Political Unrest in Russia: The Abdication of Nicholas II

Nikolai Aleksandrovich, known as Tsar Nicholas II, was the last Russian Emperor and a member of the illustrious Romanov dynasty that had sat on the imperial throne since the early seventeenth century. Born on the 18th of May in Tsarskoye Selo, now Pushkin, Nicholas was born to rule only to die in a bloody revolution designed to end the formal monarchy of Russia. Nicholas II was the son and heir of his predecessor Tsarevich Aleksandr Aleksandrovich and his consort the Dagmar of Denmark Maria Fyodorovna, and his succeeded his father in Moscow on May 26th 1896. As a child Nicholas was trained to be an excellent military officer but his intellectual skills were inadequate to be prepared for the role of emperor. It is well documented that he possessed a good personality, but naturally shy with a compulsion to remain within the privacy of the family quarters instead of socialising with the court subjects. His close family was intimate and happy since Nicholas had a genuine affection and love for his wife Alexandra whom he married two years before his ascension on 26th November 1894. Alexandra was the stronger of the two in temperament and was the leader in their religious guidance during their marriage and reign. However well his family circle functioned the political undercurrents of court life was rumbling with discontent. Nicholas had a tendency to lean on favourites, to distrust his ministers, and to believe his right to rule was derived from the outdated notion of Divine Right and absolutism that had already seen the fall of the French monarchy.

The year running up to the 18th March 1917 had several upheavals close in on the Russian imperial family, their downfall and eventual execution in 1918. Nicholas II had run through a series of ministers that had presented the emperor with a skewed perception of common Russian life that he preferred to what he read in the official reports that landed in his office. His belief in autocratic rule meant that he never attempted to produce policies to aid his government and people. Russia maintained the medieval ideology of feudalism and the people being closely tied to the land ensured a limited measure of freedom. This meant that the people’s faith in the imperial monarchy was low and morale sank lower during Russia’s involvement in World War One from 1914. Nicholas as a monarch has interests in Balkans and attempted to salve peace within the great powers of Europe, however the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo meant Nicholas’ resistance to war ended in the mobilization of Russian troops. Yet this war would see Russia falling from being a world power to an economic and military failure. In the years running up to the world war Nicholas II had been to seen to be the blame for several catastrophes from the execution of multiple political opponents, the instigation of the Russo-Japanese War, a very violent defeat for the leaders of the 1905 Revolution, and links with England attempting to suppress the power of Germany.

One of the reasons the people grew increasing disaffected with the imperial monarchy was the lack of order and control to the Russian army who had already seen a recent war with Japan. The imperial army lost approximately over three million soldiers, lack of food and supplies alongside poor management from the higher level military leaders. As the government failed to provide for their own army and citizens, riots and rebellions grew in frequency, particularly with Nicholas away, and authority crumbled. There had been several attempts at constitutional reform to become more similar to the role of parliament in Britain  but they were resisted. The increasingly isolation of the Tsar to his ministers prevented anything meaningful taking place.

The Russians began the war in the strong position in regards to supplies, but by 1917 severe winters had caused a standstill in railways, emergency shipments of coal and the treasury being depleted significantly. On the 23rd February 1917 the citizens of Petrograd resorted to stealing and rioting which slowly spread to other cities all with the aim to gain the attention and bring down the Tsar. With the best of the militia dead the police created a forced recruitment and gave them very little training. Although the police and militia deployed fired into the air rather than the mob of over twenty thousand that had formed they were not deterred but reinforcements from Nicholas’ base were too late. On the 12th of March the Volinsky Regiment mutinied which led to successive rebellions within the militia to join the mob themselves. Nicholas II knew that the situation was die when the imperial guards loyalists the Preobrazhensky Regiment formed under Peer the Great also turned their anger against the Tsar. By the end of the day sixty thousand soldiers had joined the revolution to march against the Tsar.

Up against such numbers members of government, the Duma and the Soviet attempted to restore order with provisional preparations. The most significant order was that Nicholas II was to abdicate and create a clean slate for ruling Russia. Nicholas II faced the decision with the threat of civil war, the army generals pushing for abdication and his citizens deprived of food with his family in the hands of the Soviet.

Nicholas II abdicated on the 15th March 1917, thus formally ending what is now known as the February Revolution. Originally he had abdicated in the favour of his son Alexei who was weak but soon the aim of the revolution was to force the whole imperial family into exile. The ideology of whether Russia should remain in the hands of the monarchy or become a republic was put to a vote by the people. Nicholas’ abdication and further revolution by the Bolsheviks would formally bring the end of the Romanov dynasty that had lasted three centuries. By October 2017 the last Romanov imperial family were imprisoned.

If you would like more information one of the best Romanov biographers is Simon Sebag Montifiore whose books are available on amazon and in most booksellers.

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