Tsar Nicholas II (1894- 1917) - 'the last Tsar': 'unfit to run a village post office'?

Past Questions:

  • “The outbreak of war in 1914 postponed the downfall of Nicholas II but also contributed to his overthrow in the first 1917 Russian revolution.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (Specimen)

  • Assess the successes and failures of Nicholas II between 1894 and 1917. (Nov 2008)

  • Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century. (May 2008)

  • Why did Nicholas II survive the 1905 revolution, but lose his throne in the February/ March 1917 revolution? (Nov 2005)


Key dates of his reign:
1894 - Crowned on May 14, after the death of his father Tsar Alexander the Third
1898 – The establishment of the Russian Social and Democratic Party aspired to put an end to the Tsarist state. However, later on this group split in into the Bolsheviks, under the lead of Vladimir Lenin and the more moderate Mensheviks, in 1903.
1904 – Nicholas the Second faced much opposition due to his defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, which was seen as a great humiliation for the Russians.
- Russia and Japan came into conflict over the influence of the Chinese town of Port Arthur (which She acquired in 1898)
- Due to poor leadership and supply difficulties for the Russians, the Japanese emerged victorious in January 1905, when Port Arthur had fallen into their hands. Ultimately, Japanese victory was settled after the two week battle at Mukden, only three months later.
- Nicholas the Second lost face, and discontent and opposition increases
1905 – The Revolution of 1905 – “A dress rehearsal for the real revolution of 1917” Leon Trotsky
- Triggered by the Bloody Sunday (January) – What was to be a peaceful demonstration, including 200,000 men, women and children, ended bloody once the police and troops shot directly at the people, killing 1000 persons.
1906 – The First Duma
- In other words, the first ‘parliament’ where Nicholas the Second issued the Fundamental Law of the Empire: “the Emperor of All of Russia has supreme autocratic power”
1907 – Introduced the Mir; a local commune where land was held in common and peasants received their share of land in private property
1917 – Tsar Nicholas the Second’s involvement in the First World War and the February Revolution of 1917
- The Tsar took command of the war efforts on his own, and left his wife in charge of state. This proved to be a complete failure for Nicholas the Second, given that a massive revolution was awaiting him as a result of people’s major discontent of his rule. The February Revolution proved to be the end of Nicholas the Second.

Background - i.e. personality, upbringing, circumstances in which he came to rule
  • "Nicholas had no knowledge of the world or of men, of politics or government to help him make the difficult and weighty decisions that the Tsar alone must make. The only guided stars he recognised were the inherited belief in the moral rightness of autocracy, and a religious faith that he was in God's hands, and his actions were divinely inspired." (Historian, Hans Rogger).
  • Shy, quiet man, later dominated by his wife, the Tsarina.
  • Educated, like his father, by arch-conservative Pobedonostsev. Excellent education, but as his father, AIII, expected to reign for another 20-30 years, Nicholas was given little practical experience in how to rule before his father's sudden death in 1894.
  • Faced with expectations that he might relax his father's oppression, Nicholas II dismissed claims of the zemstva for more political responsibility as "senseless dreams". He would face far greater problems than those encountered by his father, and his failure to deal with them led to the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the imperial tradition of tsarist rule in 1917.

Key aims as Tsar:
Main aim was to “maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was preserved by my unforgettable dead father”, in addition to modernize without revolution!

In terms of foreign policies, Tsar Nicholas the Second aimed to
  • To gain a warm water port.
  • To get the Straits of the Dardanelles (the entrance to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean) reopened to its warships. This had been closed to Russian ships after the Crimean War.
  • To extend her influence in the Balkans, taking advantage of the decline of Turkish power.
  • To promote a conservative, religious alliance among Slavs in Eastern Europe (Pan-Slavism) as a cover for expanding Russian control.
  • To expand eastwards into Asia especially in Iran, Tibet and India

Methods and policies to achieve these: The Fundamental Law of the Empire of 1906 - the Emperor of All of Russia has supreme autocratic power” (Methods and policies further explained in failures and success) Successes (from whose perspective?)
  • The Czar turned to advice to Count Witte who urged him to agree to fundamental reform. On 30 October the Czar issued the October Manifesto that promised a constitution and a parliament or Duma elected by the people. The Russians were also promised full civil liberties.
  • The duma provided an arena in which the various political groups (liberals, SD, SR) could argue and become more divided. This, together with Stolypin’s ruthless suppression of opposition, helped to marginalize the opponents of the regime’s position after 1905.
  • His main device for resisting revolution was the introduction of land reform. He felt that this could make the better-off peasants loyal supporters of the regime. He introduced reforms in 1906 that allowed peasants to leave the local commune (Mir) where land was held in common and receive their share of land in private property. This would allow them to become permanent owners of their own farms. These reforms had some success and by 1915 about half of the peasants in European Russia owned their farms. He also encouraged smaller farmers to enlarge their holdings with aid from a Peasant Bank that he established. Peasants were encouraged to settle in Siberia in order to alleviate land shortage.

  • The policies of Nicholas the Second’s Minster of Finance (1892-1903) Witte strengthened Russia leading up to WW1. Huge capital investment led to considerable industrial and railway developments, bringing clear economic and military benefits to Russia. In this sense, successful economic modernization achieved from a very low base - though it should also be noted there were clear limitations to this economic modernization, it should not be over-exaggerated.

Failures (from whose perspective?) and reasons for his downfall and the collapse of the 300 year old Romanov dynasty in February 1917:

  • "The 1905 revolution did more than anything else during Nicholas II's reign to undermine support for the regime." Historian Richard Charques.
  • His stubborn personality limited him in his success. Nicholas the Second failed to deal with Russia’s serious political problems. In addition to his failure to consider reform led to the growth of opposition.
  • The depth of opposition to the Czar was shown by the events of 1905 that was brought on by defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. The conduct of the war exposed the inefficiency and corruption of the Czarist system of government and contributed directly to the revolution of 1905.
  • The Czar refused to listen to demands for political change. This led to political discontent caused by the absence of political reform, economic discontent caused by poor wages and increasing taxation, in addition to the defeat and poor management of the war against Japan.

Overall assessment of Nicholas II and historiography
Orlando Figes: “Nicholas had not been blessed with either his father’s strength of character or his intelligence.”

Orlando Figes: “It was not a weakness of will that was the undoing of the last Czar but… a wilful determination to rule from the throne, despite the fact that he clearly lacked the necessary qualities to do so.”

Rasputin: "The Czar can change his mind from one minute to the next; he’s a sad man; he lacks guts.

Norman Stone: "Russia was not advanced enough to stand the strain of war, and the effort to do so plunged her economy into chaos."

Sergei Witte: “His character is the source of all our misfortunes. His outstanding weakness is a lack of willpower.”

Dimitri Volkognov: “The Russian government’s failings in the war and its weakness at home led to the self-destruction of the autocracy on a wave of discontent"