Nicholas II in 1914

Nicholas, the eldest son of Alexander III, the Tsar of Russia, and Marie Feodorovna, was born at Krasnoye Selo in May 1868. When he was twenty-three he narrowly escaped assassination in Japan.

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.

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. He also secretly organized Jewish Pogroms.

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.

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.

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 rose 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. 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 attempt 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 1906-09. 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. On 1st September, 1911, Peter Stolypin was assassinated by Dmitri Bogrov, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, at the Kiev Opera House.

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.

Although Germany was ruled by the Tsar's cousin, Kaiser Wilhem II, he accepted the views of his ministers and in 1907 agreed that Russia should joined Britain and France to form the Triple Entente.

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.

Sergi Sazonov, the Tsar's foreign minister, 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, 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.

Nicholas II

1. Was a strong supporter of the autocracy.

2. Did not believe in universal suffrage.

3. Wanted the Russian government to deal harshly with those people demanding political reforms.

4. Thought Russia should support Serbia against the Triple Alliance.

5. Thought Russia should honour its obligations and support the Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance.

6. As the Russian Army was the largest army in the world he was convinced that Russia would defeat Austria-Hungary and Germany in a war.

7. If the Triple Entente defeated the Triple Alliance, Russia would gain control of Posen, Silesia, Galicia, North Bukovina and the Dardanelles.

Primary Sources

(1) Georgi Gapon, letter to Nicholas II (21st January, 1905)

The people believe in thee. They have made up their minds to gather at the Winter Palace tomorrow at 2 p.m. to lay their needs before thee. Do not fear anything. Stand tomorrow before the party and accept our humblest petition. I, the representative of the workingmen, and my comrades, guarantee the inviolability of thy person.

(2) Nicholas II, diary entry (21st January, 1905)

There was much activity and many reports. Fredericks came to lunch. Went for a long walk. Since yesterday all the factories and workshops in St. Petersburg have been on strike. Troops have been brought in from the surroundings to strengthen the garrison. The workers have conducted themselves calmly hitherto. Their number is estimated at 120,000. At the head of the workers' union some priest - socialist Gapon. Mirsky came in the evening with a report of the measures taken.

(3) Nicholas II, diary entry on Bloody Sunday (22nd January, 1905)

A painful day. There have been serious disorders in St. Petersburg because workmen wanted to come up to the Winter Palace. Troops had to open fire in several places in the city; there were many killed and wounded. God, how painful and sad.

(4) Bernard Pares knew Nicholas II and Sergei Sazonov during the summer of 1914.

At this time the Tsar nor his army had any doubt (that if there was a war) of the ultimate victory of the Triple Entente, and Nicholas played at the then fashionable game of redividing up the world. Russia must receive Posen, part of Silesia, Galicia and North Bukovina which will permit her to reach her natural limit, the Carpathians. The Turks were to be driven from Europe; the Northern Straits might be Bulgarian, but the environs of Constantinople - Sazonov had not yet asked for the city itself - must be in the hands of Russia.