Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
Born: 1868, Tsarskoe Selo
Died: 1918, Ekaterinburg

Nicholas II was the first child and eldest son of Alexander III and Maria Fyodorovna. He was born at Tsarskoe Selo on 6 May 1868.

From the diary of Tsarevich Alexander: “6/18 May 1868... Finally, at half past two, the last minute came and all her sufferings ended. God has sent us a son, whom we have named Nicholas. What delight it was is impossible to imagine, I dashed to hug my darling wife, who had immediately brightened and was terribly happy. I cried like a child, and my heart was so light and pleasant. I embraced Papa and Mama with all my heart.”

Nicholas was educated at home and read a special course of lectures between 1885 and 1890. His tutors included Konstantin Pobedonostsev (procurator of the Holy Synod), Nikolai Bunge (minister of finance), Nikolai Girs (minister of foreign affairs), generals Mikhail Dragomirov and Nikolai Obruchev, historian Vasily Klyuchevsky and composer and military engineer Cesar Cui.

After completing his education, Nicholas also served as an officer at army camps near St Petersburg. In 1890, he alarmed his parents by beginning a love affair with a Polish ballet dancer, Mathilde Kschessinska, whom he continued to see right up until his engagement to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt in April 1894.

Alexander III decided to combat his infatuation by sending Nicholas on a long voyage round the world. The tsarevich would sail through the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal to India and Japan, before landing at Vladivostok, where he would disembark and return through Siberia to St Petersburg.

The trip was carefully planned by Nicholas’s parents to give him a lesson in diplomacy. Recommendations were sent to the Russian ambassador or governor of the places he would visit, describing in detail what could be seen and what should not be seen. Alexander III even drafted the welcoming speeches read to his son.

Nicholas was accompanied by his younger brother, Georgy, who suffered from tuberculosis. The two brothers were close in age and their parents hoped that the sun and sea air would restore Georgy’s health. They were joined by other young men from good families, including Prince Baryatinsky (suite general), Prince Obolensky (Horse Guards Regiment), Prince Kochubey (Cavalry Guards) and Prince Ukhtomsky (Department of Foreign Confessions).

On 23 October 1890, Nicholas and his companions boarded the Memory of Azov and set sail for Athens, where they were joined by Prince George of Greece. The royal party stopped at Egypt to visit the Suez Canal and the pyramids. On board the ship, they spent most of their time indulging in the traditional entertainment of all officers. During one drinking session, Georgy fell and hurt his chest, aggravating his illness. His parents advised him to land at the nearest port and return to Russia. He died of consumption in 1899.

In April 1891, the Memory of Azov entered the old Japanese capital of Kyoto. From there, the company travelled to the small town of Otsu, where an attempt was made on Nicholas’s life. A policeman ran up and struck him on the head with his sword, just above the right ear. The assailant raised his sword to strike again, but Nicholas jumped out of the rickshaw in which they were travelling, while everyone else turned and fled. Prince George of Greece came to the rescue, knocking the policemen down with his stick and holding him until reinforcements arrived.

Nicholas’s parents ordered him to immediately return to Russia. Travelling through Siberia to St Petersburg, he made a stop at the town of Tobolsk, where he would later spend nine months as a prisoner of the revolutionary government.

Before ascending the throne, Nicholas commanded a battalion of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. He also acquired experience in government by attending the sittings of the State Council and Cabinet of Ministers and heading the Trans-Siberian Railway Construction Committee.

Choosing a bride for the heir to the Russian throne was always an important political matter, involving more than just personal feelings. One of the possibilities muted in St Petersburg was a match with the daughter of the Comte de Paris – the head of the House of Bourbon and a potential president of France. This union would help to strengthen the Franco-Russian alliance, the main foreign political achievement of Alexander III. Another candidate for the role of future empress of Russia was Princess Margaret of Prussia.

But Nicholas dug in his heels and insisted on marrying the German princess with whom he had fallen deeply in love. This was Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, who converted to Orthodoxy as Alexandra Fyodorovna. Alix was the daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice of Great Britain and the favourite granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

Nicholas and Alexandra were married on 14/26 November 1894, only a week after the funeral of Tsar Alexander III. The ceremony was held on Maria Fyodorovna’s birthday, when protocol allowed a break in the official period of mourning. mourning. This circumstance did little to endear the dowager empress towards her new daughter-in-law.

Two days after the wedding, Maria Fyodorovna wrote to her second eldest son, Grand Duke Georgy Alexandrovich: “Thank God, this day is over. It was a real nightmare for me, and such suffering. A pompous ceremony with such a mass of people! To be obliged to appear in public with a broken, bleeding heart was more than sinful, and I still do not understand how I agreed to go through with it.”

Nicholas and Alexandra were crowned emperor and empress of Russia in the Moscow Kremlin on 14 May 1896. The service was performed at the Dormition Cathedral by Metropolitan Palladius of St Petersburg, with the help of the metropolitans of Kiev and Moscow. Wearing their coronation robes, the tsar and tsarina led a procession to the Kremlin Palace. When they reached the top of the Red Stairway, they turned and bowed to the people.

Nicholas wrote in his diary that evening: “Moscow. A great, solemn day for Alix, Mama and myself, but one full of moral gravity. We were on our feet from eight o’clock in the morning, though our procession did not move off until 9.30. Luckily, the weather was heavenly. The Grand Staircase presented a glittering sight. Everything took place in the Dormition Cathedral and, although it seems like a dream, I will remember it all my life!!! At nine o’clock, we went up onto the top balcony, where Alix switched on the electric illuminations on the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, after which all the towers and walls of the Kremlin were lit up successively.”

The dowager empress described her mixed feelings in a letter to her mother, Queen Louise of Denmark, two days later: “My own, deeply beloved, darling Mama! The great sacrifice has been made, and I thank God for giving me the strength to fulfil this indescribably awful duty, which only God and the prayers of my endlessly beloved Sasha helped me to cope with... But how touching and solemn it all was! My whole heart bled at the sight of my so young Nicky in the place of his beloved father... I could only ask God to bless them and lighten the heavy burden that He has placed on the shoulders of my beloved Nicky. To allow him to constantly follow in his dear father’s steps, to give him wisdom and the strength to continue the unprecedented work that his father had begun, raising his country high in the eyes of all people... When the service ended, we left the church in the same order that we had arrived. First I, accompanied by the whole family and all those foreign princesses, climbed the Red Staircase to the appreciative roar of the people. This was truly solemn and wonderful.”

The magnificent pageant was marred by a terrible tragedy at Khodynka Field. A stampede broke out for free coronation souvenirs and 1,389 people were killed in the crush. A similar number were injured. These were the official figures; it is likely that many more were trampled and suffocated. The blood of the rescue workers froze when they saw the scene of dead and mangled bodies.

Nicholas learnt of the catastrophe in the morning, but did not cancel any of the planned celebrations. That evening, for diplomatic reasons, he attended a ball at the French Embassy. Although the tsar later toured the hospitals and donated large sums of money to the families of the victims, he was unable to overcome public indignation. From that time onwards, he became known as “Nicholas the Bloody.”

The most prominent member of Nicholas’s government was Sergei Witte, who served as finance minister until 1903. Witte believed in protecting Russian companies and using large foreign loans to pay for the country’s rapid industrialisation. Russia attracted even more investment by joining the gold standard in 1897.

In 1902, Nicholas II fell under the influence of the new minister of the interior, Vyacheslav von Plehve. A clever politician who believed in the need for concessions, he thought that the autocracy should take the lead in passing reforms. In 1904, he was murdered by Socialist Revolutionaries.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) was a turning point in the reign of Nicholas II. The tsar was been pushed into the conflict by conservative elements, who had hoped to unite the country following victory in a “small victorious war.” But the reality was thousands of casualties, international humiliation, an economic crisis, domestic unrest and, ultimately, revolution.

The revolution started on 9 January 1905, when striking workers marched to the Winter Palace with a petition for the tsar. The troops opened fire on the crowd, killing several hundred people. According to the official figures, ninety-six people were killed and 330 were injured on Bloody Sunday. The unofficial reports suggest that 4,900 people suffered. The families of the dead were given one thousand roubles in compensation.

Bloody Sunday led to a wave of mass strikes, peasant uprisings and mutinies in the army and navy. The following month, a Socialist Revolutionary called Ivan Kalyaev threw a bomb and murdered the tsar’s uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, as he drove out of the Kremlin in Moscow. Fears of fresh assassination attempts prevented Nicholas from attending the funeral in Moscow, while the imperial family fled St Petersburg, locking themselves away for several years in the suburban village of Tsarskoe Selo.

Nicholas II was forced to return Sergei Witte to the government as prime minister. Witte drew up the October Manifesto, which granted broad civil rights and promised elections to a parliament or Duma. 17 October 1905 was a turning point in Russian history.

Nicholas II wrote to his mother in Denmark on 18 October 1905: “Throughout all these horrible days I constantly met with Witte. We very often met in the early morning, to part only in the evening, when night fell. There were only two ways open: one was to find an energetic soldier to crush the rebellion by sheer force. There would be time to breathe then, but as likely as not, one would have to use force again in a few months, and that would mean rivers of blood and, in the end, we should be where we started. The other way out would be to give to the people their civil rights, freedom of speech and press, also to have all laws confirmed by a state Duma – that, of course, would be a constitution. Witte defends this energetically. He says that, while it is not without risk, it is the only way out at the present moment. Almost everybody I had an opportunity of consulting is of the same opinion.”

On 1 November 1905, Maria Fyodorovna replied to her son: “It is awful, what sufferings you have been through, especially not knowing what to decide – my heart felt all this and I suffered for you... I have learnt all the details of these terrible days; difficult to believe all this happened in Russia! Ultimately, you could not do anything else. God has helped you to come out of this awful and more than torturous situation, and I am sure that, with your deep faith, He will continue to help you.”

Between 1906 and 1911, the government was headed by the energetic prime-minister Pyotr Stolypin. He successfully overcame revolutionary disorders and peasant uprisings by a combination of effective police methods and agrarian reforms.

Stolypin passed new laws giving peasants the right to leave the village commune and set up their own private farms. The Peasant Bank was encouraged to offer cheap lines of credit. The aim was to create, over a period of twenty years, a new class of prosperous, property-owning farmers.

Stolypin’s authoritarian methods brought him into direct conflict with the Duma. On 3 June 1907, he dissolved the radical Second Duma – a move which became known as the “coup of June 1907.” The prime minister then changed the voting laws and held new elections for a Third Duma, where the majority of seats went to conservative parties, who were less inclined to oppose the government.

But Nicholas II and reactionary elements at the imperial court did not want any reforms. They disliked and feared the energetic prime minister. On 1 September 1911, Stolypin was fatally wounded when attending a performance at Kiev Opera House. The assassin was a Socialist Revolutionary called Dmitry Bogrov, who had somehow managed to get into the closely guarded building carrying a gun. The death of Stolypin removed the last chance for change in Russia without the horrors of revolution.

In August 1912, Russia celebrated the centenary of the Battle of Borodino during the Patriotic War of 1812. Nicholas II wrote to his mother on 10 September 1912: “So many impressions and such bright ones that it is difficult to describe them... The presence at the requiem and solemn mass of the famous icon of the Hodegetria Mother of God, the same one that was at the battle; carrying it along the front lines – such moments are rarely experienced in our days! To complete everything, they managed to bring several old men who recall the coming of the French, but, most importantly, among them was one participant of the battle, former Fieldmarshal Vintonuik, 122 years old. Just think – to speak with someone who remembers everything and can tell various details of the battle, show the place where he was wounded, and so forth.”

By 1913, the Russian economy was growing rapidly. A new age of prosperity seemed to be dawning after the difficult years of upheaval and revolution. The arts flourished and this period became known as the Silver Age of Russian culture.

In the last ten years before the First World War, the Russian budget enjoyed a surplus of 2,400,000,000 roubles – despite the lowering of the cost of railway travel and the abolition of the system of redemption payments. Witte’s monetary reforms were a brilliant success. One Russian rouble was now worth 2.16 German marks, 2.67 French francs and 2.54 Austro-Hungarian crowns. The national income doubled between 1900 and 1913.

In 1913, there were 2,585 automobiles on the roads of St Petersburg – 221 were government property, 328 were taxis and the rest belonged to private individuals or firms. The first highway code was published in 1901, establishing a speed limit of twelve versts or eight miles an hour.

The tercentenary of the House of Romanov was widely celebrated in 1913. The three centuries from Michael I to Nicholas II were hailed as an unbroken chain of victories and accomplishments. There was a vast programme of imperial tours, balls and other festivities. But, unknown to everybody, these were the last celebrations in the history of the empire.

By 1913, the autocracy was clearly no longer relevant. Russia required other forms of government in response to the rapid industrialisation of the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

On 1 August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. The whole country experienced a surge of national unity. On 2 August, patriotic crowds flocked to Palace Square, in order to express their support of the tsar. In the accompanying wave of anti-German feeling, St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. Ten million men were mobilised, and industrial action instantly stopped.

After advancing into East Prussia in August 1914, the Russian army suffered a heavy defeat and the loss of one million men at the Battle of Tannenberg. The Russians had more luck against the Austrians, occupying half of the province of Galicia.

The Central Powers struck back in May 1915, winning a series of battles and forcing the Russians to abandon Lithuania, Galicia and Poland. Half of the army was knocked out of action.

The economic situation was equally dire. The factories could not keep up with the demand for armaments at the front. The population grew increasingly restless at the news of tactical blunders, widespread pillaging, and senseless sacrifices.

In autumn 1915, Nicholas II replaced the popular Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as commander-in-chief. This was a serious mistake, as the tsar was no military genius. From now on, he would be held personally responsible for all defeats.

The Russian army only enjoyed one brief victory during Nicholas’s time as commander-in-chief. In 1916, General Brusilov broke through the Austrian lines, capturing large amounts of prisoners and ammunition. But the advance eventually came to a halt because of a lack of supplies.

Throughout 1916 and early 1917, the German advance was barely held back. The army lacked even basic supplies, and the soldiers in the trenches were cold and hungry. Thousands deserted, and anti-war sentiments grew in the rear. The war exposed Russia’s chronic lack of modern military equipment. There were not enough airplanes or automobiles, virtually no tanks, and the main means of transport was still the horse.

Grigory Rasputin, a Siberian peasant, enjoyed great influence over the imperial family, thanks to his apparent ability to stop the haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexis from bleeding. The empress trusted him implicitly and considered him a saint. Rasputin used his privileged position at the court to interfere in politics, outraging the rest of the nation. In December 1916, a group of nobles lured him to the Yussupov Palace, where he was murdered.

By this time, the country had reached a crisis point. Military production took precedence over the domestic market, leading to unprecedented shortages of manufactured goods and foodstuffs. The prices of everything soared. The standard of living rapidly deteriorated, especially in the towns, where the long bread queues were a frightening symbol of the approaching catastrophe. The authorities were unable to cope with the problems of inflation, corruption and speculation. Ration cards were only introduced in 1917.

The mood of the army was particularly dangerous for the authorities. Revolutionary agitators infiltrated their ranks, urging the soldiers to disobey orders and abandon their posts. General weariness with the war, the horrific conditions in the trenches, and rumours of treason everywhere slowly acted on the minds of the peasant conscripts.

The military garrisons in the large cities were particularly susceptible to revolutionary propaganda. On 26-27 February 1917, a mutiny broke out in the barracks of the Petrograd defence force. The rebellious soldiers joined the striking workers and demonstrators. They seized the Arsenal and distributed forty thousand rifles to the crowds on the streets.

The government was powerless against an armed uprising. The people demanded the overthrow of the monarchy and the proclamation of a republic. On 27 February, the Duma entered into a power-sharing agreement with the Petrograd Soviet, a council of left-wing parties. A provisional government was formed, headed by Prince Georgy Lvov.

The new government demanded that Nicholas II abdicate in favour of his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich. The emperor only agreed after receiving similar telegrams from the commanders of all fronts. On 3 March 1917, he abdicated in favour of Mikhail, who himself refused the throne. Russia had become a republic.

After Nicholas II abdicated, power passed into the hands of the Provisional Government. As he was both an admiral of the British navy (28 May 1908) and a field-marshal of the British army (16 February 1916), Russia suggested that Britain offer political asylum to the former tsar. But this request was turned down by Nicholas’s cousin, King George V of England.

The Provisional Government decided it would be safer to remove the ex-tsar and his family to Tobolsk in Siberia. Nicholas describes their journey in a letter to his mother on 19 September 1917: “A few hours before our departure from Ts[arskoe] Selo, I had the great joy of seeing Misha for half an hour, in the presence of Kerensky and the captain of the guard. I do not know whether Misha wrote to you about our meeting?

“We were supposed to leave on the night of 1st August, at one o’clock, but actually left the Alexander Palace at 5.30 am! We and our things had been awaiting departure since 11 pm in the circular room. The delay occurred on account of the desire to keep the time of our departure secret; neither the trucks nor the train had been ordered on time. We were exhausted by such a lack of organisation, thanks to which the children did not sleep at all, but now remember various details of that night not without laughter. The trip passed smoothly and quite comfortably; only we were supposed to cover up the windows at all the stations. Our train was allegedly carrying an American mission, but they nevertheless knew that it was us at the stations and said so to the sentries accompanying us. Every day, we stopped somewhere for an hour, and took a walk along the railway line.

“At Tyumen, we transferred to the large steamship Rus, and arrived in Tobolsk in two days. But instead of moving into the town that evening, we had to spend another week on the steamer, as the governor’s home and other houses intended for the suite and guards were impossible to live in. Again, as a result of the secrecy surrounding our arrival, nothing was ready! Finally, on Sunday 13th August, we moved from the steamship into our house, the children, the others and I on foot, Alix in a coach with Tatyana one step behind. We all fitted in and have arranged ourselves in the house very well. Concerning walks, things are not quite so good. There is essentially no garden, it consists entirely of an allotment; besides that, a small space has been partitioned off in front of the house, part of the street; we walk there and play various games. A stroke of luck is the sun, which shines here the whole day and is still remarkably warming. Fortunately, it has been a wonderful autumn, there were cold and rainy days, but few, most were dry and sunny. The air is excellent, one can breathe easily. All walks outside the partition are forbidden! Meanwhile, the surroundings on the hill are beautiful, as far as we can see from the windows, how one longs to walk there!

“We have been to the Annunciation Church closest to the house twice for mass, the other services are held in our hall. When everyone arrived, we all caught cold, and have only now got better, only poor Alix still suffers from facial neuralgia.”

The position of the former imperial family deteriorated after the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917. Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were sent to Ekaterinburg, where they were shot in the basement of the Ipatiev House on the night of 16/17 July 1918.

In 1991, human remains were discovered in a forest near Ekaterinburg. A Russian government commission ruled that they belonged to the former tsar, his family and servants. On 17 July 1998, the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatyana and Anastasia, Yevgeny Botkin (doctor), Anna Demidova (maid), Aloisy Trupp (valet) and Ivan Kharitonov (cook) were buried in the St Catherine Chapel of the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral.

The funeral service was attended by President Boris Yeltsin and read by Father Boris Glebov, senior priest of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The names of Nicholas and his family were not mentioned in the prayers for the souls of the dead, as the church disagreed with the findings of the government commission on the authenticity of the Ekaterinburg remains. On 14 August 2000, Nicholas II, Alexandra Fyodorovna and their five children were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church.

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