Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown during the Russian Revolution and later executed along with his family by the Bolsheviks on the night of 16-17 July 1918 in Yekaterinburg. His downfall brought an end to 3 centuries of rule by the Romanov Dynasty.
His errors in leadership that ultimately led to his abdication are well-known, yet here are some facts you may not know about Russia’s last Tsar.
1. In 1890-1891 he went on a round-the-world trip where he got a tattoo and was nearly killed
Along with his younger brother George and cousin Prince George of Greece, Nicholas went on a round the world trip when he was 22 years-old, visiting countries such as Egypt, India, Singapore and Thailand (then Siam).
While in Japan, Nicholas got a large dragon tattooed on his right forearm from Japanese tattoo artist Hori Chyo.
During his visit, one of Nicholas’ escorting policeman swung at his face with a sabre in an assassination attempt (the Ōtsu incident). Nicholas’ cousin stopped the second blow, saving Nicholas’ life. The attack left Nicholas with a 9cm scar on the right of his forehead, and cut the trip short.
2. Before his marriage, he had a romance with a ballerina
When Nicholas was a Grand Duke, he had a relationship with Polish ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, who he met in 1890 after her graduation performance. The relationship lasted 3 years until Nicholas’ marriage to the future Tsarina, Empress Alexandra in 1894.
Matilda became prima ballerina assoluta of the Imperial Russian Ballet.
3. He was 26 years old when he became Tsar
When Nicholas II succeeded his father in 1894, he was 26 years old. His father had died aged 49, by which point Nicholas was still poorly trained in state affairs.
He is said to have confessed to a close friend:
“I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling.”
Despite this, Nicholas was an autocrat, believing he derived his authority from God (which meant his will could not be disputed).
4. He was first cousin to King George V of England and second cousin to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany
Despite being related to both sides in World War One, Nicholas’ familial connections did not prevent Russia from being drawn into the conflict, which ultimately played a large role in his downfall.
5. He was related to both Queen Victoria and Prince Philip through marriage
Nicholas married Princess Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt less than a month after he became Tsar. She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
Nicholas’ sister-in-law, Princess Victoria, was the grandmother of Prince Philip. In 1993, Philip donated his blood for a DNA check of the Tsarina and her children, which matched perfectly.
6. He often spoke in English to his wife
As Nicholas spoke Russian and his wife spoke German, they often spoke in English to each other to aid communication, as well as some German (they could also speak French and Italian). The Tsarina didn’t learn Russian until after their engagement – she was said to have a good accent, yet speak it very slowly.
Nicholas had studied English (since it had replaced French as the language of international communication), and his uncle Alexander remarked:
“When his studies came to an end, Nicholas could fool any Oxford professor into thinking he was an Englishman.”
Nicholas’ courtiers remarked that he spoke foreign languages so well that he had a slight foreign accent in Russian.
7. He gave his mother and wife a Fabergé Easter egg every year
A series of 50 Imperial Fabergé Easter eggs were created for the Russian Imperial family from 1885 to 1916, 40 of which were created during Nicholas II’s rule. Nicholas gave two each year as presents, one for his mother and one for his wife. Fabergé was free to create anything he wanted, provided it housed some kind of hidden surprise inside.
Most famous was the Coronation Egg that Nicholas gave to his wife as a memento of their Coronation Day. The egg opens to reveal a surprise in the form of a replica of their coronation coach.
8. He was nominated for the 1901 Nobel Peace Prize
Nicholas aimed to strengthen the Franco-Russian Alliance and pursue a policy of European pacification. He initiated and convened the Hague Convention of 1899, designed to end the arms race and solve international disputes peacefully.
Although it proved unsuccessful due to mutual distrust between great powers, it was among the first formal statements of the laws of war and war crimes. Nicholas was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Russian diplomat Friedrich Martens, for setting this up and contributing to its implementation.
9. He was refused exile by his own cousin
Following his abdication, both the Provisional Government and Nicholas wanted the royal family to go into exile in the UK. Whilst the British government reluctantly offered the family asylum, this provoked uproar from the Labour Party and many Liberals, and was later over-ruled by King George V, Nicholas’ cousin.
King George was acting on the advice of his secretary Lord Stamfordham, who worried Nicholas’ presence might provoke an uprising, similar to the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.
10. He was made a Saint
In 1981, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children were recognised as martyrs by the ‘Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia’. After the discovery of the location of their remains was revealed following the fall of Communism, the imperial family were exhumed and identified by DNA analysis in 1993, using a blood sample from Prince Philip.
The royal couple and three daughters were formally reburied on 17 July 1998 – the 80th anniversary of the murder. They were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 as ‘passion-bearers’ – facing death in a Christ-like manner.
(The remains of what is believed to be the Grand Duchess Maria and Tsesarevich Alexei, were discovered in 2007, also identified by Prince Philip’s DNA).