There was nothing grander than a Russian Imperial coronation, and great festivities had been planned to accompany the accession of Tsar Nicolas II on May 13 1896. To ensure that the population appeared suitably ecstatic, Muscovites would be encouraged to celebrate with the help of coronation gifts from their new absolute monarch. The appointed day was May 18. Bars and booths for distributing gifts were erected in a town square in northwest Moscow, at the beginning of present-day Leningrad Prospect.
A few days after the coronation, a tragedy occurred at an event which was supposed to be fun for the general public. On 30 May a public event was put on to coincide with the coronation. The event was held at Khodynka field which was believed big enough for the large amount of people who would be visiting. As part of the celebrations, food including sausages, pretzels and gingerbread were distributed along with drinks. 150 separate buffet zones had been set up to distribute the food and drink to members of the public and pubs were built to accommodate people. On top of the food and drinks, to mark the celebration of the coronation a commemorative cup was given out as a gift.
The publicity Nicholas sought for this pivotal occasion proved a double-edged sword. Within days of the Tsar’s moment of triumph, the assembled journalists and photographers would report on another quite different event, the tragic crush at Khodynka Meadow in which thousands of ordinary Muscovites and visitors were killed in the rush for commemorative mugs and free food and drink. In retrospect, this accident, and Nicholas’s seemingly indifferent response to it, seemed to foreshadow events of the reign. For the next two decades, Nicholas presented a personal, reactionary conception of his role to the modern world through the use of nationalistic, sentimental and religious propaganda as his country suffered through two major wars and, ultimately, revolution. Passivity in the face of disaster, and inability to adapt, led to abdication and the murder of the Tsar’s immediate family
More and more people came. There was much jostling and crowding. “The crush was so great a bullet could not have slipped through.” (2) Over the course of the night, made anxious by rumors of shortages, people pushed toward the barricades that guarded the entrance to the fairground in order to be the first in line when the gates opened.
It was sometime just before dawn when the barricades fell. The crowd surged forward, stampeding onto the meadow, rushing toward the food stalls. The patrol of 100 mounted Cossacks could not even begin to control the “mass of people half a million strong.” Khodynka Field, with its open trenches, became a deathtrap:
At about 6 o’clock in the morning of the celebration day, several thousand people (estimates reached 500,000) were already gathered on the field. Rumours spread among the people that there was not enough beer or pretzels for everybody, and that the enamel cups contained a gold coin. A police force of 1,800 men failed to maintain civil order, and in a catastrophic crowd-crush and resulting panic to flee the scene, 1,389 people were trampled to death, and roughly 1,300 were otherwise injured. Most of the victims were trapped in the ditch and were trampled or suffocated there. Despite the tragedy, the program of festivities continued as planned elsewhere on the large field, with many people unaware of what had happened. The Tsar and his wife made an appearance in front of the crowds on the balcony of the Tsar’s Pavilion in the middle of the field around 2 p.m. By that time the traces of the incident had been cleaned up.