Historians have often described Tsar Nicholas II as the most inept Russian leader. He was viewed by many as indecisive and ill equipped to fulfil autocracy successfully. However, he did have fundamental strengths such as his belief in family values. When compared to his father and his grandfather, many see his reign as inferior to theirs. Alexander II, known as “Tsar Liberator”, beckoned in an age of reform. In comparison, Alexander III encouraged counter-reform. Nicholas’ reign included both of these features and it is debated to what extent his seemingly incompetent reign differed from that of his ancestors.
One key area, which decided their style of autocracy, is that of reform. All three Tsars had experience of it and handled it in very different ways. Nicholas lacked domestic policies. He sought industrial expansion and modernisation and the establishment of a secure financial base but expansion, which would ensure a stable climate, which was conservative, agrarian and dominated by the nobility. He personally attempted very little in the area of reform and continued many of his father’s policies, due to the same advisors being present in his government.
However, he showed little interest for reform in other areas. Although there was great reform, there was even greater counter reform. The Tsar was unwilling to see any change, which would hamper his powers as autocrat of all Russia. He resented the assertive Duma and introduced new systems of election, which would ensure that the nobles dominated them. He also curbed the power of the Zemstva and repressed many freedoms of Russians. He imprisoned a record number of political prisoners, which only encouraged plotting by revolutionary groups.
His response to the February Revolution was to order the massacre of the crowd. His repression was not necessarily because of his character, but because of his incompetence. Another key area of Nicholas’ autocracy was his dealings with his government. He was particularly belligerent where the Duma was concerned and resented its presence. However, he was the only Tsar to concede to a democracy. Although reluctantly, the Tsar was persuaded by Witte to experiment with a constitutional monarchy and after the publication of the October Manifesto, the Duma was endowed with powers.
However, it was still strictly limited and both sides saw the new order as an obstacle towards the government that they sought. For the Tsar, the Duma represented a reduction in his power and for the intelligentsia and reformists; it was not the democratic republic they wanted. Also, Nicholas II was the only Tsar to ever conceded to the establishment of any form of democratically elected national executive. His father was a devout autocrat and refused to devolve any power to any other person or assembly than himself. His grandfather, although a fervent reformist and keen moderniser, also did little to involve a national assembly.
Although the Duma was conceived in his reign, it was granted very little power and much authority remained with the Tsar and nobility. In this principle, Nicholas II’s style of autocracy was different from his father and grandfather since he was the only Tsar to, although not willingly, concede to a form of democracy. Another key area of autocracy was personality. Nicholas was not meant to become Tsar. He had only ascended after the sudden death of his brother and so had not received the training to become an effective leader. He was renowned for his indecisiveness and his unwillingness to engage in politics.
He lacked organisational skills and was inherently stubborn, which would ultimately prove to be his downfall. He preferred to spend time with his family and his ailing son and took little active role in his government. He was an anti-Semite and encouraged pogroms that would prey on Jewish settlements. He adopted oppressive politics, such as Russification, and his lack of diplomacy made him seem all too similar to his father. These oppressive beliefs made him similar to Alexander III. His father had demonstrated many of the same personality traits.
Again, like his son, he only ascended after his brother died and so had little time for the complexities of politics. He was aggressive and disagreed with his father’s liberal policies. He supported the repression of all nationalities within Russia and the continuation of the class system. He opposed all reformers in his government and spent a majority of his rule undoing as many of his father’s reforms as he could manage. He was opposed to any limitations on autocratic rule and did everything he could to maintain and increase the power of the Russian Tsar.
However, he did exhibit many reformist policies, especially towards industry, much like his son. He encouraged the expansion of the railways and steel industries – however, he was motivated not by a need for modernisation, but to increase his own power-base and the nation as a whole. He was, much like his son, an oppressive Tsar. However, Alexander II was a complete opposite to his successors. He was of a much more reformist tendency and was keen to liberalise all Russian domestic policies. He pioneered far-reaching reforms of the military, judiciary, education and the government.
He introduced the Duma, the Russian parliament and also local Zemstva (local government assemblies). His liberalism went so far as to free the serfs from slavery and allow them to own land. He relaxed censorship and also prevented the spread of Russification in his reign – cultures and peoples were allowed assemblies and representation – for example, Alexander II is regarded as the “Father of Modern Finland”. He also encouraged investment in industry and the economy. Russia was greatly strengthened by his influence.
Unlike his successors, his reign was one of reform and change as opposed to backward repression. He also encouraged mistrust due to his relationship with Rasputin. However, much of this was due to the influence of his wife, Alexandra. She was also oppressive and is to have encouraged the massacre on Bloody Sunday and Rasputin’s presence at court. In conclusion, although cursed by circumstance and enemies not of his own making, Nicholas II’s reign was not wholly different from that of his father and grandfather.
He encompasses ideals of his father, in his support of Russification, pogroms and the general maintenance of the Slavic way of life. He also attempted reform through Witte and encouraged industrial expansion and financial improvements, in the spirit of his grandfather. However, the concept that all three Tsars have in common is their support of the system of autocracy and it was only Nicholas, the last Tsar, who would ever see a partial democracy in Russia.