There are many opinions on how well Tsar Nicholas handled the First World War, but one thing is certain: the beginning of WWI signaled the end of the Romanov Dynasty, and the aftershock changed Russia forever. On August 2, 1914 Tsar Nicholas II issued a formal proclamation of hostilities toward Germany at the Winter Palace to a crowd of thousands of cheering Russians in Palace Square (Massie, 277-278). The Tsar abdicated the Russian throne three years later and the causes and the effects of his abdication were both numerous and large. Some believe the Tsar lacked integrity; others say Rasputin and Alexandra were to blame; still others blame the dismantling of the Duma and the harsh rule of the government. In reality, all of these things and more had to do with the downfall of Russia, the withdrawal from the war, and the subsequent Soviet Union.
Nicholas II was born in Krasnoye Selo on May 18,1868 as the eldest son of Alexander III, the son of the then Tsar Alexander II (Massie, 12) At this time Russia was a relatively calm place with the Decembrist uprising of 1825 and the Napoleonic Wars behind, Russia looked to the future. The era was called "The Golden Age of Russian Literature" and "The Age of Great Reforms" and things were moving in a positive more western direction (Bucknell, 1). Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs and created massive reforms, the middle class increased, and western ideas, especially advances in industry, were flourishing. But this emancipation of the serfs in 1861 really created a bigger problem than the intention of solving one. Over 52 million serfs were liberated, 45% of the population of Russia as compared to 4 million slaves freed in the U.S. by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (Bucknell, 2). This created a large un-skilled work force in Russia, ready to take on the jobs of by then flourishing Russian industry, which in fact could not keep up with the population. "Freedom did not produce food" (Massie, 4) and this working-class and their beliefs later lead to revolution and change.
Alexander III assumed power on March 13, 1881 after his father Alexander II fell victim to a Russian Revolutionary's bomb (Massie, 16). Alexander III's reign was short and not very colorful. He was a simple man, but strong-minded and a true autocrat. He spent much of his rein crushing all opponents of the Tsarist regime and also increased the censorship of the press (Massie, 10). Some positive things that came out of his reign were the beginning of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891, the rebuilding and westernizing of the army, and the increase of Russian industry. On November 1, 1894, Alexander III died suddenly from Nephritis (Massie, 43). An unprepared, na´ve Nicholas II took power. A bewildered Nicholas beseeched his brother-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander: "What am I going to do? What is going to happen to me, to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I have never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of Ruling." (Rollins, XVI)
After settling in to the role of Tsar, Nicholas married Alexandra, a German Princess, who proved influential in the role as wife of the Tsar. Nicholas II was a strong believer in the autocratic power of the Tsar and opposed democratic reforms. Concerning his ministers, he felt they had too much influence and he thought, "They will mess things up and I would have to account for it" (Oldensberg, 37). When Nicholas took the throne he had some experience in government, but due to his father's untimely death he had not fully been elevated into the higher tiers of the Russian Government. He was the chairman of the construction committee of the Siberian Railway and was also the head of the famine committee (Oldensburg, 35). He also disliked ceremonies, demonstrative speeches and publicity in general (Oldensburg, 39). Nicholas was also very na´ve in his dealings with the Urban Intelligentsia; this would later hamper his reign.
Tsar Nicholas II controlled an extremely vast continent which included Poland, Finland, and parts of Transcaucasia, and he also had an extremely large population of 166 million spread throughout Russia, most of whom were of Slavic descent, although there were also Jews, Turks, and many other nationalities (Massie). Although he did not seem imperialistic in his views, Tsar Nicholas made plans to expand into Manchuria and Korea. Russia wanted another Pacific port due to the fact that Vladivostok was frozen three months of the year (Massie, 90). With conflicting opinions from the Russian people, (his cousin) German Kaiser Wilhelm II, his many advisors and Counte Witte (his Finance Minister), Nicholas was seriously considering the Japanese problem. But on February 8, 1904 the Japanese answered the Japanese question for the Tsar by attacking the Russian Fleet at the Russian occupied territory of Port Author (Massie, 92). The over confident, yet sometimes ill equipped and outnumbered, Russian Army was able to hold back the Japanese armies in Manchuria and at the Yalu river, but the Russian Navy was almost completely obliterated. Especially demoralizing were the loss of the flagship of the Russian fleet, the battleship "Petropavlosk," which killed 700 Russian sailors and the crushing defeat at Tsushima where 21 Russian ships were sunk (Massie, 93). The Japanese soon took Port Arthur and the Tsar realized he must admit defeat. Counte Witte sealed talks with the Japanese in late 1905 on Long Island, New York, with American president Teddy Roosevelt as the mediator (Massie, 97). It was an embarrassing defeat to the Tsar and Russia but the Tsar did not lose anything politically or territorially, he lost only his pride. But the Russo-Japanese war not only hurt Nicholas, it also hurt the Russian working class, who thought it impossible for the Russian "Steam Roller" to be defeated.
The dejection due to the war and the growing working-class produced serious domestic problems. Working conditions in Russia were terrible, employees worked eleven-hour days under harsh conditions; there was little concern for the health of the workers. One of the first main sources of socialist and industrial unrest occurred in 1903 when Father Georgi Gapon, an Orthodox priest formed the Assembly of Russian Workers which soon had over 9,000 members (Barnsdale, 4). This was basically an early attempt of a trade union. Their goals included the end of the Russo-Japanese War, an increase in wages and working conditions, and the development of an 8-hour work day (Barnsdale, 4). Four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were fired at the Putilov Iron Works in mid 1904 consequently over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went on strike (Barnsdale, 5). On January 22, 1905 the workers, lead by Gapon, made their way to the Winter Palace singing "God Save the Tsar" and carrying icons of Nicholas (Barnsdale,5). The rioters, as they were called, were attacked by the Russian police and over 100 workers were killed and close to 300 were injured (Barnsdale, 5). "Bloody Sunday," as it came to be called, led to the 1905 Revolution.
As a consequence to "Bloody Sunday," the Tsar was portrayed as murderer. The foreign response was also strong; Ramsey MacDonald, a prime minister of Britain, saw the Tsar as a "blood-stained creature"(Massie, 104). By late 1905 all of Russia was being affected by strikes. In St. Petersburg food was scarce and industry was at a standstill and red flags flew throughout the capital, a pre-cursor of that which would come twelve years later. A Soviet workers' organization formed under the leadership of Leon Trosky, a member of the ever-increasing urban intelligentsia and a member of the Marxist-Socialist Democratic government (Massie, 107). The Soviet was essentially a Senate, and numerous Soviets were created around Russia. With this pressure from the working-class, Nicholas II signed The October Manifesto, which granted freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association (Barnsdale, 5). But the Tsar upset the Soviet with the implementation of the Duma, a consultative body, which he stated was a necessary go-between in the process of passing laws. In partial response to the Duma and to the suppression of freedom Trotsky felt it caused, the Moscow Soviet and St. Petersburg Soviet revolted and were put down by the Russian government in December of 1905. In 1905 Trotsky was arrested along with other socialists and sent into exile, and the Tsar eventually gained full power back.
The events of 1905 portrayed the unhappiness and bitterness of average Russians, but also showed their ability to organize. Possibly the only positive thing coming that happened in 1905 was the birth of Tsar Nicholas' first son and next heir to the throne, Alexi (Massey). In the very fist meeting of the Duma they actually spoke of very liberal reforms, including the release of political prisoners, such as Trosky, trade union rights, and land reform (Barnsdale, 6). However, Nicholas II, worried about socialist and liberal ideas, disbanded the Duma soon after its creation. Count Witte, who had been so instrumental in the Russo-Japanese War, was removed as Foreign Ambassador due to the problems with the Duma, and Peter Stolypin stepped in. Stolypin provided political victories for both sides. In October of 1906, on the one hand, he created legislation that allowed peasants to acquire more land, but at the same time he created a new court system which oppressed radicals and made it easier to arrest political revolutionaries (Barnsdale, 6). Strikes and political unrest continued through 1914. In 1912 hundreds of striking miners were massacred at the Lena gold fields, and during the first six months of 1914 almost half of the industrial force in Russia was on strike (Barnsdale, 6). But these events would be soon pushed aside with the explosion of a "powder keg" that would plunge Russia into the trenches of The Great War.
June 28, 1914 signaled the beginning of the most disastrous war the world had ever seen and the end of the Romanov Dynasty and Tsarist rule in Russia. On that warm summer day, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrillo Princip, a Bosnian Serb (Kauffner, 1). Princip was the leader of a ring of seven assassins who had the intentions of creating a united Slav state (Kauffner, 1). Sarajevo was the capital of Bosnia, which was an Austrian Province with a large Serbian state. Serbia was an ally of Russia and Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany. And Russia was an ally with France and Great Britain in the Triple Entente. For awhile Serbia and Austria-Hungry increased talks and avoided ultimatums, then suddenly they were at war with each other, and soon so were many others nations, the result of this system of numerous alliances. The Russian people accepted the war with an optimistic and very nationalistic response. On August 2, 1914, at The Winter Palace in the capital in front of the cheering masses, who idolized the Tsar and who now hated Germany, the Tsar officially brought Russia into the World War with his declaration of hostilities (Massie, 277). The name of the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg, was soon changed to Petrograd because St. Petersburg sounded too German for the populous (www.cityvision2000.com, 1).
The strength of the Russian military at mobilization was 1,423,000 men; by wars end over 15,500,000 had fought for Russia in The Great War (Golovine, 50). Most of Russian industry contributed their work to the war effort, especially in St. Petersburg, and many buildings were turned into hospitals and barracks. The war did not go well for Russia. The war was ugly. New weapons, such as chemical gas and tanks, made this war the most destructive and the largest until WWII. Trench warfare and mass casualties defined the war, artillery and machine guns could easily defeat a cavalry or infantry charge, weapons which the German's constantly used on the Russians.
Military incompetence and the weakness of the Tsar's rule lead to the downfall of his regime and the loss of the war. In the early stages the Russian army was successful in driving the Germans out of East Prussia and the Austrians out of Galicia and Bukovnia (Jahn, 7). Mismanagement prevailed though in the Russian military, and the heavy German artillery and strong German fighting force and the German generals began to accumulate victories against the numerically equal, but technologically disadvantaged Russians. The first main loss occurred at the Battle of Tannenberg where the Russians lost 110,000, of those 90,000 men who were taken prisoners (Massie, 292). Russian supplies were running low due to old railways inability to move troops, supplies, and even food quickly. The food supply of St. Petersburg decreased rapidly along with the morale of its citizens. Not until 1916 was the economy sufficient enough to supply the military (Jahn, 8). Also many Russians started to feel Rasputin and Alexandra were running the war behind the scenes, instead of The Grand Duke Nicholas or the Tsar and his military advisors.
Rasputin was an influential member in the Romanov household and very important to Alexandra due to his apparent healing powers, which supposedly healed Alexi from near death more than once. But the public was very skeptical of Rasputin and his eccentric ways and also of Nicholas II ability to lead the military (he made huge military blunders, after being declared commander in chief in 1916 (Iavarone, 1). Also the continuing food shortages created strikes in some Russian cities and civil unrest, the workingman's voice was heard at the War Industries Committee, essentially an open forum for the involvement of Russia in WWI; the majority of workers were against the Russian involvement in the war (Massie). Russian nobles murdered Rasputin in 1916 but the nation continued in its downward spiral. By March of 1917 riots erupted in St. Petersburg; some rioters were killed, although this time the Cossacks and police did not put down the rebellion as they had in 1905--they simply did nothing which basically signified the coming change (Massy, 412).
When the Provisional Government took control in early 1917, the center of its government was the Duma and the Soviet (www.cityvision2000.com, 1). Nicholas was requested to abdicate and he did so formally on March 15th 1917. In his abdication notice Nicholas warned, "Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war" (www.lib.byu.edu, 1). This was the one thing the Tsar predicted correctly during his rule during this unstable time. The opposition to the war and the removal of the Tsar, in effect, got the Russians out of the war without them sustaining more casualties. In the end 1.8 million Russian soldiers were dead and 2.4 million were taken prisoner and millions others were injured (Jahn, 8). Political and economic insecurity continued until the fall of 1917 when the Bolshevilk party under Lenin seized power: on November 7, 1917 the Winter Palace was stormed and the Provisional Government was removed from power (www.cityvision2000.com, 1)
After being exiled to Ekaterinberg, the Tsar and his family were awakened in the middle of the night on July 16, 1917 and taken to a small room in a basement (Massie, 516). The Romanov family was told they were getting a photograph taken to prove they were still alive, but in reality they were facing their deaths, which came abruptly and brought an end to the Romanov dynasty.
Civil War soon broke out in Russia and Petrograd became the center of the Red Army, who was being opposed by the Whites (troops still loyal to the tsar) (Golovone). Many inhabitants fled St. Petersburg during this turbulent time (the population dropped from 2.3 million in 1917 to 722,000 by 1920). (www.cityvision2000.com). In February 1918, due to the advancing German Armies attacking defenseless Russia, Lenin moved the Russian capital to Moscow. On the 18th of February, Russia's involvement in WWI finally ended when the Bolsheviks accepted the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Golovone). The Red Army finally defeated the Whites in 1919 successfully ending the Civil War.
Lenin continued holding power in Russia until his death in 1924, and then the reins are basically given to Stalin, Kamenev, and Zinoveiv, although Stalin eventually gained absolute control (Jahn).
The name St. Petersburg was switched to Leningrad in 1924, in honor of Lenin who died in 1924. But in effect the name changed signaled a new era of more oppression of the Russian people and of Russian culture. The Russian world was rocked due to Tsar Nicholas' rule and his inadequate dealing with the Great War. Millions were killed in the War itself and many millions more were killed during its aftermath during the later Communist rule of Russia and WWII. The Communist regime controlled all of Russia for nearly the rest of the twentieth century, creating worldwide problems. Panic set in when Russia became a superpower; eventually Russia entered into a "Cold War" with the West. Thus, the course of Russian history changed completely with the demise of the last Tsar.
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