Feast Day : July 17
Also known as: Imperial Martyrs of Holy Russia, Royal Russian Martyrs
Nicholas II was the last ruler of the Russian royal family of the Romanovs. He was born on May 6, 1868, in Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg, Russia. As the eldest son of Czar Alexander III, he was next in line for the throne. He received a military education from a private tutor but had little interest in ruling and was unprepared for it when his father’s sudden death on November 1, 1894, thrust it upon him. At the time, he was engaged to Alix of Hesse, a minor German princess descended from the British royal family. The two were married on November 26, 1894. Alix converted to Russian Orthodoxy and changed her name to Alexandra. Nicholas was crowned czar in Moscow on May 26, 1896. Nicholas’s lack of preparation for the throne showed itself on the day of his coronation. The ceremony was a lavish affair, accompanied by a huge celebration for the Russian peasants in a field outside the city. Gift baskets and beer were given to all attendees. Suddenly, a rumor that there were not enough gifts and beer for everyone rushed through the crowd. They stampeded, and thousands were trampled to death. Nicholas’s first inclination was to visit the hospital with Alexandra, but he allowed himself to be swayed by his uncles, who advised against it because Alexandra and he were expected to host a ball at the palace. His apparent callousness earned him the nickname “Bloody Nicholas.” Nicholas’s reign was marred by a series of other missteps. In 1905, believing that a successful war would boost the sagging Russian morale, he went to war with Japan over a disputed piece of land in Manchuria. Unfortunately, not only did Russia lose the war, it was also dealt a humiliating blow with the loss of its entire Eastern Fleet. Also in 1905 came the Bloody Sunday massacre, so called because peasants bringing Nicholas petitions about conditions in St. Petersburg were fired upon by palace guards. Although Nicholas had not ordered the shootings, the outcry afterward forced him to concede to the formation of a parliament (duma), an important step in the decline of the Russian monarchy. Yet another disastrous turn came in the person of Rasputin, a self-proclaimed psychic from Siberia who arrived in St. Petersburg in 1903. Rasputin’s claim to be able to heal the czarevitch Alexis from hemophilia endeared him to Alexandra and he came to play a major role in running the government. Whatever his powers may have been, Rasputin was a drunkard and a womanizer and the Russian people came to distrust his influence. He finally was killed by a member of the royal family in December 1916. By this time, World War I was in progress, and so was the downfall of Nicholas. The war brought with it shortages, which led to strikes in St. Petersburg. Dissatisfaction with his leadership mounted, and Nicholas was forced to abdicate in favor of his brother Michael on March 2, 1917. When the Bolsheviks came to power that October, they killed Grand Duke Michael. Then in 1918, Nicholas and his family, who had been exiled to Siberia, were arrested and transported to Ekaterinburg, a town in the Ural Mountains. It was there, in Ipatiev House, sometimes called the House of Special Purposes, that Nicholas and his family were murdered by firing squad on the night of July 16/17, 1918. Their bodies were dumped into a mine shaft, then, as word spread, they were burned or doused with sulfuric acid, transported into the woods outside town and buried in a shallow grave. The burial place remained unknown until 1979, when it was discovered by two local men. Fearing official reaction, they continued to keep the secret for another decade, until changing political conditions made it possible for them to reveal it. The bodies were exhumed in 1991. DNA testing subsequently determined that they represented a family group, with 99 percent certainty that of Nicholas. The father was related to several Romanovs, while the mother was related to the British royal family. However, not all of Nicholas and Alexandra’s children were accounted for. Their son, the czarevitch Alexei, was missing, as was one of their daughters, either Maria or Anastasia. This finding helped fuel speculation that the two children had escaped, though their fate is not known. DNA tests of a woman who claimed to be Anastasia found her more likely to have been a Polish factory worker. In July 1998, following a three-hour farewell ceremony in the Church of the Ascension in Ekaterinburg, across the street from the former site of Ipatiev House, the bodies were transported to St. Petersburg. On July 16, they were buried in a chapel in the Cathedral of Peter and Paul, where most of the Romanov lineage were interred. The reburial was intended by the state to be an atonement for the sins of the past. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, regarded it as sacrilege, since, as sacred relics, the remains should be buried separately. The patriarch refused to participate in the reburial ceremony and held a separate service at the Church of the Holy Trinity at St. Sergius Monastery, 80 kilometers northeast of Moscow. The reburial came just at a time when the Church was glorifying (canonizing) Nicholas and his family. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which had split from the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia in 1927 and was composed of strongly anti-Soviet émigrés, held them to be martyrs, arguing that they defended the faith against communism. The Church Abroad glorified Nicholas and his family in 1981, and made their glorification by the Church in Russia a precondition of reunification. The Church in Russia took up the problem in 1992 and considered it for five years before concluding that Nicholas II was not qualified for sainthood based on the way he had lived and ruled. Nor was he strictly speaking a martyr, because a martyr is one who dies upholding his faith, and the question had never been put to him. However, he and his family could justifiably be glorified as passion bearers, a special category of Orthodox sainthood applied to those who were not strictly martyrs yet nevertheless might be revered for the humble ways in which they met their deaths. Russia’s first saints, Boris and Gleb, had been glorified as passion bearers in 1015. The Church looked upon Nicholas as a divinely anointed ruler. Anointing was a practice traced back to the time of Moses, and Nicholas was regarded as the last of an unbroken line of Russian sovereigns to have been anointed since the Russian conversion to Christianity. Nicholas himself appears to have accepted his religious position, because during his coronation, he took Communion directly from the chalice, a right reserved for the clergy. Although he abdicated, this was spiritually ineffective, it was argued, because a divinely ordained position cannot be resigned. Whatever the position of their church, the Russian people had long regarded Nicholas as a saint. Even during the Soviet era, his photograph might be seen in homes alongside icons. Bright lights and church music were reported in the basement of Ipatiev House, before it was demolished in 1977. A cross was set up on the site on October 5, 1990. As it was erected, dark clouds moved in and snow began to fall, but then the clouds suddenly parted, allowing a ray of light to fall directly on the cross. The light then circumscribed a circle around the cross, and in this area no snow fell for the next 40 minutes, while the installation was completed.