The Last Tsar

March 15, 1917 signifies the end of the Russian Tsarist autocracy. After continued pressure from Russian citizens demanding change and a grim international and domestic environment, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his throne. A series of events and proven inadequacies of the Tsar made the end of his rule inevitable. The Dumas, or representative assemblies, attempted to coerce Nicholas II into allowing them greater responsibility in managing the war effort, to which Nicholas II replied, “I shall maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was preserved by my dead father.” ((Revolt)) It was only a short time before he proved he was not unflinching, and failed the autocracy miserably – by ending it.

Conditions in Russia at this time reflected a severe food shortage caused by the war. With many people coalescing in cities and becoming vagrants, the strain placed on food production only increased tensions between the government and Russians.

Ultimately, it was the revolt in Petrograd which forced the Tsar out of government. Violence and anger echoed the streets until Nicholas II had no choice but to abdicate. Supposedly not wishing to separate from his son, Nicholas II transferred his power to his younger brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, who, one day later, transferred power yet again to a Provisional Government. (( It was from this moment on that a new form of government would rule Russia.

A question is raised about the nature of autocracy: was an end to tsarist autocracy inevitable or was Nicholas II simply unfit to rule Russia during this era of strife? If Nicholas II had been able to successfully manage the conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is it possible Russia could be a Tsarist autocracy today?

The End of an Era

On March 25th, 1917 the Russian monarchy waved a final white flag when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne. He was given little choice; revolutionary mobs were practically on his doorstep, and with a war going on abroad lasting civil unrest at home would have made victory impossible. Therefore, Nicholas declared his reasoning to the people, stating “we have thought that we owed to our people the close union and organization of all its forces for the realization of a rapid victory”.

He states that he did not wish to be away from his son, probably at least in part due to Tsarevich Alexei’s young age and haemophilia. Instead, he chose to pass the weight of the crown on to his brother Mikhail, who in turn was convinced to give the power over to a provisional government rather than taking up the throne.

So, who is to blame for the end of the Romanov house, which had ruled Russia for over 200 years? Did the fault lie with Nicholas II alone? Was it the result of a series of choices made over many decades and generations of rulers? Or was it an inevitable shift that happened in the population of Russia, which no Tsar, no matter how wise or powerful, could have stood against?

Promises and Principles: The New Provisional Government


With the famed abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on the fateful day of March 15, 1917, Russia experienced a drastic paradigm shift in the manner of political atmosphere and public perception of the socioeconomic status quo that had previously prevailed for centuries. The Tsar relinquishes his omnipotence as the autocratic ruler of the state with a charismatic speech venerating “the destinies of Russia, the honour of her heroic Army, the happiness of the people, and the whole future of our beloved country” ((The Times, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917)). His declaration is a notion of nationalism; an appeal to the people to lead the country onto a noble path of wealth and power so that it may become transfigured into a prosperous utopia freed from the “obstinate war” ((The Times, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917)) that had so dreadfully plagued the nation. The culmination of the speech is veiled with a sense of desperation and subservience to fate, as it ends with a single note of hope encompassed within the phrase: “May God help Russia” ((The Times, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917)).

The cataclysmic prostration of the autocracy before its own people is further exemplified by the refusal of the Tsar’s heir, Grand Duke Mikhail, to take over the throne. He states that he is “firmly resolved to accept the Supreme Power only if this should be the desire of our great people” ((The Times, Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917)) and acknowledges the pressing need for implementing political change and widespread popular suffrage. This thus allowed for the bold entry of the First Provisional Government, also known as the Temporary Committee of the State Duma. The first provisional government set the stage for what would be known in the future as democratization and an attempt to establish popular sovereignty. The doctrines that it placed forth and advocated were interwoven with liberalism and bordered upon the early principles of communism, and included the desire to “abolish all restrictions based on class, religion, and nationality” as well as “an immediate and complete amnesty in all cases of a political and religious nature” ((Izvestiia, The First Provisional Government, 1917)). This legislation envisioned a blissful yet unrealistic system that consisted of sharp implementation of the fundamental rights to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, while simultaneously embodying peace. The framework of ideologies that the Duma mapped out was much to feeble to counter the strain of the political perturbation the nation underwent in such a short period of time. The Duma eventually failed in its quest to craft an immense revolution and to enforce each and every one of its progressive reforms, yet also allowed for an eruption of a new form of government that would be capable of embodying the true radical spirit of change: the Bolsheviks of 1917.

NIcholas II: The Last Tsar

Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II ruled during time of great conflict and upheaval, ultimately concluding not only with the end of the Romanov dynasty, but also the end of tsarist rule over Russia. During the 1917 February revolution in Petrograd, the people protested the food shortage as a result of war, directing their anger towards the tsar and his regime. After power struggles, Nicholas lost the people’s trust and patience. After the people gained the support of the royal army, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne to his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail. In Nicholas’s declaration of abdication he stated that he did not want to “separate [myself] from [my] beloved son” ((The Times, Abdication of Nicholas II, 1917)) which may be true, but Nicholas also was protecting Alexander by keeping his identity as a hemophiliac secret by refusing to abdicate the throne to him. In Nicholas’s written abdication he believes that the war must come to an end “at all costs” ((The Times, Abdication of Nicholas II, 1917)), one of which was ending the centuries long reign of his Romanov legacy.

Even as Nicholas gave up power he still managed to make a request of his citizens to “obey[ing] the tsar at the painful moment of national trial” ((The Times, Abdication of Nicholas II, 1917)). Directly after inspiring this final moment of trust, Nicholas goes on to say “May God help Russia” ((The Times, Abdication of Nicholas II, 1917)) , which appears to give up responsibility and convey that fate is taking the lead of the situation, a contradiction to his previous statement. As power is transferred to Grand Duke Michael, he soon passes it along to the Duma and the First Provisional Government in the hopes of creating a “more stable executive power” ((Izvestiia, The First Provisional Government, 1917)). The Provisional Government, consisted of Kadets and revolutionists, is led by Prince L’vov. In such a tumultuous time the Provisional Government attempted to enact many principles, some of which were too abrupt of an ideological shift to be truly successful. While the Provisional government was one step in a new political order, a lack of cohesion and realistic principles created an environment which was not se tup for success, leaving the Russian people without a strong government once again and vulnerable to the next shift of power.

Abdication and Creation of a New Russia


After almost two hundred years of expanding a nation that would be respected as an equal to the Western European states, the Russian Empire fell. The 1917 Revolution in March called for the abdication of the Tsar, Nicholas II, as well as the need for a government of the people to take its place. When Nicholas abdicated though, he appointed his brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, as his heir; he was the next to rule what was left of this grand Empire. But the citizens weren’t calling for a different monarch, but a new form of government altogether. Mikhail seemed to sense this, since in his response to his new title, he declared that he would rule until the “will of the nation regarding the form of government to be adopted.” (( )) He wanted for the people to choose what they wanted out of a government and was willing to take charge just until that moment.

The First Provisional Government based itself on the principles that one sees in a democratic government’s ideals, such as freedom of free speech, press and assembly, anti-discrimination, universal suffrage, and elections for positions of governments. (( )) But there are some surprising conditions that appear too in their Statute. They promise immediate amnesty to acts such as terrorism and revolts and protection for those in the military that took part in the revolution. While these may seem surprising at first, they make sense in terms of the goals of the new provisional government. These ten men were presumably at the heart of the revolution, or at least in favor of what the revolutionaries were doing, or else they would not have gotten such high positions in the cabinet, so it makes sense that they would pardon men who were arrested by the old government if they were on the same side. Both the fall of the centuries-long monarchy and the beginning of a new government were new experiences for the Russian people that changed their lives for better or worse.

Nicholas II and Abdication

Change!  In the statements made on March 15, 1917, Nicholas II realized that the pressures from the people of Russia had reached a boiling point.  He felt that he had one option, to abdicate the thrown and leave it to his brother.  He stated “We have recognized that it is for the good of the country that we should abdicate the Crown of the Russian State and lay down the Supreme Power.  Not wishing to separate ourselves from our beloved son, we bequeath our heritage to our brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich…” ((Nicholas II abdication speech, March 15, 1917)).  Nicholas II’s statement about abdicating the thrown were important for several reasons.  First, he recognized the fact that people knew he could not keep the Russian state floating.  Years before his abdication, he had lead Russia into one debacle after another.  Internationally, he had Russia’s backwardness exposed when Russia was humiliated in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905.  Years later, Russia was exposed again with culminating defeats in World War I.  Domestically, he failed to solve the food shortages and failed to respond to calls for reforms from the Russian people.  Second, he placed more emphasis on the Russian state keeping a Tsardom than listening to the demands of the Russian people.   Nicholas II believed that the only change the Russian state needed to make was to have a different leader in charge.  However, the decision to transfer power to his brother only added fuel to the coming revolution, along with his past history of refusing to make reforms for the benefit of the Russian people.  Had he really cared about the Russian people, he would have created reforms which would have allowed for the people to have a say in decision making.  Do you think there was a point of no return for Nicholas II?  And if so, when did he cross that point in which he, and the idea of Tsardom were doomed?  Or was Nicholas II doomed as a result of previous Tsars?

Abdication and The Provisional Government

By 1917, the Russian war effort was categorized as a disaster.  Food shortages, terrible army living conditions, and trouble at home away from the front left the people of Russia desperately searching for a scapegoat.  The citizens found the perfect scapegoat in their Tsar Nikolai II. Once the Russian army began to crumble under German forces, Tsar Nikolai II was named commander in chief of the army, and began The Great Retreat. As Russian morale dissipated, Tsar Nikolai II stepped down and named his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, the new Tsar.  In the article, “The Abdication of Nikolai II”, the explanation of his abdication was filled with glorified speech about their powerful nation and it’s heroic victory. The people of Russia were told it was time to “abdicate the Crown of the Russian state and lay down the Supreme Power.”  Unfortunately rather than take on a new form of government, a second Tsar, the brother of the former, was placed in power. With an “elected” legislative body, the Duma, at his side, there was an appearance of representation of the people. The Abdication was a call upon the nation to govern themselves through the representatives in the Duma. The people of Russia did not have as much of a say in the operations of their country as they believed.  The Tsar himself selected the representatives. The Duma was given a set of eight principles to follow, ranging from amnesty to military rights.  The closing sentence of “The First Provisional Government” is a strange ending to a declaration of trust, “[The Duma] has no intention whatsoever of taking advantage of the military situation to delay in any way the carrying through of the reforms and the measures outlined above.”  While the Duma declares it has no intention of halting the measures to replace the Tsar, it is clear that they are willing and able to use the military for whatever is necessary.  While setting up the Duma and filling it with representatives gave the people of Russia a sense of control, the elected body was a facade for the Tsar to hide behind.  By selecting a preferred cabinet, did the Tsar take away power from the population?

Nikolai and the Abdication

The language used in Nikolai II’s abdication says quite a bit about the man himself. Though he led Russia through a period of strife and turmoil, he uses clever writing and unclear statements to try to avoid being blamed for any of Russia’s issues.

Right from the start, Nikolai is trying to throw blame off of himself by saying, “We” before using his actual name. This promotes the idea that he was not solely responsible for the strife of the Russian people. Following this, in the second paragraph he says, “…it pleased God to send Russia a further painful trial.” when referring to the February Revolution and the unhappiness of the Russian people. He uses this sentence immediately after he spoke of Russia struggling against a powerful enemy in a bloody war, associating the nation of Russia struggling militarily against a hated foe with the “internal troubles” that had begun in Russia. This clearly throws the blame onto the revolution that is forcing his abdication.

Next, he states that the people must, “…conduct [the war] at all costs to a victorious end.” This subtly implies that if the people continue to do that which he began, they will be victorious, and it also implies that the losses that incurred in the war are not due to his leadership or decisions. He continues this by saying that, “The cruel enemy is making his last efforts and the moment is near when our valiant Army… will finally overthrow the enemy.” This clearly implies that Russia is not struggling in the war at all; instead, it tells the reader that the Russian military is nearing victory and that the war will be won because of the leadership of Nikolai.

These are some of the many examples of deceptive language that Nikolai uses in his abdication letter so that he may absolve himself of blame and escape from punishment by the Russian people.

Why abdication?

Nicholas II abdicated the Crown and appointed his brother, Grand Duke Michael, to be his successor (( Abdication of Nikolai II, March 15, 1917 )). However, Michael agreed to “accept the Supreme Power” only in case it was the will of the nation. ((Declaration from the Throne by Grand Duke Mikhail, March 16, 1917)) The Provisional Government had been established to serve Imperial needs before the moment people decided on the country’s new form of government. At the very beginning of its’ work new “rulers” made a few important decisions: amnesty, freedoms, abolition of restrictions based on nationality and religion, etc. ((Izvestiia, 3 March 1917.)) But why did it happen? Was that necessary?

Of course, Nicholas II made a fatal mistake by shooting into people who went to the Winter Palace. But was it necessary to leave the Throne while the country was participating in the World War? He probably knew that his brother was not going to agree being the Emperor, so why did he do that and not just gave more power to the State Duma and restricted his own? I tried to reconstruct the possible logic.

Imagine that you’re the ruler of the country, who just lost all his trust from his nation by shooting into his people, loosing the war, etc. You have a brother, whom population loves more. He says he doesn’t want to rule the country. Now you have three choices.

The first one is remain on your Throne and wait if the dissatisfaction lowers, for example, with some good news from the battlefield. But that’s going to be very dangerous if your people decide to help you understanding that it’s high time to leave.

The second one is to restrict your power and give more to some representative organ, in particular, State Duma. In this case the fundamental idea of Russian Monarchy – Ablsolutism – is lost. You and your royal family hardly will be able to return the power back ever again.

And finally, you have your brother, who speaks as if he won’t accept the Crown. But actually it could be a kind of “cheap talk” ((In game theory, cheap talk is communication between players which does not directly affect the payoffs of the game.)). Because, as he gets all the power, the future of his nation is in his hands and he probably won’t let the country to have no leader at such a hard time. If population ask him for becoming a new Emperor, he possibly accept it. And, in any case, Michael is going to face the same choice: either to rule, to restrict his power or to give the Throne to the next in line for it. Why not try?

So, summarizing all written above, I came to the conclusion that Nicholas had chosen, probably, the option which costed him and his family less among the other alternatives at that moment of time. What this decision resulted to for the country? We’ll learn soon.

The First Provisional Government

Russia was going through great turmoil in the year of 1917. Pressure was increasing drastically for the Russian tsar, Nikolai II. The people of the nation demanded change and Nikolai could not provide it, drastic change had risen in the years before, culturally and socially. The people of Russia felt great pressure from the way things were being handled; the war had brought economics issues as well as a drastic loss of casualties. The abdication of Nikolai II was a move forward to the future where many thought life would prosper and the First Provisional Government was a critical/crucial opportunity to move forward into the future and to push forward the change that had began to rise years before. The first provisional government was truly beneficial to the social need at the time, Although the First Provisional Government only lasted about eight months, could have it been what the nation needed if it had ran longer, was the future of Russia on the right track with this kind of authority and government. This new government did offer what the people needed; it offered the type of change and innovation to a new way of life. The first cabinet to represent the public guaranteed freedom of speech, amnesty, the removal of restrictions on class, religion, and nationality, arrangement for a Constituent Assembly, a substitution for a people’s militia, and universal and equal elections. The continuation of the First Provisional Government could’ve opened many different doors to the people of Russia as well as a new and different future.