The End of the Romanov Dynasty

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 270th installment in the series. 

March 15-17, 1917: The End of the Romanov Dynasty

After mass strikes and a huge military mutiny in Petrograd turned into revolution on March 8-12, 1917, there was still a chance – however slim – that Tsar Nicholas II or some other Romanov might continue on the throne, reigning as the mostly symbolic figurehead of a constitutional monarchy. However a series of missteps and accidents over the next few days closed this door forever, ending the 300-year-old dynasty and leaving the long-suffering country to endure yet more upheavals, culminating in a brutal civil war and finally ruthless dictatorship.

Fittingly Nicholas II wasn’t even present in the capital for the last days of the monarchy, following his departure for military headquarters at Mogilev just before the revolution began. Here he received sketchy, conflicting reports of protests in Petrograd from officials including Interior Minister Protopopov, who downplayed their seriousness, leading him to believe it was just another economic strike, easily contained like its many predecessors. Even when news of the military mutiny arrived, Nicholas II at first planned to suppress it with loyal troops, and ordered several divisions to Petrograd in preparation for a counterattack on the mutineers. 

However the tsar was totally out of touch with the fast-changing situation. On March 12, the chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent an alarming telegram begging Nicholas II to allow him to officially reconvene the Duma (now meeting despite the tsar’s order dissolving it) and form a new cabinet empowering reformists, warning that this may be the last chance to save the monarchy: 

The last bulwark of order has been removed. The Government is completely powerless to suppress disorder. The troops of the garrison are unreliable. The reserve battalions of the Guard regiments are caught up by the revolt. They kill their officers… Give orders immediately to summon a new government on the basis outlined to Your Majesty in my telegram of yesterday. Give orders to abrogate your Imperial decree and to convoke again the legislative chambers… In the name of all Russia I implore Your Majesty to fulfill these suggestions. The hour which will decide your fate and that of the motherland has struck. Tomorrow may be already too late.

But Nicholas II, still hoping to restore order on his terms, refused to make this concession to the Duma – a fatal mistake, as the events of the next 48 hours would reveal. 

Undemocratic “Democracy”

Fearing for their lives amid the continuing anarchy, the liberal reformist members of the Duma had no choice but to form a new Provisional Government on their own. Lacking the tsar’s stamp of approval, they decided to shore up their legitimacy by seeking popular support, which would also help calm the angry mobs and restore order. 

They knew exactly where to go. While the Duma generally represented the factory owners, middle class professionals, landowners and aristocrats, the mantle of representative of the “people” – meaning industrial workers and soldiers – had already been claimed by the new Petrograd Soviet, or “council,” which was convened on March 12 by various socialist parties and the newly-liberated members of the Central Workers Group, imprisoned by Protopopov a month before (the tables had now turned, as Protopopov himself was now under arrest along with most of the other tsarist ministers). 

The hastily organized Soviet, modeled on councils established during the previous Russian Revolution of 1905, was hardly a democratic organization. Rather than straightforward proportional representation by district, it was composed of delegates chosen by the two big interest groups, soldiers and workers, as well as numerous sub-groups (such as divisions and regiments or factories and workshops). Because there were so many more units claiming representation within the Petrograd garrison – all the way down to brigades and companies – the soldiers had far more delegates in the 3,000-strong Soviet than the workers, even though the workers made up most of the population of the city.

Even more undemocratically, the Soviet only represented the civilians and garrison troops of Petrograd, a small fraction of the Russian Empire’s entire population of around 170 million, and as noted its composition was limited to soldiers and workers, even though most of the empire’s population were rural peasants – meaning the majority of the Russian population had no representation at all. Finally, the executive committee of the Soviet, the “Ipsolkom,” wasn’t even chosen by the Soviet’s own members, but was drawn instead from the leadership of the main socialist parties, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Trudoviks, and Bolsheviks, who usually made decisions on their own, without even consulting the rest of the Soviet.

Despite all this, the liberal Duma members who formed the Provisional Government saw that the Soviet had the backing of the revolutionary mobs and was already proclaiming itself the voice of the people, making it the closest thing to a democratic body in Petrograd at the moment. Desperately casting about for a source of legitimacy after Nicholas II refused to provide it, the new Provisional Government turned to the Soviet, which agreed to endorse the government – with some important conditions (described below). 

Now that the Provisional Government could base its legitimacy on popular support, it no longer needed the tsar. Belatedly realizing that the events in Petrograd were spinning out of control, Nicholas II decided to return to his residence outside Petrograd at Tsarskoe Selo in the early morning of March 14, but logistics intervened: the imperial train and its escort had to take a circuitous route to enable a train carrying loyal troops to go ahead of them to fight the mutineers in Petrograd – another seemingly minor detail with major consequences. 

After embarking on its roundabout journey, the imperial train halted about 200 miles southeast of Petrograd because the way was blocked by troops who had gone over to the revolution. Backing up, the imperial entourage now proceeded west to the town of Pskov, headquarters of the northern section of the Eastern Front. 

This accident had two unforeseen results. The first was that Nicholas II was separated from his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, who had helped stiffen his spine on previous occasions, encouraging him to take a hard line with dissidents in the Duma. The second was that he came under the influence of General Nikolai Ruzsky, pro-reform commander of the northern front, and also received a stream of discouraging telegrams from General Mikhail Alekseyev, second in command of the Russian Army after the tsar himself. 

Still in Mogilev, Alekseyev was getting alarming reports from all over, including the news that the disorder had spread to Moscow, the other center of the Russian armament industry. Alekseyev warned the tsar that the continuation of the war effort, his primary concern, would be impossible if disorder spread: “A revolution in Russia – and this inevitable once disorders occur in the rear – will mean a disgraceful termination of the war, with all its inevitable consequences, so dire for Russia… It is impossible to ask the army calmly to wage war while a revolution is in progress in the rear.”

Shocked by the wavering attitude of his own top generals, late on March 14 Nicholas II reversed his earlier position and declared himself ready to compromise by allowing the Duma to form its own reform cabinet – but it was too late, as the Provisional Government had by now formed its alliance with the Petrograd Soviet, which it couldn’t abandon for fear of sparking more mob violence. Early on March 15 Rodzianko responded with a telegram to Ruzsky: “It is obvious that His Majesty and you do not realize what is going on here. One of the most terrible revolutions has broken out, which it will not be so easy to quell… I must inform you that what you propose is no longer adequate, and the dynastic question has been raised point blank.”

Alekseyev, now more alarmed than ever, ordered the transcript of Rodzianko’s telegrams with Ruzsky be shown to Tsar Nicholas II, and at 3 p.m. the tsar – who considered the defense of Russia his primary responsibility – agreed to abdicate in order to allow the war effort to continue. His abdication address, signed on March 15, made his reasons clear (below, the original text):

Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war.  The destiny of Russia, the honour of our heroic army, the welfare of the people and the whole future of our dear fatherland demand that the war should be brought to a victorious conclusion whatever the cost… In these decisive days in the life of Russia, We thought it Our duty of conscience to facilitate for Our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma We have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power. 

Unable to bear the idea of going into exile without his son Alexei, he also abdicated on behalf of the tsarevich (something he technically had no right to do) and the line of succession passed to his own younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael, who tentatively agreed to accept the crown on March 16. 

However on March 17 the members of the Provisional Government, now with the backing of the Soviet, warned Michael that any attempt to take the throne would probably lead to fresh violence. The Grand Duke responded that he would only accept the crown if he had the support of the Russian people, which would require the convening of a new constituent assembly – something that would take weeks if not months. Until then he would stand aside and respect the authority of the Provisional Government. On that anti-climactic note, the Romanov Dynasty had ended. 

The sudden end of the monarchy doubtless came as a shock to conservative Russians, including many older people who couldn’t imagine a world without the supreme ruler. This reaction cut across class lines, as many peasants also held traditional views. Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, then a young army officer, recalled the reaction of two senior men from very different backgrounds: 

When I told it to my orderly, he started weeping. At the same table was sitting an old, gray-haired army colonel, and when he heard the tragic news, he started sobbing and he said, “Now that the Tsar has abandoned us I am going to serve the Sultan of Turkey.” That old colonel had been brought up with the notion that he had to serve a master, and his master was the Tsar, who held his power by the Grace of God and was anointed in the Moscow Cathedral in a great, great ceremony. For that colonel, the Tsar’s word was God’s word, and he reigned and he ordered by the Grace of God. And now this old colonel was deprived of the Tsar that he loved, and so sobbing and weeping he declared that he would go to the Turks, the arch enemy of all Russia, and serve the Sultan. You have to really comprehend the state of mind of an old Russian line officer to understand the tragic meaning of what he was saying. 

Calculated Confusion  

Meanwhile the Soviet’s endorsement of the Provisional Government was far from enthusiastic, due to the socialist Ipsolkom’s deep distrust of the “bourgeois” liberals appointed by the Duma to lead it. As a result they reserved the right to veto or ignore any decisions they disagreed with, and also asserted the right to legislate and make policy on their own, creating an unusual (and unstable) two-headed government: real power was held by the Soviet Ipsolkom, while the Provisional Government, now led by the ineffectual idealist Prince Lvov, played an increasingly marginal role. 

Why didn’t the Ipsolkom just brush aside the Provisional Government and seize power right from the start? While the answer is complicated, the socialists who dominated the Soviet’s executive committee apparently made the decision for a few main reasons.

At a pragmatic level, the Soviet’s executive committee realized that the experienced politicians and statesmen of the Provisional Government were better equipped to carry on the war effort against Germany – which most of the socialists still endorsed as a struggle against imperialism – especially in matters of strategic coordination and obtaining financial support from Russia’s French and British allies. 

In a cynical calculation, the Ipsolkom also seems to have decided it would be advantageous to leave the job of enforcing many unpopular but unavoidable measures to the Provisional Government, basically using the liberal reformers as lightning rods for popular discontent while the Soviet hung back, intervening only when the vital interests of “the people” were at stake. Once again, Russia’s relations with the Western Allies are a good example: as many ordinary Russians distrusted Britain and France, it was better to let the Provisional Government dirty its hands dealing with the foreign imperialists. 

Luckily, ideology provided a convenient fig leaf: as Marxist determinists, the more doctrinaire members of Ipsolkom could always argue that the Provisional Government corresponded to the bourgeois phase of the state that Marx predicted would inevitably follow the feudal phase (the tsarist regime) and be supplanted in its turn by the communist phase (that is, themselves). As such it was a necessary evil which they would allow to exist, if only temporarily, in order to enable the reorganization of society by the bourgeoisie, thus setting the stage for the proletariat's eventual seizure of power. In reality the government provided a ready source of ministerial and bureaucratic jobs for them and their followers – earning the contempt of Lenin, leader of the radical Bolsheviks, who advocated the immediate overthrow of the "bourgeois" state.

In the long run the tension between the Provisional Government and the Soviet provided a political launch pad for the only person who happened to be a member of both – Alexander Kerensky, the ambitious young lawyer who somehow managed to straddle the two worlds, liberal and socialist, and later seemed to offer the only hope of national unity, parlaying his indispensable position and charisma into a short-lived dictatorship. 

Dereliction and Desertion 

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, however, the two-headed government produced exactly what might be expected: chaos. Dmitrii Fedotoff-White, an officer in the Russian Navy, expressed what was doubtless a common feeling of bewilderment in his diary on March 15, 1917: 

It is so strange to see the names of the old generals alongside those of liberal barristers and leading socialists. This is a topsy-turvy world. I am unable to understand anything. It is not even quite clear who wields the real power. A council of workers and soldiers has made its appearance in addition to the government formed by the Duma. Where did it come from?

Later in the same entry he noted:

Instructions from Petrograd are also far from helpful. They are issued by: (1) The Military Committee of the State Duma; (2) The Provisional Government; and (3) The Petrograd Soviet. Sometimes instructions appear bearing the joint signatures of two or all of these bodies. The seamen are giving credence only to documents signed by the Petrograd Soviet. 

The military situation was about to become even more chaotic thanks to the first major policy decision from the Petrograd Soviet, Order No. 1, decreed March 14, 1917. Issued by the Soviet in response to the Provisional Government’s attempts to reestablish control of the army, it abolished all rank within the military in favor of a new system of democratic control – in short, the end of military hierarchy and discipline. From now on, officers had no authority to give orders or compel soldiers to carry them out; instead, all decisions, including those regarding basic military functions like attack and defense, would be made collectively by the soldiers in their own councils, each essentially a small version of the Soviet, under the influence of “political commissars” appointed by the Soviet.

Unsurprisingly, the result of Order No. 1 was almost total paralysis, as officers were stripped of their rank and soldiers no longer feared punishment for disobedience (if someone was bold enough to try giving an order). Many officers, demoralized by the effective abolishment of their profession and the traditions which had structured their lives, simply quit and went home. Others struggled to maintain the basic cohesion of their units, and continue the fight against the Germans, through the undignified means of flattering and cajoling rank and file soldiers.

The female soldier known by the nom de guerre Yashka (real name Maria Bochkareva), serving as a sergeant, recalled the sudden change in attitude: 

There were meetings, meetings, and meetings. Day and night the Regiment seemed to be in continuous session, listening to speeches that dwelt almost exclusively on the words of peace and freedom… All duty was abandoned in the first few days… One day, in the first week of the revolution, I ordered a soldier to take up duty at the listening-post. He refused. “I will take no orders from a baba,” he sneered, “I can do as I please. We have freedom now.” 

In many places Russian frontline troops, understandably reluctant to risk their lives, began fraternizing with the enemy, who were naturally eager to help undermine discipline in the opposing forces. General Anton Denikin left a vivid account of a typical day at the front in the weeks immediately following the revolution (below, Russian and German troops fraternizing). 

The first to rise are the Germans. In one place and another their figures look out from the trenches; a few come out on the parapet to hang their clothes, damp after the night, in the sun. A sentry in our front trench opens his sleepy eyes, lazily stretches himself, after looking at indifferently at the enemy trenches. A soldier in a dirty shirt, bare-footed, with coat slung over his shoulders, cringing under the morning cold, comes out of his trench and plods towards the German positions, where, between the lines, stands a “post-box”; it contains a few number of the German paper, The Russian Messenger, and proposals for barter. All is still. Not a single gun is to be heard. Last week the Regimental Committee issued a resolution against firing… 

Charles Beury, an envoy from an American relief organization, struck a similar note in his account of conditions on the Turkish front in Anatolia, where the soldiers also refused to fight:

When we asked the Russians at the front why they did not shoot, they said, “What’s the use? If we fire, the Turks simply fire back; someone is likely to be hurt and nothing is gained.” Class distinction between officers and men had broken down… The soldiers’ committees passed on any action and no important movement was possible without their consent. 

While these soldiers were obviously shirking their duty, at least they remained in the trenches – unlike thousands who opted to join the swelling crowds of deserters behind the lines, contributing to the disorder and logistical difficulties in the big cities. With no one left to stop them, it was just a question of hitching a ride on a train or peasant wagon, or simply walking hundreds of miles (a prospect which didn’t deter men used to marching dozens of miles a day).

Thus the anonymous British embassy official believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Henry Stopford, wrote on March 23, 1917: “The news from the Russian trenches is bad – utter ruin of all discipline and the wholesale deposition of officers, if not worse!... Whole regiments are leaving the Front and walking off to their homes…” And Denikin described soldiers’ activities in Petrograd: “They were holding meetings, deserting, indulging in petty commerce in shops and in the street, serving as hall-porters and as personal guards to private individuals, partaking in plundering and arbitrary searches, but were not serving.” 

The spreading disorder disrupted communications and transportation, endangering the food supply of the big cities. George Lomonosov, a senior officer and engineer in charge of the military railways, received a frantic message from the chief of a rail station outside Petrograd on March 15, 1917: 

I earnestly beg of you to do something to safeguard the line and especially the station of Oredezh from pillage by drunken and hungry soldiers… All the stores were pillaged today. An attempt to loot the former provision station was prevented by my personal appeal to the troops. All the employees are terrorized and their last piece of bread is taken away from them… Yesterday Locomotive No. 3 arrived carrying fifteen drunken soldiers who had been shooting all the way from Viritza. The employees refuse to go to work in the day time for fear of being shot… besides that, the peasants today looted the co-operatives and the freight station and we were obliged to give them out flour destined for shipment. The man in charge of the station was beaten and is almost dead. The situation is very threatening. We cannot telegraph or telephone.

Administrative Anarchy 

Nor was this disorder confined to the military. In an incredibly ill-advised move, the Provisional Government attempted to curry favor with the long-oppressed population by disbanding the police, who would be replaced by citizens’ militias, and firing all the regional governors and provincial bureaucrats appointed under the tsarist regime. Day-to-day responsibilities of government would be left to revolutionaries with no experience of any kind. 

Equally harmful was the order that all civilians, including state employees, should form their own democratic councils modeled on the Soviet, which would henceforth manage everything from mines and power generation to canals and railroads by popular decisions. On March 18 Lomonosov recorded his colleagues’ reaction to the latest upheaval:

Boublikoff and I were thunderstruck… what kind of representation of employees and workmen in the administration of the railroads were they speaking of? What kind of parliamentarism was possible in a railroad organization which was to work like a clock, submitting to a single will whose foundation lies in the command of each second? “And what’s most important,” Boublikoff shouted, “we must give them something now, you understand, now, immediately!” 

Unbridled Optimism

Despite all the confusion and chaos, ordinary Russians – and sympathizers abroad – were still wildly optimistic about the future of the country now that the tsarist regime had been overthrown. Vasily Mishnin, a medical orderly stationed at a field hospital in Belarus, expressed a typical view in his diary on March 19, 1917:

Such joy, such anxiety that I can’t get on with the work… Good Lord, it’s so great that Tsar Nicholas and the autocracy no longer exist! Down with all that rubbish, down with all that is old, wicked, and loathsome. This is the dawn of a great new Russia, happy and joyful. We soldiers are free men, we are all equal, we are all citizens of Great Russia now!

Many Western liberals, who deplored the tsarist tyranny and found it hard to square the alliance with Russia with their own ideals, also believed a bright democratic future had dawned. On that note Clare Gass, an American nurse volunteering in France, wrote in her diary on March 17, 1917: “Definite news of a revolution in Russia reached us today. The people at last are demanding freedom from the many trials which for years they have borne.” Similarly Yvonne Fitzroy, volunteering with Scottish nurses on the Romanian front, wrote in her diary on March 18, 1917: “There is the wildest enthusiasm and confidence everywhere… Everyone is beaming, and one cannot even in these early days but rejoice at the change of attitude.”

Not everyone shared the unbridle optimism, however. Fedotoff-White, the Russian naval officer, quietly confided his personal skepticism in his diary on March 15, 1917: 

The people believe that the Golden Age has come to Russia with the Revolution – and are convinced that theft, murder, and other crimes will now cease. Prisons will be closed and men will treat each other with love and consideration. It all strikes me as a little pathetic… Those simple creatures believe that human nature has been changed overnight and is now freed of all evil impulses. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Anthony Blunt: The Art Historian/Russian Spy Who Worked at Buckingham Palace

Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Des Willie, Netflix

*Mild spoilers for season 3 of The Crown on Netflix ahead.

Viewers of the third season of The Crown on Netflix will likely have their curiosity piqued by Anthony Blunt, the art historian who is revealed to be a spy for the Russians during his 19 years of service to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead of getting the boot once he was discovered, however, Blunt went on to remain under Her Majesty's employ for eight more years—until his official retirement. While treason never looks good on a resume, the royal class had good reason to keep him on.

Blunt, who was born and raised in England, visited the Soviet Union in 1933 and was indoctrinated as a spy after being convinced of the benefits of Communism in fighting fascism. He began recruiting his university classmates at Cambridge before serving during World War II and leaking information about the Germans to the KGB. Blunt was one of five Cambridge graduates under Soviet direction. Two of them, diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, relocated to the Soviet Union in 1951. Another, Kim Philby, went undetected until 1961. John Cairncross escaped notice, too, but was eventually outed.

However, it was Blunt who had a post at Buckingham Palace. After being tipped off by American intelligence, MI5 interrogated Blunt. He confessed to his treachery in 1964 and was granted immunity from prosecution. Why was he able to remain employed? One theory has it that British intelligence was so embarrassed by Blunt's ability to circulate in the upper levels of the monarchy that firing him would have raised too many questions. Another thought has Blunt having knowledge of some bizarrely congenial wartime correspondence between Adolf Hitler and the Duke of Windsor (a.k.a. King Edward VIII, whose abdication led to Elizabeth's eventual ascension to the throne).

Whatever the case, the Queen was advised by MI5 to keep Blunt around. In his role as art curator, he had no access to classified information. Blunt was at the Palace through 1972 and spent another seven years roaming London giving lectures. His actions remained a tightly guarded secret until Margaret Thatcher disclosed his treason in 1979.

As for that speech seen in The Crown, where Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth makes some not-so-subtle digs at Blunt at the opening of a new exhibition, there's no record of such a takedown ever happening. While the two reportedly kept their distance from each other in private, according to Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives:

“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures—inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”

Stripped of his knighthood as a result of the truth about his actions being made known, Blunt became a recluse and died of a heart attack in 1983. His memoirs, which were made public by the British Library in 2009, indicated his regret, calling his spy work "the biggest mistake of my life."

41 Wonderful Facts About Mister Rogers

PBS Television, Getty Images
PBS Television, Getty Images

Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. Just ahead of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a new biopic in which Tom Hanks stars everyone's favorite "neighbor," here are 41 things you might not have known about Fred Rogers.

1. Fred Rogers was bullied as a child.

A publciity image of David Newell (L) and Fred Rogers (R) from 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' is pictured
Focus Features

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Massachusetts's Nantucket island—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and was regularly taunted by his classmates.

"I used to cry to myself when I was alone," Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano."

2. Rogers left Dartmouth College after one year.

Rogers was an Ivy League dropout. He spent his freshman year at Dartmouth College, then transferred to Rollins College, where he pursued a degree in music.

3. He was an accomplished musician.

Fred Rogers in a still from 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' (2018)
Focus Features

Rogers transferred to Rollins College in order to pursue a degree in music and graduated Magna cum laude. In addition to his talent for playing the piano, Rogers was also an incredible songwriter.

4. He wrote the music for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Need proof of Rogers's songwriting prowess? He wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

5. Playing the piano was his favorite stress-reducer.

Whenever Rogers began to feel anxious or overwhelmed, he would play the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood theme song on the piano as a way to calm his nerves.

6. He had a strict daily routine.

Rogers was a stickler when it came to his daily routine: He started his day at 5 a.m. and made time for a prayer as well as some studying, writing, phone calls, swimming, and responding to his fan mail.

7. He weighed himself daily.

Mister Rogers
Getty Images

Another part of Rogers's daily routine included a daily weigh-in. He liked to maintain a weight of exactly 143 pounds.

8. His weight had a special meaning.

Rogers's regular weight of 143 had special meaning to him. "It takes one letter to say I and four letters to say love and three letters to say you," Rogers once said. "One hundred and forty-three."

9. Pennsylvania celebrated 143 day in 2019.

In 2019, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf declared May 23 to be 143 Day in the state. Rogers was born near Pittsburgh and lived his whole life in the area. By honoring Rogers with his own holiday, the individuals behind the 143 Day campaign wanted to encourage people to be kind to their neighbors on May 23—and every other day of the year.

10. Rogers responded to every fan letter he received.

Rogers took time out of each day to respond to his fan mail, and he responded to each and every letter he received—approximately 50 to 100 letters per day. "He respected the kids who wrote," Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

11. No feeling was too big—or small—for Mr. Rogers to talk about.

A promotional image of Fred Rogers for 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' is pictured
Amazon

Over the many years he worked with children, Rogers spoke very openly about his and their feelings on every sort of topic, from why kids shouldn't be afraid of haircuts to divorce and war.

12. He spent five episodes talking about nuclear war.

Since its inception on Pittsburgh's WQED in 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had informed its young audience about topical issues in subversive and disarming ways. When civil rights were discussed, host Fred Rogers didn’t deliver a lecture about tolerance. Instead, he invited a black friend, Officer Clemmons, to cool off in his inflatable pool, a subtle nod to desegregation.

Rogers conceived and taped a five-episode storyline on the subject in the summer of 1983, which wound up being prescient. In November 1983, president Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada to topple a Marxist regime.

“Little did I know we would be involved in a worldwide conflict now,” Rogers told the Associated Press. “But that’s all the better because our shows give families an opportunity for communication. If children should hear the news of war, at least they have a handle here, to assist in family communications.”

13. Rogers had a special way of talking to kids.

Mr. Rogers knew children well. He knew how they thought, what they liked, what they feared, and what they struggled to understand—and he went to great lengths to ensure he never upset or confused his devoted viewers.Mr. Rogers knew children well. He knew how they thought, what they liked, what they feared, and what they struggled to understand—and he went to great lengths to ensure he never upset or confused his devoted viewers.

Maxwell King, author of the forthcoming book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, wrote in The Atlantic that Mr. Rogers carefully chose his words while filming Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He understood that children think in a literal way, and a phrase that might sound perfectly fine to adult ears could be misinterpreted by younger audiences.

Rogers was “extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go,” King said, adding that Mr. Rogers wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew this might be a fear shared by many children.

14. Rogers used King Friday to make Friday the 13th less scary for kids.

King Friday XIII, son of King Charming Thursday XII and Queen Cinderella Monday, is an avid arts lover, a talented whistler, and a former pole vaulter. He reigns over Calendarland with lots of pomp and poise, and he’s usually correct.

Fans of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood may also remember that King Friday XIII, who reigned over Calendarland, was born on Friday the 13th, because his birthday was celebrated on the program every Friday the 13th. Though the math isn’t perfect—according to Timeanddate.com , Friday the 13th sometimes happens two or three times a year—the reason behind it absolutely is.

Rogers explained that he wanted to give children a reason to look forward to Friday the 13th, instead of buying into the negative superstitions that surround the dreaded date. “We thought, ‘Let’s start children out thinking that Friday the 13th was a fun day,’” he said in a 1999 interview. “So we would celebrate his birthday every time a Friday the 13th came.”

15. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Rogers was an ordained minister who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a 6-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

16. Rogers was not a fan of foul language.

If Rogers used the word mercy, it probably meant that he was feeling overwhelmed. He was typically heard saying it when he sat down at his desk in the morning and saw the mountain of fan mail awaiting him. But mercy was about the strongest word in his vocabulary.

17. Rogers was not a fan of television, which is why he gravitated toward it.


Rogers’s decision to work in television wasn’t out of a love for the medium. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

18. There's a reason why the stoplight is always yellow in the opening sequence to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

In the opening sequence of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the stoplight is always on yellow as a reminder to kids—and their parents—to slow down a little.

19. Rogers believed that patience was a virtue—even if it meant dead air time.

Rogers wasn't afraid of dead air: He once invited a marine biologist onto the show and put a microphone into his fish tank, because he wanted the kids at home to see (and hear) that fish make sounds when they eat. While taping the segment, however, the fish weren't hungry so the marine biologist started trying to egg the fish on. But Rogers just sat there, waiting quietly. The crew figured they'd need to re-tape it, but Rogers didn't want to. He thought it was a great lesson in teaching kids the importance of being patient.

20. Rogers always made sure to announce that he was feeding his fish for a very specific reason.

Rogers always mentioned out loud that he was feeding his fish because a young blind viewer once asked him to do so. She wanted to know the fish were OK.

21. Rogers was not a fan of ad-libbing.

Rogers was a perfectionist, and very much disliked ad-libbing. He felt that he owed it to the kids who watched his show to make sure that every word on his show was thought out.

22. Kids who watched Mister Rogers' Neighborhood retained more than those who watched Sesame Street.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

23. Animals loved Rogers as much as people did.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understood 2000 English words, was an avid fan, too. When Rogers visited once her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

24. Rogers's mother knitted all of his sweaters.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he said.

25. One of rogers's sweaters lives in the Smithsonian.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

26. Rogers's sweater collection was actually challenging to maintain.

Fred's mother, Nancy Rogers, died in 1981. Rogers continued wearing the sweaters she had made for years ... until it became obvious that they wouldn’t endure many more tapings of the show. Replacements were sought, but art director Kathy Borland quickly discovered that the search was not unlike trying to replace Superman’s cape. A Fred Rogers sweater needed a zipper with a smooth operation so it wouldn’t snag on camera. It also needed to be vibrant.

Nothing fit the bill until Borland saw a United States Postal Service employee walking down the street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—where the show taped—and took note of his cardigan. Borland phoned postal supply distributors and was able to secure a fresh inventory of sweaters (which she bought white, and then dyed) that kept Rogers looking like himself through the show’s final episode in 2001.

27. Rogers changed into sneakers as a production practicality.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a production-related consideration. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

28. He invited the driver who took him to a PBS dinner to eat with them.

While being transported to a PBS executive's house, Rogers heard his limo driver say that he was going to have to wait outside for two hours while the party dined—so Rogers insisted that the driver join them for dinner.

On the ride back home, Rogers sat in the front of the car with the driver, who mentioned that they were passing his house on their way back to Rogers's home. So Rogers asked if they could stop in to meet the family. According to the driver, it was one of the best nights of his life: Rogers played piano for the family and chatted with them until late into the night.

29. No, Rogers was never a sniper.

The internet has stirred up all sorts of bizarre rumors about Rogers, including one that he served in the army and was a sniper in Vietnam and another that he served in the army and was a sniper in Korea. As exciting as that might make an upcoming biopics, these are both untrue.

30. Rogers was partly responsible for helping to save public television.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

31. Rogers also helped to save the VCR.

Years after he appeared before the Senate, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement. Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

32. At least one professor believes that rogers's impact on kids wasn't all that positive.

LSU professor Don Chance is one of the few people who isn't 100 positive about Rogers's legacy: He believes that Rogers created a, "culture of excessive doting" which resulted in generations of lazy, entitled college students.

33. He was regularly parodied—and loved every second of it.

Rogers was regularly parodied, and he loved it. The first time Eddie Murphy met Mr. Rogers, he couldn't stop himself from giving the guy a big hug.

34. Rogers was colorblind.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

"Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup."

35. Michael Keaton got his start on MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

36. Rogers gave George Romero his first paying gig, too.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Night of the Living Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made."

37. Rogers paid a visit to Sesame Street in 1981.

Though Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were both PBS shows, they were technically competitors—though the show’s producers didn’t exactly act like it. As a result, Rogers made an appearance on Sesame Street in May 1981.

The video opens with Rogers wearing a suit and tie instead of his usual cardigan sweater. He's standing outside of a storefront when Big Bird approaches and asks if he’ll judge a race between him and Snuffy. (The theme of the segment was competition and, more importantly, maintaining friendships whether you win or lose.)

38. He made a guest appearance on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, too.

Rogers once played a pastor's mentor on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

39. Many of the characters on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood were named after people in Rogers's life.

McFeely, for example, was Rogers's grandfather's name; Queen Sara was named for Rogers's wife.

40. Rogers got his own stamp in 2018.


USPS

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with Rogers's image on it. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

41. He was turned into a Funko Pop!

Also in honor of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood 50th anniversary, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen was honored with a series of Funko toys, including a Funko Pop! figure.

Ready to learn more about Fred Rogers? Watch the video below, where John Green brings you a whole pile of things you should know about everybody's favorite neighbor.

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