Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia

   The last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Born on May 6, 1868, Nicholas was the eldest son of Alexander III. He officially became heir to the throne in March 1881 when his grandfather was assassinated by a revolutionary’s bomb. As a boy and young man, Nicholas is often described as sensitive, emotional, soft-spoken, and meek. He grew up in a large family, with two sisters and two brothers. They spent most of their time in the suburbs of St. Petersburg at the royal residence called Gatchina, where Alexander III isolated himself and his family after his father’s assassination. Alexander’s strong mistrust of liberal reforms came to dominate his political and personal life, as well as the education of his children. In 1884, Nicholas met his future wife, Alexandra, the granddaughter of the English Queen Victoria, at the wedding of Alexandra’s older sister, Ella, to Nicholas’s uncle, Sergei - Nicholas was 16; Alexandra was 12. Five years later Alexandra appeared at the Russian court again, this time as a prospective bride for Nicholas, at his insistence. Although his parents disapproved, Nicholas and Alexandra became engaged in 1894. Only six months later, when Alexander III died in October, it became urgent for the new tsar to wed his fiancée. The ceremony took place on November 14, 1894.
   It is generally accepted that Nicholas never wanted to be tsar. Although he met his duties throughout his reign, he always felt that it was taking time away from his family and from the time that he liked to spend outdoors. To make matters worse, his reign got off to a bad start. When he ascended the throne, the Russian people had great hopes that his reign would be different. These hopes led naive local councils to submit proposals and requests for all sorts of reforms that included a modest consultative role in the government. In January 1895, Nicholas and Alexandra presented themselves to the public for the first time and in the speech that followed, Nicholas called the suggestions of these councils “senseless dreams.” Many viewed the meeting as a bad omen. Nicholas’s inability to differentiate between the ideas of moderate reformers and the dangers of extremists pushed many liberals to the left. Nicholas’s reputation was further damaged by another event the next year when, during the celebration following the Tsar’s formal coronation on May 26, 1896, crowds at Khodynka Field stampeded, resulting in 1,300 deaths. Despite the tragic events of the day, that evening Nicholas and Alexandra attended a ball thrown by the French ambassador in their honor. Although they visited the injured in the days after the tragedy, the public remembered only one thing - that the royal couple had attended a ball on the night after so many lives had been lost. Henceforth, that tragic day became known as “Bloody Saturday” and the tsar became known as “Bloody Nicholas.” Under Nicholas, the Russian government continued to severely curtail civil rights, censor the press, and tightly monitor education. In addition, religious persecution grew; Jews encountered restrictions and there were more pogroms. The policy of Russification continued, especially against the Finns who were subjected to Russian laws and military service. In other realms, Nicholas was less resistant to change. He pursued an active policy of industrialization, led by his father’s, and now his, minister of finance, Sergei Witte. In addition to railroad construction, Witte expanded iron, steel, textile, and oil production. In response to this industrial growth, Russia’s two major cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, grew as peasants moved to the city to find factory work, creating a large, but poor, working class.
   These were not the only problems that Nicholas had to face in the early years of his reign. There were also international tensions, in particular between Russia and Japan. In the wake of the Meiji Restoration, Japan began to industrialize and to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. Tensions had been growing between Russia and Japan for a decade, beginning with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and conflicting interests in Manchuria. On February 8, 1904, Japan executed a sneak attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur on the Liaotung Peninsula. The subsequent Russo-Japanese War was a humiliating defeat for Russia. After the annihilation of a Russian fleet in late May 1905, Russia agreed to an armistice and signed a peace treaty in August 1905 at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The peace treaty came none too soon, for as fighting ceased, Russia was already in the grip of what came to be known as the Revolution of 1905. In January 1905, a strike broke out in St. Petersburg that culminated in a protest march to the Winter Palace. Nicholas tried to respond to the crisis - he established a commission of inquiry to look into the January disaster and met with a group of factory representatives to assure them of his concern - but his changes were minimal and failed to address the underlying problems. When strikes continued, Nicholas issued a manifesto in March, declaring his intention to create a consultative assembly; in addition, he proclaimed religious toleration and repealed some legislation against ethnic minorities. Even in this manifesto, however, Nicholas emphasized his authority and condemned all those who challenged that authority. In the summer of 1905, there were more strikes, peasant uprisings, and occasional rebellions in the armed forces, the most famous being the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in the Black Sea.
   Meanwhile, the promised assembly, or duma, was rigged in such a way that it would be ineffectual. In October 1905, the population erupted in protest once again, culminating in an enormous general strike that lasted from October 20 to 30. Nicholas was forced to grant concessions, outlined in the October Manifesto. This document guaranteed a variety of civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, religion, and association. In addition, it promised a Duma with true legislative functions. It resulted in little substantive change, but the October Manifesto nonetheless split the opposition, temporarily satisfying many liberals and moderates. The new political order, however, still faced many challenges. The tsar was reluctant to concede any legal authority to the Duma and repeatedly tried to limit its activities. On the other hand, Duma representatives and nonrepresentatives alike continued to call for reform.
   The domestic situation was only aggravated by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Russian forces performed well initially but quickly began to suffer major losses at the hands of the Germans. In 1915, Nicholas made a fateful decision to lead Russian forces at the front himself, leaving the country in the hands of his German-born wife and her spiritual advisor, the peasant monk, Grigorii Rasputin. Nicholas was at the front when demonstrations erupted in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in February 1917. Railroad strikes prevented him from making it back to the capital and, faced with the hopelessness of his situation, Nicholas abdicated the throne, both for himself and his son, the young heir to the throne, Alexei. Nicholas and his family were then moved to one of their palaces outside of Petrograd and kept under guard. In the spring of 1918, they were moved to Ekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, where they were all murdered under order of the Bolsheviks in July, bringing to an end the Romanov Dynasty that had ruled Russia since 1613. Their bodies were destroyed and then dumped and lay in an undisclosed location for decades. After the collapse of communism, their remains were located and given an official burial in St. Petersburg; Nicholas, his wife, and children were also canonized as saints in the Russian Orthodox Church.
   See also <>; <>.
    Fuhrmann, Joseph T. The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914–March 1917. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999;
    Lieven, D.C.B. Nicholas II: Twilight of the Empire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994;
    Lincoln, W. Bruce. In War ’ s Dark Shadow: The Russian s before the Great War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983;
    Radzinsky, Edvard. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. New York: Doubleday, 1992;
    Verner, Andrew. The Crisis of Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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