The Reign of Nicholas II, Russia’s Last Emperor


Emperor Nicholas II, 1896. Artist: Ilya Repin. The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

During the reign of Nicholas II in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Russia made considerable progress in all areas of life. Many predicted that Russia would have an important future and a more essential role to play in the world. It was in stark contrast to these predictions that the Empire came tumbling down in 1917 in a collapse that had dramatic consequences for the Russian people. Emperor Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar of the Romanov dynasty, ascended the throne on 1 November [O.S. 20 October] 1894.

In his will, his father, Emperor Alexander III, who died at the age of 49, wrote the following to instruct his son: “You will have to take from me and shoulder the heavy burden of government and bear it until your good hour, the way I have done it, the way our ancestors did it. Now, you will assume the God-given Empire, which I received from my father when he was bleeding to death 13 years ago… Your grandfather used his unlimited monarchical powers to carry out numerous reforms for the good of the Russian people. In reward, he got a bomb and death from Russian revolutionaries… On that tragic day, I was confronted with the question of what path I should follow. Was it to be the path that the so-called advanced society, which caught the pest of Western liberal ideas, urged me to take, or the path prompted by my own conviction, my supreme sacred duty of tsar, and my conscience? I have chosen my way. The Liberals called me reactionary. However, I was interested solely in the good of my people and the grandeur of Russia. I sought to secure peace both inside and outside Russia so that the state could develop freely and quietly, grow rich and prosper. Autocracy has created Russia’s historic identity. If autocracy tumbles down, God forbid, then all of Russia will collapse. A collapse of the originally Russian government will usher in an interminable era of trouble and bloody internecine strife. I bequeath you love for everything that will ensure the good, honour, and dignity of Russia. Protect dignity, but bear in mind that you are responsible for the future of your subjects to the Most High. Your belief in the holiness of your monarchical duty will underlie your life. You must be firm and courageous, and never show weakness. You must show independence in your foreign policy. You must never forget that Russia has no friends. Foreigners fear our hugeness. Avoid fighting wars. In your home policy, patronise the Church for it often saved Russia in the years of hardships. Strengthen the family, which is the basis of every state”.

Nicholas II ascended the throne when he was 26, and one must admit that, to his honour, he found the strength to assume responsibility for his enormous country without shifting it onto anybody else. In his first address to the people, Nicholas II said he would follow his deceased father’s behests, and that he would rule for the good and prosperity of his subjects. Emperor Nicholas II’s reign was not easy because by the early twentieth century the ruling circles and intellectuals adopted a negative position on the fundamentals, traditions, and ideas of Russian society. The educated circles, which copied liberal and Marxist ideas from Western Europe, denied Russia the right to its own way of development, sought to destroy its originality, and impose an alien model of Western European development on our country. Hence, they had hatred for the Tsar as the embodiment of autocracy, the traditional form of government in Russia. The liberals and democrats tried to slander Nicholas II, to draw an unseemly picture of his rule. The former French president Emil Louber wrote this about the Russian Tsar in his memoirs, published in Paris in 1910, “It is held that the Russian Emperor falls under outside influence. This is absolutely wrong. The Russian Emperor implements his own ideas. He has carefully thought-out plans that he continuously works to implement… Behind a mask of timidity, he has a strong soul and a courageous heart that is unflinchingly loyal. He knows where he is going to and what he wants”.

Under Tsar Nicholas, Russia experienced tremendous growth in its economy, one that it had never known before. Here are some figures to prove the point. Economic growth rates were among the highest in the world. The tsarist government’s protectionist policy spurred home market development. Russia was the world’s only nation that could exist autonomously, irrespective of its imports or exports, thanks to its mode of life. Russians manufactured all the goods they needed for home consumption. The Russian economy was not oriented to the foreign market. Russia produced only flax and butter commercially for export purposes. Production facilities sprang up; mineral resources were tapped. The Trans-Siberian Railway (some 7,416 kilometres in length) became a symbol of economic prosperity. Only a power that boasted a highly developed industrial potential could build this kind of trunk-railway on its own. Economic growth resulted in lavish fruits, namely the people’s incomes grew twofold. Russian workers boasted the world’s highest wages, which were second to those of US workers only. Russia had a deficit-free budget during the reign of Nicholas II. The taxes were the lowest in the world. The Russian rouble was truly gold, given that it was backed by gold reserves by more than 100%.

In 1912, Russia introduced a system of social insurance for workers and passed a number of other laws to make things easier for them. The then-US President William Taft said this in a comment on those laws. “The labour laws that Your Emperor has enacted are so perfect that no democratic country can boast anything similar”. Economic growth enabled the growth of the population, from 139 million people in 1902 to 175 million people in 1913. Russia became the world’s third-biggest nation in population, trailing only China and India. The prominent French economist Edmond Teri said that if the trends held, Russia would dominate Europe politically and financially by the middle of the twentieth century. What Russia did dominate at the time was the field of culture, which the French poet Paul Valerie described as one of the world wonders. Never before had this country produced such a great number of scientists, artists, actors, and musicians. Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Bunin, Vassili Surikov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Fyodor Chaliapin, and many others became world-famous. Russia had indeed achieved much, with even more impressive achievements lying in store for this country, provided, of course, that it had the time, and the country stayed united.

Western countries were concerned about Russia’s growing might and its increasing influence on the developments in the Far East. Russophobia became a factor in world politics. Japan was used as a tool to weaken Russia in the Far East. Great Britain and the United States incited Tokyo to attack Russia, and it launched an assault on the Russian Pacific squadron off Port Arthur in 1904. Russia lost throughout the first year of fighting, but then Japan exhausted itself, while Russia collected its strength to wage a full-scale war. It was clear that Japan’s defeat was a question of time, and it was at that very moment that Russia was stabbed in the back. This was the result of political disturbances in Russia caused by liberals and revolutionaries, and Emperor Nicholas II had to conclude an unequal peace treaty.

The great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky aptly described Russian revolutionaries as “demons”, since they were opposed to anything that was sacred to the Russian people, namely Orthodoxy, autocracy, and the Russian mode of life; and suggested replacing them with foreign ways or plainly utopian schemes. In their fight against autocracy, they did not hesitate to use criminals. These “demons” stirred up revolutionary unrest in 1905, and involved the workers and university students in them. By advancing the slogans “Down with Autocracy!” and “Long live freedom!” they struck at the very foundation of the state. Nicholas II could certainly have used force to suppress the revolt, but he chose a different way of appeasing the country. On 17 October 1905, he signed a Manifesto that granted citizens the liberty of conscience, the freedom of speech, of assembly, of association, personal immunity, sanctity of the home, as well as the right for all social strata to elect deputies to the State Duma, which was vested with lawmaking powers. The 17 October Manifesto took the edge off the heat of the revolution in Russia. The Tsar firmly held the reins of government; the country calmed down, and resumed its course of development. The well-known English writer Maurice Bering, who lived in Russia and knew it well, said in 1914 that Russia had never before prospered financially as well as it did under Nicholas II, when most Russians had fewer reasons for discontent than at any other moment in the past. A casual observer might be tempted to ask, what is there that the Russian people do not have? If there was discontent, it was in the upper classes. As for the other strata, the discontent that existed was not so intense as to bring temperature to the boiling-point.

However, it was precisely when Russia was poised for take-off that disaster struck; the major cause was the First World War, which broke out in August 1914. In 1907, Russia joined the Entente Cordiale, an alliance of Great Britain and France. Russia was compelled to make the move in the face of the growing expansion of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy. Europe had thus seen the formation of two military blocs that were doomed to clash some time. When they finally did, the world was plunged into the First World War. Unlike Great Britain and France, which pursued their national interests in the conflict, Russia only defended its territorial integrity. Therefore, for Russia the First World War was essentially a patriotic war. The war prompted an unprecedented growth of patriotic spirit in Russian society and united it. Nicholas II seized the opportunity to carry out a long-awaited reform, namely, banning the sale of alcoholic beverages. It was quite daring of the Government to give up one of the most profitable items of the budget amid a raging war. Fully honouring its pledges of an ally, Russia repeatedly saved Great Britain and France from crushing defeat at the cost of enormous sacrifices. The French Marshal Foch admitted that it was thanks to Russia that France had not been wiped off the map of Europe. In 1915, things on the front took a bad turn for Russia. Russian troops suffered heavy losses, and Germans wedged themselves deeply into Russian territory. The Emperor decided that he should assume the Supreme Command.

The war exacerbated the existing problems; the nation was growing tired of fighting. Those opposed to autocracy, specifically the social-democratic parties, used antiwar sentiment to step up their activities. While the Emperor was at the front, the State Duma energetically stirred up anti-monarchical and anti-government sentiment behind his back. The following is the chronology of the basic developments. On 23 February 1917, the revolutionary elements used expressly-organised problems in supplying Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg) residents with bread to stage an anti-government demonstration. People crowded the streets and chanted: “Bread! Bread!” The city police was bewildered since they knew that there the Russian capital did have food. The next day saw the continuation of the demonstration. In some places, red flags were waved and posters were carried with the slogans, “Down with the war!” and “Down with Autocracy!” On 24 February, 240,000 workers went on strike. Military units deployed in the capital swayed by social-democratic propaganda joined them. On 27 February, life in Petrograd came to a standstill. The rebellious workers and soldiers seized the greater part of the city and the Tauride Palace with the State Duma deputies inside. On the same day, the revolutionary elements set up a Council of working deputies. However, the State Duma decided it should not let power out of their hands at this moment and formed a Provisional Government.

When the Tsar learnt about the unrest in Petrograd, he ordered troops sent to the capital, but his order was ignored. Then, he decided to go to Petrograd in person to look into the situation there. However, his entourage, which betrayed him, bent every effort to prevent Nicholas II from reaching the capital. The Tsar realised that both the State Duma and Supreme Command had conspired to stage a coup. On 2 March, aboard a train, the Sovereign was compelled to sign his abdication in favour of his brother Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, and wrote this in his diary on the same day, “There is betrayal, cowardice, and lies all around me”. By abdicating in favour of his brother, the Tsar tried to save the autocracy, and he is not to blame for Michael’s refusal to ascend the throne and his decision to hand power over to the Constituent Assembly. That was the tragic end of the long era of autocracy in Russia, an end that had catastrophic consequences for this country.

© Lyubov Tsarevskaya @ Voice of Russia World Service. Edited by Paul Gilbert. 1 January 2019

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