Russia’s Last Czar, Nicholas II

By Mike Kubic

Mike Kubic is a former correspondent of Newsweek magazine. In 1894, Nicholas II took to the throne as
Emperor of All Russia. Less than 25 years later, he would be deposed of power, placed under house arrest, and
murdered, along with his entire family, in a basement in central Russia. As you read, take notes on the factors
that led to the downfall of not only Nicholas II but the entire House of Romanov.

Ascension to the Throne
When telling the tragic story of the last Russian czar,
Nicholas II, the temptation is to start at the dramatic
end — the July 1918 massacre of him, his entire
family, his household help and personal physician, by
which the triumphant Communist1 movement
introduced its rule.
But more instructive about the monarch was his
reaction to the news in November 1894 that his
father, Alexander III, had died and that he, Nicholas,
would be the new Emperor of All Russia.
As told by Simon Sebag Montefiori in his book
The Romanovs, the 26-year-old Nicholai
Aleksandrovich Romanov broke down in tears and
ran to his sister.
“What is going to happen to me, to [my family] and to Russia?” he cried on her shoulder. “I never wanted to be
the czar!”2
Nicholas’ despair was understandable: the job with which he was about to be entrusted was colossal.3
He was

  1. a political theory and economic system derived from the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that
    advocates class war, the rise of the working class, and a society in which all property is publicly, rather than
    individually owned; in theory, under communism, everyone works and is paid according to their abilities
    and needs
  2. Nicholas II was the eldest son of Alexander III and had been his heir to the throne since he was young. He
    was always intended to be czar in the line of succession, but many historians and sources agree that his
    disposition was not well-suited to the job. It should also be noted that Nicholas II became his father’s heir
    at age 12 following the assassination of his grandfather Alexander II. This event had a great impact on
    Nicholas II and his conservative father.
    assuming it while Europe was haunted, as Karl Marx had put it, with the “specter” of Communism,4
    and by the
    end of the 19th century no country was a more inviting target for a revolution than feudal Russia.5
    To successfully rule this oversized empire required an astute6
    and strong leader who was closely attuned to the
    needs and feelings of his 160-odd million subjects. Nicholas II, by contrast, was one of history’s most dismal7
    examples of the wrong man, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. His reign seemed to be almost
    predetermined to end in a momentous tragedy.
    It didn’t start that way.
    In 1894, when Nicholas ascended the throne, the Romanovs were one of the world’s most successful noble
    They had ruled Russia for more than 280 years, and most of their subjects — as the czar’s German-born wife,
    Alexandra, wrote to British Queen Victoria8 — practically worshipped them “as divine beings.”9
    Russia was recognized as one of the world’s great powers, and its empire spanned the continent from the Baltic
    Sea in Europe to the Bering Sea in Asia — one sixth of the global land mass.
    And the Romanovs’ personal wealth was almost unimaginable: for example, Alexandra’s wedding wardrobe
    included a tiara with 475 big diamonds set in platinum and earrings that were so heavy they had to be held by
    wires wrapped around her ears. It took eight assistants to help her wear her diamond- and gold-studded dress
    and its 15 foot-long train.
    What the last Romanov did not have was an understanding and respect for the dirt-poor and frequently hungry
    peasants who eked10 out a meager living, and it was part of Nicholas’ misfortune that his abysmal11
    insensitivity and weakness were revealed on the very day after his coronation.
    To celebrate the occasion, the royal household prepared 400,000 packages each with candy, gingerbreads, a
    sausage, a mug and a bread roll, and set them, together with barrels of beer and mead, on hundreds of stands
    in a large field in Moscow. But when more than 700,000 peasants showed up, the gifts ran out, and a riot
  3. Colossal (adjective) extremely large
  4. An allusion to The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, that is the main source
    of communist political theory.
  5. Russia remained in a state of pseudo-feudalism well into the 19th century. Serfs worked the land for the
    land-owning nobility and were not considered free people. Serfdom was officially ended in Russia in 1861
    by czar Alexander II, but this abolition was not always favorable for the landless, uneducated serf majority.
    In fact, it mostly served to provoke more feelings of revolution.
  6. Astute (adjective) showing the ability to accurately assess situations or people and use this information to
    one’s advantage
  7. Dismal (adjective) showing or causing sadness; very bad or poor
  8. Alexandra, or Alix of Hesse, was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
  9. A divine being is a god.
  10. to manage to support oneself or make a living with difficulty
  11. Abysmal (adjective) extremely bad; appalling or shocking
    ensued in which an estimated 3,000 people were trampled to death, and thousands more were injured.
    Informed about the disaster later in the morning, Nicholas thought he should perhaps skip the evening’s grand
    ball at the French embassy in favor of visiting those injured at the riots in local hospitals. Instead, Nicholas’
    uncle persuaded him to attend the ball. Nicholas and Alexandra called on the victims the next day, but Russians
    always remembered that the new czar and his wife had danced until 2 a.m. while tens of thousands of their
    subjects were either dead, mourning, or injured in hospitals.
    Early Years as Czar
    [15] After his coronation, the royal couple took long vacation trips and, as Montefiori reports, did “essentially
    nothing” for almost ten years. He signed mostly unimportant documents and personally kept a meticulous12
    order in his office, where he sat all by himself, with no secretary.
    Although a classical absentee landlord — Nicholas left the job of day-to-day governing to his strong-willed wife
    and his frequently incompetent ministers. The young monarch was a total autocrat.13 As he once put it, Russia
    was “a landed estate whose proprietor is the czar, the administrator is the nobility, and the workers are the
    peasantry.” In his 1897 census report, he described himself as the “master of the Russian land.”
    And he made mistake upon mistake when dealing with his subjects.
    When in the early 1900s anti-Semitic pogroms14 killed thousands of Jews, he openly sympathized with the mobs
    and made poor Jewish jokes at formal dinners.
    In 1905, he showed the same poor judgment by refusing to meet peaceful demonstrators who came to ask for
    more rights for the Duma, the powerless Russian parliament. The guards stopped the 120,000 petitioners
    outside the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, but they later killed or wounded several hundred of them in
    what came to be known as “Black Sunday.”
    [20] The “Black Sunday” incident added to the czar’s reputation as “Bloody Nicholas,” and triggered nationwide
    strikes and protests. Nicholas finally responded with vague promises of liberal reform, which he never carried
    War and Imperialism15
    When dealing with other nations, Nicholas showed his predecessors’16 penchant17 for extending the already
  12. Meticulous (adjective) showing great attention to detail; very careful and precise
  13. a ruler with absolute power; a dictator or tyrant
  14. an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, in particular that of Jewish people in Russia or Eastern
  15. a policy of extending a country’s power and influence over another country/state/region, often
    through military force
  16. Predecessor (noun) a person who held a job or office before the current holder
    oversized empire — but unlike the more successful Romanovs, he had unrealistic confidence in the strength of
    his regime and his military.
    In 1900, he took advantage of the Boxer Rebellion — an anti-foreign uprising in China — to send 170,000 troops
    to occupy the Chinese province of Manchuria,18 and later broke his agreement to pull the troops out. This
    infuriated Japan, which had the same designs on the rich territory, but Nicholas paid no heed.
    As he told his defense minister, he intended to also annex Korea and Persia (today’s Iran) and take control of
    the international waterways of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.19 As for the possible threat of a war with
    Japan, Nicholas was unconcerned. He said “Yes, absolutely!” when the minister shrugged off the Japanese army
    as “a huge joke,” and with his wife left for eight weeks to attend a wedding in Germany.
    In February 1904 — less than four months later — Japan launched a surprise attack that destroyed a Russian
    fleet and threatened to seize Port Arthur, Russia’s only warm-water port. In the war that followed, the Japanese
    army decisively won every battle and Nicholas was lucky when President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905
    negotiated a peace treaty in which Russia had to give up only a half of an Asian island.
    [25] While dreaming about conquests in the Far East, Nicholas overlooked critical developments at home. One of
    them was the March 1898 founding in Minsk of a Communist party headed by Vladimir Lenin,20 a charismatic
    revolutionary whose first and foremost goal was the overthrow of the czarist regime.
    Another potentially more promising change was the increasingly urgent demands by the leaders of the Duma
    for real democratic reforms. This was probably Nicholas’ last chance to save the monarchy and preserve the
    throne for his son, but he summarily dismissed all proposals. “I’ll never agree to a representative form of
    government,” he told his interior minister, “because I consider it harmful to the people that God has entrusted
    me to lead.”
    Nicholas also showed a puzzling disregard for a major uproar in his own court over the growing influence of a
    mystical faith healer named Grigori Rasputin. Brought into Nicholas’ household because of his alleged ability to
    treat the hemophilia21 of the czar’s only son, the monk had a profound influence on the royal couple and
    earned the hatred of several nobles in the czar’s retinue.22 They eventually assassinated Rasputin, but not
    before his presence in the palace significantly added to the loss of confidence in Nicholas’ judgement, and the
    opposition to his rule.
  17. Penchant (noun) a strong or habitual liking for something; a tendency to do something
  18. Manchuria is a mountainous region that forms a northeastern portion of China. Control over this region
    would allow the Russian empire access to warm-water ports on the Pacific Ocean.
  19. The Bosporus and the Dardanelles are known collectively as the Turkish Straits. Both are natural straits and
    internationally significant waterways located in northwestern Turkey and connect to the Black Sea.
  20. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), was a Russian communist
    leader, politician, and political theorist. He served as head of the Communist Party following the abdication
    of Nicholas II and officially led the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1924. He developed a system of Marxism
    known as Leninism.
  21. a genetic disorder that impairs the body’s ability to make blood clots, which is needed to stop bleeding
  22. Retinue (noun) a group of advisers, assistants, or others accompanying an important person
    What sealed Nicholas’ fate was his ill-considered decision to enter the First World War, for which his poorly
    armed army and unstable home front clearly were not ready. Following several military setbacks, the czar
    disregarded a warning that the Russian army was “unreliable,” and in August 1915 took personal command of
    his demoralized23 and increasingly rebellious troops.
    It was another major blunder. With 15 million men at the front or POW24 camps instead of farming, prices of
    food skyrocketed, millions of hungry Russians rioted or went on strike, and the entire military units were
    deserting en masse. By early 1917, Russia was on the brink of utter collapse, and Nicholas was blamed for it.
    Last of the Romanovs
    In March, the powerless czar had no choice but to give in to the demands of the Duma and the Communists. He
    abdicated25 the throne on behalf of himself and his son, and the whole family was arrested. After the control
    over the country shifted from a provisional government to Lenin’s radicals (the Bolsheviks), the royal couple,
    their son and four daughters, and the ex-czar’s personal physician and three servants, were moved to a house
    in Yekaterinburg, a town beyond the Urals.26
    There during the night of July 17, 1918, with Lenin’s approval, all eleven prisoners were executed with savage27
    brutality. They were killed by bullets, bayonets, and blows by rifle butts;28 drenched with acid and gasoline; and
    burned in a deep pit.
    The reason for the massacre was most authoritatively explained by Leon Trotsky,29 a former Bolshevik leader
    and one of the founders of the Soviet Union.30 In his 1935 book, Diary in Exile, he described the slaughter as:
    “not only expedient31 but necessary. The severity of this summary justice showed the world that we
    would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing. The execution of the czar’s family was
    needed not only in order to frighten, horrify and dishearten the enemy, but also in order to shake up our
    own ranks to show that there was no turning back, that ahead lay either complete victory or complete
    ruin… This, Lenin sensed well.”
  23. Demoralized (adjective) having lost confidence or hope
  24. “prisoner of war”
  25. Abdicate (verb) to give up a title or resign from a position, often due to failure to uphold one’s duties
  26. The Ural Mountains run from north to south through western Russia.
  27. Savage (adjective) fierce, violent, or uncontrolled
  28. The Romanovs always held out hope for rescue or foreign exile, and in preparation the Romanov women
    sewed jewels into their clothing to smuggle out with them. This somewhat shielded the women from the
    gunshots, thus leading to the various, awful ways of killing.
  29. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was an initial supporter of the Menshevik faction before joining the Bolsheviks in
    the October Revolution of 1917. He later became a commander of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War.
    Trotsky was an opponent of Stalin and his policies; Trotsky was removed from power in 1927 and was
    exiled two years later.
  30. The Soviet Union, or the USSR, was a socialist union of multiple Soviet republics, including the former
    Russia and other Eastern European satellites, that lasted from 1922 until 1991.
  31. Expedient (adjective) convenient and practical (although possibly improper or immoral)
    Trotsky, who made the mistake of antagonizing Josef Stalin,32 his rival for the leadership of the Soviet Union,
    provided another evidence that Communists stop at nothing. In August, 1940, while hiding in Mexico, he was on
    Stalin’s order killed by an ice axe-wielding assassin, who split his skull in half.
    “Russia’s Last Czar, Nicholas II” by Mike Kubic. Copyright © 2016 by CommonLit, Inc. This text is licensed under CC BY￾NC-SA 2.0.
    Unless otherwise noted, this content is licensed under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
  32. Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was the leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. He
    worked among other original members of the Bolsheviks, such as Lenin and Trotsky. He is now well known
    for ordering political purges and imprisoning millions of people in the Gulag prison camps. The number of
    deaths caused by Stalin’s regime is still debated, but it is largely agreed to be in the millions.
    Discussion Questions
    Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to share
    your original ideas in a class discussion.
  33. The Romanovs were born into a world of opulence and extreme power. In the context of this
    passage, how does power corrupt? Consider the various ways in which power affected the
    Romanovs, especially the czar. Does it make any difference that Nicholas II never wanted to be
    czar? Cite evidence from this text, your own experience, and other literature, art, or history in your
  34. In the excerpt from Trotsky’s book, Trotsky seems convinced that what Lenin did was right. He
    supports the decision to remove and murder the Romanovs as part of the greater good. Likewise,
    Nicholas II was convinced that many of his “bloody” actions were the right thing to do. In the
    context of this passage, what is good and how do we know? Analyze the actions and motivations of
    the czar and the revolutionaries. Cite evidence from this text, your own experience, and other
    literature, art, or history in your answer.
  35. The first few decades of the 20th century were tumultuous and full of revolution, not only in Russia
    but throughout the world. What steps did the revolutionaries in Russia take to create change? How
    did they ensure this change remained? Cite evidence from this text, your own experience, and
    other literature, art, or history in your answer.