“I believe we should regard all these difficult ceremonies in Moscow as a great ordeal sent by God, for at every step we shall have to repeat all we went through in the happy day thirteen years ago! One thought alone consoles me: That in the course of our life we shall not have to go through the rite again, that subsequent events will occur peacefully and smoothly.”
It was with these words that Nicholas Romanov wrote to his mother, the 49 year old Dowager Empress Marie, attempting to console her on the day of his coronation as Czar of all the Russias -the LAST Czar of all the Russias – which took place on today’s date, May 26 in the year 1896. That “happy day thirteen years ago” to which the new Tsar, Nicholas II referred was the coronation of his late father as Tsar Alexander III. Nicholas was of course trying to soothe the feelings of his mother on a day which must certainly have filled her with reminders that her own husband had died of nephritis at the too young age of 49.
The Long and Difficult Coronation Ceremony for the Czar
The coronation of the Emperor of Russia (pictured below) which is what he was, although Nicholas preferred the old Russian title of “Tsar”, was an extremely long ceremony, governed by years of hide-bound tradition, which had to be observed to the letter. Here, author Robert K. Massie gives a mere taste of the beast:
“The coronation ceremony lasted five hours. After a lengthy Mass came the formal robbing of the Tsar and Tsaritsa. Then Alexandra knelt while the Metropolitan (THE High Priest of the Russian Orthodox Church) prayed for the Tsar. While everyone else remained standing, Nicholas alone dropped on his knees to pray for Russia and her people. After being anointed with Holy Oil, Nicholas swore his oath to rule the empire and preserve autocracy as Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. Then for the first and only time in his life, the Tsar entered the sanctuary to receive the sacrament as a priest of the church. As Nicholas walked up the altar steps, the heavy chain of the Order of St. Andrew slipped from his shoulders and fell to the floor. It happened so quickly that no one noticed except those standing closest to the Tsar. Later lest it be taken as omen, all these were sworn to secrecy.”
The Tragedy of the Doomed Reign of Nicholas II
Thus, on this ill omen began the final chapter in the long history of the Russian Tsars, and one of the very saddest human stories which I have ever studied. That oath to preserve autocracy (which is defined literally as “government by one person having unlimited authority”) was something which Nicholas took very seriously indeed. And he might as well have been swearing to slit his own throat, the throats of millions of his subjects, and not least of all, the throats of his entire family. Russia was simply too large to be governed in such a way any longer. The people contained within the Russian Empire were simply too diverse, and their lives too complex for one man to have such absolute authority over them all. Worse yet, the world was in the midst of an industrial revolution which was not going to leave Russia alone, no matter how much the Tsar might have wished it to. Like it or not, Russia was going to be yanked into the 20’th Century. And despite all of the forces that worked against it, despite the war with Japan in 1905, and the subsequent Revolution which forced Nicholas to allow the convening of an elected Parliament – the Duma – it took the prolonged and relentless crisis of World War One, and the activities of a figure who belonged in a nightmare – Rasputin – to bring down the centuries old autocracy which Nicholas had sworn to uphold, which was the only way of life in his rapidly changing world which he understood. The story of Nicholas and his wife, the Tsaritsa Alexandra, of their son, the Tsarevitch Alexis and his suffering from hemophilia, and of the fear for the boy’s life that lead Nicholas and his wife to the evil man Rasputin, are all subjects which will be dealt with in other “Today in History” postings.
Above, Nicholas II and family. Standing l to r Maria, Tsaritsa Alexandra. Seated, l to r, Olga, Nicholas II, Anastasia, Alexis, Tatiana.
Nicholas II – the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time
On this date, let it suffice to say that Nicholas himself was an exceptionally good and decent man. He possessed many personal qualities which made him the superior of a great many of those who were around him. He was decent, honest and kind. He was a fine father to his children – four lovely young girls and a cheerful, if sick little boy. And very rarely among crowned heads of this, or any period, he was a very sweet and devoted husband to his wife with whom he was passionately in love. And that is what makes this story so extraordinarily sad. It was only when all was lost – when his throne had been swept away, and he and his family had been clapped into captivity at the mercy of the Bolsheviks – the grim and murderous band who would ultimately produce the Soviet Union, and all of the misery and oppression for which it stood, it was only then that all of the human qualities which had always existed in Nicholas came through to the surface. By then, it was too late for Nicholas, for his family, for his country and for the world.
“Essentially the tragedy of Nicholas II was that he appeared in the wrong place in history. Equipped by education to rule in the nineteenth century, equipped by temperament to rule in England, he lived and reigned in Russia in the twentieth century. There, the world he understood was breaking up around him. Events were moving too swiftly, ideas were changing too radically. In the gigantic storm which swept over Russia, he and all he loved were carried away. To the end, he did his best, and for his wife and family that was a very great deal. For Russia, it was not enough.”
– Robert K. Massie, from his book “Nicholas and Alexandra”
“It is difficult and painful to contemplate Nicholas in the bleak light of hindsight; one is always haunted by that image of the deposed autocrat seated on a tree stump … (left) gazing blindly into the camera and far beyond. One’s memories are dragged again and again to that dreadful cellar in Ekaterinberg, in the Urals where Nicholas himself, the Tsaritsa, the four nice girls and their brave and cheerful little hemophilic brother were murdered by the Bolsheviks with a brutality which seemed to be a barbaric aberration, but which turned out to be prophetic. The courage to die well, however, was not enough to make Nicholas a good ruler.”
– Edward Crankshaw, from his book “In the Shadow of the Winter Palace”
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“Nicholas and Alexandra” by Robert K. Massie, Mac Clelland and Stewart Ltd., 1967
“In the Shadow of the Winter Palace” by Edward Crankshaw, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1976.
“Nicholas and Alexandra” Columbia Pictures, Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, 1971.