The Life and Reign of Tsar Nicholas II: the Last Emperor of Russia

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When Nicholas II was thrust into the role of Tsar following his father’s death, there were many factors outside of his own skill set that created conflict and sparked a revolution. While Nicholas did not possess many important qualities that may have made a difference, it would only have delayed the inevitable. Russia was operating on a backward economy, autocratic government, and a class-based society, and no matter whether the Tsar was fierce or weak, reform was desperately needed, and the people of Russia would always have revolted.

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Although there were many pre-existing tensions in Russia, it cannot be denied that Nicholas was not suited for the role of Tsar. When he first found out that he was to be Tsar, he said himself, “I know nothing of the business of ruling”. He was timid, weak-willed, and as said by historian A. De Jonge, “[Stature and a taste for power] is vital for an autocracy”. His father, while not a perfect leader, had been firm and held authority over the nation despite already rising conflicts and tensions. Nicholas lacked these qualities and therefore lacked in control over Russia and its government. His poor decision-making skills led to him leaning on his wife for support and building a reputation where “The way to deal with him is to be the last to leave the room” – that is, he was easily swayed and convinced. In contrast to this was Nicholas’ absolute loyalty to God and his divine right to rule. While he may have struggled as Tsar, he believed he was “God’s anointed” and therefore no one else could possibly take his place. A socialist member of the Duma, Kerensky, said, “When it came to defending his divine right…he became cunning, obstinate and cruel, merciless at times.”. While his leadership swung from one extreme to the other, he was consistent in his belief in divine right and a devotion to his religious faith. This is encapsulated in historian H. Rogger’s description, labelling Nicholas’ problem as, “an inability to distinguish between flexibility and weakness, strength and mulishness”. Nicholas II was so focused in staying true to the autocracy and his divine right to rule that he did not pay mind to the faults in the system, and this made him a target for revolution.

Nicholas may not have been a good Tsar, but the entire Tsarist system was outdated and needed to change. While Western countries were undergoing capitalist reform, Russia was stuck in a strict autocracy and Tsarist regime which was full of “irreconcilable internal contradictions”. Tsarism essentially meant that having a weak leader meant a weak state, and therefore it was bound to collapse the moment a leader such as Nicholas II was anointed. The rigidity of the system lead to a rise in radical ideologies such as anarchism and socialism, and the act of exiling threats was short-lived and could never be met without resistance as the Western countries modernised. The authoritarian government worked against and repressed the lower classes – there was no constitution, no parliament, and any potential ‘threats’, or those who dared to go against the norm, were targeted by the Okhrama to maintain control. According to historian J.P. Nettel, “the tendency was repression and greater extremism” – that is to say that this kind of regulation was merely a temporary and ineffective solution, as it only angered potential revolutionaries and made the need for nation-wide reform more apparent. Fundamentally, the Tsarist regime suited neither the people of Russia nor a leader such as Nicholas, and desperately needed reform.

Tsar Nicholas II was far from a perfect leader, but given the political, social and economic climates at the time of his rule, there was critical need for reform and revolution was imminent, no matter the leader. While it can be said that Nicholas’ poor leadership was a trigger for the revolution, a different leader would have only ever delayed the inevitable – the people of Russia rising up against the authoritarian, Tsarist, outdated regime.     

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