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Painting of Tsar Nicholas II wearing a crown and holding a sceptre

The last Tsar of Russia: A life of Nicholas II

Nicholas II of Russia in his coronation robe | Public Domain

Known as the last emperor of Russia's ruling family, the Romanovs, Nicholas II was a first cousin of King George V. A self-described autocrat who cared little for others' views, the Tsar's troublesome reign sowed the seeds of discontent amongst the Russian people, leading to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Two years later, Nicholas and his entire family were executed while under house arrest, bringing an end to 200 years of Romanov rule.

Three Crowns: Nicky, Willy & George

Before the Great War of 1914-18, Europe was ruled by three first cousins; King George V of Britain, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. They were also fifth cousins, being equal descendants of King George II of England. Nicholas’ wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria after Victoria’s daughter Alice married Prince Louis of Hesse, an area of modern-day Germany.

George V and Tsar Nicholas bore a striking resemblance to each other, particularly with their luminous blue eyes enhanced by their almost identical beards. Physical similarities aside they differed greatly in manner, attitude and beliefs. The irony being that despite the fact they were ‘family’, such relationships connected by blood, couldn’t stop World War I.

Nicholas II’s didactic manner, believing that his imperial position was ordained by God, embraced an autocratic way of rule, and refused all notions of reform to how the house of the Romanovs governed. George V on the other hand was far more open to diplomacy and listening to advice from his government which made him more sympathetic to his subjects.

The Ruritanian dream

The cousins met each other at the funeral of George V’s father Edward VII when the Kaiser also attended the ceremony in London. George was a man of desolation after the death of his father and felt inadequate physically and mentally. Desperately nervous, he may have felt undermined in the company of his more bombastic cousins. Close relations between the three rulers weren’t just based on blood ties but was the aim of the ‘Ruritanian dream’: An ambitious plan of Queen Victoria to people the crowns of Europe with her dynasty through her children and grandchildren. It was a dream that shattered into pieces with the onslaught of WWI.

George met cousin ‘Nikki’ Nicholas, Tsar of Russia when he was a guest of the ‘Royal Mob’, at the yearly event of Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight in 1909. The Tsar brought over his family, but King George made sure they couldn’t stay, as their spartan manor was far too small for visitors. It was one of several visits where the two royal families would sail boats and drink tea together and more importantly, speak English.

These moments of intermingling were caught in a famous photograph of the two cousins dressed in sailor uniforms acting convivially and, if not a tad awkwardly, touching each other. Like George V, Nicholas also liked outdoor pursuits such as rowing and tennis and were both at heart simple men lacking in intellectual vigour. One thing they had in common was their dedication to their wives (Queen Mary and Tsarina Alexandra respectively) who they loved deeply.

Rasputin and Mysticism

Despite his power, wealth and vast palaces Tsar Nicholas had one major problem. Unlike his cousin George, Nicholas having sired four daughters still had no male heirs. But in 1903 when a son Alexei was born it was discovered the child had inherited the dangerous genetic blood disease haemophilia. The boy’s future as Nicholas’ heir looked bleak. Such a situation saw his wife Alexandra turn to a healer, the manipulative mystic Rasputin, who after appearing to calm the young prince was appointed his guardian.

Believing the strange, bearded priest could heal their son also convinced Nicholas of Rasputin’s spiritual powers. It is likely Nicholas’ eagerness to believe in the priest’s healing skills was influenced by Alexandra who saw the ‘mad-eyed’ priest as the only saviour of their son. When Rasputin appeared to be a growing threat to the Tsar’s ability to govern, as well as being an embarrassment due to rumours of sexual misconduct with the Empress, he was violently assassinated.

The Fall of the Romanovs

The catalyst to world war occurred on 28 June 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife were shot during a royal visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia by a Serbian anarchist. Russia as an ally of Serbia mobilised its army. Two years later the downfall of Tsar Nicholas had begun. By 1916 Russian soldiers having seen hundreds of thousands of their men killed and die in terrible conditions, began to mutiny and revolt.

Mass discontent spread from the battlefields to the cities where people were starving. Demonstrations took place against the government and the German-born Tsarina Alexandra due to rumours that she was a spy. Growing dissatisfaction among peasants, workers and soldiers turned into a revolution overthrowing the imperial government and placing the Bolshevik revolutionaries in power.

On 13 March 1917 King George wrote in his diary about the news of the revolution and his cousin Nicholas being made to step down as King. Forced to abdicate the Tsar, along with his family, were held under house arrest at their country residence in Tsarskoye Selo. There they waited to see if they could leave the country for England.

Betrayal and murder

Aware of the public’s hardened feelings against the Russian royals – viewed as autocratic tyrants – King George became increasingly worried about how the presence of the Russian Imperial family could raise all sorts of difficulties. Self-preservation for all monarchs is the overriding factor and George acted accordingly. He withdrew the offer of asylum to the Romanovs.

The Tsar and his family’s fate was sealed in April 1918 after they were taken to Yekaterinburg in the Urals. In the early hours of 17 July 1918, the former Tsar and his family were led to a basement room believing that they were being moved for safety reasons. With their physician, footman and the family maid, the entire family were shot by soldiers. Nicholas was the first to die. The daughters survived the first round of bullets as the jewels they were concealing in their dresses protected them. They were then stabbed with bayonets and shot at close range.

The bodies of the Romanovs were burned and cast into an abandoned mine shaft before being buried. The remains were located in 1976 but kept a secret until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. After the slaughter of the Russian royal family, George V wrote to one of the surviving members of the Romanovs, his aunt, Maria Fedorovna, after she escaped by boat to Malta, giving thanks that she arrived safely. The irony is that he could have behaved with the same generosity to his cousin Nicholas two years earlier but chose not to.

Key dates

  • Born: 18 May 1868 (Alexander Palace, Tsarskoye Selo, Russia.
  • Died: 17 July 1918 (Ipatiev House, Yekaterinburg, Russia) aged 50
  • Reign: 1 November 1894 – 15 March 1917 (deposed)