Tsar Nicholas II was the last Tsar of Russia. He ruled from 1894 until his abdication in 1917 – and with his abdication came the end of a line of rulers of Russia, the Romanovs, that went back more than three centuries. Here, Matthew Hazelwood considers Nicholas II and why his reign failed, so leading to the downfall of the Romanov Dynasty.

A 1915 painting of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia by Boris Kustodiev.

A 1915 painting of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia by Boris Kustodiev.

Socialism with a Bloody Face 

On the night of the 16th-17th of July 1918 in Yekaterinburg [1], Russia, Nicholas II and Alexandra, the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, were executed, along with their five children, the head Footman, the head cook, the head physician, and the Czarina’s lady-in-waiting. [2]A week later, Leon Trotsky wrote in his diary:

My next visit to Moscow took place after the fall of Yekaterinburg. Talking to Sverdlov I asked in passing, "Oh yes and where is the Tsar?" "It's all over," he answered. "He has been shot." "And where is his family?" "And the family with him." "All of them?" I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. "All of them," replied Yakov Sverdlov. "What about it?" He was waiting to see my reaction. I made no reply. "And who made the decision?" I asked. "We decided it here. Ilyich [Lenin] believed that we shouldn't leave the Whites a live banner to rally around, especially under the present difficult circumstances."[3]


The Chief Executioner, Yakov Yurovsky, had no such pause. “I shot Nicholas on the spot.” He said, “The Empress barely had time to cross herself before she was shot. She died instantly. Elsewhere in the room there was bloody carnage as the guards lost control and shot wildly. The bullets ricocheted from the walls to the floor and around the rooms like Hailstones.” This carelessness left six of the eleven victims wounded but alive.  “Alexis {the Tsar’s only son} fell off the chair, shot in the leg, still alive. Kharitonov {the head cook} sat down and died.” “When one of the girls was stabbed, the bayonet would not go through the corset.” The ordeal lasted over twenty minutes. [4]

The true reason for the execution, though, was the Czar himself. Everyone else was an incidental party guilty only by association. Who, then, was this man whose blood ushered in the symbolic end of Czarism and the victory of Bolshevism? Was His Imperial Majesty an innocent victim killed in the name of communism, or a bumbling, reactionary tyrant who got what was coming, or both?


A Philistine Sophisticate 

Nicholas II was first and foremost a loving man. He wrote letters addressing his wife as “my own beloved” and “my dear wifey”. [5]She in turn called him “Sunshine” and “My very own treasure”.[6]He spoke Russian, German, French, and English, and once told his son’s tutor that as a young man, “{my} favorite subject was history”. [7]Their relationship was, by all accounts, successful, even if Alexandra’s English reserve and stoic pride caused her to be hated by the populous and snubbed by Russian aristocrats.[8]As an adult, he became a passionate amateur photographer; but despite these virtues, he was the wrong man to head the Russian Empire. [9]

And his faults leap to the scholar’s eye. “He was handsome and blue-eyed” wrote Simon Sebag Montefiore, “but diminutive and hardly majestic, and his looks and his immaculate manners concealed an astonishing arrogance, contempt for the educated political classes, vicious anti-Semitism, and an unshakable belief in his right to rule as a sacred autocrat. He was jealous of his ministers, and he possessed the unfortunate ability to make himself utterly distrusted by his own government.”[10]

But even he had modest moments. When his father, Tsar Alexander, unexpectedly died at the age of forty-nine, Nicholas, then a youth of twenty-six years, became Tsar. The world as he knew it had come to an end. Nicholas was reported to have said to his brother-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, “Sandro {the Grand Duke’s nickname}, what am I going to do? What is going to happen to me, to you, to Alex, to mother, to Russia? I am not ready to be Tsar. I never wanted to become one.” Nicholas’ younger sister, Grand Duchess Olga, agreed while absolving her brother of any blame: “Nicky was in despair. He kept saying that he did not know what would become of us all. That he was wholly unfit to reign. And yet, Nicky’s unfitness was by no means his fault. He should have been taught statesmanship, and he was not.” [11]

But the universe had other plans. Nicholas was the rightful heir to the throne, and nothing could change that.  His wife even gave him the marching orders: “Be more autocratic than Peter the Great and sterner than Ivan the Terrible.”[12]No matter how hard Nicholas tried, he could never quite learn the decisiveness of Peter nor the cruelty of Ivan.  It was a mistake from which he and his loved ones could never recover from.


Nicholas as leader 

His first massive blunder was when he chose to wage war against Japan. Nicholas II wanted control of the South China Sea and to increase his country’s global power. He didn’t expect the conflict to last long, since the Japanese were “yellow men, not entirely civilized”. What he didn’t realize was Japan had possession of an impressive military, and they roundly defeated Russia’s pacific fleet. Russia was forced to sue for peace. 

The loyalty of the people was lost after Sunday, January 9, 1905, otherwise known as Bloody Sunday. A group of peaceful demonstrators marched through St. Petersburg, in the hope of appealing to the Czar himself. Nicholas, however, wasn’t made for diplomacy. He left the city, ordering the military to disband the crowd should they come close to the Winter Palace. The ensuing massacre left an estimated 800 dead.[13]To the Tsar’s credit, though, he wrote in his diary “A distressing day. The troops have been forced to fire in several parts of the city, and there are many killed and wounded. Lord, how powerful and sad this is.”[14]But this was little consolation. 

Then 1914 came along, and Nicholas decided, against the wishes of many a Minister, that Russia would fight against the Triple Alliance in the First World War. Count Sergei Witte advised against war “because the army is the mainstay of the regime and may well be needed to preserve order at home.” Pyotr Durnovo, no friend of the Revolution, predicted that war would cause “Russia {to be} flung into hopeless anarchy; the issue of which cannot be foreseen.” Even the notorious Rasputin, a favorite of the Queen, said that “{war} will be the end of all of you”. 

As the bodies piled up, the soldiers’ morale was soon depleted beyond repair. This above anything else is what ruined him. It became clear to everyone from the most illiterate peasant to the richest aristocrat that changes had to be made. But Nicholas remained resistant to change. A violent revolution in February 1917 made the decision for him. He signed the throne away to his brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, but Michael refused. Some wanted Nicholas’ son to become Tsar, but Alexis was a hemophiliac, and Nicholas declared that “I can’t bear to be parted from him.”[15]

The Duma, or Parliament, first created a Worker’s Council, which pledged its support if Marxist policies were enacted, and a temporary Provisional Government was created which would guide Russia through the war abroad, and away from chaos at home. One important change was the repealing of former laws against speech and assembly. But despite becoming the “freest country in the world”, workers called for far more changes. They wanted to control the factories and have eight-hour days. Strikes were rampant. 

Around June 1917, the Provisional Government initiated a few offensives against Germany, but the Russians were forced to retreat after two days of advancing. The First Machine Gun Regiment was called for back-up, but most of these soldiers were Pro-Bolshevik, and threatened to take over the government. A month later, workers joined the soldiers and sailors for an armed uprising. But the Bolshevik leaders were not ready to make a move, and the government quickly cracked down. Many were arrested. 

Around this time, the former minister of Justice Aleksandr Kerensky, a self-proclaimed socialist, became prime minister. Though the only socialist in power, he had the death penalty restored, and the restrictions on public gatherings increased. But instability continued as Kerensky pushed policies advocated for by the head of the army, General Kornilov, which amounted to martial law, but then Kerensky turned against Kornilov, and advocated that the Soviets fight against Kornilov’s army. Instead the Soviet convinced Kornilov’s soldiers to put down their weapons. 

This hurt Kerensky’s reputation infinitely, and his countrymen became more radicalized, to the point where more and more Bolsheviks were elected to the Soviets. Hearing of the planned insurrection, the meeting of the Soviet Congress was rescheduled from October 20thto the 25th. As for Kerensky, his last and final mistake was to try to move most of the Petrograd Garrison to the northern front. The Bolsheviks formed the Military Revolutionary Committee to prevent this. And at last, on October 25th, 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power, and by then the fate of the Czar was sealed.[16]


Final Thoughts 

We have seen Nicholas the man, and Nicholas the leader. Where does that leave us? What judgements, if any, do we make? When it comes to human affairs, the historian must remember that there are no easy answers. A certain level of skepticism is necessary, because history is inevitably political, and politics is often far from objective. A Hitler warrants universal condemnation, but most people aren’t Hitler. 

As mentioned above, Nicholas had positive qualities. A better question, perhaps, is what could have been done differently? Should he have listened to X or should he have done Y? We can’t rule that out, but this fails to give us a larger perspective. The real battle the last Tsar was fighting wasn’t with the liberals or the Bolsheviks; it was against a much stronger, much scarier enemy, and that enemy was modernity. 

To yield to modernity meant to negate certain values that had been propagated for centuries. A society where most people were lowly laborers, educated aristocrats quietly laughed at the foibles of the world, theologians studied intensely, and the monarch’s word was law. The world is as it is because God willed it so. To a mere peasant, the world may seem unfair, but that’s because he doesn’t have God’s knowledge. The Universe is necessarily as it is. No changes are permitted to be made unless we want to be cast in eternal hell-fire. Nicholas was trying his hardest to keep his world from collapsing on top of him.  

Nevertheless, it was a war he was destined to lose. An extraordinary amount of energy was going to be let loose one way or the other, as in Britain in 1688, North America in 1775, and France in 1789 respectively. What was necessary was the creation of a freer, more just, and more technologically advanced society in Russia. And though one could argue that Russia is still behind other Western countries in areas such as freedom of speech, press, and assembly, Russia is much better off than it was a century ago. 

If Nicholas had been forward-thinking, in a word, wiser, it’s likely that Russia’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy would’ve been much smoother, and the excesses of Marxism-Leninism wouldn’t have been realized. His regressive outlook and uncertain jesters, unfortunately, did nothing more than exacerbate the situation. He had several chances to make changes for the better, and he did not take them. In fact, he consistently made the wrong decision until, ultimately, his options ran out and the Bolsheviks got to him. 

The story of civilization, though, is not a morality play. There are no good guys or bad guys. It’s a tale more profound and dramatic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. This article can only give you a snapshot into Russia’s unique place in that great whole which nobody can completely understand.  If we cannot love the long-dead emperor of Russia, we can at least recognize the Romanov’s execution as one of the darker moments of the twentieth century. 


What do you think of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia? Let us know below.

[1] Massie, Robert K. (2012). The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. Random House.pp. 3–24

[2] William H. Honan (12 August 1992), A Playwright Applies His Craft To Czar Nicholas II’s Last Days, New York Times, Retrieved 26thNovember 2018 

[3]King, G. (1999). The Last Empress, Replica Books, p. 358. 

[4]Sebestyen, Victor. (2017) Lenin. London: Penguin Random House LLC. 401-410

[5]Letters from Tsar Nicholas to Tsaritsa Alexander-January 1916. Retrieved from www.alexanderpalace.org

[6](2018, April 26). ‘Cover you with kisses, my Angel’: #Romanovs100 Intimate love letters. Retrieved from https://www.rt.com

[7](2006, May 17). Tsar Nicholas and his Family. Retrieved from www.pravmir.com

[8]Anderson, M. (director). (1996).  Last of the Czars. {motion picture}. USA: Discovery Channel.

[9]Anderson, M. (director). (1996).  Last of the Czars. {motion picture}. USA: Discovery Channel.

[10]Montefiore, Simon Sebag. (2018, Oct.12). The Devastating True Story of the Romanov Family’s Execution. Retrieved from https://www.townandcountrymag.com

[11]Anderson, M. (director). (1996).  Last of the Czars. {motion picture}. USA: Discovery Channel

[12](2015, May 21). Quotes on Nicholas II Romanov. Wordpress.com. Retrieved from https://alldocumentsherekanan.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/quotes-on-nicholas-ii-romanov/


[13]Sebestyen, Victor. (2017) Lenin. London: Penguin Random House LLC. Pg. 159-170 & 234-239

[14]Anderson, M. (director). (1996).  Last of the Czars. {motion picture}. USA: Discovery Channel.

[15]Sebestyen, Victor. (2017) Lenin. London: Penguin Random House LLC.Pg. 159-170 & 234-239

[16]Figes, Orlando. (2017, October 25th). From Czar to U.S.S.R.: Russia’s Chaotic Year of Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com