Tsar Nicholas II
(18 May 1868
– 17 July 1918
was the last crowned Emperor
. He ruled from 1894
until his abdication
. Nicholas proved unequal to the combined tasks of managing a country in political turmoil and commanding its army in the largest international war to date. His rule ended with the Russian Revolution
, during which he and his family were executed, in 1918
Nicholas's full name was Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov (in Russian Николай Александрович Романов). His official title was Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.2
Family background and early life
The son of Emperor Alexander III and his Empress Marie Feodorovna (born Princess Dagmar of Denmark), Nicholas was the grandson of Christian IX of Denmark through his mother, and of Emperor Alexander II through his father. Nicholas was seen as too soft by his hard, demanding father who, not anticipating his own premature death, did nothing to prepare his son for the crown. Nicholas fell in love with Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, but his father did not approve the match, hoping instead for a marriage with a princess of the House of Orleans, to consummate Russia's newfound alliance with the French Republic. Only when Alexander was on his death bed, fearing for the succession of the Romanov Dynasty, did he consent to the marriage of Nicholas to the German princess.
As Tsarevich, Nicholas did a fair amount of traveling, including a notable trip to the Far East which left him with a scar in his forehead. A crazed Japanese man had nearly killed him, but he was saved by the quick action of his cousin, Prince George of Greece. Nicholas returned to St. Petersburg with a bitter hatred of the Empire of the Rising Sun.
Nicholas becomes Tsar
Nicholas assumed the throne on November 1 1894, and soon thereafter married Princess Alix (thenceforth Empress Alexandra Feodorovna). They had five children: the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria (or Marie) and Anastasia, and the Tsarevich Alexei. The title Tsar (or Czar), derived from the Roman title Caesar via the Byzantine form Kaisar, had been officially abolished in 1721 by Peter the Great, but it was informally used throughout Nicholas's reign.
At the festivities surrounding his 1895 coronation in Moscow several thousand people were trampled to death trying to get presents from the new Emperor. Nicholas learned of the catastrophe later that day and wished to cancel all later festivities, but was persuaded not to by relatives and advisors. Many saw the deaths as a bad omen. Nicholas had been poorly prepared to rule after his father's early death. His engagement to Princess Alix only slightly preceded his father's death, and his wedding came very shortly after the funeral. Nicholas soon faced the task of being autocrat of Russia in a time of major turmoil.
He relied heavily on the advice of his uncles, the Grand Dukes (brothers of the late Alexander III), and also on his and his wife's cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm. This advice was often more in the interests of "Cousin Willy", who hoped to prevent closer relations between Russia and Britain and with France, than of Nicholas. An ill-conceived war with Japan (1904–1905) cost Russia dearly, and fear of a wider conflagration contributed to the very Anglo-Russian Entente which Wilhelm feared.
In addition to the tense international situation, Nicholas faced domestic difficulties. His grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, had been assassinated by a bomb set by revolutionaries, even though he had done much to improve the situation in his country. The revolutionaries were bent not on achieving power through the existing regime, but by toppling it altogether. As a child, Nicholas and with his family had survived an assassination attempt by a bomb on a train. Defeat by Japan emboldened the internal opponents of his regime, unleashing the Russian Revolution of 1905, during which organized strikes and local uprisings forced Nicholas to concede an indirectly-elected national assembly, or Duma, in the October Manifesto.
Nicholas as quasi-constitutional monarch
Nicholas' relations with the new Duma were not good. The First Duma, with a majority of Kadets, almost immediately came into conflict with him. Nicholas fired his relatively liberal prime minister, Sergei Witte, and dissolved the Duma. After the second Duma resulted in similar problems, new prime minister Pyotr Stolypin unilaterally dissolved it, and changed the electoral laws to allow for more conservative future Dumas, to be dominated by the liberal-conservative Octobrist Party of Alexander Guchkov . Stolypin, a skillful politician, had ambitious plans for reform. These included making loan available to the lower classes to enable them to buy land, with the intent of forming a farming class loyal to the crown. His plans were undercut by conservatives at court who had more influence with the Emperor. By the time of Stolypin's assassination by an anarchist (and police informant) in 1911, he and the Emperor were barely on speaking terms, and his fall was widely foreseen.
Tsarevich Alexei's illness
Further complicating domestic matters was the matter of succession. Alexandra bore him four daughters before their son Alexei was born on August 12, 1904. The young heir proved to be afflicted with hemophilia, which at that time was virtually untreatable and usually led to an untimely death. Because of the fragility of the autocracy at this time, Nicholas and Alexandra chose to not divulge Alexei's condition to anyone outside the royal household.
In desperation, Alexandra sought help from a mystic, Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin seemed to help when Alexei was suffering from internal bleeding, and Alexandra became increasingly dependent on him and his advice, which she accepted as coming directly from God.
Nicholas wanted to be loved by his people. Left to his own devices he might have accepted a system of constitutional monarchy and become a reforming Emperor. The influence of political reactionaries, principally his wife and his relatives, with Rasputin behind the scenes, made this impossible.
The Great War
Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serb nationalists in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, Nicholas vacillated as to Russia's course. He wanted neither to abandon his Serb allies to Austria-Hungary's demands, nor to provoke a general war. In a series of letters exchanged with the Kaiser (the so-called "Willy and Nicky correspondence") the two proclaimed their desire for peace, and each attempted to get the other to back down. Nicholas took concrete measures in this regard, demanding that Russia's mobilization be only against the Austrian border, in the hopes of preventing war with Germany. It proved too late for personal communications to determine the course of events. The Russians had no contingency plans for a partial mobilization, and on July 31, 1914, Nicholas took the fateful step of ordering a general mobilization. This led almost immediately to a German declaration of war, and the outbreak of the First World War.
The outbreak of war on August 1, 1914 found Russia grossly unprepared, and an early advance ended in staggering Russian losses. Nicholas felt it his duty to lead his army directly, assuming the role of commander-in-chief after dismissing his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas (September 1915) following the loss of the Russian-ruled part of Poland. His efforts to oversee the war left domestic issues essentially in the hands of Alexandra. Cut off from public opinion, Nicholas did not understand how suspicious the common people were of his wife, since she was German by birth and the victim of destructive rumours about her dependence on Rasputin. Anger at the damage that Rasputin's influence was doing to Russia's war effort and to the monarchy led to the monk's murder by a group of courtiers in December 1916.
Revolution and abdication
Nicholas II after his abdication in March 1917
Mounting national hardship and the army's initial failure to maintain the temporary military success of June 1916 led to renewed strikes and riots in the following winter. At the end of the "February Revolution" of 1917 (February in the old Russian calendar), on 2 March (Julian Calendar)/ 15 March (Gregorian Calendar), 1917 Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, in his own name and that of his son, in favor of his brother, saying, "We bequeath Our inheritance to Our brother the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich and give him Our Blessing on his accession to the throne."  Grand Duke Michael declined to accept the throne, and abdicated the following day, three centuries of Romanov rule came to an end.
The provisional Russian government at first kept Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children confined in the royal residence, The Alexander Palace. Attempting to remove them from the capital and from possible harm, the Kerensky government moved them to Tobolsk in Siberia in August 1917. They remained there through the Bolshevik October Revolution in November 1917, but were then moved to Red Army-controlled Yekaterinburg. The Tsar and his family, including the gravely ill Alexei and several family servants, were executed by firing squad in the basement of the Ipatiev House where they had been imprisoned, on the night of July 16 or July 17, 1918 by a detachment of Bolsheviks led by Yakov Yurovsky .
The execution took place as units of the Czech Legion, making their retreat out of Russia, approached Yekaterinburg. Fearing that the Legion would take the town and free him, the Tsar's Bolshevik jailers pursued the immediate liquidation of the imperial family.
The bodies of Nicholas and his family were long believed to have been disposed of down a mineshaft at a site called the Four Brothers. Initially, this was true—they had indeed been disposed of there on the night of July 16/17. The following morning—when rumors spread in Yekaterinburg regarding the disposal site—Yurovsky removed the bodies and concealed them elsewhere. When the vehicle carrying the bodies broke down on the way to the next chosen site, he made new arrangements, and buried most of the bodies in a sealed and concealed pit on Koptyaki Road, a since-abandoned cart track 12 miles north of Yekaterinburg.
Rumours of Royal Family survivors
The concealment of the executions and the bodies led to rumours that the Emperor or some members of his family were still alive. Several people claimed to have seen the Emperor in labour camps in Siberia in the 1930s. These claims were never taken seriously, but a number of people in the 1920s and '30s claimed more credibly to be Romanov children. The best known was Anna Anderson, who maintained that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and succeeded in so persuading some members of the exiled Romanov family. It is likely that she believed her claim herself, but posthumous DNA analysis has shown it to be false.
In the early 1990s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the bodies of the Romanovs were located, exhumed, and formally identified. A secret report by Yurovsky, which came to light in the late 1970s, but did not become public knowledge until the 1990s, had helped the authorities to locate the bodies. DNA analysis was a key means of identifying them. A blood sample from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, a descendant of Queen Victoria and thus a cousin of Alexandra, was used to identify Alexandra and her daughters through their mitochondrial genes. Another method for identification was the new forensic technique of the superimposition of photos over the skulls.
Two bodies were still missing, those of Alexei and one of the daughters—Tatiana, Maria or Anastasia. According to Yurovsky's account, the bodies of Alexei and one of the daughters, mistaken by Yurovsky's detachment for Alexandra, were burned near the burial site and their ashes scattered and concealed. Some elements in Russia, particularly in the Orthodox Church, maintained that the bodies were not those of the Royal Family, but following a long series of bureaucratic and political delays, the remains of the family were reinterred in the Romanov family crypt in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998, with much ceremony, on the 80th anniversary of the execution.
Nicholas' life was dramatized in the film Nicholas and Alexandra.
On August 14, 2000 Nicholas and his immediate family were canonized as saints by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. They were not named martyrs, since their death did not result immediately from their Christian faith; instead they were canonized as passion bearers . They had already been venerated by some members of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia for several years previous to this. According to a statement by the Moscow synod, they were glorified as saints for the following reasons:
"In the last Orthodox Russian monarch and members of his family we see people who sincerely strove to incarnate in their lives the commands of the Gospel. In the suffering borne by the Royal Family in prison with humility, patience, and meekness, and in their martyrs deaths in Ekaterinburg in the night of 4/17 July 1918 was revealed the light of the faith of Christ that conquers evil."
- Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra (1967)
- John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov, The Flight of the Romanovs (1999)
- Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, Nicholas and Alexandra, Their Own Story (1996)
- Greg King and Penny Wilson, Fate of the Romanovs (2003)
1. (6 May 1868 to 4 July 1918 in the Julian Calendar.)
2. Nicholas's full title was Nicholas the Second, Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia, Tsar of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Kazan, Astrakhan, Poland3, Siberia, the Crimea, Georgia, Lord of Pskov, Grand Duke of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volkynia, Podolia, and Finland, Prince of Estonia, Livonia, Courland and Semgalle, Samogitia, Bialystock, Karelia, Tver, Yugoria, Perm, Vyatka, Bulgaria and other countries, Lord and Grand Duke of Lower Novgorod, Tchernigov, Riazan, Polotsk, Rostov, Yaroslav, Belosero, Oudoria, Obdoria, Condia, Vitebsk and all the Region of the North, Lord and Sovereign of the Country of Iverie, Kartalinie, Kabardine, and of the Provinces of Armenia, Sovereign of the Circassian and Moutan Princes, Lord of Turkestan, Duke of Schleswig, Holstein, Stormarn, Ditmarschen and Oldenburg, Heir of Norway.
3. In 1831 the Russian tsars were deposed from the Polish throne but continued to use the title unlawfully. See: November Uprising for more details.
Heir apparent: March 14, 1881–November 1, 1894