Nicholas succeeded to the throne following his father's death from liver disease on 20th October, 1894. Later that month he married the German princess, Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt. Alexandra, the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, was a strong believer in the autocratic power of Tsardom and urged him to resist demands for political reform.
A cultural nationalist, Nicholas was opposed to the Westernization of Russia. He made a speech in January, 1895, denouncing the "senseless dreams" of those who favour democratic reforms. Leon Trotsky later remarked: "Nicholas inherited from his ancestors not only a giant empire, but also a revolution. And they did not beqeath him one quality which would have made him capable of governing an empire. Or even a country."
Nicholas II and Alexandra disliked St. Petersburg. Considering it too modern, they moved the family residence in 1895 from Anichkov Palace to Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, where they lived in seclusion.
In 1902 Nicholas II appointed the reactionary Vyacheslav Plehve as his Minister of the Interior. Plehve's attempts at suppressing those advocating reform was completely unsuccessful. In a speech he made in 1903 Plehve argued: "Western Russia some 90 per cent of the revolutionaries are Jews, and in Russia generally - some 40 per cent. I shall not conceal from you that the revolutionary movement in Russia worries us but you should know that if you do not deter your youth from the revolutionary movement, we shall make your position untenable to such an extent that you will have to leave Russia, to the very last man!"
Plehve also secretly organized Jewish Pogroms. Plehve was hated by all radicals in Russia. Leon Trotsky commented: "Plehve was as powerless against sedition as his successor, but he was a terrible scourge against the kingdom of liberal newspapermen and rural conspirators. He loathed the revolution with the fierce loathing of a police detective grown old in his profession, threatened by a bomb from around every street corner; he pursued sedition with bloodshot eyes - but in vain. Plehve was terrifying and loathsome as far as the liberals were concerned, but against sedition he was no better and no worse than any of the others. Of necessity, the movement of the masses ignored the limits of what was allowed and what was forbidden: that being so, what did it matter if those limits were a little narrower or a little wider?"
Although he described himself as a man of peace, he favoured an expanded Russian Empire. Encouraged by Vyacheslav Plehve the Tsar made plans to seize Constantinople and expanded into Manchuria and Korea. On 8th February, 1904, the Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. Although the Russian Army was able to hold back Japanese armies along the Yalu River and in Manchuria, the Russian Navy fared badly.
Sergi Witte claimed that Plehve remarked that Russia needed "a little, victorious war to stem the revolution". There are doubts about the truth of this statement but Plehve's actions definitely precipitated the Russo-Japanese War. However, the war failed in its main objective to win support for Nicholas II and the autocracy. The war was unpopular with the Russian people and demonstrations took place in border areas such as Finland, Poland and the Caucasus. Failure to defeat the Japanese also reduced the prestige of the Tsar and his government.
Vyacheslav Plehve was much hated by all those seeking reform and in 1904 Evno Azef, head of the Terrorist Brigade of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, ordered his assassination. Plehve was killed by a bomb thrown by Egor Sazonov on 28th July, 1904. Praskovia Ivanovskaia who took part in the conspiracy later pointed out: "The conclusion of this affair gave me some satisfaction - finally the man who had taken so many victims had been brought to his inevitable end, so universally desired."
Nicholas II also faced mounting domestic problems. The Russian industrial employee worked on average an 11 hour day (10 hours on Saturday). Conditions in the factories were extremely harsh and little concern was shown for the workers' health and safety. Attempts by workers to form trade unions were resisted by the factory owners and in 1903, a priest, Father Georgi Gapon, formed the Assembly of Russian Workers. Within a year it had over 9,000 members.
1904 was a particularly bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods increased so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, Gapon called for industrial action. Over the next few days over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went out on strike.
In an attempt to settle the dispute, Georgi Gapon decided to make a personal appeal to Nicholas II. He drew up a petition outlining the workers' sufferings and demands. This included calling for a reduction in the working day to eight hours, an increase in wages, an improvement in working conditions and an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
When the procession of workers reached the Winter Palace it was attacked by the police and the Cossacks. Over 100 workers were killed and some 300 wounded. The incident, known as Bloody Sunday, started what became known as the 1905 Revolution. Strikes took place all over the country and the universities closed down when the whole student body complained about the lack of civil liberties by staging a walkout. Lawyers, doctor, engineers, and other middle-class workers established the Union of Unions and demanded a constituent assembly.
In June, 1905, sailors on the Potemkin battleship, protested against the serving of rotten meat. The captain ordered that the ringleaders to be shot. The firing-squad refused to carry out the order and joined with the rest of the crew in throwing the officers overboard. The Potemkin Mutiny spread to other units in the army and navy.
Industrial workers all over Russia went on strike and in October, 1905, the railwaymen went on strike which paralyzed the whole Russian railway network. Later that month, Leon Trotsky and other Mensheviks established the St. Petersburg Soviet. Over the next few weeks over 50 of these soviets were formed all over Russia.
Sergi Witte, the new Chief Minister, advised the Tsar to make concessions. The Grand Duke Nikolai Romanov agreed and urged the Tsar to bring in reforms. The Tsar refused and instead ordered him to assume the role of a military dictator. The Grand Duke refused, drew his pistol and threatened to shoot himself on the spot if the Tsar did not endorse Witte's plan. He eventually agreed and published the October Manifesto. This granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association. He also promised that in future people would not be imprisoned without trial. Finally he announced that no law would become operative without the approval of the State Duma.
As this was only a consultative body, many Russians felt that this reform did not go far enough. Leon Trotsky and other revolutionaries denounced the plan. In December, 1905, Trotsky and the rest of the executive committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet were arrested. Others followed and gradually Nicholas II and his government regained control of the situation.
The first meeting of the Duma took place in May 1906. Several changes in the composition of the Duma had been changed since the publication of the October Manifesto. Nicholas II had also created a State Council, an upper chamber, of which he would nominate half its members. He also retained for himself the right to declare war, to control the Orthodox Church and to dissolve the Duma. The Tsar also had the power to appoint and dismiss ministers.
At their first meeting, members of the Duma put forward a series of demands including the release of political prisoners, trade union rights and land reform. Nicholas II rejected all these proposals and dissolved the Duma.
In April, 1906, Nicholas II forced Sergi Witte to resign and replaced him with the more conservative Peter Stolypin. Stolypin attempted to provide a balance between the introduction of much needed land reforms and the suppression of the radicals.
In October, 1906, Stolypin introduced legislation that enabled peasants to have more opportunity to acquire land. They also got more freedom in the selection of their representatives to the Zemstvo (local government councils).
At the same time Peter Stolypin instituted a new court system that made it easier for the arrest and conviction of political revolutionaries. Over 3,000 suspects were convicted and executed by these special courts between 1906 and 1909. As a result of this action the hangman's noose in Russia became known as "Stolypin's necktie". In 1907 Stolypin introduced a new electoral law, by-passing the 1906 constitution, which assured a right-wing majority in the Duma.
The Tsar's wife, Alexandra became very close to Gregory Rasputin, a monk who claimed he had healing powers. Alexis suffered from hemophilia (a disease whereby the blood does not clot if a wound occurs). When Alexis was taken seriously ill in 1908, Rasputin was called to the royal palace. He managed to stop the bleeding and from then on he became a member of the royal entourage.
On 1st September, 1911, Peter Stolypin was assassinated by Dmitri Bogrov, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, at the Kiev Opera House. Nicholas was with him at the time: "During the second interval we had just left the box, as it was so hot, when we heard two sounds as if something had been dropped. I thought an opera glass might have fallen on somebody's head and ran back into the box to look. To the right I saw a group of officers and other people. They seemed to be dragging someone along. Women were shrieking and, directly in front of me in the stalls, Stolypin was standing. He slowly turned his face towards me and with his left hand made the sign of the Cross in the air. Only then did I notice he was very pale and that his right hand and uniform were bloodstained. He slowly sank into his chair and began to unbutton his tunic. People were trying to lynch the assassin. I am sorry to say the police rescued him from the crowd and took him to as isolated room for his first examination."
The Russian government considered Germany to be the main threat to its territory. This was reinforced by Germany's decision to form the Triple Alliance. Under the terms of this military alliance, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy agreed to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia.
Industrial unrest in Russia continued throughout this period and in 1912 hundreds of striking miners were massacred at the Lena goldfields. During the first six months of 1914, almost half of the total industrial workforce in Russia took part in strikes.
In the international crisis that followed the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Nicholas II accepted the advice of his foreign minister, Sergi Sazonov, and committed Russia to supporting the Triple Entente. Sazonov was of the opinion that in the event of a war, Russia's membership of the Triple Entente would enable it to make territorial gains from neighbouring countries. Sazonov and Nicholas II were especially interested in taking Posen, Silesia, Galicia and North Bukovina.
On 31st July, 1914, Sergi Sazonov advised the Tsar to order the mobilization of the Russian Army even though he knew it would lead to war with the Germany and Austria-Hungary. During the early stages of the First World War Sazonov was busy making long-term territorial arrangements with Britain and France. This including the promise that after the war Russia would be given control of the Dardanelles.
In September 1915, Nicholas II assumed supreme command of the Russian Army fighting on the Eastern Front. As he spent most of his time at GHQ, Alexandra now took responsibility for domestic policy. Gregory Rasputin served as her adviser and over the next few months she dismissed ministers and their deputies in rapid succession. Rumours began to circulate that Alexandra and Rasputin were leaders of a pro-German court group and were seeking a separate peace with the Central Powers in order to help the survival of the autocracy in Russia.
Ariadna Tyrkova commented: "Throughout Russia, both at the front and at home, rumour grew ever louder concerning the pernicious influence exercised by the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, at whose side rose the sinister figure of Gregory Rasputin. This charlatan and hypnotist had wormed himself into the Tsar’s palace and gradually acquired a limitless power over the hysterical Empress, and through her over the Sovereign. Rasputin’s proximity to the Tsar’s family proved fatal to the dynasty, for no political criticism can harm the prestige of Tsars so effectually as the personal weakness, vice, or debasement of the members of a royal house. Rumours were current, up to now unrepudiated, but likewise unconfirmed, that the Germans were influencing Alexandra Feodorovna through the medium of Rasputin and Stürmer. Haughty and unapproachable, she lacked popularity, and was all the more readily suspected of almost anything, even of pro-Germanism, since the crowd is always ready to believe anything that tends to augment their suspicions."
Gregory Rasputin was also suspected of financial corruption and right-wing politicians believed that he was undermining the popularity of the regime. Felix Yusupov, the husband of the Tsar's niece, and Vladimir Purishkevich, a member of the Duma, formed a conspiracy to murder Rasputin. On 29th December, 1916, Rasputin was invited to Yusupov's home where he was given poisoned wine and cakes. When this did not kill him he was shot by Yusupov and Purishkevich and then dropped through a hole in the frozen canal outside the house.
As Nicholas was supreme command of the Russian Army he was linked to the country's military failures and there was a strong decline support for the Tsar in Russia. On 10th March, 1917, the Tsar had decreed the dissolution of the Duma, but the President of the Duma, Michael Rodzianko, before he knew of this decree, had sent the following telegram to the Tsar: "The situation is serious. There is anarchy in the capital. The Government is paralysed. Transport, food, and fuel supply are completely disorganised. Universal discontent is increasing. Disorderly firing is going on in the streets. Some troops are firing at each other. It is urgently necessary to entrust a man enjoying the confidence of the country with the formation of a new Government. Delay is impossible. Any tardiness is fatal. I pray God that at this hour the responsibility may not fall upon the Sovereign."
The High Command of the Russian Army now feared a violent revolution and on 28th February suggested that Nicholas II should abdicate in favour of a more popular member of the royal family. Attempts were now made to persuade Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich to accept the throne. He refused and on the 1st March, 1917, the Tsar abdicated leaving the Provisional Government in control of the country.
The Tsar and his immediate family were arrested and negotiations began to find a place of overseas exile. P. N. Milyukov persuaded David Lloyd George, to offer the family political asylum in Britain. However, George V, who feared that the presence of Nicholas would endanger his own throne, forced Lloyd George to withdraw the offer.
Nicholas and his family were moved to the remote Siberian city of Ekaterinburg where he was held captive by a group of Bolsheviks. Nicholas and his family were executed in July 1918.
© John Simkin, May 2013