Friday, July 15, 2011

Monarch Profile: Tsar Nicholas II, Part III - Domestic Life

Amidst all the problems of his reign, the constant attacks by revolutionaries and assorted political terrorists, Nicholas II had at least two places of refuge: his deep Orthodox faith and his beloved wife and children. In 1895 Alexandra gave birth to their first child, the Grand Duchess Olga who was followed by Grand Duchess Tatiana in 1897, Grand Duchess Maria in 1899 and Grand Duchess Anastasia in 1901. They were healthy and beautiful girls but a son was needed to secure the succession and after four girls some began to despair, particularly Tsarina Alexandra who could only look to God for help. After the Imperial couple sought the intercession of St Seraphim of Sarov the Empress at last gave birth to the long-sought after male heir on July 30, 1904. The new prince was named Alexei, after one of the most famously kind and pious Romanov tsars of the past. It was a fitting name as the handsome little prince became well known for his kind and compassionate nature.

However, the perfect happiness the Imperial Family finally achieved was struck a blow when it was learned that the little Tsarevitch was afflicted with hemophilia. Nicholas called in doctors only to be told there was nothing they could do. This had to be kept a guarded secret since public knowledge of it would have undermined the empire and confidence in the future stability of the country. This was hard for the entire family but especially for the Empress Alexandra who, since the disease is passed by the mother, naturally but unfortunately blamed herself. When the doctors could provide no hope for a cure, she turned to God. As a result, this made Alexandra especially vulnerable to the influence of the self-proclaimed holy man Gregory Rasputin, a degenerate peasant from Siberia who claimed to have visions and the ability to heal the sick. Nicholas was somewhat wary of Rasputin but, through some power that has never been explained, Rasputin was able to help the Tsarevitch.

If Alexei would start to bleed, Rasputin would be called and the boy would recover. No one could explain it but this fact meant that Alexandra would not let Rasputin get too far from her. When word of his degenerate behavior began to spread the Tsar was concerned. Alexandra did not believe the stories but the Tsar knew that, true or not, they were hurting the image of the monarchy. Finally, he ordered Rasputin to be sent away. However, not long after Alexei began to bleed again and Rasputin was immediately recalled and once again the Tsarevitch recovered. After that scare, Alexandra would not be without him, no matter what horrible behavior he exhibited outside the palace. This caused a scandal among the people who, of course, knew nothing about the disease that afflicted their Tsarevitch and soon ugly and untrue rumors began to be spread about the Imperial Family themselves in connection to Rasputin. He also tried to influence politics, pushing his own favorites and trying to ruin any who opposed him.

This was a terrible position for the Tsar and his family to be in. It is easy to criticize but not so easy to offer alternatives given their situation. It was for Nicholas who was a good-natured man who, like most such individuals, likes to believe the best about people. At first, Rasputin seemed to represent the devout faith and loyalty he most admired about the Russian peasantry but after he began to interfere in politics the Tsar began to have doubts that the stories might be true. He tried to convince Alexandra of this but to no avail. And who could blame her? Rasputin had succeeded where all others had failed. When her son was injured Rasputin was able to cure him and that was all that mattered to her. What mother would have agreed to dispense with the one person who had proven to have the ability to help their child when all other doctors and healers of every sort had failed? It is possible to exaggerate the influence Rasputin had but, undoubtedly, the Imperial Family suffered a great deal in terms of their public image because of his scandalous behavior and association with them, Alexandra in particular. Rasputin was finally assassinated but, by that time, the damage had been done.

Just how significant this was for Nicholas was partly due to how important his family was to him. They were the central concern of his life. They were a very loving, close-knit family and, for the Tsar, his entire joy in life. For two such devout people as Nicholas and Alexandra, who tried their best to live a Christ-like life, their family was their refuge. Nicholas was not comfortable with the high society life of St Petersburg and Moscow and he disapproved of the immoral behavior of many people and how so many, whether family members or ministers, always seemed to be putting themselves forward in order to gain some reward from his favor. Because of all of that, he preferred to spend time with his family more than anything else. His wife adored him, his children loved him and each other. They were kind, cheerful, playful and very innocent. He was as proud as any father could be and yet, even this has been used by some as a way to criticize Nicholas. He was, and still is, accused of being reclusive, of isolating himself from the everyday life of his country and so on. The truth is nothing so grandiose but perhaps, these days, is hard for people to understand. It is as simple as this: he loved his wife and he loved his children more than anyone else in the world and he wanted to spend his spare time with them.

Nicholas II had a very paternalistic view of the Russian monarchy. Today we are taught to think this was a bad thing but it would be hard to explain exactly why that is. For the peasants who made up the bulk of the population, the Tsar was “the Little Father” and Nicholas returned this affectionate sentiment. That is one reason why the revolutionaries largely stuck with trying to influence the urban workers rather than the peasant farmers -because they knew the peasants had a loyalty to the Tsar and a faith in the Russian Orthodox Church that was too strong to break easily. Nicholas felt the great burden that was on his shoulders as monarch yet, his people were his children and he could not forsake his duty toward them, a duty God had chosen him to carry out. In a way, this mentality also extended beyond the boundaries of Russia as the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe looked to Russia and thus to the Tsar for protection and justice. It was only natural that they do so and Nicholas became a focus for the growing pan-Slav sentiment that was growing rapidly, especially in Serbia which harbored dreams of uniting themselves with the Slavic peoples of Austria-Hungary to create a “Greater Serbia”.

The Balkan Wars increased pan-Slavic attitudes and Russia, after the fiasco in the Far East, turned again toward Europe and there was widespread outrage by the Russians following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife when Austria-Hungary demanded far-reaching concessions from their Serbian cousins or face immediate war. Nicholas was persuaded that honor demanded Russia stand beside little Serbia and that the prestige of Imperial Russia could be restored by thwarting Austria and, on the contrary, that allowing Austria-Hungary to defeat Serbia would be a terrible blow to public respect for the autocracy. The French ambassador was equally adamant that the Tsar had to act even though he had grave misgivings about risking such a conflict and, ironically just like the Kaisers in Vienna and Berlin, wanted to stop short of war. Germany warned Russia to stay out of the spat between Serbia and Austria-Hungary and there was the famous exchange of the “Nicky and Willy” telegrams as the two emperors tried to reassure each other that conflict should be avoided.

France, however, continued to urge Nicholas to get involved (for their own reasons) and the war hawks assured him that with their massive army with millions of reserves the Germans could never hope to match them. In the end, there was simply no escaping the trap the various ministers of the various nations had set for themselves. Nicholas said resolutely in July 1914 that “in no case would Russia remain indifferent to the fate of Serbia”. But Austria was determined to invade Serbia and that was that. Russia would not permit Serbia to face Austria alone and Germany would not permit Austria to face Serbia and Russia alone. If Russia intervened in the conflict with Austria and Serbia it meant war with Germany. The fate of the world hung on the actions of those men in St Petersburg. A false report (just as a false report had prompted the Austrian Emperor to declare war) caused Nicholas to order mobilization. However, when the truth was learned he countermanded the order. In an effort to keep the fire from spreading, he asked about a partial mobilization against only the Austro-Hungarian frontier but the military experts told the Tsar this was impossible.
On July 30, 1914 a reluctant Tsar Nicholas II, deeply saddened and fully understanding what his actions meant for the world, ordered the Russian army to fully mobilize on all fronts. The next day the Germans demanded that the Russian forces step down within 12 hours or there would be war but there would be no going back by anyone. On August 1, the French mobilized against Germany as well and Germany declared war on Russia. Austria-Hungary and Serbia were almost forgotten as the last dominos tumbled over toward the conflict that would bring ruination to the world. German troops moved to attack France, invading Belgium in the process and the British Empire declared war on Germany. Tsar Nicholas II addressed his people with the words of his predecessor Tsar Alexander I who had rallied the country during the French invasion by Napoleon. There would be no peace so long as a single enemy soldier remained on Russian soil. The crowds cheered and burst into singing “God Save the Tsar”. Like all the other countries, Russia cheerfully and confidently set out on the path to her own ruination.

To be continued in Part IV...


  1. I don't see why you have to pour out vitriol on Rasputin. I mean, he cured hemophilia via prayer. That's pretty impressive, to say the least. Other than that tho, great article. I always love reading about dead Czars. Perhaps someday their heirs will take the throne. We can only hope.

    1. You have not begun to see me pour vitriol on Rasputin -and I will try to restrain myself here. He was a flagrantly immoral, corrupt, debauched, thoroughly disgusting peasant who single-handedly destroyed the moral standing of the Imperial Family and particularly ruined the reputation of Empress Alexandra who was a good, sincere, pious woman. He was a charlatan of the worst kind and the fact that he was able to cure the Tsarevich makes no difference. The Devil can do plenty of tricks too, the priests of Pharaoh could perform magic, the good book says the ability to heal the sick or even cast out demons does not mean someone is a man of God. Rasputin was wicked to the core and I firmly believe possessed by the Devil to destroy the Romanovs.


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