The Romanov dynasty ruled Russia for three centuries, from 1613 until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Descended from Ivan the Terrible, Mikhail Fedorovich became the first Romanov Czar, reigning from 1613-1645. Under Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682-1725, numerous scientific, technological, cultural and political advances were made. But also under his rule, Russia became a totalitarian state.
It was during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796) that Russia truly attained the stature of a great European power. She was a capable politician, great intellect, winning personality, skilled diplomat and generous patron of the arts. Though initially she furthered the liberal reforms begun during the reigns of her predecessors, in the end, she reversed many of them, further centralizing the government and escalating the distress of the peasantry.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the contrast between the very rich and very poor in Russia could not have been more absolute. Over eighty million peasants scratched a meager existence from the land. In the cities' developing industries, working conditions were intolerable. While democratic freedoms took hold elsewhere in Europe, no constitutional restraints limited the power of the Czar, who ruled by divine right. It was a brutal time to be a Russian under an autocrat.
Yet the Czar had much to fear, as the very real threat of terrorism loomed over the Romanovs. In 1881, Czar Alexander II was felled by an assassin's bomb, leaving the throne to his son, Alexander III. A great big bear of a man, Alexander III governed with an iron will for thirteen years, determined to preserve the power of the monarchy in the face of appeals for social reform. But at his death, after nearly three hundred years of Romanov rule, Russian history would change drastically in the hands of Alexander's son, Nicholas II.
Nicholas grew up in a very protected environment. He neither enjoyed politics, nor did he understand it. Once, when it was suggested to Alexander that the already twenty-five-year-old Nicholas supervise the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway, his own father remarked incredulously: "Have you ever tried to discuss anything of consequence with him? He is still absolutely a child!"
According to author Lynette Proler: "Nicholas was very quiet and very gentile in his manners, and Alexander III, his father, was completely the opposite. So perhaps they couldn't relate to each other, and perhaps the Czar couldn't see the Czarevich coming up to the throne, so he did not prepare him at all. Of course nobody was expecting Alexander to die at such a young age (49 years old), so they didn't involve Nicholas in learning how to rule."
It would prove to be a tragic error in Imperial judgment for the Romanov dynasty.
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