Tsar Nicholas II: The Agony of an Empire

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 overthrew the monarchy. Tsar Nicholas II was the last of the Romanovs, his disastrous policies cost him his throne… and his life.

Feb 2, 2022By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science

tsar nicholas ii procession coronation 1896


Grand Prince Nicholas Alexandrovitch was born in 1868. Growing up in an environment of luxury, the future Tsar did not have much to worry about, as his father kept him mostly away from political duties beyond the ceremonial minima.


On 1st November 1894, his father, Alexander III, died after a short fight with kidney disease. Nicholas rose to the imperial throne, becoming Tsar Nicholas II and head of the Romanov Dynasty.


The young Tsar Nicholas II was not prepared to rule, and his 23-year reign saw the fall of the Romanov Dynasty and the rise of the Soviet Union.


Russia Before Tsar Nicholas II

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The body of Tsar Alexander III in his chair with Empress Maria Fedorovna alongside – from the album Death of Alexander III in Livonia by Mihaly Zichy, 1895, via saint-petersburg.com


The 19th century was tumultuous for Russia. Following the victory against Napoleon in 1812, Saint Petersburg became the major powerhouse in Europe. But the Tsar’s influence was severely diminished following the defeat at the Crimean War in 1856. The reigning Tsar of that era was Alexander II. On the internal level, Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861 and thus somewhat sped up the industrialization of Russia. However, he was unable to grant proper social support for the freshly emancipated serfs who migrated to the cities in search of better lives.

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Socialism, communism, and anarchism progressively gained popularity in Russia. Those political ideals gave birth to an important radical movement, which ultimately cost the Tsar’s life in 1881. His son, Alexander III, implanted reactionary policies, repressing most political movements. Despite the brutality of his methods, he managed to stabilize the country and diminish social unrest. Alexander III joined France in a Dual Alliance against Germany in 1891 and pursued Russian Expansion in Central Asia. His success allowed Russia to fully regain its prestige.


In 1890, young Nicholas II went on a world tour with his cousin Prince Georges of Greece, where he visited numerous countries to build friendly diplomatic relations. Japan was one of the visited nations where the Grand Prince barely escaped from an assassination attempt during what is known as the Otsu Incident in April 1891.


Following this incident, Nicholas returned to Russia. In 1893, he presided over the early construction of the Trans-Siberian railway in Vladivostok. The same year, the Grand Prince traveled to London for the marriage of his cousin, future king Georges V, to Princess Mary of Teck, in front of their grandmother, Queen Victoria. This would be his latest duty as heir to the throne.


Tsar Nicholas II: New Reign, New Tragedies

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Procession of Tsar Nicholas II at his coronation, 1896


The new Tsar married his childhood love, Princess Alix of Hesse and by the Rhine, who took up the name Alexandra Feodorovna, in November 1894. The official coronation of the emperor took place in the summer of 1896. In the meantime, Nicholas II clearly underlined the autocratic style of his rule, thus crushing the hopes of various political factions, which hoped that the new reign would be more relaxed than the previous one.


While Nicholas had the same political inclinations as his father, his skills at ruling were far from reaching those of his predecessors. He offered important political positions to his family members. His Uncle, Sergei Alexandrovich, governor of Moscow and renowned nationalist and absolutist, quickly became a major influence on the young Tsar. He was the one in charge of the organization of the coronation ceremony, which was held in Moscow on 26th May 1896.


As per tradition, Tsar Nicholas II met the people of Moscow on the fields of Khodynka, just outside the city. This event was followed by three days of festivities, which culminated in a major tragedy. On the 30th of May, due to a miscalculation of the volume of the gathered populace, a crowd crush, followed by a general panic, led to the death of nearly 20,000 victims.


The same night, Tsar Nicholas II was invited to a gala at the residency of the French ambassador. His attendance right after the Khodynka Tragedy soured his image in the Russians’ eyes, which gave him a reputation as a frivolous and uncaring ruler.


Grand Projects and Failures

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Tsar Nicholas II Photo by Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho, via biography.com


Following the Khodynka Tragedy, Nicholas II’s reign was characterized by the continuation of Alexander III’s policies. The Tsar allotted money to the All-Russia Exhibition of 1896, which promoted Russian scientists and innovators. He also oversaw the completion of the financial reforms undertaken by his father, with the restoration of the gold standard in 1897. Finally, by 1902, the Trans-Siberian railway neared completion, which boosted trade in the East.


In diplomatic matters, Tsar Nicholas II attempted to pacify relations between European Powers. He initiated the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, which gained him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. However, he strengthened the Alliance with France and challenged Austrian interests in the Balkans. Regarding Asia and the Pacific, the Tsar implemented a colonial policy, intervening in China against the Boxer Rebellions and annexing Manchuria in the early 20th century.


However, his internal policies led to more repression of the opposition, especially through the Okhrana, a secret services agency created by Alexander III in 1881 following his father’s murder. Activists from inside and abroad often depicted him as a murderous autocrat. This sentiment gained more and more echo from low social classes, such as the priest Georgy Gapon and the exiled journalist Vladimir Lenin.


The Tsar’s expansionist policies in the Far East triggered a conflict with Japan over control of Korea and Manchuria in 1904, during which Russian armies were decimated. The humiliation and the economic strain on the country were so great that they led to the 1905 Revolution.


The 1905 Revolution and the Douma

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Bloody Sunday in Saint Petersburg from the Imperial War Museum, via thoughtco.com


The first major uprising against Nicholas II started on Sunday, 22 January 1905, when workers and other members of war-affected social classes joined the priest Georgy Gapon to march towards the Emperor’s Residency. As they advanced through Saint Petersburg, the demonstrators were met by lines of infantry that opened fire.


Bodies fell by the hundreds, and most if not all lower classes lost all faith in autocratic rule from that point onwards. This event tarnished the image of Tsar Nicholas II both inside and outside of Russia and led to even more unrest in the following days. The unrest grew so much that the Grand Duke Sergei, the Tsar’s uncle and previous advisor, was killed in February 1905 by an angry mob.


Vague promises of reform were made to no avail, and in June, even some factions of the army rebelled. The Potemkin Mutiny was one of these occasions where the soldier corps rose against the Tsar. By October, a strike of railway personnel paralyzed the country. By the end of the month, Tsar Nicholas II signed the October Manifesto, which established an Imperial Douma, or an elected body, which would be in charge of Parliament-like duties.


Sergei Witte, a trusted man of Alexander III and supporter of reforms, became prime minister. An era of political battle followed, as the Tsar strongly opposed any attempt at reducing his power until the end of his reign. But by signing the Manifesto, Nicholas II saved his throne… at least for the next eleven years.


1905 was also when a certain Grigory Rasputin made his way into the Imperial Palace through his connections with the nobility…


The Douma and Rasputin’s Influence

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Rasputin: the monk who held influence over Tsar Nicholas II, via Smithsonian Magazine


Tsar Nicholas II had no intention of cooperating with the newly elected body. As soon as 1906, he dismissed the first Douma. However, the next elected assembly was even more opposed to the Tsarist rule, with the left-winged parties holding 200 seats. Once again, the Tsar dismissed the Douma in 1907.


In the meantime, the Tsar’s son Alexei got diagnosed with hemophilia. Distressed, the royal couple entrusted their son to the care of the monk Rasputin, who claimed to have holy healing powers, and somehow the boy’s health seemed to improve.


From that point onward, Rasputin gained more and more influence over the Tsar and his wife, who would go as far as dismissing Witte due to his mistrust of the suspicious monk. Rasputin’s influence grew so much that the Tsar often sought his advice on political matters, which had dire consequences. The Emperor was even criticized by his relatives for his blind trust in the monk.


However, some positive reforms were undertaken. In 1913, Tsar Nicholas II launched a military reform program to fully modernize the Russian Army in preparation for a potential confrontation with Austria-Hungary and Germany. This measure was coupled with economic reforms that further industrialized the Empire.


The Tsar’s relationship with the Douma was still sour, and the Tsar continuously dismissed elected assemblies. Moreover, his staunch refusal to accept the establishment of a Constitution isolated the monarch further politically.


By the eve of World War I, Tsar Nicholas II had enemies in all the country’s political factions. As Europe descended into war, the destiny of the dynasty was sealed.


Russia In World War I

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Tsar Nicholas II blessing Russian troops, 1916, via historylearningsite.co.uk


Russia was one of the first nations to begin hostilities in World War I. Following the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand von Habsburg, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The latter was a protégée of Saint Petersburg, which retaliated violently, launching a full-scale assault on Galicia and occupying Lemberg (modern-day Lviv in Ukraine).


Germany declared war on Russia, and France joined its eastern ally in reaction. Great Britain was the last major player to join the fray in the summer of 1914 after Berlin violated Belgian neutrality to outflank Paris.


Despite major successes against the Austrians, Russia’s attempts to invade Eastern Prussia ended in disaster. By 1915, the Tsar’s army retreated from Poland to central Ukraine, thus allowing the Germans to occupy a large part of Russian territory. However, the front was stabilized in 1916, thanks to General Brusilov. In the same year, the Tsar took direct command of the armies and left Saint Petersburg, or Petrograd, as it was called during the wartime.


In the next months, trench warfare took a major toll on soldiers’ morale. Back home, food shortages and recessions severely affected the population. In addition, the nobility deeply resented Rasputin’s grip over the Empress. On the 30th of December, Prince Felix Yusupov successfully assassinated the monk.


By late February 1917, strikes and protests against the war erupted all around the country in what is known today as the February Revolution. The Douma openly denounced the Tsar and autocratic rule. On 2nd March 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in favor of his younger brother, Michael. The latter refused the crown, thus ending more than 300 years of the Romanov Dynasty’s rule.


The Romanov Dynasty After the Monarchy

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A picture of the Russian Provisional Government, 1917, via the Presidential Library of the Russian Federation, Saint Petersburg


The fall of the Romanov Dynasty led to the emergence of a provisional government led by local Soviets (regional elected assemblies) and the Douma. On 20th March, the Provisional Government decreed that the Royal Family had to stay on house arrest in their winter quarters at Tsarskoye Selo, North of Petrograd. In the meantime, officials of the government attempted to grant Tsar Nicholas II exile and asylum in Allied countries. Those efforts failed, as France and Britain refused to welcome the Romanovs for political reasons. Being democracies, French and British public opinion was very unfavorable to Russia’s pre-1917 monarchy.


In the meantime, two leading figures emerged in Russian politics: the socialist Alexander Kerensky and the communist Vladimir Lenin. The first was already a representative at the Douma in February 1917, and he quickly rose to prominence and became head of the new regime by July. The second had been exiled since the 1890s and was known worldwide as a leading figure of Marxist activism.


As Kerensky rose to power, Lenin made his way back to Russia and immediately created the Bolshevik Party. Communist popularity progressively grew as Russia struggled more than ever in the war against the Central Powers. The Provisional Government decided to send Tsar Nicholas II and his family to the Siberian town of Tobolsk in order to protect them from a more and more unruly population. The Romanovs on their side believed that they were safe and that their rescue was coming close as the US intervention in the war turned the conflict in favor of the allies on the Western Front.


Those hopes were severely crushed in October 1917, when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, violently overthrew the Provisional Government.


Bolsheviks and the Russian Civil War

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Vladimir Lenin, via BBC


The October Revolution, as it is remembered today, plunged the country into civil unrest and instability, which eventually gave way to the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


The new government immediately cut off funds allocated to sustain the Romanovs and put communist guards on their house. The royals’ freedom of movement was limited, and their comfort severely impacted.


Meanwhile, Russia rapidly fell into a state of civil war, as various anti-communist factions created the White Army and diverse minorities declared independence from the central government. Lenin moved the capital to Moscow, and from there, started negotiating a humiliating peace treaty with the Central Powers.


In March 1918, Russia and the Central Powers signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Petrograd had to recognize the independence of most of its European possessions and retreat from the Northern Caucasus. While this action caused even more opposition to Bolshevik rule, it also allowed the newly-created Red Army to focus on the internal civil war.


In the meantime, the White Army made several attempts to free the last members of the Romanov Dynasty, many of which had already fled the country. Nicholas was a potential rallying point despite his unpopularity to the anti-Bolshevik forces, which were strongly divided by ideology.


The Last Days of Tsar Nicholas II

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Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and their children in 1913 in the Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg, via Town and Country Magazine


Following the change of the capital from Petrograd to Moscow, communist leaders moved the royal family to Yekaterinburg to wait out the war. The initial objective was to keep Nicholas and his wife safe and put them on trial as soon as possible. However, the sudden rebellion of the Czechoslovak Legion and the city’s imminent fall pushed Lenin to review his plans.


On the 17th July 1918, Nicholas and his family were woken up at 2:00 am and asked to gather their belongings. They were informed of an imminent evacuation due to the proximity of the White Forces. A few minutes later, the Royals were asked to wait in a room of the residency, where they were suddenly informed of their immediate execution. A firing squad made its way to the room, and slaughter ensued.


Tsar Nicholas II Romanov, his wife, all of their five children, and whoever remained in their direct service died at the hands of Bolshevik soldiers. Their bodies were burned and thrown in a disused mine shaft. All around Russia, members of the House of Romanov were executed in a similar manner.


In 2000, decades after the death of the Royal Family, and a few years after the fall of the USSR, the Orthodox Church canonized the Tsar and his family. Nowadays, he is venerated as Saint Nicholas the Passion-bearer. He is remembered today as a well-meaning but easily influenced leader completely unfit for the duties of a Tsar, whose actions brought down both a 300-year-old dynasty and a millennia-old political tradition of hereditary rule.

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By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.