Nicholas II was the last Tsar of Russia, reigning from 1894 until his abdication in 1917. He was born in Tsarskoye Selo, Russia on May 18, 1868, the oldest son of Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna. Nicholas was educated by the arch reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev and grew up in a privileged and sheltered environment. He was a shy and introverted man, and struggled with feelings of inadequacy throughout his life.
Nicholas II ascended to the throne in 1894 following the death of his father, Alexander III. At the time, Russia was a vast and powerful empire, but it was also facing numerous challenges. The country was lagging behind the industrialized West, and there were widespread discontent and unrest among the Russian people. Nicholas II was not prepared to deal with these challenges, and he was unable to implement the necessary reforms to modernize Russia.
Nicholas was a shy and unconfident young man, but he combined this weakness with a stubborness and a refusal to listen to those who were more experienced that him. He believed, as he father and grandfather had, in the divine right of the Tsar to rule. He was certain that he had been placed on the throne by god and that whilst he did not enjoy being Tsar, he had no choice but to hold on to absolute power. Ruling was a task given to him by god and he had no right to simply give up.
Nicholas believed in the institution of the autocracy and was angry when, in 1905, broad sections of the Russian population demanded a greater role in the future of the country. He had little understanding fo the country he ruled over and his few encounters with Russian peasants had been stage managed. He assumed that much of rural Russia was obedient and loyal, whereas in reality Russian peasants were angry at their treatment and frequently violent when law and order broke down in the countryside.
The Tsar had the ability to dismiss ministers when he wished and to disregard anything they told him. He was not obliged to act on their recommendations and he would often concern himself with trivial issues instead of the pressing matters of the day.
During the first decade of Nicholas’s reign, Russia underwent a surge in economic growth and this brought about a series of social crises that almost ended his reign. In 1902 a nationwide wave of student protests was violently supressed by the army and this was accompanied by waves of strikes from workers who saw little by way of benefits from their long hours. The Tsar’s decision to provoke Japan in the fear east over the question of Korea led to a disastrous war that began in 1904 and in January 1905, a nationwide revolution against the Autocracy was sparked.
The 1905 Revolution
In January 1905, a group of workers in the capital, St. Petersburg, led a demonstration to protest their living and working conditions. The demonstration turned violent, and troops were called in to suppress the protesters. This event, known as “Bloody Sunday,” sparked widespread outrage and protests across the country.
The 1905 Revolution was not a coordinated, organized movement, but rather a series of protests and strikes that spread across the country. Workers, peasants, students, and intellectuals all participated in the protests, which called for political reform, civil liberties, and improved living and working conditions.
The Social Revolutionary Party carried out a series of high profile assassinations of government ministers and members of the nobility. In the countryside, the peasants, realising that the Tsar’s authority had collapsed, took the opportunity to kill landowners, chase them away from their estates and seize their land.
The Tsar was stranded for months on his estate at Tsarkoe Selo because striking railway workers brought the rail network to a standstill and during 1904 the crew of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, the Potemkin, mutinied and sailed the ship to Romania where most of them escaped.
The October Manifesto
The October Manifesto was a series of political reforms introduced by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in response to the 1905 Revolution. The manifesto was issued on October 17, 1905, and it granted a number of basic civil liberties, including freedom of speech, religion, and association, and the right to form political parties and trade unions. It also established the State Duma, a parliament that would have a limited role in the government.
The October Manifesto was seen as a major concession by the Tsar, who had previously maintained an autocratic rule and resisted any attempts at political reform. It was issued in the midst of widespread protests and political unrest in Russia, and it was an attempt to appease the demands of the Russian people for greater democracy and representation.
However, the October Manifesto was not well received by many Russians, who saw it as insufficient and too little, too late. The reforms granted by the manifesto were limited, and the Tsar retained significant power and control over the government. The State Duma, while it had some limited legislative authority, was still subject to the Tsar’s veto and could not challenge his rule. The October Manifesto was seen as a superficial and inadequate response to the demands of the Russian people, and it did not quell the unrest and protests that continued throughout the country.
Sergei Witte played a key role in the development and implementation of the October Manifesto, a series of political reforms issued by the Tsar in response to the 1905 Revolution.
Witte was a strong advocate for political reform and modernization, and he believed that the Tsar needed to make concessions to the Russian people in order to maintain his rule. He worked to persuade the Tsar to issue the October Manifesto, which granted a number of basic civil liberties, including freedom of speech, religion, and association, and the right to form political parties and
The Tsar responded with a series of concessions, including the October Manifesto, which granted basic civil liberties and established the State Duma, a parliament that would have a limited role in the government. However, the reforms were not enough to quell the unrest, and the protests continued.
The 1905 Revolution was ultimately unsuccessful in achieving its goals, and the Tsar was able to maintain his power. However, the events of 1905 marked a turning point in Russian history. The revolution exposed the weakness of the Tsarist regime and demonstrated the potential power of the Russian people to effect change. It also laid the groundwork for the 1917 Revolution, which would ultimately bring down the Tsarist regime and establish a new form of government in Russia.
Despite the fact that Witte’s suggestions had saved the autocracy, Nicholas II never forgave him for the October Manifesto. He believed that he had handed over power to the people and betrayed his sacred duty and saw Witte as the chief cause of this.
After the 1905 Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II established the State Duma, a parliament that would have a limited role in the government. However, the Tsar was opposed to any reforms that would weaken his autocratic rule, and he sought to undermine the Duma in order to maintain his power.
One way in which Nicholas II undermined the Duma was by limiting its powers and authority. The Duma was not a fully representative or democratic body, and it was subject to the Tsar’s veto and could not challenge his rule. The Tsar also retained the right to appoint and dismiss government officials, and he used this power to control the Duma and ensure that it did not become too independent or assertive.
Nicholas II also used his influence and control over the media to undermine the Duma. The Tsar’s government controlled the newspapers and censored any criticism of the government or the Tsar. This made it difficult for the Duma to communicate its message to the public and to gain popular support.
In addition, Nicholas II sought to divide the Duma and prevent it from forming a united front against him. He appointed members of the Duma who were loyal to him or who had conflicting interests, and he worked to create divisions within the Duma to prevent it from becoming a strong and effective opposition.
The first Duma had around 500 deputies and was boycotted by most of the left wing parties of Russia, including the Social Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. It ran for just 73 days and was undermined by the Tsar and Prime Minister Andrei Gorymykin. The Duma deputies wanted further democratic reform and particularly wanted to achieve land reform.
In July 1906 the Tsar dissolved the Duma, fearful that it would introduce reforms that might sweep the Autocracy away. He named the conservative Pyotr Stolypin as the new Prime Minister and tasked him with the job of destroying the Duma.
The Second Duma was elected in 1907, running from February to June and radical parties ended their boycott and stood for office, with Bolshevik and Menshevik deputies being elected. Radical parties dominated the Duma, outnumbering the moderate Kadets and Stolypin accused the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks of planning an armed uprising against the Tsarist Autocracy. He demanded they were expelled from the Duma and stripped of their parliamentary immunity. When deputies refused to vote for this measure, the Tsar dissolved the Duma in an event known as the ‘Coup of 1907’.
The Third Duma, elected in November 1907 was fundamentally different. The Tsar and Stolypin changed the weighting of votes, giving more power to landowners and owners of large city properties than to workers and peasants. This resulted in a Duma elected to further the interests of the landowning classes, not the poor. The Third Duma lasted until 1912 and shifted electoral politics in Russia to the right.
Following the ‘coup’ large parts of Russia had been managed under martial law, and it was prohibited to discuss Duma politics publicly. Russia’s international reputation for being repressive grew, with onlookers in Europe frequently describing it as a police state.
The Fourth Duma was elected in 1912 and was dissolved in 1917 following the February Revolution. By the eve of the First World War, Russia’s right wing political factions and parties were emboldened by the Tsar’s actions and placed immense pressure on him for decisive action against Austria Hungary in July 1914.