Nicholas II was born in 1868, and succeeded his father, Alexander III, in 1894. He was crowned at Moscow in 1896, then twenty-eight years of age. When the news of the death of the Czar Alexander III reached Kaiser Wilhehn II, he announced the fact to the officers of the garrison at Stettin in the significant words : "Nicholas II has ascended the throne of his forefathers, truly one of the most burdensome inheritances upon which a prince can enter. Let us join in the prayer that God may grant him strength to discharge the weighty duties on which he is entering." The Kaiser knew something of the weight of Imperial burdens.
Like the last French ruler of the old regime, Nicholas was amiable in character, but also weak and easily swayed, whether by the German Emperor in foreign affairs or by his wife and his ministers at home. He took what he found, and he upheld it because he believed it was good.
The hope was general that a milder regime might now be introduced. This, however, was not to be. The expectation entertained in many quarters that great legislative changes would at once be made in a liberal sense was not realized. Nicholas II boldly announced himself as an absolutist determined to carry out the autocratic measures of his father. No change of importance was made in the Emperor's councilors. Pobyedonostseff, the very incarnation of narrow-minded, stiff-necked despotism, remained the power behind the throne. For ten years the young Tsar pursued the policy of his father with scarcely a variation save in the direction of greater severity. Everyone who was active in any measure of liberty or reform was arrested and sentenced to death or exile.
When an influential deputation from the province of Tver, which had long enjoyed a reputation for liberalism, ventured to hint in a loyal address that the time had come for changes in the existing autocratic régime, they received a reply which showed that tbe emperor had no intention of making any such changes. Private suggestions in the same sense, offered directly and respectfully, were no better received, and no important changes were made in the legislation of the preceding reign.
But an alteration took place noiselessly in the manner of carrying out the laws and ministerial circulars. Though resembling his father in the main points of his character, the young tsar was of a more humane disposition, and he was much less of a doctrinaire. With his father's aspiration of making Holy Russia a homogeneous empire he thoroughly sympathized in principle, but he disliked the systematic persecution of Jews, heretics and schismatics to which it gave rise, and he let it be understood, without any formal order or proclamation, that the severe measures hitherto employed would not meet with his approval. The officials were not slow to take the hint, and their undue zeal at once disappeared; Nicholas II. showed, however, that his father's policy of Russification was neither to be reversed nor to be abandoned. When an influential deputation was sent from Finland to St Petersburg to represent to him respectfully that the officials were infringing the local rights and privileges solemnly accorded at the time of the annexation, it was refused an audience, and the leaders of the movement were informed indirectly that local interests must be subordinated to the general welfare of the empire. In accordance with this declaration, tbe policy of Russification in Finland was steadily maintained, and caused much disappointment, not only to the Finlanders, but also to the other nationalities who desired the preservation of their ancient rights.
The old Liberal movement and the terrorist organizations which had been suppressed by Alexander III were being resuscitated, and the liberal revolutionary leaders, taking advantage of the unpopularity of the war, were agitating for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, which should replace the hated bureaucratic régime by democratic institutions. With great reluctance the tsar consented to convoke a consultative chamber of deputies as a sop to public opinion, but that concession stimulated rather than calmed public opinion, and shortly after the conclusion of peace the Liberals and the Revolutionaries, combining their forces, brought about a general strike in St Petersburg together with the stoppage of railway communication all over the empire. Panic-stricken for a moment, the government issued a manifesto proclaiming Liberal principles and promising in vague language all manner of political reforms (October 30, 1905), and when the inordinate expectations created by this extraordinary document were not at once realized, preparations were made for overthrowing the existing regime by means of an armed insurrection.
Many believed that the end of autocracy had come, and a Council of Labor Deputies, anxious to play the part of a Comité de Salut Public, was ready to take over the suprerre power and exercise it in the interests of the proletariat. In reality the revolutionary movement was not so strong and the government not so weak as was generally supposed. Mutinies occurred, it is true, during the next few weeks in Kronstadt and Sevastopol, and in December there was streetfighting for several days in Moscow, but such serious disorders were speedily suppressed, and thereafter the revolutionary manifestations were confined to mass meetings, processions with red flags, attempts on the lives of officials and policemen, robberies under arms and agrarian disturbances.
Notwithstanding the unsatisfactory results of the October manifesto the tsar kept his promise of convoking a legislative assembly, and on the 10th of May 1906 the first Duma was opened by his majesty in person; but it was so systematically and violently hostile to the government and so determined to obtain executive, in addition to its legislative, functions, that it was dissolved on the 23rd of July without any legislative work being accomplished. The second Duma, which met on the sth of March 1907, avoided some of the mistakes of its predecessor, but as a legislative assembly it showed itsHf equally incompetent, and a large section of its members were implicated in a well-organized attempt to spread sedition in the army by revolutionary propaganda. It was dissolved, therefore, on the roth of June 1907, and the electoral law which had given such unsatisfactory results was modified by imperial ukase.
His despotic autocracy varied nothing worthy of historic notice and the iron rule continued its chains upon the humanity of Russia. Nicholas II, while pretending to grant a constitution to Russia, instituted courts-martial. He granted his subjects the right to die. Every Russian enjoyed for some time the privilege of being arrested, tried, and sentenced to death within twenty-four hours, and promptly executed. Of course, nominally this privilege was only granted to "revolutionaries," but the Russian Government applied this term in a very liberal and generous manner.
Nicholas outlived an earlier accusation of insincerity and an early unpopularity. He had given the lie to much that had been said against him. His character was shown in a courageous attack he made on a corrupt police system which had sold itself in part to the revolutionary party. The police system in Russia was in some respects more powerful than the Czar. It could almost always procure the assassination of its persecutors.
Later in his reign Nicholas entered upon a more peaceful, but less easy, problem of giving land to peasants, of settling them on small holdings, and finally by issuing his extraordinary manifesto against drunkenness in 1914, when several hundred thousand vodka shops were closed. He also gave amnesty to revolutionary exiles, permitting Maxim Gorky, among others, to return to Russia unharmed, and next came his proclamation extending a brother's hand toward Poland, and another permitting religious pilgrimages to Russian shrines in order to pray for Russia, and still another for complete abolition by Imperial Ukase of the sale of vodka, first for a month, then for the duration of the war, and then by promise, for ever.
When hostilities began in 1914 great crowds in Moscow and Petrograd carried his portrait while singing "God save the Czar," and cheering with indescribable enthusiasm. After that Nicholas went about his kingdom unguarded and without hesitation, and to the front to become an inspiration to his soldiers. During the Great War, the Czar was not accused of grave complicity in the plotting against his own Empire, and the principal charges of the people against him were that he was weak or stupid, that his only ambitions are for himself and the Romanof dynasty, and that he was an easy tool for others with more malevolent designs. But the people believed, and sais with a frankness unprecedented in Russia, that their Empress, who was a Princess of Hesse, and who had been in alleged secret correspondence with her brother, the Duke of Hesse, since the beginning of the war, loved Germany with more than the love of a sister. She and the unsavory Rasputin, a figure somewhat akin to the sorcerers found at mediaeval courts, and a character more uniquely disreputable and more grotesquely diabolical than any to be found at any other Court of the day, were placed by popular talk at the head of the camarilla, the cabal of evil counselors who loved Germany not wisely but too well, and who would make their Russia a kind of annex to the Kaiser's realm if they had their way.
The title of Baron is a German title, and most of the Russian barons and many of the Russian counts had German names, while many of them, like Count Fredericks, the Minister of the Court, were rumored to be secretly pro-German. From this group and from similar groups at Court, in the army, in the navy, in society, among the nobles and big landowners, there came some downright treachery and a good deal of half-hearted support of the war, which representatives of the Russian autocracy had at times said quite openly was a war against the Power that has been the main prop and bulwark of that autocracy in the past. This opinion was voiced in the reactionary press, and it was not difficult even for a foreigner who had gained the confidence of a few upper-class Russians to hear this opinion privately expressed.
He visited Roman Catholic and Polish Vilna where he saluted emblems of Catholicism and Polish nationalism. That he might appear in the uniform worn in Russia by a common soldier, he asked that a complete soldiers suit be sent to him, with boots, rifle, and full kit, and so put off his royal clothes, shouldered kit and gun and walked in them on his estate in Livadia. He was photographed thus attired and allowed the photograph to be reproduced for common sale and distribution among soldiers.
By early 1917, the existing order in Russia verged on collapse. The country's involvement in World War I had already cost millions of lives and caused severe disruption in Russia's backward economy. In an effort to reverse the steadily worsening military situation, Emperor Nicholas II commanded Russian forces at the front, abandoning the conduct of government in Petrograd (St. Petersburg before 1914; Leningrad after 1924) to his unpopular wife and a series of incompetent ministers. As a consequence of these conditions, the morale of the people rapidly deteriorated.
The spark to the events that ended tsarist rule was ignited on the streets of Petrograd in February 1917 (according to the old Julian calendar then in use in Russia). Provoked by shortages of food and fuel, crowds of hungry citizens and striking workers began spontaneous rioting and demonstrations on March 7 (February 23, according to the Julian calendar). Local reserve troops, called in to suppress the riots, refused to fire on the crowds, and some soldiers joined the workers and other rioters. On March 12, with tsarist authority in Petrograd rapidly disintegrating, two separate bodies emerged, each claiming to represent the Russian people. One was the Executive Committee of the Duma, which the Duma had established in defiance of the tsar's orders of March 11. The other body was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, founded on the model of the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905.
With the consent of the Petrograd Soviet, the Executive Committee of the Duma organized the Provisional Government on March 15. Delegates of the new government met Nicholas that evening at Pskov, where rebellious railroad workers had stopped the imperial train as the tsar attempted to return to the capital. Advised by his generals that he lacked the support of the country, Nicholas informed the delegates that he was abdicating in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael.
Emperor Nicolas II was the last Tsar to rule but signed an act of abdication (which probably illegally purported to exclude the Tsarevich) in favor of his brother Michael 3/15 Mar 1917. Grand Duke Michael was murdered 18 Jun 1918. He had delegated governance to the Duma which was then dissolved by the Petrograd Soviet 25/4 November 1917.
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