Nicholas II was a highly sensitive man who preferred to be with his family than involve himself in the day-today running of his nation. A weak man, he was frequently bullied into doing things by his overbearing wife, Alexandra.
Nicholas had married Princess Alexandra in 1894. She was the daughter of the Grand Duke of Hesse and a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. The daughter who came from a small German state, found herself married to the position of Empress of all Russians. She embraced the orthodox faith with all the fanaticism of a convert and she decided to convince all at court that she was more Russian than the Russians. She was a very strong supporter of Russification introduced by Alexander III and to all intents she bullied her husband. Nicholas was a family man – his wife wanted him to display the talents of his father – to be aggressive, strong and resolute.
Alexandra was never popular in Russia. Her personality upset and angered very many of the people she met. However, despite her attempts to get her husband to be more resolute, she was a devoted wife to Nicholas. Alexandra was also determined to produce a male heir for the Romanov dynasty. In 1904, amidst much celebration, Alexis was born – a male heir to ensure the continuation of the Romanovs. However, the happiness of Nicholas and Alexandra was short lived as Alexis was diagnosed as a haemophiliac and was not expected to live long. Both parents devoted much time to the boy and left the government of Russia to others. Alexandra was a very protective mother, but she was also determined to see that her son became tsar. Alexandra believed that she was more suited to do this than her husband:
|“The emperor unfortunately is weak,
but I am not and I intend to be firm.”
Alexandra, writing in 1905
After the years of repression under Alexander III, people in Russia hoped for a new start under Nicholas. However, the reign got off to a bad start from the first day. At the coronation ceremony in 1894, the crowd gathered for the traditional distribution of gifts. The crowd was understandably large and the police had to force a way through for Nicholas. This caused a stampede and 1,300 people were crushed to death and many more were injured. Despite this tragedy, Nicholas and Alexandra acted as if nothing had happened and attended the coronation ball that evening just hours after the deaths. This event showed that Nicholas, the sensitive family man, had less sensitivity for those not in his gilded circle.
As a ruler, Nicholas had many failings. However, the most important was his inability to dominate events and take charge. As an example, his coronation address was merely a repeat of what Alexander III had said. The domination of his father was also shown in the fact that he kept most of his father’s ministers rather than appoint his own. However, these men did have the tried and tested experience of knowledge of government; they also knew how Alexander’s mind worked and what he wanted for Russia. With Nicholas, they had a tsar who wanted to continue his father’s policies but had neither the driving force nor the abilities of him. Senior ministers such as Plehve and Witte started to carry out their own policies as opposed to what Nicholas might have wanted. He, in turn, was more concerned with family issues and was seemingly bewildered by major affairs of state.
Nicholas had inherited a nation undergoing enormous changes. Whether Russia would have experienced serious social unrest under Alexander III is open to speculation. However, the industrialisation of Russia was starting to create serious social problems in the cities which the authorities were not dealing with – and probably could not deal with. The speed of industrialisation, financed by French and other European money, had developed a momentum of its own. Therefore, Nicholas had inherited, in 1894, a nation that may well have rebelled without the input of Lenin and other revolutionaries. What would Alexander have done in such a situation? At least he would have been decisive even if his decisions may have been wrong. Nicholas simply could not be decisive.
His position was not helped by the fact that his wife had a series of favourites who used their position to influence him via his wife. The influence of her most favourite was a disaster for Russia – Gregory Rasputin.
The three most senior government ministers under Nicholas who dominated Russia were Pobedonestev, Witte and Plehve.
Count Witte was foreign minister. He had alienated many in government because he did not come from old landed stock – he was a nouveau riche who had made his money as a railway entrepreneur. As a man who had been born into a low middle class family, his rise to power had been spectacular, even if it had brought with it jealousy within the royal court. However, his business acumen had led to large sums of foreign capital being invested in Russia. He also got foreign loans for the government.
Pobedonestev continued with the Holy Synod’s policy of preaching obedience.
Plehve was a hard-liner. He was seen as a government enforcer who was solely guided by doing what he thought was best for the tsar. In 1900, Russia was threatened by a series of industrial strikes. Plehve’s only policy to answer these strikes was “execute, execute, execute”. In July 1904, he was killed by a bomb.
Only Witte tried to introduce policies that reflected the growing complexity of Russia’s society in the reign of Nicholas. However, a great deal of his time and energy was taken up with taking on Plehve – a man he hated, and the hatred was mutual.
From 1900 to 1904, Russia was spiralling into chaos. There was widespread discontent in the countryside, despite the work of the Holy Synod and the traditional conservatism of the peasantry. This discontent was also seen in the cities. Newly created political parties hoped to tap into this discontent - groups such as the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats Party.
Before he was killed, Plehve is known to have said:
|“What we need to hold Russia back from revolution is a small, victorious war.”|
Russia was to get its war with Japan. It was relatively small, but it was anything but victorious and was to have a disastrous impact on the nation.