On May 6, 1868, 147 years ago today, Nicholas II, Tsar of all the Russians
was born. He was to be the eighteenth sovereign and last of the Romanov dynasty.
He was the eldest of six children born to Alexander III and the Empress Maria Feodorovna. Alexander was a reactionary of the first order and dominated his family as he dominated Russia. His word was law, his decisions incontestable.
Alexander’s political views were markedly different from his father’s; Alexander II was a “reformer” within the context of the autocracy as well as a bit of a libertine. He took a 17 year old mistress from the “Smolny Institute for Noble Young Ladies” and made no secret of it; indeed flaunting it both to his wife and at Court.
Reform came to an end on March 1, 1881 when anarchists threw two bombs into his carriage. One leg was blown off and the other shattered pulp. His son Alexander, who would become Tsar and Nicholas were present as he bled to death in his study.
From that moment on the reaction began.
Alexander III hated any signs of weakness and despised his son’s gentle character. Nicholas feared his father’s violence after drunken carousals and during those episodes his mother would gather the children and escape to an apartment in the Tauride Palace.
When Alexander III died on October 24, 1894 from kidney disease at the age of 49 no one felt less prepared to be Tsar. “I am not prepared to be Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea even how to talk to the ministers”.
Nicholas was related by blood and marriage to the royal houses of Britain, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Romania and Greece. He was the wealthiest man in the world and his empire stretched across one sixth of the land surface encompassing 140 million subjects.
As the Autocrat of all the Russians, Nicholas was responsible to no one. He held a deep belief that his role was ordained by God and he relied only on his own conscience for guidance as Russia entered the turbulent 20th century.
In the cloistered world of palaces and fawning courtiers there was little to encourage independent thought. His education provided by ever-changing private tutors never ventured far from royal convention although Nicholas spoke five languages – Russian, English, French, German and Danish. His English was impeccable and it is said that he spoke Russian with a slight English accent. He relied on instinct and passion when making important decisions.
He was completely separated from the Russian people – even the language of the Court was French.
Nicholas was short and many commented derisively that he was “just a fair little officer” It didn’t help that his Grand Duke uncles were giants for their time – several reaching 6’4″ tall. The wife of an American diplomat noted that “Russians will find it difficult to connect the idea of majesty with one who is so small”. He lacked the inspiring presence of his father and the innate charm of his mother.
While he spent time in the west, at home he was bound to the medievalism of the Russian autocracy. He truly believed his role was ordained by God and that everything that happened was ordained by God as well. The entire structure of the state, the aristocracy and the ministers was superfluous. He had a direct connection with God and the finger of God wrote all that happened. It was not his fault. He ruled by resignation, unwilling and unable to question the mystical nature of his autocracy.
He fell in love at 16 when he met Princess Alix of Hesse in 1884 and was utterly convinced of his love for the shy, golden haired girl. No one in the family wanted her. She was from an unimportant area and was a devout Lutheran – but she was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. They would not marry until after he became Tsar. It was one of the century’s great love stories – he would remain true to her for 24 years.
She embraced Orthodoxy with a fervor and the shy girl descended from strong women became an Empress in every respect. Her shyness was now characterized as a coldness, aloofness and under her influence Nicholas began to withdraw even further from the Court and his ministers. It was said that she was “never welcoming”.
After the 1905 revolution Nicholas and the family left the Winter Palace and took up residence at the more secure Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo abandoning the aristocracy’s social scene to the Grand Duke Vladimir, his uncle.
Nicholas and Alexandra had 4 daughters but they needed a son. Alex prayed and a son was born – Alexei. He of the hemophilia.
Their lives were shattered. Nicholas viewed the tragedy as the will of God. Alexandra, devastated by the knowledge that she had passed on the disease, turned to mystics.
How did Rasputin keep Alexei alive? Who knows. Some writers have speculated that Rasputin forbade the giving of aspirin to the child which the doctors had prescribed for his swollen joints and pain. Aspirin would, of course have made Alexei’s condition much worse.
Comes 1905 Nicholas puts down a workers revolution executing some 10,000 with thousands more in the following years, viewing the revolution as a direct attack on his divine authority. No Romanov Tsar had ever put down his subjects on such an enormous scale.
Comes the First World War and it would all be swept away.
The Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, sister to Nicholas died in 1960 in a tiny apartment in Toronto over a hair dresser’s shop. It is not ancient history. I was 18 years old when she died.
It is what happens when so few have so much and so many have so little.