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Nicholas II of Russia
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Nicholas II of Russia

The Emperor Nicholas II

Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia (6 May 1868 to 4 July 1918 in the Julian Calendar, or 18 May 1868 to 17 July 1918 in the Gregorian Calendar), was the last Emperor of Russia. He ruled from November 1 1894 until his abdication on March 15 1917, and was killed, along with his family, in 1918.

Nicholas's full name was Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov (in Russian Николáй Алексáндрович Ромáнов). His official title was: Nicholas the Second, Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia, &c.1 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.

Table of contents
1 Family background and early life
2 Nicholas becomes Tsar
3 Nicholas as quasi-constitutional monarch
4 Tsarevich Alexei's illness
5 The Great War
6 Revolution
7 Execution
8 Sainthood
9 Further reading
10 External links
11 Footnotes

Family background and early life

The son of Emperor Alexander III and his Empress Marie Romanova (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 generally 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 that would one day be his.

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 Orléans to consummate Russia's newfound alliance with the French Republic. Only when Nicholas proclaimed that if he could not marry Alix, he would never marry, did his parents relent and allow the engagement to go forward.

As Tsarevich, Nicholas also did a fair amount of traveling, including a notable trip to the Far East, which left him fascinated with this area, with ultimately unfortunate consequences.

Nicholas becomes Tsar

Nicholas assumed the throne in 1894, on the death of his father. Immediately thereafter, Nicholas married Alix (thenceforth Empress Alexandra Feodorovna). They had five children: the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria (or Marie) and Anastasia, and the Tsarevich Alexei.

At the coronation day in Moscow in 1895 there were folk festivities in which several thousand people were trampled to death trying to get presents from the Emperor. Nicholas learned about the catastrophe later that day, but did not cancel his coronation ball in the night, which was seen by many to be a bad sign for his future. Nicholas had not been well prepared to rule. His father had died at a fairly young age, leaving Nicholas unprepared for his future tasks. His engagement to Princess Alix only slightly preceded his father's death, and his wedding came very shortly after the last ceremony of his father's funeral. He then faced the task of being autocrat of Russia in a time of major turmoil.

Nicholas relied heavily on the advice of his wife, who embraced Russia's traditions of autocratic rule and religious mysticism with enthusiam, and also on his wife's first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm. This advice was often more in the interests of "cousin Willy", who hoped in particular to prevent closer relations between Russia and Britain, than of Nicholas. An ill-conceived war with Japan (19041905) cost Russia dearly, but fear of a wider conflagration contributed to the very Anglo-Russian Entente which Wilhelm feared.

In addition to a tumultuous international situation, Nicholas also faced deep 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 the country. The purpose of the revolutionaries, however, was to achieve power not through the existing regime, but by toppling it altogether. When he was a child, Nicholas, along with his family, survived an assassination attempt by a bomb on a train. Defeat by Japan emboldened the regime's internal opponents, unleashing the Russian Revolution of 1905, during which organized strikes and explosive local uprisings forced Nicholas to concede an indirectly-elected national assembly, or Duma, in the October Manifesto.

Nicholas as quasi-constitutional monarch

Nicholas's relations with the new Duma were not good. The First Duma, with a majority of Kadets, almost immediately came into conflict with the emperor, who fired his relatively liberal prime minister, Sergei Witte, and dissolved the Duma. After the second Duma resulted in similar problems, Nicholas's new prime minister Peter Stolypin, unilaterally dissolved it and changed the electoral laws to allow for more conservative Dumas in the future, dominated by the liberal-conservative Octobrist Party of Alexander Guchkov. Stolypin, a skillful politician, had ambitious plans for reform, but was undercut by conservatives at court who had more influence with the Emperor. By the time of Stolypin's assassination by a Socialist Revolutionary (and police informant!) in 1911, he and the Emperor were barely on speaking terms, and his fall was widely foreseen.

In the years that followed, matters largely drifted on, with inertia and Russia's tremendous economic growth keeping Russia afloat.

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 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 an Orthodox monk and mystic, Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin seemed to be able 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 through him). Nicholas wanted mainly to be loved by his people, and left to his own devices he might well 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, prevented this.

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 neither wanted to abandon the Serbs to Austria-Hungary's not so tender mercies, nor to provoke a general war. In a series of letters exchanged with the Kaiser (the so-called "Willy-Nicky letters," named for the nicknames the two monarchs called each other in English), the two proclaimed their desire for peace, and attempted to get the other to stand down. Nicholas himself 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. But it was too late for personal communications among monarchs 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, which led almost immediately to a declaration of war from Germany, and the outbreak of the First World War.

The outbreak of war with Germany 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 (September 1915) following the loss of the Russian-ruled part of Poland. His efforts to oversee the operations of the war left domestic issues essentially in the hands of Alexandra. But Nicholas did not understand (since he was deliberately cut off from public opinion) how suspicious the common people were of his wife, both because she was German by birth and because of the destructive rumours that spread of her dependence on Rasputin. Rasputin's murder by a group of courtiers in December 1916 arose from anger at the damage that his influence was doing to Russia's war effort and the monarchy.


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. After the "February Revolution" of March 1917 (February in the old Russian calendar) Nicholas was forced to abdicate in his own name and that of his son, in favor of his brother, Michael II, who abdicated after a matter of hours, ending three centuries of Romanov rule.

Nicholas II after his abdication in March 1917


The provisional Russian government kept Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children confined in the royal residence The Alexander Palace, until they were moved to Tobolsk in Siberia in August 1917, a step by the Kerensky government designed to remove them from the capital and from possible help. They remained in Tobolsk until after the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 (the "October Revolution"), but were moved to Red-controlled Yekaterinburg. The last Russian Tsar and all his family, including the gravely ill Alexei, along with 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 17), 1918 by a detachment of Bolsheviks led by Yakov Yurovsky.

For a long time, the bodies of Nicholas and his family were 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 that way on the night of July 16/17. But Yurovsky, upon hearing the following morning that stories were abuzz in Yekaterinburg about the disposal site, went back to remove the bodies and conceal them elsewhere. He had initially intended to bury the bodies down another mineshaft some miles away, but when the vehicle carrying the bodies broke down on the way there, he made new arrangements. With two exceptions, the bodies were buried in a sealed and concealed pit on a portion of a since-abandoned cart track 12 miles north of Yekaterinburg called Koptyaki Road.

The concealment of the execution of the Royal Family and of their bodies led to rumours for many years 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 one or other of the Romanov children. The best known of these was Anna Anderson, who maintained throughout her life that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and succeeded in 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, 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 mitrochondrial genes. Another method for identification was the new forensic technique of the superimposition of photos over the skulls.

There were two bodies missing. These were 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 burnt 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 1998 with much ceremony on the 80th anniversary of the execution.

Nicholas's 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 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 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."

Further reading

External links


1Nicholas's full title was Nicholas the Second, Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia, Tsar of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Kazan, Astrakhan, Poland, 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.

Preceded by:
Alexander III
Emperor of Russia Succeeded by:
Michael II