Perhaps no event has so strongly influenced the course of modern politics and international relations in the Western world as the fall of the Russian monarchy and the subsequent formation of the communist empire which spanned Eastern Europe and Russia for seventy years. 1917 brought an end to one of the longest reigning dynasties in European history, the Romanov dynasty which extended for three hundred years from 1613 until the abdication in 1917. The implications of the Soviet rule in Russia were profound both for the country and for the world.
For these reason, the events which saw the end of this great dynasty and the creation of a government vastly different than any before it have become a subject of tremendous interest to many historians. The question which demands to be answered is how? How did a nation like Russia, one with such a long history of monarchy, and an almost obsessive love of its leader, the Tsar, move from centuries of tradition to the eve of a violent revolution?
The causes are many. A unique people, time and circumstances. At the center of the storm stood the disintegrating symbol of the country, the Tsar and his powerful wife, the Tsarina. Together they steered Russia directly into the path of the revolution which had been so long in coming. Two personalities whose weaknesses provided exactly the right environment in which their oppressed people could find it necessary to pull them from power, and install a government based on diametric principles.
Nicholas and Alexandra were the last Emperor and Empress of Russia. They believed blindly in the power of the position that had been handed down to them by generations of their predecessors. This blindness was combined both with a complete lack of wisdom, originality, and breadth of thought, as well as a profoundly encompassing fear of any infringement on their power or position. These characteristics created precisely the kind of rigidity which could make no allowances for the changing times in which they found themselves. As the voices of the workers and peasants became increasingly insistent, the Imperial couple receded farther into a world that discouraged political competence and an honest view of the complex events of which they were an integral part. In 1917, when the time for his abdication came, Nicholas did so only with the firm belief that he was a martyr to the institution of absolute monarchy and the best interests of his country. At no time during his reign did Nicholas display an understanding of the events that surrounded him, and he died utterly confused by the new ideas which possessed his country.
At the time of his birth on May 6, 1868, Nicholas Romanov was only one of many Grand Dukes in the Russian Imperial family. It is true, that he was the first son of the Tsarevich, the heir to the throne, but the consequences of this were as yet far off in the future. Alexander II, grandfather to Nicholas was in power. Alexander had been named the Tsar Liberator. His support of liberal policy had meant, in 1861, the freeing of the serf population as well as a series of other comparatively progressive changes such as the creation of the zemstvos, a form of rural self-government. Nicholas spent his first twelve years in the palace at Gatchina. Although he was surrounded by opulence, Nicholas and his four younger sisters and brothers lived a simple existence. His father Alexander III preferred the life of a military officer and imposed a similar one on his family. "Alexander III lived a spartan life and insisted that his children do likewise. As a child, Nicholas ate the simplest foods, bathed in cold water, and was even obliged to go hungry on occasion." . Despite his solemnity, Alexander and his wife Maria Feodorovna allowed their children to grow up in a relatively unstructured and relaxed environment. Nicholas spent his mornings, which began at seven, in school with one of the many tutors that Alexander imported from Europe to oversee his sons' education. His afternoons, however were completely free and he spent them hunting or gardening with his sisters. Considering his future role, Nicholas's childhood was marked more by its similarity to those in other aristocratic families than to anything exceptional.
Without doubt, one of the most important events in Nicholas' young life was the death of his grandfather, the Tsar. On his return from a parade, Alexander II was intercepted by a group of terrorists who had dedicated themselves to assassinating the Tsar. A man named Hryniewicki, threw a bomb at the Tsar which landed directly between his feet, tearing his legs apart. The Tsar died hours later. Although he was not present at the bombing, Nicholas was brought to the side of his dying grandfather and saw the effects of the attack and the moment when Alexander II took his last breath. This moment was to have for Nicholas, lasting implications. In one moment he witnessed the realities of his times as well as the seriousness of the position he would one day hold.
The death of the Tsar came as a shock to everyone at court, especially to the new Emperor, Alexander III, and his wife. However, Nicholas seemed completely unaware of what had happened. "They were all dumbfounded, stunned by the tremendous event which was to cause such changes in their lives. Nicholas looked dazed, almost stupefied, unable even to realize that his own position had altered, that he had become the second personage in the Russian Empire," . Alexander's reaction was far different. Despite the suddenness of the events, he seemed prepared for his new role. As he entered the palace as the new Tsar he addressed his household saying,: "I will try to be a good father to my people" . This example was to be in glaring opposition to the reaction of his son, Nicholas, upon his accession to the throne fourteen years later.
Remarkably, Nicholas' life changed very little as a result of his father's new position. His life was still relatively uncomplicated, possessed of simplicity and little challenge. "Nicholas spent most of the 1880's studying with Pobedonostev and his other tutors. When he was not in the classroom, he lived a carefree life, unconcerned- indeed unacquainted- with the affairs of state to which his father devoted long hours each day." . Nicholas' relationship with both his parents became one of the strongest influences on his personality and had a profound effect on the nature of his reign. Alexander III was a powerful individual with particular beliefs and a forceful nature. In contradiction to his father's beliefs, he developed at a young age a rigid moral code. He was unyielding in what he believed was right, which was most importantly the absolute authority of the Tsar. He was a reactionary and soon rearranged his court to coincide with his beliefs. Alexander wanted to transmit similar beliefs to his son and so he chose for his son the same tutor who had played such an integral role in his own life, the Procurator-General of the Holy Synod, Constantine Pobedonostev. Pobedonostev was a strong monarchist with fervent beliefs about which path was in the best interest of Russia. He was a reactionary and he passed these beliefs to Alexander and then later to Nicholas. According to Pobedonostev, the monarch's absolute rule was ensured by God. He believed that any infringement on this power was against God's wishes. He instilled in Nicholas the belief that his most important job was to pass along to his heir the same form of absolute power which had been passed to him. "Pobedonostev did succeed in getting some of his ideas into Nicholas' head, and especially this one: that it was the duty of a Tsar-autocrat to pass on all his powers intact to his son." . Thus Nicholas' education contained two fundamental problems; the first, that it was severely unbalanced in the favor of reactionary and unyielding beliefs. The second problem was that it was poorly overseen. Alexander was either too busy or else felt that the job of overseeing the heir's education could be left to his tutors. This was not the case. Nicholas had no natural propensity for learning, except perhaps in the category of foreign languages. He was easily bored and showed amazingly little enthusiasm for any of the vital concepts which his tutors desperately tried to instill in him. This situation might have been made better if a structure had been present in his education, or if there had been someone who could have made Nicholas' apply himself however, Alexander was probably the only one with these qualifications and he neglected to do it. In doing so, Alexander seriously affected the course of Russian events after his death, when having a better educated and broad-minded Tsar might have made a significant difference.
He (Alexander) tried to train them on sound principles, but he did not take any deep interest in their education, partly through lack of time and partly because he believed that their tutors were fit for the task entrusted them....But their rearing was never superintended by anyone with sufficient authority to compel them to stick to their lessons
For these reasons, the future Tsar was never truly inspired to learn new information or expand his beliefs past the most basic of tenets. This proved a disastrous characteristic later in life when so much of his role depended on a knowledge of history and politics as well as a desire to understand the true nature of those issues which were presented to him. "Even as a child he had no curiosity, no eagerness for knowledge, no desire to taste a strange experience, no doubt as to his future destiny. His lack of character was amazing. He accepted everything that happened good or bad with complete indifference and apathy." .
Alexander's influence on his son extended well past his education. Perhaps one of the most significant facets of the Tsars relationship with his son was the atmosphere he created around him. It was in this atmosphere that Nicholas developed as a young man. Alexander was not only the father and head of the family, but he was also the Tsar of Russia. For this reason his judgement was above all scrutiny. He was never questioned by anyone from his ministers to his family members. This message was quickly translated to Nicholas who learned at a young age not to question his father. "It was altogether a bad system, for it completely annihilated individuality, destroyed independence of thought, surety of judgement and, above all else, hindered the young men from gaining a knowledge of the world." . These messages had such a strong effect on Nicholas and his siblings that they seriously impaired their ability to think and make decisions for themselves.
But no sense of responsibility was ever awakened, and they (the Imperial children)were brought up to the idea that there would always be people at hand to tell them what to do and to relieve them from the obligation of deciding for themselves. This was partly responsible for the complete reliance which, later on, Nicholas placed in individuals he ought never have allowed to approach - still less influence him.
Thus Nicholas lived his youth in a state of complete awe of his father. He never thought to question why his father made the decisions which he did, and accepted that all decisions would be made for him by his Imperial father.
Although it is impossible to know for sure, many of the Tsarevich's problems were probably seriously aggravated by his father's attitude towards him. Not only did Alexander's imperious nature severely limit Nicholas' ability to become an independent minded adult, but his father's lack of faith in him, probably did little to inspire Nicholas to invest energy towards any pursuit. Unlike most heirs to the throne, Alexander never asked to Nicholas to take on any of the typical responsibilities and roles which were considered to be an important part of the Tsarevich's education. In fact it was the Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte who first had the foresight to suggest to the Tsar that his son might benefit from some experience in government. Witte proposed making Nicholas the chairman of the committee overseeing the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Alexander's reaction reveals a great deal about his attitude towards the future Tsar. When Witte posed the idea to Alexander he responded:
"'What? But you know the Tsarevich well. Have you ever had a single serious conversation with him?', to which Witte responded: 'No, sire, I have not had the pleasure of such a conversation with the heir to the throne.', Alexander replied, 'Why he is a mere child. He has only childish notions. How could he preside over that committee?'"
This opinion seems to have been fairly wide spread. Just before Nicholas' accession, the Minister of the Navy, Chikhachev, wrote: "The heir is a mere child, without experience, training, or even an inclination to study great problems of state. His interests are still those of a child, and it is impossible to predict what changes may be effected." .
All of these factors show clearly how Nicholas' environment was not conducive to his becoming a strong leader. The exact relationship between the natural limitations of his personality and his environment will never be known. Whether an individual with stronger character and greater intellect could have overcome the disadvantages of being the son of such an overpowering leader, is impossible to discern. However this relationship and its outcome are vital to an understanding of Nicholas' decisions later in life. Despite his weakness of character and indecision, his personality was a essential component of the events leading up to revolution. His actions must be understood in the context of his early life and the influences on it.
In 1894, everyone at the Russian Court would have predicted that the reign of Alexander III would be a long one, and that the question of the heir's competency could be postponed well into the future. Then in the spring of that year, the Tsar began to suffer from mild health difficulties. By September he was forced to take a vacation and was shortly thereafter diagnosed with nephritis. In mid-October the giant who had been the indestructible father to Nicholas and Russia died. Nicholas' behavior during this period is telling both of his character and of his readiness to assume the position of Tsar. His diary recorded his daily activities and thoughts and they reveal a great deal about his though process at this time. On October 4, 16 days before his father's death Nicholas wrote:
"This has not been a happy day! Dear Papa felt so weak that he himself asked to go back to bed. This happened after a very sad lunch! The weather was lovely, quite summerlike. I rode to divert my thoughts. Papa slept for an hour, and felt stronger in consequence! We dined without him. He had his meal in bed! I haven't had a letter from Alix in two days."
This entry is typical of Nicholas' diary during the months before his father's death. The weather and his communication with his future wife are meticulously recorded, but nowhere is there a single reference to the role which he was soon to play. There is no mention of any conversations with his fathers ministers or concerns about becoming the Tsar. In fact, it appears that Nicholas was in complete denial of his impending position. His diary entries portray a man who was wandering through life reacting only to the day in which he found himself and thinking nothing of the future and its consequences. Nicholas' journal entry on the day of his father's death is also enlightening. "My God, my God, what a day! The Lord has called to Himself our beloved, adored Papa! My head is turning round and round. Somehow it is impossible to believe it, because such an incredible, terrible thing!" . While distress at his father's death is understandable, Nicholas shows himself to have been almost completely unable to deal with an event that should not have come as such a surprise. His despair and confusion indicate how unprepared Nicholas in fact was to deal with his father's death and his consequential accession to the throne of Russia. Nicholas' first and most famous words after his father's death were: "What is going to happen to me... and to Russia? I am not prepared to be a Tsar, I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to the ministers." . These words capture with amazing clarity the feelings and fears of the new Tsar which would play such a significant role throughout his reign. His remarks can only be viewed with sadness, for they reveal in a single breath how profound the separation between Nicholas and the characteristics of a decent ruler. He feared his new position and the responsibility it would bring, entirely unaware of the importance of his role as the Emperor of tens of millions of Russians who had entrusted him to care for their best interests. Nicholas' primary concern centered on how his life was now to be irreconcilably changed forever. Nicholas' reign was to be the last of its kind. In a period that was headed towards a violent revolution, the throne of Russia demanded a competence that was not found in the new Tsar.
October 20, 1894 brought the last Tsar of Russia to his new throne. It was the first time in over a century and a half that a Tsar had acceded to the throne without a wife. Nicholas' proposed fiancee had been called to his side in the Crimea when it became clear that Alexander's life was coming to an end. From this time on, Nicholas and his Empress, Alexandra Feodorovna became an inseparable pair. "His (Nicholas') love for the golden haired princess who was destined to bring about his ruin, was the only sincere and passionate sentiment he was ever to know. It dominated him to the exclusion of all else."
Alexandra Feodorovna was born Princess Alix Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt. She was a German princess descended on her mother's side from Queen Victoria of England, her grandmother. At any early age Alix earned for herself the nickname 'Sunny', during her youth she was a particularly cheerful child who was eager to please however, this was short lived. "Thus, before she was seven the little Princess Alix, who, as a baby, had won for herself the nickname of 'Sunny', was bereft of her mother and of the sister who had been her closest companion." . The death of her mother, sister and years later when she was a teenager, her father, had an effect on Alexandra that cannot be underestimated. Her days of a carefree life came to an end and she became quiet, reserved and perpetually sad. Alix grew up in the English style, and in fact much of her youth was spent at the English Court. She received an excellent education and unlike her future husband she excelled in whatever was placed before her. "She was well educated, not merely in the arts generally thought proper for a woman of high breeding but also in history, literature and languages. By the time she was in her mid-teens, she had a passion for politics and a will of iron." . In view of the role which she would one day play in the politics of the Russian Court, these elements of Alexandra's personality are of extreme importance. Her childhood was essentially a lonely one and she longed for people whom she could care for. With the entry of Nicholas into her life, Alexandra found what she had been looking for. "...Alexandra found the object of adoration for which she had always craved and which she had so often lacked."
Nicholas and Alexandra's relationship and their love for each other was one of the most salient factors in the fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Rarely in history has there been an example of a ruler who was so completely and detrimentally controlled by his wife. They maintained a deep love for one another providing a solution to those pieces of their lives that had been sorely missing throughout their childhood. Alexandra won for herself someone who would care for her completely and who would allow her to exercise the control over her environment which she had so often lacked. Nicholas gained a replacement for his father. Someone who could provide a context in which he could live without having to carry alone the burden of such significant decisions. "In his wife, Nicholas was eventually to find the authority, the certainty and the ruthlessness which he himself entirely lacked but which, before 1894, he had acknowledged and revered in his father." . It was this relationship which allowed the Imperial couple to retreat slowly away from the rest of society into their own world which harbored so little hope for the monarchy.
Nicholas and Alexandra were originally introduced by Alexandra's older sister the Grand Duchess Elisaveta. Elisaveta encouraged the two by ensuring that they spend time together. It was not long before Nicholas had fallen in love with the German princess and informed his father of his intentions. After some initial concerns on the part of Alexander III and his wife Maria Feodorovna, they agreed to the wedding given, that as tradition dictated, Alix would agree to convert to Orthodoxy. In April, 1894, only six months before the death of Alexander III Nicholas and Alix were engaged. Nicholas was completely occupied by his new found love, and it was partly for this reason that he was slow to realize the seriousness of Alexander's failing health. What might have been a long period of courtship became a matter of state concern. The country needed a Tsar who was married, and so only a week after his father's death, Nicolas II married Alexandra Feodorovna in a small ceremony within the Winter Palace. The circumstances surrounding their marriage were less than optimal and as Alexandra followed the coffin of her dead father-in-law it was widely whispered by the superstitious that: "She has entered our land behind a coffin. She brings misfortune with her." . In light of the events of the next twenty years, these words ring tragically true.
When he came to the throne, the Russian people did not yet know their new Tsar. Nicholas II's past reluctance to become involved in government affairs meant that most of his subjects did not know what to expect from him. At first things looked promising. After fifteen years of reactionary oppression under Alexander III, it appeared that his son might prove more liberal. After his marriage Nicholas ordered the streets lined with guards so that the people might approach their new Tsar. "'This was a daring and beautiful gesture', reported the correspondent of France's Journal des Debats, who thought it augured well after the strict regime of Alexander III." However, this initial optimism was quickly tempered by the events surrounding the Coronation ceremonies in May. May 6, Nicholas' birthday was the date set for the Coronation of the new Tsar and Tsarina. Festivities were set up so that the Russian subjects could travel from all over the country to celebrate with the Imperial couple. "Among the festivities invariably associated with the function was a popular festival held in an open space called Khodinka Field, on the outskirts of Moscow. As a rule a crowd of at least 300,000 persons was accustomed to flock thither from every town and village in Russia." . That morning while they awaited the opening of the Coronation events the crowds, who had grown too large for the area in which they were contained, began to push forward towards the gates of the celebration. The movement of so many people soon fell out of control and it was not long before the screams could be heard, of hundreds of people being crushed to death. The estimates of the number of people who died that day range from only a hundred to as much as four thousand according to Princess Radziwill's account . This event was clearly a tragedy, made worse by the fact that it was tied to the Imperial Coronation. When Nicholas heard what had happened he seemed unaffected. He called these deaths simply "one of those sad events that simply could not have been prevented." . However he was incorrect. As became common during Nicholas' reign, the organization of the events had been poorly handled. Nicholas had been attending to other matters, when he could have either personally overseen the matter or ensured that those who did were competent.
Incompetence and tangled bureaucratic lines of authority had been the chief factors in causing the Khodinka tragedy. What had happened, as near as anyone can determine, was that Nicholas' uncle... had gotten into a petty power struggle with the Minister of the Imperial Court,... Both men sent off a flood of contrary and contradictory instructions to the Moscow police, and no one knew which orders to obey."
If Nicholas had been in control of the situation and had assigned the correct men for the job of overseeing the events, this tragedy might never have occurred. Similarly, it can be argued that if Nicholas had been a more powerful leader he might have inspired organization and competence in those with whom he dealt.
This entire incident was worsened by Nicholas' behavior after he learned what had happened. Rather than dealing with the situation and canceling the rest of the celebrations, Nicholas ordered that everything should remain as planned, and that night he and his new wife attended a ball for the foreign representatives who had come to town. It was for this decision that Nicholas received the most criticism, both from the nobility and also from the populace of Moscow. "Nicholas himself was bitterly criticized by Russians and foreigners alike for allowing the coronation celebrations to continue. In fact, Sergei Witte,... Urged him to cancel the rest of the festivities, and a number of others shared his opinion. Nonetheless, Nicholas and Alexandra attended the French Ambassador's ball that very night," . The Khodinka tragedy had done a great deal of damage. The Russian people were still getting to know their new monarch, and this event which was so closely tied to his Coronation, would stick in the minds of many Russians, in particular the citizens of Moscow, for years to come.
Russian tradition dictated that soon after the accession of a new Tsar, all those who had requests to make of their new leader should submit them for consideration. This was also a time when both individuals and various groups could express their congratulations to the new Emperor for his accession. In 1896, soon after taking the throne, Nicholas received one such request from the Zemstvos of an area called Tver. In their letter the members of the Zemstvos congratulated the Emperor and stated their hope that under this new reign the local councils would be given more freedom to govern themselves than they had previously enjoyed under Alexander III's reactionary reign. Nicholas' reply could not have been worse. He had no intention of altering any of his father's policies and considered the zemstvos to be a general waste of time. To him the idea of local, rural self-government was out of the question and he decided to use this opportunity to express his beliefs to the rest of the country. In his letter to the Zemstvos, Nicholas wrote:
It has come to my attention that, of late, there have been heard in some zemstvos assemblies the voices of those who have been carried away by senseless dreams that the zemstvos might be called to participate in the government of the country. Let it be known to all that I shall devote all my strength, for the good of the whole nation, to maintaining the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was preserved by my unforgettable father. .
Thus in one motion Nicholas sent the message to his country that not only was his reign going to be an inflexible one, but that he himself was generally unreceptive to his subjects requests. His words in this letter were some of the most famous of his reign; it was called the 'senseless dreams' speech, and it would be used to mock the Tsar for years to come by those revolutionaries who needed a clear sign of the desperate situation in Russia. Nicholas had marked the beginning of his reign with the most unfortunate of incidents, yet sadly he was incapable of seeing this. One year after his accession, the Russian people had already begun to mistrust their Tsar and the hope which many had placed in him to improve their situation was soon destroyed only to be replaced by a new kind of desperation. From this moment on the political situation in Russia slowly began a sharp descent in which emotion and frustration grew more intense as time went on. This frustration led many individuals to propose that it was finally time to take matters into their own hands. Over time the voices of those who felt this way became louder and the number of those who were listening grew.