After the unexpected death of his father, Tsar Nicholas II ascended to throne poorly prepared for the challenges of a rapidly modernizing Russian empire. Connected by blood to virtually every royal family in Europe, Nicholas became emblematic of the old monarchist system that would be rejected around the world in the 20th century. His refusal to share power and his seeming indifference to the suffering of his people stirred the Russian public to revolt, leading to the creation of the Soviet Union and, ultimately, his own violent death in 1918. Here are 42 revolutionary facts about Tsar Nicholas II.
1. The Man Who Would be Tsar
Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov was born in Alexander Palace, St. Petersburg, on May 18, 1868. The eldest son to Russian emperor Alexander III, Nicholas was heir to the Russian throne and a member of a royal lineage that included the royal families of Greece, Germany, Norway, Denmark, and England.
2. Not From Around Here
Nicholas’ family was not ethnically Russian—they were mostly of Danish and German heritage. Nicholas’ most recent Russian relative had been Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great. She died over a century before his birth.
3. All in the Family
Nicholas was cousins to both England’s King George V and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the three were close friends. Even at the height of hostilities during WWI, Nicholas addressed his official correspondences to “Georgie” and “Willie.”
4. Impersonating the King
Nicholas II and George V bore such a strong resemblance to each other that when Nicholas attended George V’s wedding, several guests confused the two. Even Queen Victoria, George’s grandmother, noted the similarity.
5. Not Quite the Same
Another of Nicholas’s cousins, Paul Ilyinsky, was also a ruler of sorts. He was the mayor of Palm Beach, Florida.
6. Gap Year
It was customary for a future Tsar to see the Eurasian continent firsthand before taking the throne. Nicholas took his “Eastern Journey” in 1890, leaving from St. Petersburg and traveling 31,690 miles in a circumnavigation of all of Asia before ending up back where he started.
7. The Tsar with the Dragon Tattoo
Of all the countries he visited, Nicholas seemed to enjoy his time in Japan the most. He even got a tattoo to mark the visit. The tattoo—a black dragon on his right forearm—was done by traditional tattoo artists in Nagasaki.
8. Working on the Railway
The end of the Tsarevich’s journey marked the opening of the far-eastern branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Nicholas’ final stop before returning home was Vladivostok, on the Pacific Ocean, where he attended the inauguration ceremony of the railway.
9. Money Can’t Buy Happiness
At the time of his death, Nicholas was worth $900 million, roughly the equivalent of $300 billion today. Were he alive today, Nicholas would be the richest man in the world three times over.
10. Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
In 1981, after heated debate, the Russian Orthodox Church named Nicholas II a saint. They extended the same status to the entire Romanov family and many of their most loyal servants. The Church stopped short of declaring Nicholas a martyr, however: his death, they reasoned, was not the result of religious persecution, and in many ways, was brought on by his own actions.
11. Coming Home
In 1979, an amateur archaeologist uncovered the remains of several people at a site near Sverdlovsk. In 1998, DNA testing confirmed that the bodies were those of the Romanov family, including Nicholas II. The Romanovs were given a formal burial at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, St. Petersburg, on July 17, 1998, 80 years after their execution.
12. Royal Courtship
At the wedding of his uncle, Grand Duke Sergei, in 1884, Nicholas met Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, who was just 12 years old at the time. When Princess Alix visited St. Petersburg five years later, Nicholas fell in love with her and immediately began seeking her hand in marriage.
13. Happily Ever After
Though the feeling was mutual, Alix was reluctant to marry Nicholas: she was a devout Lutheran, while Nicholas was Russian Orthodox. With the death of his father, and his impending ascension to the throne, Nicholas’ desire to marry Alix grew more and more urgent, and she finally relented. The two were married on November 26, 1894. As Tsarina, Alix adopted the name Alexandra Feodorovna.
14. Too Much, Too Soon
Alexander III’s health began deteriorating rapidly in 1894. This decline was unexpected, as Alexander was still quite young. Very few people—including Nicholas himself—believed that the Tsarevich had been adequately prepared to take over. Nevertheless, Alexander III died on October 20, 1894, leaving the inexperienced Nicholas to assume the throne.
15. More Than a Mouthful
Upon becoming Tsar, Nicholas II assumed the title “By the Grace of God, We Nicholas, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod; Tsar of Kazan, Tsar of Astrakhan, Tsar of Poland, Tsar of Siberia, Tsar of Tauric Chersonesus, Lord of Pskov, and Grand Prince of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volhynia, Podolia, and Finland; Prince of Estonia, Livonia, Courland and Semigalia, Samogitia, Bielostok, Karelia, Tver, Yugor, Perm, Vyatka, Bogar and others; Sovereign and Grand Prince of Nizhni Novgorod, Chernigov, Ryazan, Polotsk, Rostov, Jaroslavl, Beloozero, Udoria, Obdoria, Kondia, Vitebsk, Mstislav, and Ruler of all the Severian country; Sovereign and Lord of Iveria, Kartalinia, the Kabardian lands and Armenian province: hereditary Sovereign and Possessor of the Circassian and Mountain Princes and of others; Sovereign of Turkestan, Heir of Norway, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, Stormarn, Dithmarschen, and Oldenburg, and so forth, and so forth, and so forth.” Friends called him Nicky, for short.
16. The Silver Screen
Nicholas’ coronation was filmed by a French journalist. It was the first film ever shot in Russia.
17. The Boss
Nicholas’ first order of business upon taking the throne was to declare he would entertain no discussions of introducing a constitutional monarchy. Despite rising demand among the Russian people, and against the advice of his own counsel, Nicholas officially declared that, as long as he was Tsar, he, and he alone, would rule Russia.
18. That’s Finnished
In 1899, Nicholas abolished Finland’s constitution and restricted their power to make laws. Finland was a Russian territory, but their autonomy had been honored by the Russian imperial government for nearly 100 years.
At the encouragement of the Russian Minister of the Interior, Russian Jews in Bessabaria were subjected to pogroms from 1903 to 1905. Nicholas publicly discouraged these pogroms, but he identified them as a useful tool in unifying non-Jewish Russians against a common cause. He would not formally denounce the antisemitic pogroms until 1911.
20. Good Work If You Can Get It
Nicholas oversaw the first Russian census in 1897, and even participated himself. Under occupation, Nicholas wrote “Owner of Russia.”
21. The Nobel King
At home, Nicholas’ reputation as an inexperienced, self-absorbed, and despotic ruler only continued to grow. On the international stage, however, Nicholas was seen as an inspiring, progressive leader. In 1899, Nicholas staged the Hague Peace Conference, in hopes of slowing the industrial arms race and developing conventions for peaceful conflict resolution between nations.
For his efforts, Nicholas was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.
22. Utter Defeat
Nicholas’ commitment to world peace was tested in 1904 when Russia went to war with Japan. Both countries had expansionist policies and began fighting over control of parts of Korea and Manchuria. The Japanese quickly gained the upper hand, and Nicholas sued for peace in 1905—a humiliating defeat for the Tsar.
23. Sunday, Bloody Sunday
That same year, Georgy Gapon marched on St. Petersburg. Gapon, a priest and labor leader, was accompanied by a veritable army of Russia’s working class. They had hoped to present the Tsar with a petition, requesting better working and living conditions. When they arrived at the palace, a battalion of soldiers opened fire, killing 92 people and wounding hundreds more.
24. In Absentia
The events of “Bloody Sunday” earned Nicholas widespread condemnation. Even British politicians voiced their concerns, with the Prime Minister himself calling the Tsar “a common murderer.” In truth, Nicholas did not give the order to fire—he wasn’t even at the palace at the time. Instead, Nicholas had been persuaded to wait in Tsarskoye Selo until the crowd dispersed.
25. Gloom and Duma
Bloody Sunday forced Nicholas to reconsider his commitment to autocracy. In August 1905, Nicholas announced that he was convening the Duma, an elected advisory council. But while the Duma was stocked with some truly radical voices, it was essentially toothless: Nicholas ignored many of their demands and carried on just as he had before.
26. Royal Blood
Like much of Europe’s royal class, Nicholas’s son Alexei was afflicted with hemophilia. Nicholas and Alexandra hoped to cure Alexei of the disease. After several failed consultations with doctors throughout Europe, the royal couple turned to Grigori Rasputin, an obscure Siberian monk. Rasputin would hold significant influence over the Tsarina in the last years of Nicholas’ reign.
27. Mind Your Own Business
Contrary to popular opinion, however, Rasputin held very little sway over the Tsar’s political decisions. While Nicholas was grateful for Rasputin’s help with Alexei, he kept the mysterious stranger at arm’s length. When Rasputin warned Nicholas to stay out of World War I, Nicholas advised Rasputin to stay out of politics.
28. Losing the War
Rasputin may have been right. Nicholas II ordered his troops to march into Germany. While the Russian army was massive—more than four million soldiers—it was poorly equipped and poorly prepared. Some soldiers didn’t even have boots. 3.3 million Russians died in the war, heavy losses for which the public, once again, blamed Nicholas II.
29. The Beginning of the End
By February 1917, Russia had reached a breaking point. Rising inflation, not to mention the frozen winter, made food all but impossible to obtain; the implementation of the Duma hadn’t signaled any great shift towards democratic rule, and the heavy losses incurred during the war threw the country into despair. Riots began in St. Petersburg on February 23rd, the mob chanting “Down with the Tsar!”
Russia’s soldiers were not immune to the terrible conditions throughout the country. As the mob advanced through the streets of St. Petersburg, more than 60,000 soldiers joined them.
Nicholas was powerless to restore order. With no army and the Duma dissolved, Russia was in chaos. On March 12, the Soviet and the Duma formed a provisional government. Their first order of business: demand the immediate abdication of the Tsar.
32. The End of an Era
In 1917, after the upheaval of the February Revolution, Nicholas abdicated and ceded the throne to his son, Alexei. Almost immediately, he abdicated on Alexei’s behalf. This left Nicholas’ brother, Michael, in charge, but Michael refused to accept the throne unless the country voted to remain a monarchy. After three centuries, Russia’s tsarist monarchy had come to an end.
33. Nowhere to Go
Following his abdication, Nicholas and his family were offered sanctuary with his cousin, King George V of England. However, George rescinded his offer when he realized that housing the Tsar might lead to revolutions in England as well. France also declined to provide a home for the Romanovs, and they were forced to wander from residence to residence throughout Russia and Siberia.
34. On a Budget
The Romanovs moved around Russia in considerable comfort. They stayed at winter palaces, or the homes of provincial governments. Things became considerably more difficult for the Royal family after the October Revolution. The new government, led by Vladimir Lenin, severely restricted the Romanov’s movements and access to luxuries.
35. House Arrest
The Romanovs were eventually moved to “the House of Special Purpose,” a house near Yekaterinburg which had been seized by the Soviet government. There, they were forced to subside on military rations. For Nicholas, the final humiliation came when he received an order that he could no longer wear epaulets, the final, petty symbol of his former authority.
36. The Death of the Tsar
Shortly after midnight, on July 17, 1918, the Romanovs were brought to the cellar of the house, under the pretext of protection from approaching Bolshevik mobs. The Romanovs entered the cellar, followed immediately by a squad of gunmen. The Romanovs, their doctor, and three servants were executed. According to Bolshevik Peter Ermakov, Nicholas’ last words were “You know not what you do.”
37. Blood Diamonds
Nicholas died almost instantly from his wounds. His daughters were not so lucky: their dresses, lined with secreted diamonds and jewels, deflected the executioners’ bullets. So, instead, the executioners turned on them with bayonets, then finally shot in the head.
38. Heir Apparent
Nicholas was just 12 years old when his grandfather, Alexander II, was assassinated. Following a bombing attack by Nihilists, Alexander II was taken to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, where Nicholas witnessed his grandfather’s final moments. Nicholas’ father, Alexander III, assumed the throne, and Nicholas was named heir-apparent, or Tsarevich.
39. A Close Shave
Nicholas loved Japan, but the feeling was not necessarily mutual. While in Ōtsu, Nicholas was attacked by one of his police escorts, armed with a katana. The escort, Tsuda Sanzō, was wrestled to the ground by two rickshaw drivers, and Nicholas escaped with just a small scar on his forehead. The rickshaw drivers were rewarded handsomely by both the Japanese and the Russian governments, while Tsuda was given life in prison. No reason for the attack was ever given.
40. All Apologies
The Ōtsu Incident was a great embarrassment to the Japanese people, who were hoping the visit would ease tensions between the two nations. Japan’s Emperor Meiji even went so far as to ban the names “Tsuda” and “Sanzō.” Nevertheless, Nicholas cut his trip short; the humiliation of the incident led one young Japanese woman to cut her own throat in front of the Kyoto Prefectural Office.
41. The Khodynka Tragedy
Nicholas II was crowned on May 26, 1896. 100,000 Russians gathered in Khodynka Field to witness Nicholas take the throne, but the event was marred by tragedy. Rumors that there would not be enough food and drink for such a crowd led to a stampede. More than 1,300 people died in what would be known as the Khodynka Tragedy.
42. It’s My Party
Rather than risk offending his most important allies, Nicholas was advised to attend a celebration being held in his honor that evening at the French embassy, rather than mourn with the public. Nicholas’ apparent indifference to the tragedy at Khodynka infuriated the Russian public, and his reputation never really recovered.