Czar Nicholas II

Russia's Last Czar

1910s. Artist: Anon
Heritage Images/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, ascended to the throne following the death of his father in 1894. Woefully unprepared for such a role, Nicholas II has been characterized as a naïve and incompetent leader. At a time of enormous social and political change in his country, Nicholas held fast to outdated, autocratic policies and opposed reform of any kind. His inept handling of military matters and insensitivity to the needs of his people helped to fuel the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Forced to abdicate in 1917, Nicholas went into exile with his wife and five children. After living more than a year under house arrest, the entire family was brutally executed in July 1918 by Bolshevik soldiers. Nicholas II was the last of the Romanov Dynasty, which had ruled Russia for 300 years.

Dates: May 18, 1868,kaiser* -- July 17, 1918

Reign: 1894 – 1917

Also Known As: Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov

Born Into the Romanov Dynasty

Nicholas II, born in Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg, Russia, was the first child of Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna (formerly Princess Dagmar of Denmark). Between 1869 and 1882, the royal couple had three more sons and two daughters. The second child, a boy, died in infancy. Nicholas and his siblings were closely related to other European royalty, including first cousins George V (future king of England) and Wilhelm II, the last Kaiser (Emperor) of Germany.

In 1881, Nicholas’ father, Alexander III, became czar (emperor) of Russia after his father, Alexander II, was killed by an assassin's bomb. Nicholas, at twelve, witnessed his grandfather's death when the czar, horribly maimed, was carried back to the palace. Upon his father's ascension to the throne, Nicholas became the sTesarevich (heir-apparent to the throne).

Despite being raised in a palace, Nicholas and his siblings grew up in a strict, austere environment and enjoyed few luxuries. Alexander III lived simply, dressing as a peasant while at home and making his coffee each morning. The children slept on cots and washed in cold water. Overall, however, Nicholas experienced a happy upbringing in the Romanov household.

The Young Tsesarevich

Educated by several tutors, Nicholas studied languages, history, and the sciences, as well as horsemanship, shooting, and even dancing. What he was not schooled in, unfortunately for Russia, was how to function as a monarch. Czar Alexander III, healthy and robust at six-foot-four, planned to rule for decades. He assumed there would be plenty of time to instruct Nicholas in how to run the empire.

At the age of nineteen, Nicholas joined an exclusive regiment of the Russian Army and also served in the horse artillery. The Tsesarevich didn't participate in any serious military activities; these commissions were more akin to a finishing school for the upper class. Nicholas enjoyed his carefree lifestyle, taking advantage of the freedom to attend parties and balls with few responsibilities to weigh him down.

Prompted by his parents, Nicholas embarked upon a royal grand tour, accompanied by his brother George.

Departing Russia in 1890 and traveling by steamship and train, they visited the Middle East, India, China, and Japan. While visiting Japan, Nicholas survived an assassination attempt in 1891 when a Japanese man lunged at him, swinging a sword at his head. The attacker's motive was never determined. Although Nicholas suffered only a minor head wound, his concerned father ordered Nicholas home immediately.

Betrothal to Alix and the Death of the Czar

Nicholas first met Princess Alix of Hesse (daughter of a German Duke and Queen Victoria's second daughter, Alice) in 1884 at the wedding of his uncle to Alix's sister, Elizabeth. Nicholas was sixteen and Alix twelve. They met again on several occasions over the years, and Nicholas was adequately impressed to write in his diary that he dreamed of one day marrying Alix.

When Nicholas was in his mid-twenties and expected to seek a suitable wife from the nobility, he ended his relationship with a Russian ballerina and began to pursue Alix. Nicholas proposed to Alix in April 1894, but she didn't immediately accept.

A devout Lutheran, Alix was hesitant at first because marriage to a future Czar meant that she must convert to the Russian Orthodox religion. After a day of contemplation and discussion with family members, she agreed to marry Nicholas. The couple soon became quite smitten with one another and looked forward to getting married the following year. Theirs would be a marriage of genuine love.

Unfortunately, things changed drastically for the happy couple within months of their engagement. In September 1894, Czar Alexander became gravely ill with nephritis (an inflammation of the kidney). Despite a steady stream of doctors and priests who visited him, the czar died on November 1, 1894, at the age of 49.

Twenty-six-year-old Nicholas reeled from both the grief of losing his father and the tremendous responsibility now placed upon his shoulders.

Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra

Nicholas, as the new czar, struggled to keep up with his duties, which began with planning his father's funeral. Inexperienced in planning such a grand-scale event, Nicholas received criticism on many fronts for the numerous details that were left undone.

On November 26, 1894, just 25 days after Czar Alexander’s death, the period of mourning was interrupted for a day so that Nicholas and Alix could marry. Princess Alix of Hesse, newly converted to Russian Orthodoxy, became Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. The couple returned immediately to the palace after the ceremony; a wedding reception was deemed inappropriate during the mourning period.

The royal couple moved into the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo just outside of St. Petersburg and within a few months learned they were expecting their first child. Daughter Olga was born in November 1895. (She would be followed by three more daughters: Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia.

The long-anticipated male heir, Alexei, was born in 1904.)

In May 1896, a year and a half after Czar Alexander died, Czar Nicholas’ long-awaited, lavish coronation ceremony finally took place. Unfortunately, a horrific incident occurred during one of the many public celebrations held in Nicholas’ honor. A stampede on the Khodynka Field in Moscow resulted in more than 1,400 deaths. Incredibly, Nicholas did not cancel the ensuing 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.

By any account, Nicholas II had not begun his reign on a favorable note.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)

Nicholas, like many past and future Russian leaders, wanted to expand his country’s territory. Looking to the Far East, Nicholas saw potential in Port Arthur, a strategic warm-water port on the Pacific Ocean in southern Manchuria (northeastern China). By 1903, Russia’s occupation of Port Arthur angered the Japanese, who had themselves recently been pressured to relinquish the area. When Russia built its Trans-Siberian Railroad through part of Manchuria, the Japanese were further provoked.

Twice, Japan sent diplomats to Russia to negotiate the dispute; however, each time, they were sent home without being granted an audience with the czar, who viewed them with contempt.

By February 1904, the Japanese had run out of patience. A Japanese fleet launched a surprise attack on Russian warships at Port Arthur, sinking two of the ships and blockading the harbor. Well-prepared Japanese troops also swarmed the Russian infantry at various points on land. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the Russians suffered one humiliating defeat after another, both on land and sea.

Nicholas, who had never thought the Japanese would start a war, was forced to surrender to Japan in September 1905. Nicholas II became the first czar to lose a war to an Asian nation. 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.

Bloody Sunday and the Revolution of 1905

By the winter of 1904, dissatisfaction among the working class in Russia had escalated to the point that numerous strikes were staged in St. Petersburg. Workers, who had hoped for a better future living in cities, instead faced long hours, poor wages, and inadequate housing. Many families went hungry on a regular basis, and housing shortages were so severe, 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 were forbidden to bring weapons; instead, they carried religious icons and pictures of the royal family. Participants also 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. The czar himself did not order the shootings, but he was held responsible. The unprovoked massacre, called Bloody Sunday, became the catalyst for further strikes and uprisings against the government, called the 1905 Russian Revolution.

After a massive general strike had brought much of Russia to a halt in October 1905, Nicholas was forced to respond to the protests finally. On October 30, 1905, the czar reluctantly issued the October Manifesto, which created a constitutional monarchy and an elected legislature, known as the Duma. Ever the autocrat, Nicholas made sure the powers of the Duma remained limited -- nearly half of the budget was exempted from their approval, and they were not allowed to participate in foreign policy decisions. The czar also retained full veto power.

The creation of the Duma appeased the Russian people in the short run, but Nicholas’ further blunders hardened his people’s hearts against him.

Alexandra and Rasputin

The royal family rejoiced at the birth of a male heir in 1904. Young Alexei seemed healthy at birth, but within a week, as the infant bled uncontrollably from his navel, it was clear that something was seriously wrong. Doctors diagnosed him with hemophilia, an incurable, inherited disease in which the blood will not clot properly. Even a seemingly minor injury could cause the young Tsesarevich to bleed to death. His horrified parents kept the diagnosis a secret from all but the most immediate family. Empress Alexandra, fiercely protective of her son --and his secret -- isolated herself from the outside world. Desperate to find help for her son, she sought the help of various medical quacks and holy men.

One such "holy man," self-proclaimed faith healer Grigori Rasputin, first met the royal couple in 1905 and became a close, trusted advisor to the empress. Although rough in manner and unkempt in appearance, Rasputin gained the Empress' trust with his uncanny ability to stop Alexei's bleeding during even the severest of episodes, merely by sitting and praying with him. Gradually, Rasputin became the empress' closest confidante, able to exert influence upon her regarding affairs of state. Alexandra, in turn, influenced her husband on matters of great importance based upon Rasputin's advice.

The Empress' relationship with Rasputin was baffling to outsiders, who had no idea that the Tsesarevich was ill.

World War I and the Murder of Rasputin

The June 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia set off a chain of events that culminated in World War I. That the assassin was a Serbian national led Austria to declare war on Serbia. Nicholas, with the backing of France, felt compelled to protect Serbia, a fellow Slavic nation. His mobilization of the Russian army in August 1914 helped to propel the conflict into a full-scale war, drawing Germany into the fray as an ally of Austria-Hungary.

In 1915, Nicholas made the calamitous decision to take personal command of the Russian army. Under the czar's poor military leadership, the ill-prepared Russian army was no match for the German infantry.

While Nicholas was away at war, he deputized his wife to oversee affairs of the empire. To the Russian people, however, this was a terrible decision. They viewed the empress as untrustworthy since she had come from Germany, Russia’s enemy in World War I. Adding to their mistrust, the Empress relied heavily on the despised Rasputin to help her make policy decisions.

Many government officials and family members saw the disastrous effect Rasputin was having on Alexandra and the country and believed he must be removed. Unfortunately, both Alexandra and Nicholas ignored their pleas to dismiss Rasputin.

With their grievances unheard, a group of angry conservatives soon took matters into their hands. In a murder scenario that has become legendary, several members of the aristocracy --including a prince, an army officer, and a cousin of Nicholas -- succeeded, with some difficulty, in killing Rasputin in December 1916. Rasputin survived poisoning and multiple gunshot wounds, then finally succumbed after being bound and thrown into a river. The killers were quickly identified but were not punished. Many looked upon them as heroes.

Unfortunately, the murder of Rasputin was not enough to stem the tide of discontent.

The End of a Dynasty

The people of Russia had become increasingly angry with the government's indifference to their suffering. Wages had plummeted, inflation had risen, public services had all but ceased, and millions were being killed in a war they didn’t want.

In March 1917, 200,000 protesters converged in the capital city of Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) to protest the czar's policies. Nicholas ordered the army to subdue the crowd. By this point, however, most of the soldiers were sympathetic to the protesters' demands and thus just fired shots into the air or joined the ranks of the protesters. There were still a few commanders loyal to the czar who forced their soldiers to shoot into the crowd, killing several people. Not to be deterred, the protesters gained control of the city within days, during what came to be known as the February/March 1917 Russian Revolution.

With Petrograd in the hands of revolutionaries, Nicholas had no choice but to abdicate the throne. Believing that he could somehow still save the dynasty, Nicholas II signed the abdication statement on March 15, 1917, making his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, the new czar. The grand duke wisely declined the title, bringing the 304-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end. The provisional government allowed the royal family to stay in the palace at Tsarskoye Selo, under guard, while officials debated their fate.

Exile and Death of the Romanovs

When the provisional government became increasingly threatened by the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1917, worried government officials decided to secretly move Nicholas and his family to safety in western Siberia.

However, when the provisional government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks (led by Vladimir Lenin) during the October/November 1917 Russian Revolution, Nicholas and his family came under the control of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks relocated the Romanovs to Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains in April 1918, ostensibly to await a public trial.

Many opposed the Bolsheviks being in power; thus a civil war erupted between the Communist "Reds" and their opponents, the anti-Communist "Whites." These two groups fought for control of the country, as well as for custody of the Romanovs.

When the White Army began to gain ground in its battle with the Bolsheviks and headed toward Ekaterinburg to rescue the imperial family, the Bolsheviks made sure that rescue would never take place.

Nicholas, his wife, and his five children were all awakened at 2:00 a.m. on July 17, 1918, and told to prepare for departure. They were gathered into a small room, where Bolshevik soldiers fired upon them. Nicholas and his wife were killed outright, but the others were not so fortunate. Soldiers used bayonets to carry out the remainder of the executions. The corpses were buried at two separate sites and were burned and covered with acid to prevent them from being identified.

In 1991, the remains of nine bodies were excavated at Ekaterinburg. Subsequent DNA testing confirmed them to be those of Nicholas, Alexandra, three of their daughters, and four of their servants. The second grave, containing the remains of Alexei and his sister Marie, was not discovered until 2007. The Romanov family's remains were reburied at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, the traditional burial place of the Romanovs.

*All dates according to modern Gregorian calendar, rather than the old Julian calendar used in Russia until 1918