Why Nicholas was a failure

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It really seems as though a lot of folks who don’t know much about Russian history give Nicholas and Aleksandra a pass just because of their tragic deaths, the fact that they were really good people in private life, their legendary love story, and the whole fascination surrounding the last (official) Tsar and his family. It’s fine if you want to name him as your personal favorite, but that doesn’t erase his record as one of the weakest Tsars in history. Your selection also tells me you probably don’t know much about dynasts like Peter the Great, Empress Yelizaveta, Fyodor III, Ivan III, Catherine the Great, or Ivan IV (Ivan Grozniy), who was a really enlightened reformer before his first wife was poisoned and he went over the deep end. Just admit you like Nicholas best because he’s the only Tsar you know anything about in detail!

Yes, no one can ever predict the circumstances which will arise, how they’ll all come together, how you’ll react, and what the consequences may be. It’s also true Nicholas had a lot of obstacles to deal with and that the Russian throne had a long history of instability, unlike, say, the British or Swedish throne. However, he had so many opportunities to react differently, with a lot of choices he didn’t have to make. Matters also weren’t helped by his choice of consort.

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Left to right: Princesses Irene, Victoria, Elisabeth, and Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, 1885

It’s easy to go back and forth on which one was more to blame and which one is more to be pitied, but I really think Alix has a slight advantage in the sympathy department. This was clearly someone who wasn’t well on any level, long before she even met Nicholas. She had so many tragedies in her life, like losing her mother and little sister Marie (May) to diphtheria in late 1878; losing her second older brother, Frittie, to hemophilia in 1873 (before she could remember, but a tragedy which permeated the family ever after); seeing her father take a second (morganatic) wife in 1884, a marriage no one was happy about and which was annulled after a year; and then losing her father as well in 1892, when she was still only twenty.

Though there are pictures of Alix smiling after her early childhood, she just looks so sad in most of them. Her health was a mess (physically, mentally, psychologically); she was thrust into a huge empire she never fully understood (apart from her overzealous embrace of Orthodoxy, above and beyond most Russians’ level of piety); the role of Empress began immediately in comparison to her mother-in-law’s long adjustment period; her personality and values clashed with her in-laws, the court, and the common people; she was seen as a failure for having four girls in a row; she spent almost no time at court or even with members of the extended Imperial Family; her few friends were viewed with as much hatred and suspicion as she was; and then not only the challenge of having a sick son, but the realization she’d made him sick.

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Just some of the many things that went wrong:

Blame where blame is due. Aleksandr III did jack to prepare his son for his role as Tsar, often complained about how he was living the life of Riley and merrily carousing instead of doing something with his life, and didn’t even think he was cut out to be Tsar. Yes, no one expected him to fall sick and die at only 49, but he still should’ve taught and guided his heir instead of just bitching about his idle playboy lifestyle.

Attending a ball instead of visiting patients in hospital after the stampede by Khodynka Field after his coronation.

Constantly disbanding the Duma every time they pissed him off.

Getting involved in the Russo–Japanese War. This disastrous war never would’ve happened under Aleksandr III, who was known as The Peacemaker for keeping the empire out of all wars.

Refusing to listen to all the uncles and other relatives (including his own mother) trying to offer him advice and guide him when he was so young and inexperienced.

Violent, bloody waves of pogroms in 1903–06, continuing his father’s anti-Semitic tradition.

Not even being in St. Petersburg to meet the peaceful delegation who ended up being murdered on Bloody Sunday (9/22 January 1905).

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Isolating himself and his family from court life, and spending almost all their time at the Aleksandr Palace and Livadiya.

Not understanding the 20th century was a much different era.

Holding onto his role as an autocrat, even though he didn’t have the forceful personality to match at all.

Not understanding all the problems plaguing the Russian Empire, which led to the revolutions of both 1905 and 1917.

Replacing his capable cousin Nikolasha as supreme commander during WWI, thus leaving the government in the hands of Aleksandra and Rasputin and leading the empire to the brink of ruin.

Letting Rasputin come into the palace, and then letting him get so much influence and power.

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Not managing Aleksey’s hemophilia more proactively, like firing a doctor who told him to wear calipers all the time to strengthen his legs.

Abdicating illegally, with an almost childlike indifference to the loss of his throne.

Not sending his children to safety abroad, and not marrying his oldest daughters off at normal ages for royal women in that era.

His total indifference to anything that didn’t affect him personally, which is really concerning in any head of state.

Needless to say, I completely disagree with his sainthood.

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6 comments on “Why Nicholas was a failure

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Yes, thank you! It’s possible to be a lovely person and a complete failure at your job at the same time.

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  3. Interesting. Certainly not a saint, but a very human, flawed individual.

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  4. Ed Hoornaert says:

    I suspect that a major factor adding to Nicholas’s ‘sainthood’ is that he and his family were destroyed by the west’s bete noir, Communism. It’s the old ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ mechanism. Sympathizing with Nicholas might be, for some people, a way of hating the Bolsheviks.

    That same mechanism is at work in the virtual canonization of composer Dmitri Shostakovich by a vocal band of unreformed British Cold Warriors because he (supposedly) resisted the Communist Party. The truth, of course, appears to be much murkier. He joined the Party and worked within its constraints most of his life. Did he and his art suffer under Stalin? Yes (though not as much as Myaskovsky or Prokofiev). If Shostakovich deserves sainthood, it’s not because of his resistance but his suffering — the old Boris and Gleb schtick, applied, ironically, not by Russians but by the west.

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  5. Oh, man… Yeah, Nick never should’ve been a statesman. Let alone *head* of state. And let alone of such a huge, complex, country/empire. AND let alone at such a volatile time. (Not that a better man might’ve necessarily fared “better” in keeping it together, but Nicholas II really wasn’t the man to saddle with such a momentous… well, moment.) And too right: Russian history has so many other really great examples (if bloody and, well, totalitarian) of tsars… As Nicholas was, sadly (for him), aware. His personal tragedy, of failing so miserably, so epically, at the only freakin’ job he had, must’ve eaten at him long before the end. And so interesting that the West, so democracy- and equality-minded, has spent a hundred years investing this weak-butt with out sympathy. That says much more about us (and our love for the “romantic” notions of monarchy and totalitarianism) than about him.

    And now I’m more interested than ever in reading your alternate Romanov history 😉
    Guilie @ Life In Dogs

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  6. Michael says:

    Actually, Alexander III did allow Nicholas to sit in on meetings at the Council of State towards the end of his reign, but the lazy sod could not discipline himself and would often bunk off and hang out at the cafes of St Petersburg. Russia would have been better off if Alexander had bypassed that imbecilic weakling in favour of Michael, who seems to have been more amenable to a constitutional monarchy, as well as having his head screwed on tight. Alexander and Nicholas were both vastly different personalities. Alexander (the “Russian Hercules” as I like to call him) was tough, resolute, and ruled with an iron fist like his predecessors. Added to that he was married to a strong and smart woman, yet one who didn’t have to make all the decisions in his place. Nicholas, in contrast, lacked brains and guts, procrastinated, was oblivious to all common sense, as well as being hitched to a paranoid nutcase under the spell of quacks. Alexander should not be fully blamed for his son’s failures, as after all he himself was not well prepared for the duties of monarchy when his father was assassinated. But he held those reigns tight, and through his stern rule the country did see some progress made in industry, commerce and diplomacy. Good for him.

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