Nicholas II of Russia

Nicholas II


Who was Nicholas II?

Nicholas II was the last Tsar of the Russian Empire who ruled between 1894 and 1917 under the official title of ‘Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias’.

What did Nicholas II do before he became Tsar?

The first cousin of King George V of England, Nicholas was born on 18 May (6 May) 1868, in the time of the ‘Great Reforms’ initiated by his grandfather Tsar Alexander II. He was about to turn 13 when his grandfather was assassinated by a member of the radical group People’s Will (Narodnaia Volia) after five previously unsuccessful attempts on his life.

Nicholas received good home education and was being prepared for his future role as Tsar of the Russian Empire. He served as a junior officer in the Lifeguard Preobrazhensky Regiment, one of the oldest elite regiments in Imperial Russia, and the Lifeguard Hussar Regiment. In 1892 Nicholas was promoted to the ranks of colonel.

In 1891, as an heir to the throne, Nicholas travelled around the greater part of the Eurasian continent. During this trip he suffered an assassination attempt in Japan from one of his escorting policemen.

Family life

On 26 (14) November 1894, just days after inheriting the Russian throne following his father Tsar Alexander III’s death, Nicholas II married German princess Alix of Hesse, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria on her mother’s side and a godchild of Nicholas’ own father. As Russian Tsarina and Empress, she became known as Alexandra Feodorovna.

Having married for love, Nicholas II was a family man. The royal couple moved their home to the suburbs of St Petersburg and paid rare visits to the capital. Four daughters – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – were born before a long-awaited son and heir, Alexei, arrived in August 1904.

Alexandra’s greatest fears were realised when it became clear that the young crown prince (tsesarevich) had inherited haemophilia, passed down from her grandmother, Queen Victoria. This grief and guilt spurred Alexandra’s damaging association with the peasant mystic and healer Grigorii Rasputin, whom she believed could cure Alexei.

Nicholas II started writing diaries when he was a boy and kept diaries throughout his life. Most of them have now been published. Many entries show his love for his wife, concern about their children’s health or record enjoyable moments of family past-time.

Why was Nicholas II called ‘Nicholas the Bloody’?

Nicholas II’s official coronation in May 1896 occurred 18 months after he became Tsar. But the event was overshadowed by the Khodynka Tragedy, when over 1,300 people were killed and another 1,300 injured in a human stampede.

The royal couple visited the wounded the following day and promised generous compensation for the bereaved. However, on the evening of the tragedy, they attended a ball at the French Embassy which cost the Tsar his peoples’ sympathy and contributed to his later nickname, ‘Nicholas the Bloody’.

The Tsar’s subsequent poor handling of Bloody Sunday also contributed to his image as ruthless, uncaring and unsympathetic to the needs of the people. Instead of engaging in a dialogue with peaceful demonstrators, he left St Petersburg and allowed his generals and the police to deploy troops and shoot unarmed people.

In the time of the unrest and revolution in 1905, this nickname became popular and was often repeated in the press. The satirical magazine Pulemet (‘Machine Gun’) published on its cover the October Manifesto with a large red print of a palm over it.

Why was Nicholas II called ‘Little Father Tsar’?

Nicholas II was ruling over the vast unmodernised Empire, where the tsar was often perceived by the masses as a symbol of sacred and divine power and was referred to as ‘Little Father Tsar’. This was rooted in the archaic ‘paternalistic model’ of ruling where the tsar’s power was holy, universal and incontestable.

Nicholas indeed understood his role as an absolute monarch and was unwilling and unable to adapt it to the rapidly changing and modernising society. He became tsar with a reluctant sense of duty rather than any great enthusiasm.

He did however, take his role seriously. In the questionnaire of the first Russia Census in 1897, in the field ‘occupation’ Nicholas wrote: ‘Owner of the Russia’. In the critical time of the 1905 revolution, Nicholas II was loath to agree to a representative form of government because he considered it ‘harmful to the people whom God has entrusted to his care’, and issuing the October Manifesto was a painful decision for him.

Polite, attentive, reasonably intelligent, sentimental and lenient, Nicholas often showed views of an old Russian landlord, rather than a 20th century monarch. His mystical reverence to the power entrusted in him prevented him from listening and following advice of strong, pragmatic, bold and independently-minded politicians and professionals, and instead surrounded himself with people he ‘liked’ or ‘trusted’.

Death and sainthood

After Nicholas II’s abdication, he and his family were initially detained and held under house arrest in their palace at Tsarkoe Selo near Petrograd. In March 1917 the Provisional Government tried to send the Tsar and his family to England. However, George V had second thoughts about welcoming his cousin, as the internal political situation in Britain was far from stable, and the King and his ministers were afraid that arrival of their Russian relatives could spark unrest at home.

In August 1917, the family, with some of their servants, were moved to Tobolsk. In April 1918 they were moved again to Yekaterinburg (later renamed Sverdlovsk after a prominent Bolshevik). An engineer called Ipatiev was ordered to vacate his house, which was fenced off and named the ‘House of Special Purpose’. Here Nicholas and his family spent the last 78 days of their lives and were killed on 17 July 1918, together with court physician Evgeniy Botkin and three servants.

Following the execution of the Tsar and his family, rumours of survivors began to circulate and various pretenders emerged. The most famous, Anna Anderson, maintained her claim to be Nicholas and Alexandra’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, from the 1920s until her death in 1984.

However, DNA testing after Anderson’s death proved that she was unrelated to the Romanovs, and the discovery and identification of the Romanovs’ bodies in 1991 and 2007 finally proved that there had been no survivors of the execution.

In 1981 Tsar Nicholas II and his family were proclaimed saints by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (which at that time was not part of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR), and then by Russia in 2000 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A church was built on the site of former ‘House of Special Purpose’. The act of canonisation was met with mixed responses in Russian society.

Nicholas’ personality and his role in the tragic downfall of Russia made him both a helpless victim and a villain of the Russian Revolution.

Facts about Nicholas II

  • Despite widely-circulated myths, Nicholas II was not the wealthiest man in Russia. In 1913 (the last pre-war year), the sum on Nicholas’ personal account was around 1 million roubles. An industrialist Nikolai Vtorov, according to Forbes, was worth over 60 million roubles in the same year.

  • The coronation ceremony in 1896 was filmed by the French journalist Camille Cerf and this was the first film shot in Russia.

  • Nicholas II was passionate about motorcars, and his son Alexei shared his father’s interest. For Alexei's 10th birthday, his grandmother presented him with a small but real car ‘Bebe Peugeot’. After the Revolution, the car was held at one of the ‘Palaces for young pioneers’, where lucky Soviet children could ride it.

  • Due to an interest in photography, shared with his daughters, the private life of the Romanov family was well documented.

  • In February 1903, Nicholas and Alexandra made a rare social appearance at the annual Winter Palace fancy dress ball, where all participants were to be dressed according to the 17th century Russian court fashion. It was uncommon for a tsar to appear in a fancy costume, but the choice of theme was very much in keeping with Nicholas’ perception of the Russian Empire and his place in it.

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