Tsar Nicholas II was the last and arguably the worst of a long line of terrible Russian rulers, and that’s saying a lot considering some of his predecessors actually had “The Terrible” as part of their name. Ruling from 1894 until being terminated (by gunfire) in 1918, his official title was “Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias” and “The Passion-Bearer.” When you have “autocrat” as part of your job title, you’ve generally got some pretty good job security. But the communist Bolsheviks had to do some serious down-sizing when they prevailed in the Russian Revolution. Nicholas was given his walking papers, then proceeded to walk to the basement where he and his entire family were executed.
Despite his regal lineage — he was related to just about every royal family in the western world short of King Kong — he attempted to at least sound like an everyman dictator. Feeling unprepared when he ascended the throne at age 26, he asked “what is going to happen to me?” During the first revolt against his rule in 1905, he wrote to his mom “it makes me sick to read the news.” He greeted advice from foreign leaders on how to handle the uprising with the whining complaint that “I am getting telegrams from everywhere.” Even in his final moments of life, shortly before facing a firing squad, a stunned Nicholas is quoted as saying “What? What?”
In 1896, shortly after his coronation, he modestly staged a celebration near Moscow that included food, free beer and souvenirs. He chose the site, called Khodynka Field, because it was believed to be the sacred center of the Russian Empire. He neglected to notice the area had also been used as a military training ground, and thus was filled with trenches. When the beer appeared, a crowd estimated at half a million people rushed forward, trampling those who were admiring their souvenirs instead of paying attention. Almost 1,500 people were killed in the melee with another 20,000 injured. Par-tay!
By 1904, Nicholas had mustered enough confidence in himself and his divine powers to get into a war with Japan almost half a world away. Since the Japanese had wisely insisted on staying put in their corner of Asia, the Russians had to schlep their Baltic fleet through the Suez Canal, across the Indian Ocean and up the entire east coast of Indo-China before they could be annihilated by the Japanese at the Battle of the Tsushima. The only other way to get Russian forces to the front was on the 6,000-mile Trans-Siberian Railway, which was only one-way as well as missing a significant loop around Lake Baikal. Needless to say, the Russians were soundly trounced by the Japanese in one of the first cases of a European state being defeated by a non-Western power.
Understandably a little peeved at his Eastern misadventure, the Russian people started getting restless. A priest named George Gapon organized what seemed like a respectful demonstration of concern in which workers carried crosses, national flags and even portraits of the tsar, singing the imperial anthem “God Save the Tsar.” Nicholas took it all the wrong way and had his soldiers open fire on the demonstrators, killing 92. As bullets riddled their icons and their portraits of Nicholas, the people shrieked “The Tsar will not help us!” Duh. Father Gapon, who had been considered a moderate, turned on Nicholas, calling him “soul-murderer of the Russian empire” and “you hangman.” Not too surprisingly, Gapon’s body was found hanging in an abandoned cottage a few months later.
Pressured into at least an appearance of reform, Nicholas allowed the convocation of a state Duma, an advisory body of representatives that could be mistaken for a legislature if you squinted your eyes hard enough. He didn’t care for the make-up of the first one — they “looked sullen as though they hated us,” the sensitive Nick complained — so he dissolved them and established the Second Duma, which he also dissolved. His relations with his ministers were better, and he even liked one of them well enough to make him a “Knight of the Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky.” In his own hand, Nicholas himself added the words “with diamonds” to the decree, since the concept of “extra cheese” had yet to be invented.
Succession concerns started to weigh on Nicholas around this time. Having no “vice-tsar” at the ready, he had his choice of four daughters (in an era when girls were widely considered to be yucky) and his one hemophiliac son, Alexei. Despite the fact that even the slightest injury could mortally wound someone with a blood-clotting deficiency, his family took Alexei on a hunting trip in 1912 where, wouldn’t you know it, he started bleeding severely. This is when the tsar’s wife Alexandra brought in a specialist by the name of Rasputin, a crazed mystic who was nevertheless lucky enough to be around when the bleeding miraculously stopped. “The Little One will not die,” Rasputin proclaimed in his best spooky voice. “Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.”
As you might imagine, Nicholas was no great shakes as a leader during World War I against Germany. He had first tried a peace overture to the increasingly aggressive Kaiser Wilhelm, which was actually called the “Willy and Nicky correspondence.” When that failed the tsar mobilized his troops, which the Germans saw as an act of war but turned out to be a great convenience to them, because it gathered the entire 4-million-man army in one place where the Germans could wipe them out. Exhausted and lacking equipment, the Russians had to battle heavy Germany artillery with bayonets, in what a sportscaster would call “not a good match-up.” Back in the capital, Russian citizens showed their hatred of the enemy by looting bakeries owned by people with German names. As general after general failed him on the battlefield, Nicholas decided his personal presence would inspire the troops so he made himself commander and headed off to a position miles from the front where he inspected field hospitals and presided over military luncheons.
No longer able to display his stellar management skills on the homefront, the citizens again started getting thoughts of revolution. Despite huge posters telling people to keep off the streets, vast crowds gathered. (And they were really nice posters too, full color with a very clean design). Some regiments tried killing the protestors but others started firing into the air before eventually deciding to kill their own commanders instead. The Russian Revolution was finally at hand and, in 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, who said “no thanks, dad,” so his brother Mike took over.
Nicholas and the rest of the immediate Romanov family were evacuated to the Ural Mountains, allegedly for their own safety. At first, they lived in considerable comfort in the former governor’s mansion, but conditions soon deteriorated and the family occupied itself with keeping warm. The tsar was even forbidden to wear his epaulettes. The family was transferred to a smaller house, where they were awoken at 2 a.m. on July 17, 1918, and told by soldiers there was something in the basement they wanted to show them. That “something” turned out to be the firing squad that ended the rule of the Romanovs.