Nicholas II (1868-1918), the czar of Russia from 1894 to 1917, was a staunch defender of autocracy. A weak monarch, he was forced to abdicate, thus ending more than 300 years of Romanov rule in Russia.
The son of Alexander III, Nicholas was born on May 6, 1868. He studied under private tutors, was an accomplished linguist, and traveled extensively in Russia and abroad. In 1890-1891 he made a voyage around the world. Nicholas held customary commissions in the guards, rising, while heir apparent, to the rank of colonel. His participation in affairs of state prior to the death of his father was limited to attendance at meetings of the committee of ministers and of the state council.
Throughout his life Nicholas kept with remarkable regularity a diary that throws much light on his character and interests. Hardly a day passed without a record of what Nicholas regarded as its most noteworthy events. These entries, comprising merely a few lines each, noted official visits; dwelt with affection on the doings of his wife and children; and listed his recreational activities. In his relations with courtiers and officials, Nicholas was considerate and kind, but his ministers could never be certain that the policies seemingly agreed upon would actually receive his assent or that a gracious audience would not be followed by a curt dismissal from office.
Nicholas became emperor on the death of his father on Oct. 20, 1894. Less than a month after his coronation, he married Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt. It was a marriage of love, and he remained to the end an exemplary husband and devoted father. His son Alexis, born in 1904, suffered from hemophilia. Desperate efforts to save Alexis's life later led to the incredible episode of Rasputin, a monk who employed hypnotic power to stop Alexis's bleeding. In this manner Rasputin became a dominating influence at the royal court. The deeper cause of Rasputin's influence, as well as of many of Nicholas's difficulties, lay in the Czar's refusal to concern himself with political questions and his staunch conviction that he must maintain the autocracy of his father.
Reaction and Oppression
Nicholas carried on his father's nationalism, his curtailment of the rights of minority nationalities, and his restrictions on nonorthodox religious groups. He limited Finnish autonomy, which had been honored by Russian monarchs since 1809. The Czar's manifesto of February 1899 abolished the Finnish constitution and placed the function of making laws for Finland under the Russian imperial council.
Nicholas pursued a strongly anti-Semitic policy. Jews could enroll in higher schools only under quota limits and were excluded from law practice, zemstvos (local district and provincial assemblies), and city councils. Christian dissenters also were persecuted.
The industrial boom of the early 1890s led to Russia's first important strike movement between 1895 and 1897. In 1897 the government passed legislation curtailing the workday to 11 1/2 hours, but it also ordered the capture and punishment of all strike leaders. University students had also begun to organize demonstrations and strikes. The students' confrontations with the officials of St. Petersburg University led to a general strike in Russian higher education. Nicholas unsuccessfully tried both leniency and harshness as methods of alleviating student disturbances.
The Socialist Revolutionary Battle Organization undertook a terrorist campaign with a series of political murders or attempted murders of provincial governors and other officials. The revolutionary movement was spreading widely. Nicholas and his government lacked a policy to deal effectively with the situation.
Imperialism in the Far East
In form, Nicholas's foreign policy was similar to, and shaped after, that of the other eastern European monarchies: Germany and Austria-Hungary. Nor was it so different from the foreign policy of the western European democracies: France and Great Britain. The main effort of all the Great Powers was not so much to win control over new territories as to preserve the European status quo. However, mutual distrust and the suspicion of one power that another sought to change the status quo often provoked a crisis. In the last quarter of the 19th century, most of the European Great Powers were active in extending their influence and possessions into Africa and Asia. As a result, there was much concern as to whether "imperialist gains, losses, or transfers abroad might upset the balance of interests in Europe itself."
Nicholas's Russia began to challenge Japan in Manchuria and in Korea. An adventurer named Bezobrazov convinced Nicholas to finance a timber concession on the Yalu River on the northern border of Korea. When Tokyo concluded that Bezobrazov had won the support of the Czar, the Japanese attacked the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in January 1904 without declaring war.
Russia suffered a series of defeats on land and sea in the war with Japan. The main factors for the Japanese victory over the Russians were the inadequate supply route of the Transsiberian Railway, the outnumbering of the Russian forces in the Far East by Japan, and Russian mismanagement in the field. A peace treaty, negotiated between Russia and Japan on Sept. 5, 1905, called for Russia's recognition of Japanese hegemony in Korea, annexation of southern Sakhalin by Japan, and Japan's lease of the Liaotung Peninsula and the South Manchurian Railway. The war had ended without forcing too excessive a price for peace.
Revolution of 1905
In 1905 Father George Gapon, leader of a workers' group, led a procession of workers to Nicholas II in order to seek relief for their grievances. The procession was fired upon, and the incident—known as "Bloody Sunday"— may be considered the beginning of the Revolution of 1905. Millions of people participated in this mass movement. The primary goal of the rebellion was a "four-tail constituent assembly"—that is, universal, secret, equal, and direct suffrage to decide the country's future form of government. Other demands included civil liberties, especially freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and the enactment of an 8-hour workday.
When the general strike of October materialized, Minister of Finance Sergei Witte advised Nicholas to choose between a constitutional regime and a military dictatorship, but he added that he would participate only in the former. On Oct. 5, 1905, Nicholas promulgated the October Manifesto. It was drafted by Witte, who became Russia's first prime minister. The manifesto promised: " (1) To grant to the population the inviolable right of free citizenship, based on the principles of freedom of person, conscience, speech, assembly, and union. (2) Without postponing the intended elections for the State Duma and insofar as possible … to include in the participation of the work of the Duma those classes of the population that have been until now entirely deprived of the right to vote, and to extend in the future, by the newly created legislative way, the principles of the general right of election. (3) To establish as an unbreakable rule that without its confirmation by the State Duma, no law shall go into force and that the persons elected by the people shall have the opportunity for actual participation in supervising the legality of the acts of authorities appointed by it." Nicholas ended with an appeal to "all the true sons of Russia" to help reestablish law and order.
Fall of the Monarchy
At the beginning of February 1917 Nicholas left the capital and went to supreme headquarters at Mogilev. On March 8 demonstrations were held to celebrate International Women's Day, and these throngs merged with rioting crowds protesting the scarcity of bread in Petrograd. As the riots continued, Nicholas could do nothing but prorogue the Duma, which he did on March 11. The next day the Duma gathered in defiance of his order and chose a provisional committee, composed of members of the progressive bloc and two representatives of parties to the left of it. On March 15, 1917, Nicholas decided to abdicate in favor of his brother Michael. A delegation from the provisional committee, which by now had become the provisional government, waited on the Grand Duke Michael, who refused to be crowned czar of Russia. The monarchy "thus perished without a murmur from either the dynasty or its supporters."
Nicholas abdicated his throne peacefully. On his train the next day he wrote in his diary: "I had a long and sound sleep. Woke up beyond Dvinsk. Sunshine and frost … I read much of Julius Caesar." Nicholas and the entire imperial family were forced to depart for Siberia in the summer of 1917. They were murdered by the Communists in July 1918.
Further Reading on Nicholas II
Biographical information and a discussion of Nicholas II are in two collective biographies and histories of the Romanov dynasty, both written for the general reader and both based on solid scholarship: John Bergamini, The Tragic Dynasty (1969), and Ian Grey, The Romanovs: The Rise and Fall of a Dynasty (1970). Hugh Seton-Watson, The Decline of Imperial Russia, 1855-1914 (1952), is a thorough and well-balanced work that surveys both Russian internal and foreign policies. A study of European diplomacy that pays considerable attention to Russian policy and conduct is Benedict H. Sumner, Tsardom and Imperialism in the Far East and Middle East, 1880-1914 (1954). Michael T. Florinsky, Russia: A History and an Interpretation (1953), is the most complete narrative of prerevolutionary Russian history in English.