Nicholas II in the uniform of the
Life-Guards Cavalry Regiment. St Petersburg. 1910–1914.
The year 1905 was a milestone of change in both Russian history and the life of Emperor
Nicholas II and his family. The beginning of the year was tragically marred by the events
of 9 January in St Petersburg - the "Bloody Sunday" that shook the monarchy to
its very foundation, unleashing the destructive forces of national revolution. At its end
came another event, little noted at the time, but no less fatal in the long run for the
dynasty and the empire - the "man of God" Grigory Rasputin first came into
contact with the imperial family.
The Emperor - living in constant fear over the health of his son, and weighed down by
the depressing news from the theatre of the Russo-Japanese War (in February the Battle of
Mukden was lost; in May Russia was stunned by Tsushima which demolished the country's
naval might) - received daily reports of outbursts of revolutionary violence, a tremendous
wave of strikes, armed uprisings with fighting on the barricades, and mutinous army units.
A certain share of the responsibility for this sinister chronicle lay directly with
Nicholas - the beginning had come with the shooting down of thousands of St Petersburg
workers who on that January Sunday sought to present a peaceful petition at the Winter
Much still remains unclear about the events leading up to the tragedy of Bloody Sunday
- first and foremost, perhaps, the degree of actual danger that might have been presented
by an enormous procession of people, up to 140,000 strong. The measures taken by the
authorities in advance of 9 January were, however, more like preparations to repulse an
enemy army from the administrative districts of the capital than ordinary efforts to
maintain law and order. The troops who blocked the streets leading to the centre of St
Petersburg had orders to open fire if the demonstrators continued their march despite a
ban. Whether a tragic misunderstanding or a deliberate provocation, the actions to stop
the workers' demonstrations at the Narva Gate, on the Petersburg Side, and on Palace
Square itself turned into a bloody massacre. By some reckonings more than 1,200 people
died on that day and about 5,000 more were injured. Among the victims were women and
The tragedy of Bloody Sunday roused the country and became the detonator for the first
Russian revolutionary explosion. As the pro-monarchist historian S.S. Oldenburg wrote:
"on 9 January … it emerged that not only the intelligentsia, but also the ‘common
people' - at least in the cities - were to a considerable extent in the ranks of the
opponents of the existing order." Workers' strikes gripped the industrial centres: in
January 1905 alone the number of strikers amounted to over 440,000 - more than in the
whole of the preceding decade. The influence of extreme left-wing parties calling for an
open armed struggle with those in power increased sharply. With the spring a rapid rise of
the peasant movement began, frequently spilling over into the robbery and burning of
estate manor houses, the murder of representatives of the authorities, and the spontaneous
seizure and redistribution of land.
"The police on the spot were in panic. From all the provinces there arose cries
for help and requests to send guards units or Cossacks. So many governors were killed that
an appointment to that post was tantamount to a death sentence," a contemporary
remembered. Anti-governmental, and in many instances overtly separatist actions seized the
non-Russian fringes of the Empire, most notably Finland, the Kingdom of Poland, the Baltic
lands and the Caucasian provinces. Particularly threatening for the future of the monarchy
was the rapid growth of mutinous thinking in the forces, which became obvious after the
uprising on the battleship Potemkin in June 1905 that echoed like thunder across
the whole of Russia.
In a situation where revolution had spread across the country, autocratic power was
left effectively in complete isolation. Demands for the implementation of "popular
representation" could be heard everywhere in that period - at the political banquets
of the liberal intelligentsia and in the revolutionary strike committees of the mines and
factories. Even such newspapers as Sankt-Peterburgskiye Vedemosti, Svet and Novoye
Vremya until recently loyal to the government, even the conservative Russian Assembly
and one of its ideologists, the courtier General Kireyev, advocated the summoning of a zemsky
sobor - a kind of general assembly last seen in the seventeenth century - as "a
national form of representation". In the new circumstances resisting claims that were
by now almost universal became ever harder. Two weeks after the death of Grand Duke Sergei
Alexandrovich, one of the most implacable advocates of firm autocracy, killed in Moscow on
4 February by the Socialist Revolutionary Kaliayev, the Emperor began to make concessions.
On 19 February the government published instructions, signed by Nicholas the day
before, to the new Minister of the Interior Bulygin, that referred to the intention
"to involve the men most worthy of the people's trust, empowered and elected by the
population in the preliminary drafting and discussion of legislative proposals." The
idea was to establish an elected consultative chamber, whose rights and powers would be
similar to the functions of the State Council of years past.
The plan for the State Duma drawn up under Bulygin's direction by July 1905 was
examined at the meetings that took place at Peterhof between 18 and 26 July with the
Emperor himself chairing. Involved in the discussions were the grand dukes, ministers,
prominent members of the State Council and senators, as well as the outstanding historian
Professor Vasily Kliuchevksy. But the draft law approved at that time and published on 6
August failed to satisfy almost everybody: in the incandescent atmosphere of revolutionary
disturbances the proposal to create a consultative Duma looked like a document from the
historical archives, a relic of the remote past.
The political crisis in the country continued to deepen: in October Russia was seized
by another wave of strikes that advanced two main demands - an eight-hour working day
and the summoning of a constituent assembly. The stoppages on the railways that began on
15 October developed into a general strike involving over two million people in almost all
branches of industry. The situation was becoming ever more threatening.
As many close to the Emperor later testified in that October he was faced with a
difficult choice between two possible courses of action. The first consisted, in the words
of Prince Obolensky, in "granting unlimited dictatorial powers to some trusted person
so as to suppress energetically and irrevocably at the root any hint of the appearance of
any resistance to the government, albeit at the expense of mass bloodshed." Such an
approach was psychologically acceptable to Nicholas and the majority of the men around
him. They must, however, have been aware of the extreme danger of such a decision - direct
military suppression of the revolution required the unswerving reliability of the army,
and the former conviction that that was the case had been lost. It is no coincidence that
not one of the "strongmen" in the Emperor's milieu - neither his close associate
General Dmitry Trepov, appointed Governor-General of St Petersburg in 1905, nor Grand Duke
Nikolai Nikolayevich - accepted the role of military dictator in a campaign against the
revolution. The latter even threatened to "put a bullet through his head"
according to the account of Vladimir Fredericks, the Minister of the Imperial Court, who
called on him to lead a dictatorship.
Failing that, it was necessary to "go over to making concessions to public opinion
and to outline for the future cabinet instructions to embark on a constitutional
course." This was the variant insisted upon by Witte who had recently returned from
representing Russia at the peace talks with Japan held in the USA. The Treaty of
Portsmouth signed on 21 August was relatively favourable for the defeated Empire -
territorial losses in the Far East were slight and the inevitable blow to the prestige of
the state less than might have been expected. For his services Witte was made a count and
during the October crisis he proved probably the only political figure in the ruling camp
with a far-reaching plan of action.
In the report presented to the Emperor on 9 October, Witte tried to demonstrate
that the state authorities should again, as in the time of Alexander II, take the
initiative of transformations into their own hands. "The goal has been set by
society; its significance is great and wholly invincible, because there is truth in that
goal. The government should therefore adopt it. The slogan "Freedom" should
become the slogan of government actions. There is no other way in which the state can be
saved… The course of historical progress is unstoppable… There is no choice: either
assume the leadership of the movement that has gripped the country or abandon it to be
torn apart by elemental forces. Executions and rivers of blood will only hasten the
The next few days in autumnal Peterhof passed in endless discussion. The Emperor felt a
profound distrust of both Witte personally and his programme, sticking to the convictions
that he had expressed in December 1904, on the eve of the revolutionary disturbances:
"The peasant won't understand a constitution, but he'll understand only one thing:
that the Tsar's hands have been tied, and then - my congratulations, gentlemen!" Yet
it was not only Witte or his fellow-thinker Prince Obolensky, who produced the draft
manifesto "on improving the state system", but also that long-time opponent of
the former Minister of Finance Ivan Goremykin, who also discussed the issue with the
Emperor, and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich, and even his foreign friend Kaiser Wilhelm
II, who ten years before had hailed the young autocrat's "excellent speech" on
the "impossible dreams" of the Tver zemstvo - everyone around was calling
on him to give way, predicting an inevitable catastrophe otherwise. Having submitted to
the general pressure the Emperor wrote to General Trepov on 16 October: "Yes, Russia
is being granted a constitution. We were few in number who fought against it. But support
was not forthcoming from any quarter in this struggle, every day an even greater number of
people turned away from us and in the end the inevitable happened… Nevertheless,
following my conscience I prefer to grant everything at once than to be obliged in the
near future to make concessions on minor matters and arrive at the same point
anyway." Vladimir Gurko wrote later of Nicholas that "throughout the whole of
his reign he only once took an important decision in defiance of his inner desires, under
pressure from one of his ministers, and that was on 17 October 1905 with the establishment
of representation of the people."
The Manifesto of 17 October marked an extremely important turning-point in the
political history of Russia. While legally remaining an autocratic monarch, Nicholas in
actual fact lost his former unlimited power and, most importantly, his unaccountability..
Elections to a State Duma meant the creation of popular representation in Russia. Although
the first attempts at "parliamentarism" proved unsuccessfully - both the First
and Second Dumas were dissolved in quick succession because of the dominance of the
opposition parties that had formed in the few brief months of the revolution, the Russian
Empire from that moment turned irrevocably into a representative monarchy.
The Third Duma, formed in 1907 on the basis of a new electoral law, became a reliable
partner for the government headed by a new "strongman", Piotr Stolypin, who
advanced a wide-ranging programme of reforms vital to the country. His famous statement
that for regeneration all Russia needed was "twenty years of peace at home and
abroad" is evidence of his grasp of the immense potential for step-by-step reform in
Nicholas undoubtedly respected Stolypin as a man who by firm, energetic measures had
managed to restore order to an Empire gripped by revolution. He also acknowledged his
genuine understanding of the sore points of Russian reality and supported his activities
aimed at resolving them in the quickest possible time. Without the aid of the Emperor,
Stolypin would never have managed to carry out his key reforms that met with quite strong
opposition in the upper echelons of Russian bureaucracy. Yet it is equally clear that
Nicholas mentally resisted the over-insistent guidance of his premier whose powerful
personality often overshadowed the figure of the head of state in this period. The
majority of the Emperor's immediate circle was also set against Stolypin. As time
went by, his influence declined appreciably and in the months before the tragic death of
this last outstanding reformer in Tsarist Russia the inevitability of his early dismissal
was widely mooted. On 1 September 1911, however, during the celebrations in Kiev to mark
the unveiling of a monument to Alexander II, an event attended by the Emperor and senior
officials, Stolypin was fatally wounded at the theatre by the police informer Bogrov.
The full story behind this murder has still not been established. At one time there
were suggestions that the "court clique" was involved. It is hard to say whether
that was really the case, but the fact that Nicholas chose not to attend Stolypin's
funeral was seen by many as a sign of indifference towards his premier. The course of
state policy did not, incidentally, change - the new chairman of the Council of Ministers
was Vladimir Kokovtsov, a close associate of Stolypin, although lacking his predecessor's
authority and energetic determination.
There was a certain foundation to the rumours going around the country about
"shadowy influences" at court hostile to Stolypin. It was at just this time that
the appearance of Grigory Rasputin close to the throne became fairly general knowledge and
the most fantastic tales were circulating about his relationship with the imperial family.
It was known that Stolypin had attempted to put an end to this, rightly believing that
such a figure would inflict irreparable damage on the prestige of the ruling dynasty. In
the spring of 1911 he had had a long talk with the Emperor, providing him with documentary
evidence that blackened the image of the "man of God".
II during a walk on the shore of the Finnish Gulf together with his son Alexis (left) and
the Grand Duchess Anastasia (right). Peterhof. 1908
Nicholas's response is curious, indicating just how much he found himself a hostage to
fate in this burning question: "I know and believe, Piotr Arkadyevich, that you are
sincerely devoted to me. Perhaps everything you are telling me is the truth, but I ask you
never to speak to me again about Rasputin. There is nothing that I can do anyway."
The imperial couple were introduced to Rasputin exactly two weeks after the signing of
the Manifesto of 17 October — at a hard, troubled time for Nicholas and his wife. The
Emperor first mentioned him in his diary on 1 November 1905: "We drank tea with
Militsa and Stana. Met a man of God — Grigory from Tobolsk province." It was then
Grand Duchesses Militsa and Anastasia, the wives of Piotr and Nicholas Nikolayevich, who
introduced the Siberian starets to the imperial family. Such encounters and
spiritual discussions with people marked out by divine grace were a common occurrence at
court in this period. In contrast to many, many others, however, Rasputin managed to
establish himself in a completely unique position with respect to the first family of
Nicholas and Alexandra lived in constant fear for their son, little Alexis, whose
illness left practically no room for hope and they were prepared to believe and to open
their hearts to anyone who might save him from the incessant danger. That was just what
Rasputin became, as he undoubtedly possessed supernatural powers the nature of which is
still a scientific mystery today.
Alexis in a navy uniform. 1910?
The phenomenon of Rasputin, a simple Siberian peasant of wild, indomitable character
and inexhaustible vital energy, who by some unknown means managed to carve out a dizzying
career for himself, still remains in many ways a conundrum. There are many gaps and grey
areas in his biography. A horse-thief in his youth and a debauchee noted for his
taste for wild excesses, beaten and hauled before the courts on several occasions on
charges of stealing poles, he belonged wholly to that category of possessed people of whom
Dostoyevsky wrote, "you never know ahead of time whether they will enter a monastery
or set fire to the village." At some point in the Verhoturye Monastery, where
Rasputin had fled to escape the rage of his fellow-villagers, he underwent a spiritual
transformation. He gave up his former way of life, stopped drinking, smoking and eating
meat, and learnt to read Church Slavonic. It was then that his travels around the holy
sites of Russia began. He visited dozens of monasteries and even made a pilgrimage to
Jerusalem about which he subsequently composed brief Meditations Through his
natural intelligence, as well as numerous meetings and talks with both members of the
regular clergy and various sect members, wanderers and holy fools, Rasputin, by numerous
accounts, had a good command of Scripture and was capable of interpreting it in his own
independent fashion. He was also quite often seen in a state of prayer-induced ecstasy.
This was evidently one more manifestation of an unrestrained nature that was confirmed
again and again in the material of the Extraordinary Investigative Commission of the
Provisional Government that examined Rasputin's case: "Some of them say that Rasputin
could dance for hours on end. Others, Filippov, for example, relate that in the last
period of his life, the period of madness and orgies, Rasputin could drink and make merry
from 12 noon to 4 a.m., then go off to matins, stand through the service until 8 a.m. and
then, after going home and drinking tea, until 2 p.m. receive as if nothing had happened
the petitioners [who came to him in droves practically every day]."
Apart from his powerful energy, Rasputin undoubtedly possessed a hypnotic gift and a
truly unique talent for healing, which was essentially what determined his meteoric rise.
While he was uneducated, he had a fairly extensive knowledge of folk remedies and made
confident use of the medicinal properties of Siberian, Tibetan and Chinese herbs. Yet what
he achieved without the use of any supplementary means bordered on the miraculous.
"If anyone had a bad head and was feverish", his personal secretary
Simanovich, for example, recalled, "Rasputin stood behind the patient, took his head
in his hands, whispered something no one could understand, and pushed the patient with the
words ‘Be off!' The patient felt he had got better. I experienced the effect of
Rasputin's incantation myself and must acknowledge that it was staggering." Literally
one session with Rasputin was enough to put Simanovich's own son, considered incurably
ill, back on his feet.
II and Alexandra Fiodorovna with their children: Grand Duchess Anastasia, Tsesarevich
Alexis and Grand Duchess Anastasia (left), Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga (right). 1907.
Photograph by Boason and Egger.
According to some sources, from late 1907 onwards Rasputin's intervention, in the form
of "holy prayer" for Tsesarevich Alexis saved the boy's life on several
occasions. Perhaps his many skills did include the ability to affect the behaviour of the
blood, something beyond the power of the best medicine of the day.
Rasputin's gift revealed itself most strikingly in the autumn of 1912 when the
Tsesarevich nearly died as the consequence of a minor knock that occurred while the family
were at the hunting grounds in Poland. The internal bleeding that followed resulted in the
formation of an enormous haematoma. The doctor's admitted that the boy's condition was
extremely serious. Rasputin was not at hand, but a telegram he sent saved the situation
— the mysterious force could operate at a distance. Citing this incident in his book With
the Tsar and Without the Tsar, the palace commandant General Voyeikov wrote: "If
one adopts the viewpoint of the Empress and mother, who regarded Rasputin as a god-fearing
starets, whose prayers had helped her sick son, much should be understood and
pardoned… The aid provided to the heir strengthened Rasputin's position at court so much
that he no longer needed the support of the grand duchesses and members of the
The faith Nicholas and Alexandra Fiodorovna had in Rasputin grew even further when,
some two years later, he saved from apparently certain death the Empress's intimate friend
Anna Vyrubova, after a railway accident had left her with shattered legs, concussion and a
fractured skull. This incident on 2 January 1915 made a powerful impression on those who
witnessed it and became widely known. "When she was pulled out of the wreckage",
Prince Andronnikov said, retelling under examination the story as he heard it from
Yelizaveta Naryshkina, lady-in-waiting, head of the Empress's household, and, by the way,
no friend of Rasputin, "the poor woman kept shouting ‘Father, father, help me'
(meaning Rasputin). She believed that he would help her… And that's what did happen…
He dashed off to Tsarskoye Selo. When he arrived at Tsarskoye, the injured Vyrubova was
surrounded by the former Tsar, the Tsarina, the whole royal family, the daughters I mean,
and several doctors. Vyrubova was in a completely hopeless state. When Rasputin arrived,
he bowed, came up to her and began making some kind of gestures and saying ‘Annushka,
can you hear me?' And she, after not saying anything to anyone, suddenly opened her
eyes…" It was said that afterwards in the next room Rasputin collapsed into a
prolonged faint due to the effort of will he had exerted. Vyrubova rapidly began her path
Rasputin, due to her boundless faith in him, was probably the only person close to
Nicholas's family who was in reality capable of restraining and calming the Empress who
had lived for years on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Alexandra Fiodorovna herself
confessed on several occasions that the talks with "our Friend", as she called
him, gave her strength and spiritual repose. "I always remember what our Friend says.
How often we fail to give sufficient attention to his words…" she wrote. All this
undoubtedly endowed the "man of God" with tremendous influence that could not be
harmed either by rumours of his scandalous escapades with women and revels in restaurants,
or by the representations of ministers, or even by the friendly murmuring of the entire
House of Romanov that developed a hatred of Rasputin.
Admittedly the tenacious idea of the omnipotence of this fateful individual whose
semi-literate notes supposedly determined the entire policy of the Empire in the years
immediately leading up to his death is far from the real truth of the matter. Power in the
state lay in the hands of Nicholas and not Alexandra Fiodorovna and his attitude to both
Rasputin and his advice was somewhat different. Although he listened to the opinions of
his wife who always remained the person closest to him and although he undoubtedly valued
and in his own way respected the starets, to whom he owed his son's life several
times over, the Emperor was far from blindly executing his wishes in matters of state.
Grigory did, of course, have a certain influence on him as well, but it could in no way
compare with the awe in which Alexandra Fiodorovna held every word emanating from
"our Friend". This difference in feelings between the Emperor and his spouse was
precisely caught by the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue, who believed that Nicholas
had a fairly restrained attitude towards Rasputin. Many people who were openly hostile to
the starets remained in the Tsar's close circle, and he reacted to Rasputin's death
in December 1916 incomparably more calmly than the Empress.
Yet irrespective of such subtleties, the very presence of a Siberian peasant with a
widely-known scandalous reputation among the royal family gave rise to gossip and at times
to malevolent slander. There were, for example, rumours of a sexual relationship between
Rasputin and Alexandra Fiodorovna and even her daughters that were subsequently eagerly
seized upon by the printed "exposés" of the post-revolutionary years. This was
a wicked slander on the royal family, but the fact that it was accepted both in the
aristocratic salons of St Petersburg and among the provincial intelligentsia was an
indication of how much the ancient tradition of the Russian monarchy had lost its charm
and how low the prestige of the ruling dynasty had fallen in the eyes of all sections of
the population. Even among the peasantry, even in the army that had always been marked by
its loyalty to the throne, respect for autocratic power disappeared as it came under
attack from all quarters.
II in the uniform
of the Life-Guards Cavalry Regiment
with his son Alexis. St Petersburg.
These were very dangerous signs and no amount of grand celebrations intended to glorify
the monarchy, and there were a great number in the last years of old Russia, could alter
the situation. Magnificent festivities celebrating great jubilees in the nation's history
came one after another - the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava, 50 years since
the liberation of the serfs in 1861, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino and,
especially, the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov in 1913. Hidden behind the
facade of official events was an obscure, yet ever more evident dissatisfaction and
irritation among society.
Despite the fact that in this period Russia was experiencing unprecedented economic
expansion, the country's industry acquired truly European scope and level, a well-to-do
peasant class was growing in the countryside, and Russian culture was flourishing in what
would become known as "the Silver Age" - nothing of that was reckoned to the
credit of the authorities, whereas the slightest miscalculation, failing or error in that
quarter was blown up with some malevolent delight.
For all the order superficially imposed in the Empire after the smashing of the first
revolution, autocratic power found itself under a sort of psychological siege. A
remarkable parallel to that was the great isolation and seclusion of the life led by the
imperial family who had withdrawn for good from St Petersburg society and now spent most
of their time in the small, unprepossessing Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. The purely
geographical remoteness of that residence symbolised, as it were, the yearning to escape
from a hostile world, to find a longed-for peace in cosy family pastimes.
The fast-changing times did not give the Emperor any peace and with every year his
state duties became a greater burden to him in the new conditions of political life in
Russia. He was irritated by the constant interference of the Third and Fourth Dumas in the
day-to-day matters of administration, the harsh, and at times unjustified criticism of the
existing powers from the platform of the Duma, the endless scandals and troubles with the
grand dukes of the House of Romanov who did not recognise his authority as the head of the
dynasty, the hidden, yet distinctly tangible animosity of the press and the
intelligentsia, particularly on the non-Russian fringes of the Empire. The familiar
orderly world of his childhood, in which his father's throne had towered above the country
as its unshakeable summit, was lost beyond recall. For Nicholas all that was left was love
and loyalty to his own small family.
International affairs became particularly alarming in this period, threatening the
ever-so-fragile calm of the Empire. Revolutions in old monarchies of Asia that had seemed
set in their ways for ever - Iran, Turkey and China; the Bosnian and Moroccan crises
that nearly plunged Europe into a general war; the Italo-Turkish conflict of 1911 -
all of them created a sense of an unstable existence, uncertainty in the future of Russia
and of the dynasty.
In 1912 and 1913 public opinion was seriously shaken by the Balkan Wars that touched
directly on Russian foreign policy tradition.
The Emperor regarded all this whirlwind of events with the same sense of doomed
fatalism that had long become the psychological background to his existence. He did not
try to challenge destiny, made no attempt to change the course things were taking. Only
occasionally in his diary or in wholly private letters do we find suggestions that the
Duma ought to be dissolved, that it ought to be turned into a purely consultative body,
stripped of its legislative rights - but that all remained on paper, or the matter of rare
conversations not intended for outsiders. Evidently Nicholas understood that time cannot
be turned back.
And time was flowing ever faster. The shots fired at Sarajevo in the summer of 1914
heralded the final turning of the page for the old monarchic Europe. From the moment Franz
Ferdinand bled to death, it plunged ever more rapidly towards its fatal finale - the First
Many years later Sandro, Alexander Mikhailovich, called the day that
the Great War broke out the day that European civilisation committed suicide. It did
indeed mean the end not only of a system of international relations that had been decades
in the making, but above all the beginning of the tremendous collapse of all the pillars
of the world, the social and political foundations of the "old order", of a society
that still lives by the precepts and traditions of the nineteenth century.
Emperor Nicholas had no desire for war. Apart from his innate
abhorrence of military force, he knew that war could bring in its wake catastrophe for the
world as he knew it. On the eve of the terrible events, in the spring of 1914, one of the
most far-sighted Russian conservatives, the former Minister of Internal Affairs Piotr
Durnovo, presented a memorandum to the Emperor in which he supported his main conclusion
— that the approaching war between Russia and Germany would not bring victory to either
side, but would destroy the monarchic principle of old Europe.
Stopping the gigantic mechanism of a European war which was picking up
speed with every hour proved beyond Nicholas's power, however. Although he was prepared
to make far-reaching concessions for the sake of peace, the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to
Serbia left him with no alternative. As back in 1876, the supreme power in Russia became
hostage the public concern over fellow Orthodox Christians being oppressed in the Balkans.
On 17 July 1914, after agonising vacillations, the Emperor confirmed the decision to begin
a general mobilisation. That same day he telegraphed to the Kaiser in Berlin: "We are
far from desiring war. While negotiations with Austria over the Serbian question continue,
my forces will not undertake any military action. I give you my solemn word on that."
Germany's response was an official ultimatum demanding that the mobilisation be halted
within twelve hours. At 7.10 on 19 July 1914, the German ambassador in Russia, Count
Pourtalès, a convinced opponent of war, came to Sergei Sazonov, the Minister of Foreign
Affairs, with a reply. Having received only a repeat of the former assurance that Russian
troops would not begin military action first, the ambassador twice reiterated his
question, after which, performing a duty that was tragic to him, he handed over the
declaration of war. He was in such a state that he mistakenly gave the minister two
versions of the German response — one for if Russia conceded to the ultimatum, the other
if it did not. Leaving the office Count Pourtalès was crying according to Sazonov and
exclaimed: "Who could have envisaged that I would have to leave St Petersburg in
Nicholas, on the contrary, having taken a decision he found incredibly
difficult, felt relief. "I felt that everything was over for ever between Wilhelm
and me," he later told Paléologue. "I slept exceptionally soundly. When I woke up at
my usual hour, it was as if a stone had slipped from my heart. My responsibility before
God and the nation was enormous, but I at least knew what I had to do."
The Emperor travelled from Peterhof into the capital and after a solemn
church service held in the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace he addressed representatives
of the army and navy. When, immediately after that, he and Alexandra Fiodorovna showed
themselves on the balcony of the Winter Palace, the many-thousand-strong crowd that had
gathered on Palace Square felt to its knees as one.
As an extraordinary measure the State Council and the Duma which were
in recess until the autumn were convened on 26 July and both legislative chambers quickly
approved the laws required by the start of hostilities. There were also expressions of
support from the non-Russian fringes of the Empire: even representatives of the provinces
making up the Kingdom of Poland, traditionally unfriendly to Russia, formally declared
their loyalty to the country and to the throne in the coming struggle with Germany. A
similar declaration was made on behalf of Nicholas's subjects of German extraction. The
upsurge of patriotism seen everywhere put an end to almost all partisan conflicts:
yesterday's opponents of the government easily shifted to defensive positions, with the
exception of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party. The fact that
Germany had been first to declare war on Russia encouraged the escalation of an
anti-German mood that was in any case strong. As early as 22 July a jingoistic crowd
wrecked and set fire to the German embassy on St Isaac's Square. In cities across the
country there were mass demonstrations under the slogan "To Berlin!" At this same time
the capital of the Empire turned from the Teutonic-sounding St Petersburg into Petrograd.
Life in the country swiftly shifted onto a war footing.
Nicholas II and Grand Duke
Nicholas Nikolayevich (junior) on
manoeuvres. Krasnoye Selo. 1913