May 26

This Day in History

General Interest

May 26, 1896:

Czar Nicholas II crowned

Nicholas II, the last czar, is crowned ruler of Russia in the old Ouspensky Cathedral in Moscow.

Nicholas was neither trained nor inclined to rule, which did not help the autocracy he sought to preserve in an era desperate for change. Born in 1868, he succeeded to the Russian throne upon the death of his father, Czar Alexander III, in November 1894. That same month, the new czar married Alexandra, a German-born princess who came to have great influence over her husband. After a period of mourning for his late father, Nicholas and Alexandra were crowned czar and czarina in May 1896.

As the ruler of Russia, Nicholas resisted calls for reform and sought to maintain czarist absolutism; although he lacked the strength of will necessary for such a task. The disastrous outcome of the Russo-Japanese War led to the Russian Revolution of 1905, which Nicholas only diffused after approving a representative assembly--the Duma--and promising constitutional reforms. The czar soon retracted these concessions and repeatedly dissolved the Duma, contributing to the growing public support enjoyed by the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups.

In 1914, Nicholas led his country into another costly war--World War I--and discontent grew as food became scarce, soldiers became war-weary, and devastating defeats at the hands of Germany demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Russia under Nicholas. In 1915, the czar personally took over command of the army, leaving the Czarina Alexandra in control at home. Her unpopular court was dominated by the Russian mystic Rasputin, who replaced the czar's competent ministers and officials with questionable nominees.

In March 1917, the army garrison at Petrograd joined striking workers in demanding socialist reforms, and Nicholas II was called on to abdicate. On March 15, he renounced the throne in favor of his brother Michael, whose refusal of the crown brought an end to the czarist autocracy in Russia. Nicholas, his wife, and children were held at the Czarskoye Selo palace by Russia's Provincial Government and in August moved to Tobolsk in Western Siberia under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet, the powerful coalition of soldiers' and workers' councils that shared power with the Provincial Government in the first stage of the Russian Revolution.

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin seized power in Russia and set about establishing the world's first communist state. In April 1918, Nicholas and his family were transferred to Yekaterinburg in the Urals, which sealed their doom. Civil war broke out in Russia in June 1918, and in July the anti-Bolshevik "White" Russian forces advanced on Yekaterinburg during a campaign against the Bolshevik forces. Local authorities were ordered to prevent a rescue of the Romanovs, and after a secret meeting by the Yekaterinburg Soviet, a death sentence was passed on the imperial family.

Just after midnight on July 17, Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children, and four family retainers were ordered to dress quickly and go down to the cellar of the house in which they were being held. There, the family and servants were arranged in two rows for a photograph they were told was being taken to quell rumors that they had escaped. Suddenly, a dozen armed men burst into the room and gunned down the imperial family in a hail of gunfire.

The remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three of their children were excavated in a forest near Yekaterinburg in 1991 and positively identified two years later using mtDNA fingerprinting. The Crown Prince Alexei and one Romanov daughter were not accounted for, fueling the persistent legend that Anastasia, the youngest Romanov daughter, had survived the execution of her family. Of the several "Anastasias" that surfaced in Europe in the decade after the Russian Revolution, Anna Anderson, who died in the United States in 1984, was the most convincing. In 1994, however, scientists used mtDNA to prove that Anna Anderson was not Anastasia but a Polish woman named Franziska Schanzkowska.

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