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the last Czar of Russia
Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov was born at Tsarskoye Selo (near St. Petersburg) on May 18, 1868, the eldest son of future Czar Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna (formerly Princess Dagmar of Denmark). The family eventually grew to include three more sons and two daughters -- Alexander (1869-1870), George (1871-1899), Xenia (1875-1960), Michael (1878-1918) and Olga (1882-1960).
On March 1, 1881, Czar Alexander II was badly injured by an assassin's bomb. Twelve-year-old Nicholas was present when his grandfather was brought back to the palace, and when he died. Upon his father's ascension to the throne, Nicholas became the tsesarevich (heir-apparent to the throne). Educated by several tutors, Nicholas studied languages, history, and the sciences, as well as horsemanship, shooting, and even dancing. At the age of nineteen, he joined an exclusive regiment of the Russian Army and also served in the horse artillery, but never participated in serious military activities. Although he was the crown prince of Russia, while in the military he attended few political meetings except for those held by the state council and the committee of ministers.
Nicholas inherited the throne when his father died of kidney disease on October 20, 1894.
On November 26, 1894, despite being in mourning, Nicholas married Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt (a duchy in Germany), whom he had first met at a family wedding in 1884. Although she had been a devout Lutheran her entire life, Alix agreed to convert to Russian Orthodoxy in order to marry the man she loved, and she took the name Alexandra Feodorovna at that time. The couple had their first child, a daughter named Olga, in November 1895. She would be followed by three more daughters: Tatiana (1897), Marie (1899), and Anastasia (1901). The long-anticipated male heir, Alexei, was born in 1904.
Czar Nicholas II was formally crowned in Uspensky Cathedral, located within the Kremlin, on May 26, 1896. During a public celebration of the coronation near Moscow the next day, more than 1,400 people were stampeded to death. Unaware of the event, the Czar and his wife continued to celebrate with coronation balls and parties. The Russian people were appalled at Nicholas' handling of the incident, which made it appear that he cared little about his people.
The first years of Nicholas' reign saw little more than continuation of his father's programs. The 1897 restoration of the gold standard completed the series of financial reforms initiated fifteen years earlier, and the Trans-Siberian Railway begun during his father's reign reached the east coast of Russia. In foreign relations, Nicholas strengthened the Franco-Russian Alliance and generally pursued a policy of maintaining the status quo in Europe.
The Czar's "status quo policy" ended after Russia began expanding into the Far East, placing it in direct conflict with the territorial ambitions of Japan. The Japanese were particularly concerned with Russia's occupation of Port Arthur, a strategic warm-water port in southeastern Manchuria, and completion of a branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway to the port. On February 8, 1904, after Nicholas had twice refused to see Japanese diplomats sent to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict, Japan launched a surprise attack on Port Arthur, sinking two warships and blockading the harbor. Well-prepared Japanese troops also swarmed the Russian infantry at various points on land.
Shortly before the Japanese attack on Port Arthur, Nicholas held strong to the belief that there would be no war. Once the "unexpected war" broke out, however, Nicholas saw it as an opportunity to raise Russian morale and patriotism. But his optimism was ill-founded, as Russia suffered one humiliating defeat after another, both on land and sea. By September 1905 he was forced to sue for peace. An estimated 80,000 Russian soldiers lost their lives in a war that had revealed the czar's utter ineptitude at diplomacy and military affairs.
While the Russian military engaged the Japanese, Russian workers protested long hours, poor wages, and inadequate housing. Many families went hungry on a regular basis and housing shortages were so severe that some laborers slept in shifts, sharing a bed with several others. On January 22, 1905, tens of thousands of workers came together for a peaceful march to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Organized by radical priest Georgy Gapon, protesters brought with them a petition to present to the Czar, stating their list of grievances and seeking his help. Although the Czar was not at the palace to receive the petition (he had been advised to stay away), thousands of soldiers awaited the crowd. Having been informed incorrectly that the protesters were there to harm the Czar and destroy the palace, the soldiers fired into the mob, killing and wounding hundreds. Although Nicholas had not ordered the shootings, he was held responsible.
The massacre became the catalyst for further strikes and uprisings against the government, called the 1905 Russian Revolution. In response to such wide-scale protest, and under the advice of close advisers, on October 30, 1905 the Czar published the "October Manifesto," which granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association, and the end of imprisonment without trial. In addition, no new law would become effective without the approval of the Duma, an elected consultative body. At its first meeting in May 1906 the Duma made demands for the release of political prisoners, for trade union rights and land reform. After rejecting those demands Nicholas dissolved the Duma. Although future sessions of the Duma did produce a few reforms, those reforms fell far short of solving Russia's many problems.
World War I and End of Rule
The outbreak of World War One in 1914 found Russia grossly unprepared. Although the Russian army had a regular strength of 1,400,000 soldiers and a reserve force numbering well over 3 million, Russian industry was too small to equip it and the nation's reserves of munitions and supplies were seriously lacking. This lack of prepardness resulted in numerous Russian losses during the first year of the war. In September 1915, Nicholas decided to take direct command of the Russian armies. From then on, every military failure was directly associated with him.
With Czar Nicholas away, Czarina Alexandra took a more active role in government. Russia was suffering heavy losses in the war, there was high inflation and severe food shortages at home, which compounded the grinding poverty most Russians already endured. Alexandra soon became the focus of discontent, as did her confidante, the mystic, Rasputin. As the war dragged on and Russian losses continued to mount, many Russians even began openly accusing the German-born Czarina of sabotaging the Russian war effort.
By late 1916 royalists within the Duma were warning Nicholas that revolution was imminent, but he continually refused to sanction further constitutional reform. During the so-called "February Revolution" in 1917, which he misinterpreted as a minor uprising, his routine suppression orders to the Petrograd garrison sparked its mutiny, on March 10. On March 15, Czar Nicholas II agreed to abdicate in favor of his brother Michael, who refused to take the crown. The Czar and his family were held in various locations, eventually being imprisoned at Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.
In October 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government. Following a harsh peace treaty with Germany in March 1918, Russia descended into civil war. On July 17, 1918, as anti-Bolsheviks approached Yekaterinburg, Nicholas and his family were executed.
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This page was last updated on June 22, 2017.