Nicholas II of the Romanov dynasty was the last tsar of Russia. The family had ruled for more than 300 years, but shadows were gathering when Nicholas assumed the throne in 1894.
He and the Empress Alexandra were unpopular from the beginning. The reclusive Alexandra was particularly disliked by the Russian people. She was of German descent, a nation widely distrusted by Russians. Despite her marriage to Tsar Nicholas, her dress and demeanor remained decidedly un-Russian, which the people interpreted as a rebuke to their culture.
Nicholas was a reluctant tsar. He once described his occupation as being “the owner of Russia”, but his heart obviously wasn’t in it. He had no interest in military pomp and circumstance. His family was the center of his life: he idolized his wife and devoted himself to their children. A gentle nature is rarely associated with strong leadership and the Tsar’s small stature and indecisiveness added to the overall impression of weakness.
The Disastrous Coronation Celebration
Their coronation celebration was overshadowed by a tragedy that many claimed was an omen for what lie ahead. Cake was to be distributed to everyone, in honor of the new Emperor and Empress. Thousands of peasants waited for a piece of cake and possibly a glimpse of the royal couple. Then a rumor began to spread through the crowd that the cake supply was dwindling – there would not be enough for everyone. There was a frantic surge forward and soon the pushing became a stampede. In the end, over a thousand people were killed in the mad dash for cake.
The new tsar and tsarina were upset and planned to cancel the evening ball planned in their honor. Nicholas’ aides advised him to reconsider, for fear of offending the French ambassador who planned it. Nicholas gave in; his indecisiveness and tendency to give in to others proved to be a lifelong curse. He and Alexandra reluctantly attended the ball, and the British ambassador later recalled the red eyes of the Tsarina and her sad expression. But all the peasants ever knew was that after seeing thousands of people die at their coronation festivities in the afternoon, the royal couple had been seen dancing at a ball in the evening.
The Winter Costume Ball of 1903
This wasn’t the only instance of the Russian royals’ poor judgment. The Tsar and Tsarina often appeared insensitive to the plight of the Russian people. Their lavish costume balls were a just source of resentment to starving and destitute peasants. Yet Nicholas and Alexandra were born to tremendous wealth and privilege. Even as adults, they were shielded from anything unpleasant. The realities of starvation and cold and overwork may have been beyond the scope of their imagination. In any case, they didn’t seem to connect their grand events to the peasants’ resentment.
In 1903, the Romanovs hosted a costume ball at their Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The guests wore 17th century costumes – and in some cases genuine artifacts from the Hermitage. Later, the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch described the ball as “spectacular” but added, “A new and hostile Russia glared through the large windows of the palace…while we danced, the workers were striking and the clouds in the Far East were hanging dangerously low.”
Producing a male heir, a tsarevich, was the Empress Alexandra’s only real obligation to the Russian people. Ten long years brought four healthy daughters and no son. When she became pregnant for the last time, she was not in excellent health. There was a lot of pressure for her to deliver a male heir, since her daughters were not eligible to rule the country.
The tsarina was a devout woman; when her son was born, she thanked God for the answer to her prayers.