Monday, 22 April 2013

The weakness of Tsar Nicholas II

Ask any schoolchild or anyone with a passing knowledge of history to come up with one adjective they associate with Russia's last emperor and the majority of them will produce the word "weak." Nicholas II's weakness is as enduring an image in history as Cleopatra's sex appeal, Marie-Antoinette's frivolity and Winston Churchill's bullish patriotism. The idea that Nicholas was a weak-willed idiot was current in his own lifetime and eagerly encouraged by his enemies - particularly Leon Trotsky, the darling of the Bolshevik Left after they excused him for his complicity in the genocide of 1918 - 1921 in order to loudly proclaim that there would have been no genocide in the 1930s, had he, rather than Stalin, taken control of the Soviet Union after 1924. It was Trotsky who memorably proclaimed that Nicholas II had not had the intellectual capabilities necessary to run a village post office, let alone an empire. Anecdotes - like diary entries revealing that he played dominoes on the eve of the February Revolution or burst into tears in front of his cousin Sandro at the thought of inheriting the throne - are endlessly trotted out to prove that this was not only a man who couldn't rule, but who didn't want to, either. Louis XVI, the king whose rule ended in the French Revolution, is supposed to have made a similarly uninspiring start to his reign, when he and his wife Marie-Antoinette fell to their knees in prayer and asked God to guide them, because they were too young and inexperienced to reign. At the time, everyone saw the couple's actions as pious and humble; it was only once both of them perished on the steps of the guillotine that hindsight decided to endow their earlier prayer with a more ominous tinge - a clear sign that, even then, Louis XVI had known he was not up the job. In much the same way, in 1894, Nicholas's tears on becoming emperor seemed understandable in the context that his father had died very suddenly after a short illness and only an idiot would have looked upon the awesome task of ruling one-sixth of the Earth without reflecting on his personal capacities. By 1918, those tears had been re-written, even by Sandro, the main witness, who now claimed to have experienced an uneasy moment of foresight when he saw his cousin-tsar crying in front of him.

Nicholas II's weakness - his stupidity, his inability to make a decision, his incompetence - are often juxtaposed by the sympathetic assertion that allow he was a bad monarch, he was a good man. His devotion to his wife and their five children, coupled with the fact that hundreds of family photographs and letters managed to survive the revolution, are used to draw a clear distinction between his public failings and private virtues. Nicholas's love of physical exercise - even chopping wood and shoveling snow in winter - are subtly woven in by biographers to suggest that here was a man too simple, almost too good, to be tsar. After all, what kind of sovereign would enjoy such unkingly activities? Edward II, the English king deposed and murdered in 1327, enjoyed brick-laying and digging ditches; Louis XVI famously enjoyed working in a blacksmith's forge and was apparently a talented amateur locksmith. All three were unsuccessful rulers, but it seems an unhelpful and reductive dichotomy to suggest that a political, and specifically a royal, leader cannot execute their vocation properly if they happen to be interested in pastimes that are less-than-regal. Abraham Lincoln got his start splitting rails; Elizabeth I liked to do maths problems, linguistic translations and check her own household accounts; Frederick IX enjoyed conducting an orchestra; Prince Heinrich of Prussia could book-bind and Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria could drive steam engines. Equally, although many of history's great rulers were appalling family men, it does not necessarily follow that a being a faithful husband and attentive father with an interest in manual hobbies should equate with a dereliction of public duty.

The irony of the pervasive view that Nicholas II was chronically weak and indecisive is that it completely misrepresents Russian history - both the downfall of four hundred years of tsarism and the rise of eight fraught decades of Communism - because had Nicholas II been as malleable as Trotsky, Sandro and popular historiography suggests, his reign and the fate of the Russian monarchy would have been very, very different. In 1894, Nicholas dismissed calls for democracy in Russia as the agenda of "senseless dreamers." For an entire decade, despite mounting pressure, he maintained that position. It was only thanks to the near-total collapse of law and order during the riots of 1905, the assassination by nail bomb of his uncle Sergei and numerous government ministers, defeat in the war with Japan and the impassioned advice of his finance minister, Count Witte, that Nicholas gave way and granted Russia a constitution, a parliament and elections. He did so after much thought and under the assurance that this sacrifice would bring the uprising to an end. It did not and Nicholas never forgave Witte or the liberals for what he saw as an humiliating trick. Nonetheless, from 1906 until 1914, Nicholas stuck with the bastardized version of a constitutional monarchy that he and Witte had created. He was certainly as far to the Right as it was possible to go without actually being the wall, but he did not budge from that position. When it came to the matter of Rasputin, his wife's spiritual adviser ludicrously alleged to be her lover, Nicholas stuck to a middle course of allowing Rasputin access to the palace in order to pray over his haemophiliac son Alexei, which pacified the Empress and her clique, but refused to listen to Alexandra's increasingly-pious belief that Rasputin was in touch with the true will of the Russian people. Nicholas knew that his wife was on the verge of a near-permanent mental breakdown because of their son's health and that she blamed herself; her belief that Rasputin was a saintly, practically virginal, peasant man of God plucked from Siberia like the shores of Galilee was unshakable and although Nicholas did not agree with her, he always seemed to regard Rasputin as absurd but inoffensive and slightly quaint. He allowed Alexandra to talk about him, but until the final months of imperial rule, he never, ever listened to her too seriously.

It was only in the last two years of his rule, between assuming direct control of the imperial armies in 1915 and his abdication in 1917, that Nicholas began to show signs of being unfit to rule. The overwhelming impression that emerges from his surviving letters is here was a man suffering from war fatigue, exhaustion and nervous distress. The patriotic fervour of 1914 had given way to the horrifying realization that Russia was fighting two, and then three, and then four, enemies on the Eastern Front, single-handedly. The casualty figures were astronomical and, with little sleep and no way out apart from surrender to Germany, Nicholas seems to have shattered under the unheard-of pressure. That may not have been how his father would have reacted, but the point of this article is not to argue that Nicholas II was a great tsar. He wasn't. But he was, for the most part, an adequate one.

Had Nicholas been as spineless as he is so often presented, the Russian autocracy might have died in 1894 or 1906. It did not. Nicholas did everything he could to keep as much of it alive as possible. That decision turned out to be a disastrous one, but it was one he stuck to devotedly, even as it cost him much of his physical and mental health. He had neither the charisma nor chutzpah of earlier Russian sovereigns like Catherine the Great or Alexander I, but he was dedicated to his office and tireless in the amount of work he put into it. The image of a man caring for the devoted and unwell Alexandra, four beautiful daughters and one sickly son as his archaic empire fell apart around him is arresting, but it is also misleading. Nicholas II loved his wife, he loved his children, but he also loved his country and his dynasty and he did his best for them. 

Nicholas II was strong in his beliefs. Perhaps too strong. He ignored the advice of family members, even, at times, Alexandra's and his mother's, both of whom he's often accused of being dominated by. He was an ultra-conservative, who only moved briefly into the liberal camp because he believed it was best for Russia. He cracked under the pressure of the First World War, but before that he had defended and supported very talented men in his government - chief amongst them Peter Stolypin. It was that strength, bordering on obstinacy, which brought about some of the successes and many of the failures of Nicholas II's reign, which should not solely be remembered by the final two months that brought it to an end. So often reduced to a simplistic dismissal - "good man, bad tsar, weak and unprepared" - Nicholas II's reign deserves to be understood as far more complicated and far more nuanced than either his romantic defenders or his most vicious critics allow. Nicholas II's successes and failures are a reminder that all history is more complex than it's usually given credit for.


  1. Thank you for this piece. To your credit, well studied. It is a sad truth that reputations can well be made by anyone(s) other than the personage who is the true reputation in itself. I'm not a scholar but for some time had an interest in Russia history. I had an especial fondness for Nicholas II.
    Your summation is so very true. I wish more historians would attempt to embrace it.

  2. Great post! Many historical figures have been similarly disfigured in the popular imagination. You mentioned Marie Antoinette - she never uttered "let them eat cake," she was vilified by the revolutionary government that had a clear agenda in doing so, but was in reality a very pious woman who cared much more deeply for her husband and France than her many detractors suggest. She was actually quite a good woman and queen.

    I love how you mentioned Trotsky - the supposed "good" communist. Had he been victorious over Stalin, the history of the Soviet Union would have been only somewhat less murderous. They were different only in degree, not kind, and if Trotsky had obtained the kind of unlimited power Stalin acquired to himself, he might have done worse, who knows.

  3. Excellent post, as usual. Thank you for a better balanced view of Tsar Nicholas II.

  4. Another well written piece. I've been wishing for a well considered book length bio of Nicholas II for awhile. He seems to be a historical figure particularly susecptible to "paint by numbers" biographies where the same ideas are trotted out without consideration. You might want to change one thing: the Romanov dynasty ruled just over 300 years not 400. I mean this helpfully and not snarkily!

  5. Thanks so much to everyone who commented! And thanks, anonymous - I meant the 400 years, roughly covering the Rurik line as well. :)

  6. I think your characterization of Witte may be much too harsh. He had much in common with LaFayette...

  7. I don't think you could say it was "much too harsh," in fairness. I referenced his advice as impassioned and then on the 2 other occasions he was mentioned I gave Nicholas II's view of him, not my own, which is much more favourable than the emperor's was, but not exactly relevant for this article. On the subject of a comparison to LaFayette, Witte was a devout monarchist and LaFayette certainly was not, although in both cases they were distrusted and eventually disliked by their ruling families, absolutely.

  8. To those who are regular readers of "Mad Monarchist" blog, he wrote a 5 part series on Nicholas II 2 years ago. You can see the final installment here:
    You can click to see previous installments at the end of the entry.

    I've read "Nicholas & Alexandra" by Robert K. Massie and seen the 1971 movie.

  9. Gareth what a great and fair article. I have just read Lindsey Hughes' book on the Romanovs, having known nothing of Russian history save a small knowledge of the Soviet Union, and I found it mesmerising. I agree with you completely, and as Hughes points out, Nicholas II perhaps had the most difficult political, social and economic circumstances in Russia in which to rule compared with any other tsar. You are so right to remind us that history is a lot more complex than many seem to believe.


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