The Khodynka Riot, 1896
People can’t resist getting something for nothing. Such is the change in people’s behaviour when there is the prospect of a freebie, that woe betide the organisers who have miscalculated the likely demand. If evidence of this were required, just consider the tragic events at Khodynka Field, just outside Moscow, following the coronation of the ill-fated Russian Tsar, Nicholas II.
The idea was simple enough and, at first blush, pretty generous. Open house would be held for the masses, four days after the coronation, on 30th May. What was on offer for all those who turned up was a bread roll, a piece of sausage, pretzels, gingerbread, a commemorative cup and, crucially, as much beer as they could consume. Adjacent to the site 150 buffets were erected to hand out the gifts and 20 pop-up pubs to dispense the all-important booze. Close to the square was a field which had a ravine and numerous gullies. The threat to ‘elf and safety that these topographic features posed would become increasingly apparent as events unfolded.
News of the shindig spread like wildfire and by 6 o’clock in the morning, a sizeable crowd had already begun to assemble to get their piece of the action. By mid-morning, it is estimated that some half a million citizens were milling around, controlled by some flimsy barricades and a few hundred mounted Cossacks. The crowds grew restless and their humour was not improved when a rumour circulated to the effect that the officials had miscalculated demand and so there was unlikely to be enough to go around. It was also rumoured that within each enamel cup there was to be found a gold coin.
The crowd surged forward through the barriers towards the pubs and buffets. Now the topography came into play. Many fell into the ditch and were trampled on or were suffocated to death. Seeing what was happening, some of the crowd tried to turn back, compounding the mayhem and chaos. Despite police reinforcements numbering around 1,800 by the time the situation was brought under control, 1,389 people had been trampled to death and a further 1,3000 injured.
But the show must go on. By the time the Tsar and his old Dutch had made their way to the Royal Pavilion at around 2 o’clock, all traces of the devastation had been removed. Indeed, there was a rather successful news black-out. Alexei Volkov wrote, “..I met many groups of people coming back from that site and carrying the Tsar’s gifts. The strange thing, though, was not one person mentioned the catastrophe and I did not hear about it until the next morning”.
When the extent of the tragedy was known, many blamed Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich as he had been responsible for organising the event. But when the Tsar suggested holding an inquiry, the Duke flew off the handle and threatened to boycott the court. The inquiry never took place. Worse still, the Tsar was persuaded, for fear of upsetting his French hosts, to attend a lavish ball at the French embassy on the night of the disaster. This show of royal insensitivity did not go down with the masses, a feeling which royal visits to see those hospitalised the following day did nothing to dissipate.
In an attempt to make some amends, a number of minor officials were sacked and the government distributed aid packages to the families of those who had been killed. Grand Duke Sergei was nicknamed the Duke of Khodynka and Nicholas was given the tag “The Bloody”. Not a good way to begin a reign which concluded with his execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago.