Nicholas II – The Last Czar of Russia
Czar Nicholas II of Russia inherited the Russian throne at a time of tremendous social and political upheaval in the empire. The young ruler, whom many described as quite naïve, failed to arrest the problems that faced his vast empire. To make matters worse, he increasingly became reliant on the counsel of charlatan and self-proclaimed ‘holy man’ named Grigori Rasputin. The Russian environment desperately needed reforms that Nicholas and his top advisors vehemently opposed. And so he was ousted from power in 1917 only for him and his entire family to be killed (by the Bolsheviks) in July the following year, bringing an end to the three-century-old Romanov Dynasty.
To give our readers of a glimpse of just how Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia, was completely unprepared to rule, the article below explores his childhood, early life, marriage, reign, and death. It also includes his relationship with the self-proclaimed faith healer and priest Grigori Rasputin.
Czar Nicholas II of Russia
Born: Grand Duke Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov
Date of birth: May 18, 1868
Place of birth: Tsarskoye Selo, Russia
Died: July 17, 1918
Place of death: Ekaterinburg, Russia
Cause of death: Shot by a firing squad
Father: Czar Alexander III
Mother: Czarina Marie Feodorovna
Siblings: Alexander, George, Michael, Xenia, Olga
Spouse: Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (Princess Alix of Hesse)
Children: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, Alexei
Best known for: Last Czar of Russia
Title: Emperor of Russia, King of Poland, and Grand Duke of Finland
Birth and early life
Nicholas II was the first child of Russian monarch Alexander III and his wife Marie Feodorovna. His mother was a Danish princess. He had five siblings – three brothers: Alexander (1869–1870), George (1871–1899), and Michael (1878–1918); and two sisters – Xenia (1875–1960) and Olga (1882–1960).
Following his grandfather’s death in 1881, his father ascended to the Russian throne, making him Tsarevich, heir-apparent to the crown. His grandfather, Alexander II, was assassinated.
Unlike many children of monarchs in Europe, he grew up with very few luxuries. He was brought up in the palace with his siblings. Regardless of his parents’ austere lifestyle, Nicholas is said to have had a very lovely childhood.
He was homeschooled by very excellent tutors. He studied subjects like history, languages, philosophy, and among others. He was also tutored on how to ride a horse, shoot a rifle and dance.
He joined the Russian Army at the age of 19. He was placed in a special regiment and later moved to the horse artillery.
In his late teens he took a number of royal grand tours with his brother George. Going by a steamship and sometimes train, they visited places in India, China, the Middle East, and even Japan.
In Japan, an assassination attempt on his life was made. Luckily for him, he escaped with no significant injury. The attacker was a Japanese man who came at the Tsarevich with a sword. It’s unclear what the attacker hoped to achieve by killing the young Russian prince.
Marriage and Coronation
Nicholas is said to have first met his future wife – Princess Alix of Hesse – while attending his uncle’s wedding to Alix’s sister, Princess Elizabeth. At the time, Nicholas was 16 while Alix was 12. The two would meet several times in the years that followed.
In his mid-20s, he had no option than to break off his relationship with his then-girlfriend, a Russian ballerina dancer, in order to marry Alix. This was keeping in line with the tradition of marrying a woman from a noble family.
After proposing to Alix, Nicholas and Alix got engaged in 1894. Sadly for the newly engaged couple, especially Nicholas, then-Russian Czar Alexander III took ill that same year. He was diagnosed with nephritis – a condition that causes inflammation of the kidney. In spite of all the medical care that was given to Nicholas’ father, he still did not make it to full health; Czar Alexander III died on November 1, 1894, aged 49.
No one expected things to taken a sudden turn. Here was a 26-year-old Tsarevich who was far from prepared to inherit the reins of power in an empire as vast as the Russian Empire. With huge boots to fill, Nicholas accepted the enormous duty placed on him and was crowned Nicholas II, Czar of Russia in May 1896.
Nicholas II’s incompetency was pretty much obvious right of the bat. He came under a bit of criticism for the way he planned and organized his father’s funeral ceremony.
Nicholas and Alix tied the knot on November 26, 1894. As it was less than a month following the death of Nicholas’ father, the couple did not celebrate their marriage.
Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alix made the Alexander Place at Tsarskoye Selo their family home. In November 1895, the royal couple welcomed their first child – daughter Olga. Four more children followed, including the Czar’s first son and heir, Alexei, who was born in 1904.
During a ceremony in honor of Nicholas II’s ascension to the throne, a tragic incident took place in Moscow. It was estimated that more than 1,400 people lost their lives in a stampede at the venue Khodynka Field. Rather than postpone his coronation celebrations and mourn for those people, the incoming czar chose to keep the parties and balls ongoing. This move of his shocked many Russians. The new Czar was beginning his reign and his relationship with people on a wrong foot.
The Russo-Japanese War – Nicholas II’s war with Japan
Typical of many European monarchs at the time, Nicholas II had strong a desire to expand his empire even further. He began eyeing a number of lands on the Pacific Ocean. In his attempt to annex Port Arthur in southern Manchuria, his army came on a collision course with Japan. Tensions reached boiling point when Russia completed the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which went right through some part of Manchuria. The Japanese tried to resolve the situation amicably by sending a delegation of diplomats to the Czar; however, those diplomats were not given any listening ear. Having had enough of Moscow’s disinterest, the Japanese Royal Navy struck first, attacking a number of Russian warships around the contested area. The attack, which occurred in February 1904, resulted in the sinking of two of the Czar’s warships. Japan then erected a blockade at Port Arthur. And so the Russo-Japanese War broke out, pitting two very powerful empires against each other.
The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) showed yet again how incompetent Nicholas II was at being Russian czar. His infantry units suffered considerable losses at the start of war. In short, Japanese forces humiliated the Russians. Close to 100,000 Russian soldiers lost their lives in the war, and Czar Nicholas II became the first Russian ruler to be defeated by an Asian power. Russia lost its influence over Manchuria and the Korean peninsula.
At home, his people were completely furious as the war had placed immense strain on not just the social fabric but also the economy. The Russian working class had started getting very frustrated with the young Czar, whom they regarded as completely incompetent and out of touch with the Russians.
Onset of dissent among Russians
As the Russo-Japanese War drew to a close, dissent began to build up among many Russians, especially the working class. Falling standards of living coupled with Russia’s humiliation in the Pacific caused many people to take to the streets and protest. Strikes became the order of the day in St. Petersburg. The people demanded that Czar Nicholas II and his government officials stepped up and solved the problems that plagued Russia at the time, which included low wages and housing shortages, especially in the major cities.
The January 22, 1905 – Bloody Sunday
In a protest organized by a famous Russian priest Georgy Gapon, several hundreds of peaceful protesters were fired upon by soldiers. The protestors had gathered in front of the residence of the czar to present their letter of petition. For reasons unbeknownst to this day, the royal guards mistook the protesters for an armed mob. Nicholas, who was not even in the winter palace at the time, had nothing to do with the killings; however, that did not stop people from blaming him for the massacre, which came to be called Bloody Sunday. Although the official death toll was 92, it’s been said that far more people died on that day. This was a defining moment in Russia’s history.
Bloody Sunday triggered a wave of anti-Nicholas sentiments across Russia. Some sections of the society began to call for more strikes, with some going as far as demanding a revolution. Russia was in a turmoil, forcing the Czar to act. Nicholas decided that it was best to turn Russia into a constitutional monarchy. He therefore issued the October Manifesto, which allowed Russians to elect representatives that would make up the Duma. However, Nicholas was not the kind to relinquish a lot of power; he made sure the Duma matched to his orders as budgeting and foreign policy remained firmly under the czar. Nicholas could also veto laws passed by the Duma if he did not like them.
Regardless, the few concessions Nicholas made in the October Manifesto in some way kept anti-czar sentiments low for a time being.
How Czar Nicholas II ended up under the thumb of Rasputin
The Hemophilia gene, a blood-clothing disease with terrifying consequences, was passed from then-English monarch Queen Victoria many royal families in Europe, including the Russian royal family. Sufferers of the illness have no mechanism in their body to stop blood from clotting, causing them to bleed profusely from cuts. Queen Victoria transferred the gene to three of her children – Leopold the Duke of Albany; Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse; and Princess Beatrice. These royals in turn passed it on to their children across different royal families in Europe. According to scientists, the gene tends to hover predominantly in the maternal line. The men in the family tend to develop it while the women in the family carry it. This explains how Czar Nicholas II’s son and heir Alexei came to be diagnosed with Hemophilia. With physicians unable to cure the young Tsarevich, the czar and his wife Empress Alexandra turned to unorthodox physicians, many of who were snake oil charlatans.
It’s said that Grigori Rasputin, a self-proclaimed priest and healer, came into the lives of Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra around 1905. The trio would then develop very strong bond, with some even claiming that the Rasputin shared Alexandra’s bed. Rasputin’s unorthodox approach seemed to pay dividends as Alexei’s bleeding was kept under control. Filled with hope, the royal couple felt a huge debt of gratitude to Rasputin. As a result, the so-called faith healer became very influential in the czar’s court.
Following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian national, Europe was plunged into an all-out war. It began with Austria declaring war on the tiny nation of Serbia. Russia’s strong ties with Serbia meant that the Czar could not sit idly and watch Austria overran Serbia. Therefore, the Russian czar stepped in to protect Serbia. Russia, with the support of both France and the United Kingdom, locked horns with an Austria-Hungary alliance that was supported by the Germans, thus marking the beginning of World War I.
The fact that Empress Alexandra had German roots made the royal family even more unpopular among Russians. With Nicolas attending to war issues on the continent, the administration of the country basically fell to his wife. This raised a lot of concerns among Russians. Alexandra’s strong relationship with Rasputin caused Russians to suspect the Empress even more. Many claimed that Rasputin was the one running Russia at the time. Rather than take the people’s concerns seriously, Nicholas kept faith in his wife and her confidant, Rasputin.
In a plot that involved Nicholas’ own cousin, Rasputin was killed. He was captured, tied up and then thrown into a river. Prior to that several attempts were made on Rasputin’s life, including poisoning, which he somehow came out unscathed.
Even with Rasputin gone, the dissatisfaction among many Russians with Czar Nicholas and his wife had did not seem to abate. World War I was biting the Russian economy and the people’s suffering kept multiplying. To make matters worse, the casualties from the war kept stacking up. By March 1917, the country had reached a tipping point. Almost a quarter of million people took to the streets of St. Petersburg (formerly known as Petrograd) to express their unwavering discontent to the way Nicholas was handling the war as well as the economy.
In what was obviously a bad decision, the czar unleashed the army upon the protesters. Many of the soldiers were reluctant to follow the czar’s orders as soldiers had grown a bit of conscience. There were still some few soldiers who obeyed their commanders and shot into the crowd, killing thousands of people. Protests would continue, spreading from the capital city before metamorphosing into a full-blown revolution – i.e. the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The protesters, who had full control over St. Petersburg, forced Nicholas to abdicate his throne in favor of his younger brother, Grand Duke Mikhail. Sensing how far the protesters were willing to go, Mikhail was right in turning down Nicholas’ offer. By so doing the three-century-old Romanov dynasty ended.
The Revolutionaries, who by then had formed a provisional government, allowed Nicholas and his family to continue residing in the royal palace at Tsarskoye Selo. However, that did not last for long as the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, toppled the provisional government. Nicholas and his family had to flee Tsarkoye and head to western Siberia. Russia’s last royal family was placed under house arrest by the Bolsheviks, who began making preparations to put the ousted czar on trial.
There was a last-ditch effort by anti-Bolsheviks groups, i.e. the White Army, to rescue Nicholas and his family members. However, the Bolsheviks were able to thwart all those efforts.
How did Czar Nicholas II die?
The longer Nicholas and his family remained under house arrest the worse their living conditions became. In July, 1918, it was decided to completely get rid of Nicholas and his family as the Bolsheviks believed that Russian Revolution would not be complete until those two were dead. In the early hours of July 17, 1918, Nicholas and his family were asked to don their finest clothes. They former royals were then ushered into a small room and lined up to be executed by a firing squad. Nicholas and all members of his family, including his son and heir Alexei, were gunned to death. The Bolshevik soldiers divided the corpses at two separate sites. sulfuric acid was poured on the corpses to prevent the corpses from being identified in future.
More Czar Nicholas II facts
- His mother – Dagmar Da Dinmarca (Maria Feodorovna) – was the younger sister of Princess Alexandra who was the wife of Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII). Princess Alexandra thus went on to become queen of England.
- Nicholas II was a distant relative of George V of England and Wilhelm II, the last Kaiser of Germany.
- In the late 1890s, Nicholas proposed (at the Hague Convention of 1899) the formation of an international body that would enforce disarmament and have a mechanism to resolve international disputes. His proposal was quickly put down by his fellow European monarchs.
- At a state and church ceremony in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 17, 1998, the remains of the Nicholas and his family were re-interred.
- In the Russian Orthodox Church, Nicholas II is known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer. He was canonized in 2000.