Nicholas II (The Last Tsar)



Nicholas II of Russia, or Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov (19 May 1868 – 17 July 1918) was the last Tsar of Russia, King of Poland, and Grand Duke of Finland. He ruled from 1894 until his forced abdication in 1917. Nicholas proved unable to manage a country in political turmoil and command his army in World War I. His rule ended with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Nicholas and his family were imprisoned first in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. The family was later moved to the Governor's Mansion in Tobolsk and finally to the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. On the night of 16/17 July 1918, Nicholas and his family were shot by Bolsheviks. Nicholas's full name was Nikolay Aleksandrovich Romanov. His official title was Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russia. He is sometimes referred to as Nicholas the Martyr due to his execution and as Bloody Nicholas because of the tragic events during his coronation, Bloody Sunday. As a result of his canonization, he has been regarded as Saint Nicholas The Passion Bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Nicholas was born in Tsarskoye Selo, the eldest son of Emperor Alexander III and Maria Fyodorovna of Denmark. A sensitive child, Nicholas felt intimidated by the strength of his father, Alexander III, though Nicholas adored him and would often speak of him nostalgically in letters and diaries after Alexander's death. Nicholas and his mother, Maria Fyodorovna, were very close, as can be seen in their letters to one another. Nicholas had three brothers: Alexander (1869-1870), George (1871-1899) and Michael (1878-1918) and two sisters: Xenia (1875-1960) and Olga (1882-1960).

Nicholas became Tsesarevich unexpectedly on 1 March 1881 on the assassination of his grandfather, Alexander II and accession of his father, Alexander III.

Nicholas was educated by tutors. There were language tutors, geography tutors and a whiskered dancing tutor who wore white gloves and insisted that a huge pot of fresh flowers always be placed on his accompanist's piano. Of all the tutors the most important was Constantine Petrovich Pobedonostsev, a brilliant philosopher. Pobesdonostsev has been called 'The High Priest of Social Stagnation' and 'the dominant and most baleful influence of the last reign'. Pobesdonostsev had been tutor to the children of Alexander II. Alexander III was his faithful student. When Alexander III mounted the throne, Pobesdonostsev already held the position of Procurator of the Holy Synod, or lay head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition he assumed the position of tutor of the future Nicholas II.

In many respects, the education of Nicholas was excellent. He had an unusual memory and had done well in history. He spoke French and German, and his English was so good that he could have fooled an Oxford professor into mistaking him for an Englishman. He rode beautifully, danced gracefully and was an excellent shot. He had been taught to keep a diary and, in the style of innumerable princes and gentlemen of that era, he faithfully recorded, day after day, the state of the weather, the number of birds he shot and the names of those with whom he walked and dined.


In May 1890, a few days before his twenty-second birthday, Nicholas wrote in his diary, "Today I finished definitely and forever my education." Most of the time, Nicholas was required to do absolutely nothing. The essential function of a tsarevich, once he had finished his schooling and reached manhood, was to wait as discreetly as possible until it came his turn to become tsar.

Known as "Nicky" to his close family and friends, Tsesarevitch Nicholas fell in love with Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, the fourth daughter of Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by the Rhine and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, second eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in 1884. He was sixteen; she was just twelve. They met again in 1890, when he was 21 and she 17; the ages when men and young women fall in love. His parents, however, did not approve of this match, hoping to cement Russia's new alliance with France. They had hoped that Nicholas would marry Princess Hélène, the daughter of Count Philippe of the House of Orléans.

As Tsesarevich, Nicholas did a considerable amount of traveling. During a notable trip to the Empire of Japan, a failed assassination attempt by a sword-wielding man left him with a scar on his forehead. The quick action of his cousin, Prince George of Greece, who parried the second blow with his cane, saved his life. The motivation for this attack was that the assailant was offended by a foreigner visiting a very holy temple which had never before admitted a non-believer. The incident had an unfortunate historical effect in that Nicholas detested Japan ever after and supported war with that country all the more readily in 1904-5, resulting in the disastrous naval Battle of Tsushima.

Nicholas became engaged to Alix of Hesse in April 1894. He at first had some trouble convincing her to become his fiancee, because an Empress of Russia was required to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, and Alix was Lutheran. Eventually however, Alix's ardor for Nicholas won over, and they became engaged on April 8th 1894. Alix converted to Orthodoxy in November 1894, and took the name Alexandra Fedorovna.

Eighteen ninety-four saw a rapid decline in the health of Alexander III. Expecting he would live for 20 or 30 more years, Alexander had idled in giving his son political training and as a result Nicholas received little grooming for his imperial role. Nicholas was a polite and charming child but lacking in any interest or curiosity in his tutors' lessons. Even when the Tsar did decide to initiate Nicholas into State business, Nicholas lost interest after only about twenty minutes in State Council sessions and left to see friends at cafes. Alexander died at the age of 49 in 1894 of kidney disease after an unexpectedly rapid deterioration of health. Nicholas felt so unprepared for the duties of the crown that he tearfully asked his cousin, "What is going to happen to me and all of Russia?" He nevertheless decided to maintain the conservative policies favored by his father. While Alexander had concentrated on the formulation of general policy, Nicholas devoted much more attention to the details of administration.

Russo-Japanese war and 1905 revolution

A clash between Russia and Japan was almost inevitable by the turn of the 20th century. Russia had expanded in the East, and the growth of her settlement and territorial ambitions, as her southward path to the Balkans was frustrated, conflicted with Japan's own territorial ambitions on the Chinese and Asian mainland. War began in 1904 with a surprise attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, which incapacitated the Russian navy in the East. The Russian Baltic fleet tried to traverse the world to balance power in the East, but after many misadventures en route, was annihilated by the Japanese in the Battle of the Tsushima Strait. On land the Russians army was crippled by mismanagement and by the problem of conducting a war, with only the Trans-Siberian Railway as a carrier of supplies from the West. The war ended in total defeat for Russia with the fall of Port Arthur in 1905, and the settlement of both countries' quarrels by the Treaty of Portsmouth.

As a result, Russia's self-esteem received a severe blow and the Imperial government collapsed, with the ensuing revolutionary outbreaks of 1905-1906. Many demonstrators were shot in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg; the Emperor's Uncle, Grand Duke Sergei, was blown up by a revolutionary's bomb in Moscow as he left the Kremlin.

Bloody Sunday

On Epiphany Day, Thursday, 19 January 1905, the traditional Blessing of the Waters was held on the Neva River just in front of the Winter Palace. As usual, a dais had been built on the ice for the Tsar, his retinue, and the clergy. Members of the imperial family watched the ceremony from the windows of the palace. A cannon employed in the ceremonial salute fired a live charge which landed near the Tsar and wounded a policeman. Another charge hit the Admiralty, A third smashed a window in the palace - a bare few yards away fromt the Dowager Empress and the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna - and glass splinters went all over their shoes and skirts. Through the broken window they could hear shouts from below.

On Saturday, 21 January 1905, a priest named George Gapon informed the government that a march would take place the following day and asked that the Tsar be present to receive a petition. The ministers met hurriedly to consider the problem. There was never any thought that the Tsar, who was at Tsarskoe Selo and had been told of neither the march nor the petition, would actually be asked to meet Gapon. The suggestion that some other member of the Imperial family receive the petition was rejected. Finally informed by the Prefect of Police that he lacked the men to pluck Gapon from among his followers and place him under arrest, the newly appointed Minster of the Interior, Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky, and his colleagues could think of nothing to do except bring additional troops into the city and hope that matters would not get out of hand.

On Sunday, 22nd January 1905, Father Gapon began his march. Locking arms, the workers marched peacefully through the streets in rivers of cheerful, expectant humanity. Some carried crosses and banners, others carried national flags and portraits of the Tsar. As they walked they sang religious hymns and the Imperial anthem, 'God Save The Tsar'. At 2PM all of the converging processions were scheduled to arrive at the Winter Palace. There was no single confrontation with the troops. Throughout the city, at bridges on strategic boulevards, the marchers found their way blocked by lines of infantry, backed by Cossacks and Hussars. Uncertain what this meant, still not expecting violence, anxious not to be late to see the Tsar, the processions moved forward. In the moment of horror, the soldiers opened fire. Bullets smacked into the bodies of men, women and children. Crimson blotches stained the snow. The official number of victims was ninety-two dead and several hundred wounded; the actual number was probably several times higher. Gapon vanished and the other leaders of the march were seized. Expelled from the capital, they circulated through the empire, exaggerating the casualties into thousands. That day, which became known as 'Bloody Sunday', was a turning point in Russian history. It shattered the ancient, legendary belief that the Tsar and the people were one. As bullets riddled their icons, their banners and their portraits of Nicholas, the people shrieked, "The Tsar will not help us!" Outside Russia, the future British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald attacked the Tsar calling him a "blood-stained creature and a common murderer".

From his hiding place, Father Gapon issued a letter. He stated, "Nicholas Romanov, formerly Tsar and at present soul-murderer of the Russian empire. The innocent blood of workers, their wives and children lies forever between you and the Russian people ... May all the blood which must be spilled fall upon you, you Hangman. I call upon all the socialist parties of Russia to come to an immediate agreement among themselves and bring an armed uprising against Tsarism." Gapon's body was found hanging in an abandoned cottage in Finland in April 1906.

In the October Manifesto, the tsar pledged to introduce basic civil liberties, provide for broad participation in the State Duma, and endow the Duma with legislative and oversight powers. However, determined to preserve "autocracy" even in the context of reform, he restricted the Duma's authority in many ways—not least of which was an absence of parliamentary control over the appointment or dismissal of cabinet ministers. Nicholas's relations with the Duma were not good. The First Duma, with a majority of Kadets, almost immediately came into conflict with him. Scarcely had the 524 members sat down at the Tauride Palace when they formulated an 'Address to the Throne'. It demanded universal suffrage, radical land reform, the release of all political prisoners and the dismissal of ministers appointed by the Tsar in favor of ministers acceptable to the Duma. Although Nicholas initially had a good relationship with his relatively liberal prime minister, Sergei Witte, Alexandra distrusted him (because he instigated an investigation of Rasputin), and as the political situation deteriorated, Nicholas dissolved the Duma. The Duma was populated with radicals, many of whom wished to push through legislation that would abolish private property ownership, among other things.

After the Second Duma resulted in similar problems, the new prime minister Pyotr Stolypin (whom Witte described as 'reactionary') unilaterally dissolved it, and changed the electoral laws to allow for future Dumas to have a more conservative content, and to be dominated by the liberal-conservative Octobrist Party of Alexander Guchkov. Stolypin, a skillful politician, had ambitious plans for reform. These included making loans available to the lower classes to enable them to buy land, with the intent of forming a farming class loyal to the crown.

The first World War was a complete and utter disaster for Russia. By the autumn of 1916, among the Romanov family desperation reached the point of which Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich, younger brother of Alexander III and the Tsar's only surviving uncle was deputed to beg Nicholas to grant a constitution and a government responsible to the Duma. Nicholas sternly refused, reproaching his uncle for asking him to break his coronation oath to maintain autocratic power intact for his successors. In the Duma on 2 December 1916, Purishkevich, a fervent patriot, monarchist and war worker denounced the dark forces which surrounded the throne in a thunderous two hour speech which was tumultuously applauded. 'Revolution' he warned 'and an obscure peasant shall govern Russia no longer'.

End of reign

There was mounting hardship as the government failed to produce supplies, creating massive riots and rebellions. With Nicholas away at the front in 1915, authority appeared to collapse (Empress Alexandra ran the government from Saint Petersburg from 1915 - initially with Rasputin, who was later assassinated), and St. Petersburg was left in the hands of strikers. Despite efforts by the British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan to warn the Tsar that he should grant constitutional reforms to fend-off revolution, Nicholas continued to bury himself away at the town of Moghilev (about 400 miles) away from the Russian capital, leaving it open to intrigues and insurrection.

By the spring of 1917, Russia was on the verge of total collapse. The army had taken 15 million men from the farms and food prices had soared. The severe winter dealt with railways, overburdened by emergency shipments of coal and supplies, the final blow. Russia began the war with 20,000 locomotives; by 1917 9,000 were in service, while the number of serviceable railway wagons had dwindled from half a million to 170,000.

In February 1917 in Petrograd (as the capital had been renamed) a combination of very severe cold weather allied with acute food shortages caused people to start to break shop windows to get bread and other necessaries. Police started to shoot at the populace from rooftops which incited riots. The troops in the capital were poorly-motivated and their officers had no reason to be loyal to the regime. They were angry and full of revolutionary fervor and sided with the populace. The Tsar's Cabinet begged Nicholas to return to the capital and offered to resign completely. Five hundred miles away the Tsar, misinformed by Protopopov that the situation was under control, ordered that firm steps be taken against the demonstrators. For this task the Petrograd garrison was quite unsuitable. Nicholas informed of the situation by Rodzianko ordered reinforcements to the capital and suspended the Duma. It was all too late.

On 12 March the Volinsky regiment mutinied and was quickly followed by the Semonovsky, the Ismailovsky, the Litovsky and even the legendary Preobrajensky Guard, the oldest and staunchest regiment founded by Peter the Great. The arsenal was pillaged, the Ministry of the Interior, Military Government building, police headquarters, the Law Courts and a score of police buildings were put to the torch. By noon the fortress of Peter and Paul with its heavy artillery was in the hands of the insurgents. By nightfall 60,000 soldiers had joined the revolution. Order broke down and members of the Parliament (Duma) formed a Provisional Government to try to restore order but it was impossible to turn the tide of revolutionary change. 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. He firstly abdicated in favor of Tsarevich Alexis, but swiftly changed his mind after advice from doctors that the heir would not live long apart from his parents who would be forced into exile. Nicholas drew up a new manifesto naming his brother, Grand Duke Michael, as the next Emperor of all the Russia. He issued the following statement (which was suppressed by the Provisional Government):

“ In the days of the great struggle against the foreign enemies, who for nearly three years have tried to enslave our fatherland, the Lord God has been pleased to send down on Russia a new heavy trial. Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war. The destiny of Russia, the honor of our heroic army, the welfare of the people and the whole future of our dear fatherland demand that the war should be brought to a victorious conclusion whatever the cost. The cruel enemy is making his last efforts, and already the hour approaches when our glorious army together with our gallant allies will crush him. In these decisive days in the life of Russia, We thought it Our duty of conscience to facilitate for Our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma We have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power. As We do not wish to part from Our beloved son, We transmit the succession to Our brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, and give Him Our blessing to mount the Throne of the Russian Empire. We direct Our brother to conduct the affairs of state in full and inviolable union with the representatives of the people in the legislative bodies on those principles which will be established by them, and on which He will take an inviolable oath.

In the name of Our dearly beloved homeland, We call on Our faithful sons of the fatherland to fulfill their sacred duty to the fatherland, to obey the tsar in the heavy moment of national trials, and to help Him, together with the representatives of the people, to guide the Russian Empire on the road to victory, welfare, and glory. May the Lord God help Russia! ”

Grand Duke Mikhail declined to accept the throne until the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic. Contrary to popular belief, Mikhail never abdicated, he deferred taking up power. The abdication of Nicholas II and the subsequent bolshevik revolution brought three centuries of the Romanov dynasty's rule to an end. It also paved the way for massive destruction of Russian culture with the closure and demolition of many churches and monasteries, the theft of valuables and estates from the former aristocracy and the suppression of religious and folk art forms.

In Russia the announcement of the Tsar's abdication was greeted with many emotions. These included delight, relief, fear, anger and confusion.

On 22 March 1917, Nicholas, Tsar no longer, referred to contemptuously by the sentries as 'Nicholas Romanov', was reunited with his family at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. He was placed under house arrest with his family by the Provisional Government. Surrounded by his guards, confined to their quarters, the Imperial family was rudely inspected on Nicholas's first night back at home. The ex-Tsar remained calm and dignified and even insisted on the children resuming their lesson with himself as tutor in history and geography.

In August 1917 the Kerensky government evacuated the Romanovs to Tobolsk in the Urals, allegedly to protect them from the rising tide of revolution. There they lived in the former Governor's Mansion in considerable comfort.

After the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, the conditions of their imprisonment grew stricter and talk of putting Nicholas on trial grew more frequent. He continued to underestimate Lenin's importance but already began to feel that his abdication had done Russia more harm than good. In the meantime he and his family occupied themselves with keeping warm. The temperature in December dropped to 68oF below zero. Soviet domination now meant more spiteful restrictions. On 1 March 1918, the family was placed on soldier's rations, which meant parting with ten devoted servants and giving up butter and coffee as luxuries. As the counterrevolutionary White movement gathered strength, leading to full-scale civil war by the summer, Nicholas, Alexandra and their daughter Maria were moved in April to Yekaterinburg. Alexis was too ill to accompany his parents and remained with his sisters Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia, not leaving Tobolsk until May 1918. The family was imprisoned with a few remaining retainers in the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, a militant Bolshevik stronghold. Nicholas, Alexandra, their children, their physician, and three servants were woken and taken into a basement room and shot at 2:33 A.M. on July 17. An official announcement appeared in the national press two days after the killing of the tsar and his family. It informed that the monarch had been executed on the order of the Presidium of the Ural Regional Soviet under pressure posed by the approach of the Czechoslovaks.


The bodies of Nicholas and his family, after being soaked in acid and burned, 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 17. The following morning — when rumours 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, Yurovsky made new arrangements, and buried most of the bodies in a sealed and concealed pit on Koptyaki Road, a cart track (now abandoned) 12 miles (19 km) north of Yekaterinburg. The remains of all the family and their retainers with the exception of two of the children were later found in 1991 and reburied by the Russian government following a state funeral. The process to identify the remains was exhaustive. Samples were sent to Britain and the United States for DNA testing. The tests concluded that five of the skeletons were members of one family and four were unrelated. Three of the five were determined to be the children of two parents. The mother was linked to the British royal family, as was Alexandra. (Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, grandson of Alexandra's oldest sister Victoria, Marchioness of Milford-Haven, gave a DNA sample which matched with that of the remains) The father was determined to be related to Grand Duke George Alexandrovich, younger brother of Nicholas II. British scientists said they were more than 98.5% sure that the remains were those of the Emperor, his family and their attendants. Relics from the Ōtsu Scandal (a failed assassination attempt on Tsarevich Nicholas (future Nicholas II) in Japan) failed to provide sufficient evidence due to contamination.

A ceremony of Christian burial was held 80 years to the day of their death in 1998. The bodies were laid to rest with state honors in the St. Catherine Chapel in the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg, where all other Russian Emperors since Peter the Great lie. President and Mrs. Yeltsin attended the funeral along with Romanov relations including Prince Michael of Kent. The last Imperial Family of Russia have been made saints not only by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad but also by Patriarch Alexis II of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.

On August 23, 2007, prosecutors acting on standard procedures have reopened the investigation surrounding the deaths of the Imperial Family. Yekaterinburg researcher Sergei Pogorelov said that "bones found in a burned area of ground near Yekaterinburg belong to a boy and a young woman roughly the ages of Nicholas’ 13-year-old hemophiliac son, Alexei, and a daughter whose remains also never have been found." A regional forensic scientist, Nikolai Nevolin explained that testing will be conducted on the newly discovered remains. On 28 September it was announced by the regional authorities that it was "highly probable" the remains belonged to Alexei and one of his sisters.

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