Nicholas II

views updated May 14 2018


(18681918), last emperor of Russia.

The future Nicholas II was born at Tsarskoe Selo in May 1868, the first child of the heir to the Russian throne, Alexander Alexandrovich, and his Danish-born wife, Maria Fedorovna. Nicholas was brought up in a warm and loving family environment and was educated by a succession of private tutors. He particularly enjoyed the study of history and proved adept at mastering foreign languages, but found it much more difficult to grasp the complexities of economics and politics. Greatly influenced by his father, who became emperor in 1881 as Alexander III, and by Konstantin Pobedonostsev, one of his teachers and a senior government official, Nicholas was deeply conservative, a strong believer in autocracy, and very religious. At the age of nineteen, he entered the army, and the military was to remain a passion throughout his life. After three years service in the army, Nicholas was sent on a ten-month tour of Europe and Asia to widen his experience of the world.

In 1894 Alexander III died and Nicholas became emperor. Despite his broad education, Nicholas felt profoundly unprepared for the responsibility that was thrust upon him and contemporaries remarked that he looked lost and bewildered. Within a month of his father's death, Nicholas married; he had become engaged to Princess Alix of Hesse in the spring of 1894 and his accession to the throne made marriage urgent. The new empress, known in Russia as Alexandra, played a crucial role in Nicholas's life. A serious and devoutly religious woman who believed fervently in the autocratic power of the

Russian monarchy, she stiffened her husband's resolve at moments of indecision.

The couple had five children, Olga (b. 1895), Tatiana (b. 1897), Maria (b. 1899), Anastasia (b.1901), and Alexei (b. 1904). The birth of a son and heir in 1904 was the occasion for great rejoicing, but this was soon marred as it became clear that Alexei suffered from hemophilia. Their son's illness drew Nicholas and Alexandra closer together. The empress had an instinctive aversion to high society, and the imperial family spent most of their time at Tsarskoe Selo, only venturing into St. Petersburg on formal occasions.

While Nicholas's reign began with marriage and personal happiness, his coronation in 1896 was marked by disaster. Public celebrations were held at Khodynka on the outskirts of Moscow, but the huge crowds that had gathered there got out of hand and several thousand people were crushed to death. That night the newly crowned emperor and empress appeared at a ball, apparently oblivious to the catastrophe. The image of Nicholas II enjoying himself while many of his subjects lay dead gave his reign a sour start.

the russo-japanese war

Nicholas followed his father's policies for much of his first decade as monarch, relying on the men who had advised Alexander III, especially Sergei Witte, the minister of finance and the architect of Russia's economic growth during the 1890s. Russian industry grew rapidly during the decade, aided by investment from abroad and particularly from France, assisted by a political alliance between the two countries signed during the last months of Alexander III's reign. Russia was also expanding in the Far East. The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, linking European Russia with the empire's Pacific coast, had begun in 1891, and this resurgence of Russian interest in the region worried Japan. The twin developments of industrialization and Far Eastern expansion both came to a head early in the twentieth century. In 1904, Japan launched an attack on Russia. Nicholas II believed this was no more than "a bite from a flea," but his confidence in Russia's armed forces was misplaced. The Japanese inflicted a crushing and humiliating defeat on them, forcing the army to surrender Port Arthur in December 1904 and destroying the Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905.

the revolution of 1905

The emperor was stoical about Russia's military failure, but by the time peace negotiations began in the summer of 1905, the war with Japan was no longer the central problem. On January 9, 1905, a huge demonstration took place in St. Petersburg, calling for better working conditions, political changes, and a popular representative assembly. Although the demonstrators were peaceful, troops opened fire on them, killing more than a thousand people on what came to be known as "Bloody Sunday." This opened the floodgates of discontent. Workers throughout the Russian Empire went out on strike to show sympathy with their 1905 slain compatriots. As spring arrived, peasants across Russia voiced their discontent. There were more than three thousand instances of peasant unrest where troops were required to subdue villagers.

Nicholas II's reaction was confused. Believing that he had a God-given right to rule Russia and must pass his patrimony on unchanged to his heir, he tried to put down the revolts by force and resisted any attempt to erode his authority. But this tactic did not stem the surge of urban and rural discontent, and the fragility of the regime's position was brought home to him by the assassination of his uncle, the governor-general of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, in February. Against his natural instincts, the emperor agreed to a series of concessions, culminating in October with the establishment of an elected legislature, the Duma. Nicholas resented this encroachment on his autocratic prerogatives and resentfully blamed it on Witte, the chief author of the October Manifesto. "There was no other way out," Nicholas wrote to his mother immediately afterwards "than to cross oneself and give what everyone was asking for." The emperor's character is shown in sharp focus

by the events of 1905. Nicholas was a determined man who knew his own mind and had a clear sense of where his duty lay. But he was stubborn and very slow to recognize the need for change.

Nicholas found it difficult to accept that his powers had been limited, and he tried to act as though he were still an autocrat. He was encouraged in this by the government's ability to put down the rebellions across Russia. The appointment in April 1906 of a new minister of the interior, Peter Stolypin, marked the beginning of a policy of repression combined with reform. Elevated to prime minister in the summer of 1906 because of his success in quelling discontent, Stolypin recommended a wide range of reforms. Nicholas II, however, did not agree on the need for reform. Once an uneasy calm had been reestablished across the empire, he concluded that further change was unnecessary. Nicholas wanted to return to the pre-1905 situation and to continue to rule as an autocrat. The 1913 celebration of the tercentenary of the Romanov

dynasty gave ample illustration of his view of the situationhe and the empress posed for photographs dressed in costumes styled to reflect their ancestors in the seventeenth century. Nicholas wanted to hark back to an earlier age and reclaim the power held by his forebears.

world war i

The test of World War I exposed Nicholas's weaknesses. The dismal performance of the Russian armies in the early stages of the war brought his sense of duty to the fore and he took direct charge of the army as commander-in-chief, although his ministers tried to dissuade him, arguing that he would now be personally blamed for any further military failures. Nicholas was, however, convinced that he should lead his troops at this critical moment, and after August 1915 he spent most of his time at headquarters away from Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed when the war began). This had important consequences for the government of the empire. The empress was one of the main conduits by which Nicholas learned what was happening in the capital, and in his absence she became increasingly reliant on Rasputin, a "holy man" who had gained the trust of the imperial family through the comfort he was able to offer the hemophiliac Alexei. The empress, already isolated from Petrograd society, grew even more distant during the war and was highly susceptible to Rasputin's influence. She wrote to Nicholas frequently at headquarters, giving him the views of "Our friend" (as she termed Rasputin) on ministerial appointments and other political matters. The emperor too was a lonely figure as the war progressed. He had alienated much of Russia's moderate political opinion even before 1914, and the regime's refusal to countenance any participation in government by these parties, even as the military situation worsened, had caused attitudes to harden on both sides. Wider popular opinion also turned against the emperor. Alexandra's German background gave rise to a widespread belief that she wanted a Russian defeat, and this, allied with increasingly extravagant rumors about Rasputin, served to discredit the imperial family.

abdication and death

When demonstrations and riots broke out in Petrograd at the end of February 1917, there was no segment of society that would support the monarchy. Nicholas was at headquarters at Mogilev, four hundred miles south of the capital, and his attempt to return to Petrograd by train was thwarted. Military commanders and politicians urged him to allow parliamentary rule, but even at this critical moment, Nicholas clung to his belief in his own autocracy. "I am responsible before God and Russia for everything that has happened and is happening," he told his generals. His failure to make immediate concessions cost Nicholas his throne. By the time he was willing to compromise, the situation in Petrograd had so deteriorated that abdication was the only acceptable solution. On March 2 he gave up the throne, in favor of his son. After medical advice that Alexei was unfit, he offered the throne to his brother, Mikhail. When he refused, the Romanov dynasty came to an end.

In the aftermath of the revolution, negotiations took place to enable Nicholas and his family to seek exile in Britain. These came to nothing because the British government feared a popular reaction if it offered shelter to the Russian emperor. Nicholas was placed under arrest by the new Provisional Government at Tsarskoe Selo, but in August 1917, he and his family were moved to the town of Tobolsk in the Urals, 1,200 miles east of Moscow. After the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, the position of the imperial family became much more precarious. The outbreak of the civil war raised the possibility that the emperor might be rescued by opponents of the Bolshevik government. At the end of April 1918, Nicholas II and his family were moved to Yekaterinburg, the center of Bolshevik power in the Ural region, and in mid-July orders came from Moscow to kill them. Early in the morning of July 17, they were all shot. Their bodies were thrown into a disused mine-shaft and remained there until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1998, their remains were brought back to St. Petersburg and interred in the Peter-Paul fortress, the traditional burial place of Russia's imperial family.

See also: february revolution; october revolution; provisional government; revolution of 1905; russo-japanese war


Ananich, Boris Vasilevich, and Ganelin, R. S. (1996). "Emperor Nicholas II, 18941917." In The Emperors and Empresses of Russia: Rediscovering the Romanovs, ed. Donald J. Raleigh. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Lieven, Dominic D. (1993). Nicholas II: Emperor of All the Russias. London: John Murray.

Verner, Andrew M. (1995). The Crisis of Russian Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Peter Waldron

Nicholas II

views updated Jun 11 2018

Nicholas II

Nicholas II (1868-1918), the czar of Russia from 1894 to 1917, was a staunch defender of autocracy. A weak monarch, he was forced to abdicate, thus ending more than 300 years of Romanov rule in Russia.

The son of Alexander III, Nicholas was born on May 6, 1868. He studied under private tutors, was an accomplished linguist, and traveled extensively in Russia and abroad. In 1890-1891 he made a voyage around the world. Nicholas held customary commissions in the guards, rising, while heir apparent, to the rank of colonel. His participation in affairs of state prior to the death of his father was limited to attendance at meetings of the committee of ministers and of the state council.

His Personality

Throughout his life Nicholas kept with remarkable regularity a diary that throws much light on his character and interests. Hardly a day passed without a record of what Nicholas regarded as its most noteworthy events. These entries, comprising merely a few lines each, noted official visits; dwelt with affection on the doings of his wife and children; and listed his recreational activities. In his relations with courtiers and officials, Nicholas was considerate and kind, but his ministers could never be certain that the policies seemingly agreed upon would actually receive his assent or that a gracious audience would not be followed by a curt dismissal from office.

Nicholas became emperor on the death of his father on Oct. 20, 1894. Less than a month after his coronation, he married Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt. It was a marriage of love, and he remained to the end an exemplary husband and devoted father. His son Alexis, born in 1904, suffered from hemophilia. Desperate efforts to save Alexis's life later led to the incredible episode of Rasputin, a monk who employed hypnotic power to stop Alexis's bleeding. In this manner Rasputin became a dominating influence at the royal court. The deeper cause of Rasputin's influence, as well as of many of Nicholas's difficulties, lay in the Czar's refusal to concern himself with political questions and his staunch conviction that he must maintain the autocracy of his father.

Reaction and Oppression

Nicholas carried on his father's nationalism, his curtailment of the rights of minority nationalities, and his restrictions on nonorthodox religious groups. He limited Finnish autonomy, which had been honored by Russian monarchs since 1809. The Czar's manifesto of February 1899 abolished the Finnish constitution and placed the function of making laws for Finland under the Russian imperial council.

Nicholas pursued a strongly anti-Semitic policy. Jews could enroll in higher schools only under quota limits and were excluded from law practice, zemstvos (local district and provincial assemblies), and city councils. Christian dissenters also were persecuted.

The industrial boom of the early 1890s led to Russia's first important strike movement between 1895 and 1897. In 1897 the government passed legislation curtailing the workday to 11 1/2 hours, but it also ordered the capture and punishment of all strike leaders. University students had also begun to organize demonstrations and strikes. The students' confrontations with the officials of St. Petersburg University led to a general strike in Russian higher education. Nicholas unsuccessfully tried both leniency and harshness as methods of alleviating student disturbances.

The Socialist Revolutionary Battle Organization undertook a terrorist campaign with a series of political murders or attempted murders of provincial governors and other officials. The revolutionary movement was spreading widely. Nicholas and his government lacked a policy to deal effectively with the situation.

Imperialism in the Far East

In form, Nicholas's foreign policy was similar to, and shaped after, that of the other eastern European monarchies: Germany and Austria-Hungary. Nor was it so different from the foreign policy of the western European democracies: France and Great Britain. The main effort of all the Great Powers was not so much to win control over new territories as to preserve the European status quo. However, mutual distrust and the suspicion of one power that another sought to change the status quo often provoked a crisis. In the last quarter of the 19th century, most of the European Great Powers were active in extending their influence and possessions into Africa and Asia. As a result, there was much concern as to whether "imperialist gains, losses, or transfers abroad might upset the balance of interests in Europe itself."

Nicholas's Russia began to challenge Japan in Manchuria and in Korea. An adventurer named Bezobrazov convinced Nicholas to finance a timber concession on the Yalu River on the northern border of Korea. When Tokyo concluded that Bezobrazov had won the support of the Czar, the Japanese attacked the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in January 1904 without declaring war.

Russia suffered a series of defeats on land and sea in the war with Japan. The main factors for the Japanese victory over the Russians were the inadequate supply route of the Transsiberian Railway, the outnumbering of the Russian forces in the Far East by Japan, and Russian mismanagement in the field. A peace treaty, negotiated between Russia and Japan on Sept. 5, 1905, called for Russia's recognition of Japanese hegemony in Korea, annexation of southern Sakhalin by Japan, and Japan's lease of the Liaotung Peninsula and the South Manchurian Railway. The war had ended without forcing too excessive a price for peace.

Revolution of 1905

In 1905 Father George Gapon, leader of a workers' group, led a procession of workers to Nicholas II in order to seek relief for their grievances. The procession was fired upon, and the incident—known as "Bloody Sunday"— may be considered the beginning of the Revolution of 1905. Millions of people participated in this mass movement. The primary goal of the rebellion was a "four-tail constituent assembly"—that is, universal, secret, equal, and direct suffrage to decide the country's future form of government. Other demands included civil liberties, especially freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and the enactment of an 8-hour workday.

When the general strike of October materialized, Minister of Finance Sergei Witte advised Nicholas to choose between a constitutional regime and a military dictatorship, but he added that he would participate only in the former. On Oct. 5, 1905, Nicholas promulgated the October Manifesto. It was drafted by Witte, who became Russia's first prime minister. The manifesto promised: " (1) To grant to the population the inviolable right of free citizenship, based on the principles of freedom of person, conscience, speech, assembly, and union. (2) Without postponing the intended elections for the State Duma and insofar as possible … to include in the participation of the work of the Duma those classes of the population that have been until now entirely deprived of the right to vote, and to extend in the future, by the newly created legislative way, the principles of the general right of election. (3) To establish as an unbreakable rule that without its confirmation by the State Duma, no law shall go into force and that the persons elected by the people shall have the opportunity for actual participation in supervising the legality of the acts of authorities appointed by it." Nicholas ended with an appeal to "all the true sons of Russia" to help reestablish law and order.

Fall of the Monarchy

At the beginning of February 1917 Nicholas left the capital and went to supreme headquarters at Mogilev. On March 8 demonstrations were held to celebrate International Women's Day, and these throngs merged with rioting crowds protesting the scarcity of bread in Petrograd. As the riots continued, Nicholas could do nothing but prorogue the Duma, which he did on March 11. The next day the Duma gathered in defiance of his order and chose a provisional committee, composed of members of the progressive bloc and two representatives of parties to the left of it. On March 15, 1917, Nicholas decided to abdicate in favor of his brother Michael. A delegation from the provisional committee, which by now had become the provisional government, waited on the Grand Duke Michael, who refused to be crowned czar of Russia. The monarchy "thus perished without a murmur from either the dynasty or its supporters."

Nicholas abdicated his throne peacefully. On his train the next day he wrote in his diary: "I had a long and sound sleep. Woke up beyond Dvinsk. Sunshine and frost … I read much of Julius Caesar." Nicholas and the entire imperial family were forced to depart for Siberia in the summer of 1917. They were murdered by the Communists in July 1918.

Further Reading

Biographical information and a discussion of Nicholas II are in two collective biographies and histories of the Romanov dynasty, both written for the general reader and both based on solid scholarship: John Bergamini, The Tragic Dynasty (1969), and Ian Grey, The Romanovs: The Rise and Fall of a Dynasty (1970). Hugh Seton-Watson, The Decline of Imperial Russia, 1855-1914 (1952), is a thorough and well-balanced work that surveys both Russian internal and foreign policies. A study of European diplomacy that pays considerable attention to Russian policy and conduct is Benedict H. Sumner, Tsardom and Imperialism in the Far East and Middle East, 1880-1914 (1954). Michael T. Florinsky, Russia: A History and an Interpretation (1953), is the most complete narrative of prerevolutionary Russian history in English. □

Nicholas II

views updated Jun 27 2018


NICHOLAS II (1868–1918; ruled 1894–1917), emperor of Russia.

Nicholas II ruled the Russian Empire from November 1894 until his abdication during the February Revolution in 1917. He came to the throne at the age of twenty-six, after his father, Alexander III, died prematurely of nephritis. Nicholas's mother, Maria Fyodorovna (née Dagmar, daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark), lived until 1928. In November 1894 Nicholas married Alexandra Fyodorovna (née Alix of Darmstadt-Hesse). She bore him four daughters—Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia—before the birth of a male heir, Alexei, in 1904. Like many of his cousins—related through Queen Victoria's offspring—Alexei suffered from hemophilia.

Courteous and sensitive, Nicholas inherited his parents' devotion to family and a love for outdoor recreation. From his father and teachers—including the archconservative Konstantin P. Pobedonostsev—he acquired an unshakable belief in autocratic rule. Nicholas lacked, however, Alexander's imposing stature and self-assurance. Notoriously indecisive, he also proved a dogged, and sometimes devious, defender of his prerogatives.

As preparation for his future duties, Nicholas received instruction in languages, law, history, and economics from tutors, government ministers, and scholars. There followed a carefree stint as a Guards officer in the late 1880s. In 1890 and 1891 he took a grand tour of Asia and Siberia. He then served an apprenticeship as chairman of state committees dealing with the Trans-Siberian Railroad and agrarian issues. Still, his parents and advisors doubted his readiness to rule, while Nicholas himself was "terrified" when he succeeded.

In early 1895 Nicholas dismissed liberal calls for reform as "senseless dreams." He swore instead to maintain autocracy and his father's policies: censorship, restrictions on universities, Russification, institutionalized anti-Semitism, gentry dominance in the countryside, and restraint on the zemstvos (elective local government bodies). He supported Finance Minister Sergei Witte's industrialization program, partially funded by tariffs on an overburdened rural population, while engendering a working class with its own demands. By the period between 1900 and 1902, tensions multiplied. Within government, Nicholas undermined the powerful Witte, pitting him against Vyacheslav K. Plehve, the minister of internal affairs, in economic and agrarian policies. He removed Witte as minister in August 1903. Revolutionaries assassinated Plehve in 1904, as unrest mounted among peasants, workers, and students. That summer urban and gentry constitutionalists formed the Union of Liberation; in November, a zemstvo congress called for an elective legislature to control the bureaucracy.

Revolution erupted in 1905, following "Bloody Sunday" on 22 January (9 January, old style), when troops killed over two hundred peacefully demonstrating workers in St. Petersburg. Promises of reform throughout the spring and summer provoked peasant risings and urban strikes, revolutionary terrorism, ferment among national minorities, and liberal demands for a constitution. In a manifesto published on 30 October (17 October, O.S.) Nicholas "granted" civil liberties, religious tolerance, and an elective, legislative State Duma. The new legislature convened in May 1906; Nicholas dissolved it after six contentious weeks.

The revolution had gained strength during the disastrous Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), which also weakened the empire's international position following a period of peace inaugurated by Alexander III. Under Nicholas, the recently concluded alliance with France was balanced by correct relations with William II's Germany. Agreements with Austria-Hungary in 1897 and 1903 guaranteed the Balkan status quo. Nicholas also sponsored international talks on disarmament in The Hague in 1899. China's decline and the rise of Meiji Japan, however, brought volatility to Asian affairs. In 1897 Russia seized Port Arthur from China, creating a southern terminus for the Trans-Siberian Railroad. After the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Russia occupied much of Manchuria, prompting the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902. Nicholas wavered between the caution urged by Witte and the assertive policy advocated by the courtier A. M. Bezobrazov. Confused negotiations led to a Japanese attack on Port Arthur in early 1904, followed by Russian defeats, notably at Mukden (March 1905) and the sea battle of Tsushima (May 1905). U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a humiliating peace at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in September 1905.

In the spring of 1906 Nicholas appointed Peter Stolypin to restore order. As prime minister and minister of internal affairs, Stolypin dominated Russian politics until his assassination in September 1911. He attacked revolutionary activists and supported Russian dominance in multiethnic areas, while instituting a land reform to cultivate peasant loyalty. On 16 June (3 June, O.S.) 1907 Stolypin invoked emergency legislation to dissolve the Second Duma, reforming the franchise to secure a more amenable legislature. The Third Duma's centrist majority partnered with Stolypin to foster military renovation and economic recovery. Nicholas chafed at the 1905 regime and his charismatic premier.

After Stolypin's death, Nicholas populated his cabinet with conservatives who shared his suspicion of the legislature. Nicholas's new assertiveness also drew on demonstrations of affection from the Russian population during the dynasty's tercentenary in 1913. Nicholas saw these displays as popular support for the monarchy against forces of reform. He took a confrontational position against the Duma and supported militant monarchists. Such gestures, as well as the anti-Semitic trial of Mendel Beilis and the increasing visibility of the "holy man" Grigory Rasputin, eroded the dynasty's mystique. Recession and the violent suppression in 1912 of a strike in Siberia provoked renewed labor unrest, culminating by July 1914 in the largest strikes since 1905.

These challenges coincided with renewed international tensions. Defeat and revolution led Nicholas to seek peace abroad until Russia recovered from the Asian debacle. In 1907 Russia reached an entente with Great Britain on Asian issues, complementing an earlier Anglo-French rapprochement, forming a new combination in European diplomacy. Continued weakness forced Russia to stand by as instability overtook the Balkans. In 1908 revolution in Turkey facilitated Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite Russian and Serbian protests. In 1912 and 1913 Russia proved unable to defend its Slavic protégés' gains in the Balkan Wars, while German and Austrian influence grew apace. By 1914, foreign minister S. D. Sazonov and others were urging Nicholas to defend Russia's great-power status. Nicholas heeded these arguments: In July 1914 he supported Serbia's rejection of an Austrian ultimatum following the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir, in Sarajevo. In early August, Nicholas led his deeply divided empire into World War I.

See alsoAlexander III; Alexandra; Revolution of 1905 (Russia); Russo-Japanese War.


Primary Sources

Alexander Mikhailovich. Once a Grand Duke. New York, 1932.

Witte, Sergei. The Memoirs of Count Witte. Translated and edited by Sidney Harcave. Armonk, N.Y., 1990.

Secondary Sources

Lieven, D. C. B. Nicholas II: Emperor of All the Russias. London, 1993.

Verner, Andrew M. The Crisis of Russian Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution. Princeton, N.J., 1990.

Warth, Robert D. Nicholas II: The Life and Reign of Russia's Last Monarch. Westport, Conn., 1997.

David M. McDonald

Nicholas II

views updated May 23 2018

Nicholas II (1868–1918) Last Tsar of Russia (1894–1917). Torn between the autocracy of his father, Alexander III, and the reformist policies of ministers, such as Count Sergei Witte, he lacked the capacity for firm leadership. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War was followed by the Russian Revolution of 1905. Nicholas agreed to constitutional government but, as danger receded, removed most of the powers of the Duma (Parliament). In World War I he took military command (1915), but a succession of defeats provoked the Russian Revolution (1917). Nicholas was forced to abdicate, and in July 1918 he and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks.

About this article

Nicholas II (Russia)

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic