Nicholas II (born 1868, ruled 1894-1917) was the great-grandson of Nicholas I and the oldest son of Alexander III. Known as bloody Nicholas by his subjects, he was the last tsar. Historians largely dismiss Nicholas II as an ineffectual leader who paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution. He didn't want to be tsar and preferred family matters to affair of state. Today some Russians regard him as a martyr and others consider him a despot and a weakling.
Nicholas biographer Robert Massie wrote in Newsweek, "Nicholas II was a descent man but a bad tsar...He was polite and soft spoken, a devoted husband and father and a man of religious faith and passionate Russian patriotism...Like other European princes of his day, Nicholas rode elegantly and danced gracefully, played tennis and was an excellent shot. He spoke French and German an his English accent was so good that in London he was mistaken for a native."
Nicholas was quite comfortable with his Russian roots. He liked to relax around the house in Russian peasant clothes and was fond of traditional Russian dishes such as borscht, kasha and blini and had a tattoo. Nicholas was also a deeply religious man. He once said, " I have a firm, an absolute conviction that he destiny of Russia—that my own fate and that of my family—is in the hands of God, who has placed me where I am.”
Nicholas II was born in 1802. He grew up uneventfully into a strong 5 foot seven young man. He had received a proper education in the arts and recreational activities but was thoroughly untrained and unprepared to govern country that covered one six of the world's land area. Known in royal circles as "Nicky," Nicholas II was a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany ("Willy") and King George V of England ("Georgy"). Nicholas II's mother was a Danish princess, whose sister became Queen Alexandra of England, the wife of Edward VII. Britain's Prince Philip is the grandson of Princess Victoria, the sister of Nicholas II's wife. In 1992, Philip donated his blood for a DNA check of the executed tsarina and her children. The DNA matched perfectly.
Books: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie (1967); Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra by Peter Kurth (Little Brown/Madison Press, 1995), The Romanov Legacy: The Palaces of St. Petersburg by Zoia Belyakova (Viking, 1995). Edvard Radzinsky wrote the first biography of Nicholas II with material made available after glasnost; The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard S. Radzinsky (Doubleday, 1992).
Nicholas II, Alexandra and Their Family
Nicholas II married Alexandra Fyodorovna, the German-born princess and favorite granddaughter of England's Queen Victoria. Alexandra was also related to Alexander III's wife and Marie Fyodorovna, a consort of King Edward VII of England. Nicholas II was madly in love with his wife. Photographs from the 1890s show Nicholas II engaged in a passionate kiss with his wife while his brother-in-law fondles his sisters crotch and kisses her breast and daughter Olga prances around with a bag on her head. In their bedroom they sleep in separate beds. Nicholas he English to his German wife even though French was the court language and spoke Russian with his ministers and aides.
Nicholas II and Alexandra had one son and four daughters: Tsarevich Alexei (the hemophiliac crown prince), the Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, Tatiana and Anastasia (the youngest daughter). Nicholas II was very much a family man. He liked nothing more than spending time with his family and children in the countryside.
In 1894, after giving birth to four girls, Alexandra finally produced a son, Alexi, who was diagnosed at five months as having hemophilia, a hereditary blood disease linked to the family of Queen Victoria. It caused painful swelling and internal hemorrhaging every time he suffered a minor injury or fall. A typical entry from Alexandra's dairy read : "Alexi took his first bath since Tobolsk; his knee is getting better but he cannot straighten it completely." Court physicians were unable to help the boy and the mystic Rasputin was brought in to help. He was the only one who was able to stop the boy's bleeding.
The tsar and his family ate swan for dinner on Christmas day. One princess used to get pulled through the snow on a sleigh pulled by dwarfs. After the four Romanov daughters came down with measles, Alexandra had their heads shaves to help their hair grow back.
Matilda Kshesinskaya was a great ballerina and the great love of Nicholas II before he got married. She lived in St. Petersburg in house bought for her for by the tsar until he had her own mansion built. It was later taken over by Lenin, who gave speeches from the mansion's balcony.
Wealth and Jewels of Nicholas II
Nicholas II's family kept more than 15,000 personal servants. Their sumptuous Winter Palace in St. Petersburg had more than 1,000 rooms. Tsarist treasures included spun-gold and brocade robes, 17th century velvet boots covered with swirling designs made from tiny pearls, silk gowns embroidered with gold and military uniform trimmed with sable and gold braid.
The Romanovs lived in luxury rivaled only by the Bourbons of France, the Hapsburgs of Austria, the Moguls of India and the emperors of China. Nicholas II purchased two 1913 Roll Royce's in Paris and had them shipped to Paris. The interiors were carpeted and upholstered with pure silk.
The most important gem in the royal jewel collection of the Russian Empire is the Star oft he order of St. Andrew, a diamond-encrusted ceremonial badge created in 1720 by Peter the Great. The Romanov jewel collection also includes the Portain Diamond, a 27-carat giant placed over a portrait of Alexander I. It is said to be the world's largest table-cut diamond.
Perhaps the most impressive piece is a broach with a 260-carat Ceylon sapphire encircled by 56 carats of diamonds (purchased in 1862 by Alexander II for his misstress). Equally impressive is an egg-sized 52 carat rubellitte tourmaline known as Caesar's Ruby (once though to have been a possession of Caesar) and later cut in the shape of a bunch of grapes and given to Catherine the Great in 1777 by King Gustav of Sweden.
Other piece of note include a diamond-studded hair ornament in the shape of a cornucopia worn by Catherine the Great; a diamond diadem and pin shape of bees and flowed owned tsarina Elizabeth. There are also strings of megapearls, jewel-encrusted ecclesiastical objects, 17th century pendants carved from sapphires and diamonds, and dozens of Faberage eggs.
Nicholas II and Fabergè Eggs
Some of Russia's most famous works of art are Faberge eggs created by the Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergè as Easter presents for tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II, their families and other aristocratic clients like the gold-mining industrialist Alexander Ferdinandovich Kelch. Fabergé usually delivered the eggs himself as they were received with great pomp and ceremony. At least 53 Imperial eggs were created between 1885 and 1916. The majority of them were given to the two tsarinas: Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra . Only 43 survive. Eight are unaccounted for. [Source: Randy Sue Coburn, Smithsonian magazine]
One jewel-and-enamel Fabergé eggs in the Kremlin Armory collection opens up like a clamshell, revealing a gold- plated globe inside. Decorated with tiny portraits of the Romonav family, this tiny work of art was a gift from Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra in 1913. Another one made from jade, rubies and diamonds opens to a gold model of the Alexander Palace, the favorite home of the royal family. Another opens to reveal a gold Trans Siberian train with a platinum engine and a ruby headlamp. The Coronation Egg, given by Nicholas II to Alexandra in 1896 to mark their coronation, took a 23-year-old craftsmen 15 months to make. It is a golden egg with replica of their coronation coach inside made with rock-crystal windows, platinum tires and diamond-set gold trellis.
Nicholas II's wife Alexandra were particularly found of the Fabergè eggs. The tsar gave eggs not only to her but to his mother as well. The Fabergè eggs were made under a shroud of secrecy and their owners usually kept them in their private apartment. A couple Fabergè eggs were displayed at the Paris Exposition in 1900, when Fabergè received a medal, but the general public for the most part wasn't aware of the eggs existence until Fabergè died in 1920.
Fabergé had a free hand to create anything he wanted as long it housed some kind of surprise hidden inside. Many Fabergé eggs contained a cleverly placed pearl or diamond that when pushed, opened the egg, revealing portraits of the royal family, singing birds, royal crowns or some other delight.
Nicholas II as Tsar
Nicholas II ascended to the Russian throne after his father Alexander III died suddenly at the age 49 of nephritis in 1894. When the 26-year-old Nicholas was informed that he was going to be tsar, Nicholas said, "The very worst thing has happened to me...I am not prepared to be a tsar. I know nothing of the business of ruling."
Nicholas took power at a bad time. There was no Parliament, no elections and laws were made by imperial decrees. Russia was going through great changes while it was divided by space and ethnicity held together with the thinnest of threads.
Nicholas was out of touch with his country and its people. He responded by crises and calls for reform with a certain resignation that went they were beyond his control and in the hands of God. He often let Alexandra make decisions even though she was even more out of touch than she was.
In 1915, when Nicholas moved to the army headquarters near the Polish border, he gave Alexandra the power to run Russia. She relied on Rasputin (see Below) for advise and both she, Rasputin and Nicholas resisted pleas by aides and advisors to appoint a more responsible government. Using his influence on the empress, Rasputin maneuvered ministers favorable to him into key positions and effectively ran the country for about a year and a half.
Reforms and Problems Under Nicholas II
Nicholas II foolishly got Russia involved the Russo-Japanese War and reluctantly made some reforms after the was over. After a general strike that climaxed with the Revolution of 1905, Nicholas established a parliament called the Duma and called for elections. Duma members were allowed to debate issues but not allowed to make decisions; representatives included members of the middle class and academics but no workers or peasants.
Nicholas II hired capable and independent-minded prime minister to led the Duma. Sergei Witte was fired in 1906. Sergei Stolyipin was assassinated in 1911 before he could be fired. Ultimately the Duma was not very successful and did little to reduce public discontent. The year 1913, one of the last years of tsarist rule, was the only year that Russia exported grain.
Under Nicholas II corruption increased and the discontent, particularly in the cities grew. He won his nickname of Bloody Nicholas by violently crushing peaceful protests movements. Nicholas II resisted further reforms partly because he believed that it was the will of God for him to rule Russia. It seemed as Russia's problems worsened he responded by retreating from public affairs and leaving decision making to his wife and her aides.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016