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Czar Nicholas II
1868 - 1918

Nicholas II, 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 travelled 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 honoured 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 Trans-Siberian 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 re-establish 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.


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 re-established 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 situation - he 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 rumours 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 favour 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 centre 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.


Russian; last Tsar, reigning 20 Oct. 1894 – 2 Mar. 1917 Nicholas succeeded to the throne at the age of 26, following the death of his father Alexander III, who restored stability to the dynasty after the assassination of his reforming father by firmly suppressing dissent. Nicholas was inexperienced, immature, and without interest in military or political affairs. Influenced by his tutor and his father's mentor the arch-conservative Pobedonostsev he had an unshakeable commitment to the principles of autocracy and a dislike of reform. Soon after his accession he married the German Princess and grand-daughter of Queen Victoria Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, who shared his conservative views. He had a very close and loving relationship with his wife and family and was never at ease outside the family circle. The health of his haemophiliac only son Alexei became a major preoccupation from 1904 and this, together with his wife's religious zeal, brought them increasingly under the influence of the unsavoury but charismatic monk Rasputin, which alienated the nobility, already resentful of Alexandra's German origins and dominant influence during the Great War. Nicholas was both indecisive and stubborn, temperamentally unsuited to being more than a constitutional monarch but never accepting that role.

For the first few years of his reign Nicholas maintained the ministers and policies of his father. Witte, Minister of Finance and one of the ablest tsarist ministers of the nineteenth century, who had masterminded Russia's industrialization and railway development in the 1890s, was sacked in 1903 after personality clashes with the Tsar and criticism from the Tsar's conservative advisers. At the turn of the century Russia became involved in an adventuristic Far Eastern policy, actively promoted by the Tsar and Tsarina. This provoked a war with Japan in which Russia was comprehensively defeated in 1905. This defeat intensified a domestic political crisis, arising out of long-developing worker and peasant unrest dramatized by the bloody suppression of a workers' demonstration in St Petersburg in January 1905 ("Bloody Sunday"). With unrest amongst the non-Russian nationalities and mutinies in the navy, by the autumn the situation became so tense that Nicholas was forced to call on Witte to draft a manifesto of constitutional reforms (known as the October Manifesto), promising a legislative assembly (the Duma) with limited powers and basic civil rights.

Witte became Prime Minister and a Duma was elected in 1906 dominated by the middle-class Kadet party, but even this proved too radical in its demands for the Tsar, who dissolved it in July and restricted the franchise to the property-owning classes. It became clear that Nicholas was not prepared to limit his autocratic prerogatives and tried to deal with the pressures for change by increasing police powers; there was brutal suppression of dissent and the civil rights granted in 1905 gradually restricted. Witte resigned and was replaced in July by Stolypin, who combined ruthlessness in dealing with unrest with a thoughtful programme of agrarian reform which tried to remove the legacy of debt and land hunger and create a class of peasant farmers loyal to the regime. Stolypin had fallen out with the Tsar even before he was assassinated in 1911, and after this Nicholas's ministers were of limited ability. Even before the start of the First World War unrest was breaking out again, but the onset of war, and the rapidity and magnitude of Russian defeats, greatly weakened the political and economic structure of the country. In 1915 Nicholas unwisely chose to take personal charge of field operations, leaving his German wife with her dubious entourage in charge of affairs in the capital. By 1917 the regime was in a parlous state with revolutionary unrest spreading among the troops and workers, peasants seizing the large estates and (a decisive new factor compared with the events of 1905) signs of disunity and disaffection amongst the ruling Úlite and police, first shown in the murder of Rasputin by conservative nobles in 1916

In February 1917 disturbances increased and riot troops fraternized; an International Women's Day demonstration turned into a general strike. The Tsar dissolved the Duma, which had demanded a new government, but a group of deputies from the Duma's "Progressive Bloc" who had formed themselves into a Provisional Committee demanded the abdication of the Tsar, who was still at the front. Eventually on 2 (15) March Nicholas agreed to abdicate in favour of his brother, but under pressure from the Committee the Grand Duke refused the throne. The royal family were put under arrest at their palace at Tsarskoe Selo; in August they were moved for safety to Tobolsk. After the Bolshevik Revolution in October their position became threatened, especially after the start of the civil war. As the war moved closer to Tobolsk they were moved to Ekaterinburg where they were murdered by local Bolsheviks acting on Lenin's instructions. Nicholas had been exactly the wrong man to deal with the accumulated problems of the Romanov dynasty.


1868–1918, last czar of Russia (1894–1917), son of Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna.

Road to Revolution

Nicholas was educated by private tutors and the reactionary Pobyedonostzev. Alexander III gave his son little training in affairs of state, and Nicholas proved to be a charming but ineffective and easily influenced ruler. In 1894 he married Princess Alix of Hesse (Alexandra Feodorovna).

Soon after his accession Nicholas stated that he intended to maintain the autocratic system. He continued the suppression of opposition, the persecution of religious minorities, and the Russification of the borderlands. Revolutionary movements were growing rapidly. The Social Democratic Labor party (later split into Bolshevism and Menshevism) was founded in 1898; the Socialist Revolutionary party was formed in 1901; the liberals pressed for constitutional government. In foreign affairs, Nicholas initiated the first of the Hague Conferences and supported an aggressive policy in E Asia.

The humiliating outcome of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) resulted in the peasant revolts, industrial strikes, and violent outbreaks known as the Revolution of 1905. In Jan., 1905, a crowd of workers who had come peaceably to petition the czar were fired upon in front of the Winter Palace; the government's action on that “Bloody Sunday” proved fateful. After the general strike of Oct., 1905, Count Witte, who soon became premier, induced Nicholas to sign a manifesto promising representative government and basic civil liberties. An elected duma and an upper chamber were set up, but neither the extreme revolutionaries nor the czar were disposed to support the parliament.

Nicholas soon curtailed the Duma and dismissed Witte in 1906, replacing him with I. A. Goremykin and then with P. A. Stolypin. The outbreak in 1914 of World War I briefly swept aside internal conflicts. In 1915, Nicholas took over the command of the army from Grand Duke Nicholas, leaving the czarina in virtual control at home. This act led to a constant stream of resignations from the ministers; their posts were filled by the sycophants of Alexandra, who was completely dominated by Rasputin until his murder in 1916.

Abdication and Death

Discontent at home grew, the army tired of war, the food situation deteriorated, the government tottered, and in Mar., 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate (see Russian Revolution). He was held first in the Czarskoye Selo palace, then near Tobolsk. The advance, in July, 1918, of counterrevolutionary forces caused the soviet of Yekaterinburg to fear that Nicholas might be liberated; after a secret meeting a death sentence was passed on the czar and his family, who were shot along with their remaining servants in a cellar at Yekaterinburg on the night of July 16. Their bodies were buried or burned in a nearby forest.

Discovered in 1979, the remains of the czar and the others who had been buried were unearthed in 1991 and reburied in St. Petersburg in 1998. In 2000 the Russian Orthodox Church canonized the czar and the members of his immediate family. Nicholas's vague mysticism, limited intelligence, and submission to sinister influences made him particularly unfit to cope with the events that led to his tragic end.










This web page was last updated on: 31 December, 2008