The British ambassador on the leadership of Nicholas II (1923)

Sir George Buchanan was the British ambassador to Russia from 1910 to the February 1917 revolution. Writing in his memoir in 1923, Buchanan offered his assessment of Nicholas II:

“The Emperor Nicholas II is one of the most pathetic figures in history. He loved his country. He had its welfare and greatness at heart. Yet it was he who was to cause the catastrophe, which has brought it to utter ruin and misery…

The Emperor’s marriage with Princess Alix of Hesse… was an unfortunate one… A good woman, determined to help her husband’s interests, she is to prove the chosen instrument of his ruin… [Shy and indecisive] the Emperor was bound to fall under the influence of a will stronger than his. It was her blind faith in [autocracy] … that was to be his undoing.

Possessed of many gifts that would have fitted him to play the part of a constitutional Sovereign – a quick intelligence, a trained mind, method and industry in his work, and an extraordinary natural charm that attracted all who came near to him – the Emperor Nicholas had not inherited his father’s commanding personality nor the strong character and prompt decision making which are so essential to an autocratic ruler.

A devoted and admiring son, [Nicholas] had been brought up in the strictest school of orthodox autocracy without ever acquiring the habit of himself taking the initiative. He had [learnt] to see the autocracy as a sort of sacred heritage which he was bound to preserve intact in the form in which it had been [left] to him. His one idea on succeeding to the throne was to follow in his father’s footsteps and to leave things as his father had left them…

His initial and fundamental mistake was in failing to comprehend that the Russia of his day could not be governed on the same lines as the Russia which Peter the Great had known. The Empire had… undergone a vast territorial expansion. Its population had risen to over 160 millions; it had witnessed the liberation of the serfs, the birth of industries in the great towns, the consequent increase in the numbers of the proletariat, and the growing influence of the intelligentsia. There were new forces at work, and the nation’s [desires] had grown with its growth.

Unable to control the administrative machinery of his vast Empire, he had to bear the responsibility for the sins of the bureaucracy that governed Russia in his name… It was his misfortune to have been born an autocrat, when he was by nature so unfitted for the role. He never really governed Russia, and by allowing the ruling bureaucracy to disregard his promises of freedom of speech, meeting, etc., made in the October Manifesto of 1905, he forfeited to a great extent the confidence of his people.

The burden of his inheritance grew heavier as his reign progressed. A vast Empire, in which some 75 per cent of the population were illiterate, in which the revolutionary spirit of 1905 [remained]… in which the Church, that had become a department of State was rapidly losing its hold on the people owing to the scandalous appointments made through Rasputin’s influence, in which justice was ill-administered, and in which nearly every branch of the administration was as incompetent as it was corrupt; and then, on the top of all this, a world war!

The whole system was out of joint, and he, poor Emperor, was certainly not born to set it right. It was no wonder that the fall of the old regime was welcomed with a sigh of relief. But it was not so much the Emperor as [his government] of which the nation as a whole was weary. As a soldier remarked during the first days of the revolution: ‘Oh yes, we must have a Republic, but we must have a good tsar at the head’.”