousands—maybe as many as half a million—people gathered to collect their gifts from the Tsar: a bread roll, a piece of sausage, pretzels, gingerbread, and a commemorative cup. The cups would come to be known as the Cup of Sorrows in memory of the crush.
In such an enormous crowd, impatience began to set in, aided by rumors. What probably began as simple wondering if the line would ever start moving turned to fear that there wouldn’t be enough gifts to go around or that the gifts were being distributed unfairly. The crowd began to surge, which led to deadly pile-ups. The field was particularly mottled with ravines and ditches, which presented hazards to a crowd unable to see far ahead of themselves. It appears that authorities put no thought into how the people would get to and away from the gift stands.
Leo Tolstoy, at this time an old and respected writer and social justice advocate, wrote a short story about the event to draw attention to it. He describes the experience of falling in the ditch this way:
Earlier, he didn’t see anything in front of him except for the people’s backs, and now suddenly everything opened ahead of him. He saw tents, those tents, from which the gifts were supposed to be given. He rejoiced, but his joy lasted for only a minute, because he immediately realized that what has opened to him, ahead of him, opened only because they all came to a ravine and all who were in front of him, some on legs, others kneeling, fell in it, and he is falling there, too, over the people, he’s falling on the people, and others, from behind, are falling on him. And then, for the first time, fear found him. He fell. A woman in a headscarf fell upon him. He shook her off his back, wanted to return, but others pressed from behind and he didn't have the strength. He leant forward, but his feet set on the soft, - on people. They grabbed him by the legs and screamed. He saw nothing, heard nothing and moved forward, treading on people.
Casualty estimates vary widely. Officially, 1,282 corpses were collected from the scene. Somewhere between 9,000 and 12,000 people were injured. No attempts were made to provide first aid, only to evacuate the crowd and dispose of the bodies. The Tzar was informed of the tragedy but the scene was cleaned up before he arrived and he saw none of the horrors. He wrote in his diary about visiting the square to give condolences, “Actually there was nothing going on.” He then attended a ball held by the French ambassador.
It’s likely that Nicholas considered the crushing to be a personal tragedy that shouldn’t interfere with his duties as head of state. He also relied on French support for power and could not afford to offend the ambassador. Regardless, the decision stirred up mass resentment at the time.
Even the Chinese ambassador, who was at the ball, commented that his Emperor would not have come. This resentment set the stage for the violent revolutions that followed.
The Tsar distributed aid to the families and minor officials were sacked including the Moscow Chief of Police. The response was widely considered inadequate and some took to calling their new emperor “Nicholas the Bloody.”
A decade later, a violent uprising created the first representative governing bodies in Russia. Another decade later, the monarchy was toppled at the height of World War One. In the reappraisal of Nicholas’ reign by the communist revolution, the Khodynka tragedy was seen not just as a bad omen, but a misuse of power by a high-handed and tone-deaf aristocracy. The lack of planning, lack of responsibility, and disregard for human life came to dominate discussions of the event and it came to be seen as a crime perpetrated against the Russian people.