"What a joy it is to us, dear Mama, to prepare for Holy Communion here in the Kremlin, with all its various churches and chapels in the Palaces. We spend the best part of a day visiting them and deciding which church we shall attend for Morning Service or Mass or Evensong. We also read a good deal of history about the Time of Troubles. I never knew I was able to reach such heights of religious ecstasy as this Lent has brought me to. This feeling is now much stronger than it was in 1896, which is only natural. I am so calm and happy now, and everything here makes for prayer and peace of spirit . . . "
- Tsar Nicholas II
His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov was born on May 6th, 1868, in the Blue Boudoir of his mother Grand Duchess and future Empress Maria Feodorovna in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo.
He came into this world on the day upon which the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of St. Job the Long-Suffering. How prophetic this turned out to be! For Nicholas was destined to follow the example of this great Old Testament Saint both in circumstance and in faith. Just as the Lord allowed the Patriarch Job to suffer many things, trying him in the fire of calamity to test his faith, so was Nicholas tried and tempted, but he too never yielded and remained above all a man of God.
Upon the death of his father Emperor Alexander III on 20 October 1894, Emperor Nicholas II was destined to reign as Russia's last Orthodox Christian monarch until his abdication on March 2, 1917.
As a child, he was very religious, guileless and free from malice. During his years as Tsesarevich, Nicholas was being formed in all the Christian virtues. His kindness to others and selflessness impressed all who met him.
While living frugally himself, he gave freely to those less fortunate. It is known that he often anonymously gave scholarships and other gifts through the agency of one of his childhood teachers.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Nicholas was devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church and considered himself a Christian monarch, one who regarded his political activity as a religious duty. He strove to live and to rule in accordance with the Orthodox faith.
To the end of his days, Nicholas believed himself to be anointed by God, selected to be more than an Orthodox ruler, and more than a Russian emperor.
His official biographer, Major-General Andrei Georgievich Elchaninov wrote "not one day, not one act is started by him without turning with prayer to God." Nicholas prayed several times per day, often with his wife and children in the mornings and evenings. Nicholas used this time to ponder his role within the country as well as seek religious guidance from God. Additionally, Nicholas spent time daily studying the Bible and its teachings.
The tumultuous events of his 22-year reign did not weaken his faith, but rather, made him more devout. His mother Maria Feodorovna, who accepted her adopted Orthodox faith into her soul, maintained deep religious feelings. She loved her son and understood him. He often shared with her his most fervent thoughts and beliefs with regards to his anointed position and his Orthodox faith.
Like his father, Nicholas preferred Russia's old capital to that of Peter the Great's new modern capital or "window to the west". According to French historian Marc Ferro: "Nicholas II preferred Moscow to St. Petersburg because the old city embodied the past, whereas St. Petersburg represented modernity, the Enlightenment and atheism."
During his reign, Nicholas expressed the desire to spend Holy Week in the former Russian capital, and it was here, during the coronation festivities in 1896 and the Romanov Tercentenary in 1913, Moscow's fervent greeting to their Tsar confirmed his feeling for the city.
In April 1900, Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna spent Holy Week in Moscow. He was the first tsar to do so since his great-grandfather Emperor Nicholas I had opened the Grand Kremlin Palace in 1849, and the occasion was a landmark in his private spiritual life.
A letter dated 4th April 1900 to his mother, reveals his strong religious feeling: "What a joy it is to us, dear Mama, to prepare for Holy Communion here in the Kremlin, with all its various churches and chapels in the Palaces. We spend the best part of a day visiting them and deciding which church we shall attend for Morning Service or Mass or Evensong. We also read a good deal of history about the Time of Troubles. I never knew I was able to reach such heights of religious ecstasy as this Lent has brought me to. This feeling is now much stronger than it was in 1896, which is only natural. I am so calm and happy now, and everything here makes for prayer and peace of spirit".
After his coronation at Moscow in May 1896, Russia's new emperor settled into his life of responsibility and took the lead in setting an example of godliness and true pastoral care for his enormous flock of more than 100 million people.
He began his reign with lofty hopes for peace, urging other nations to reduce the size of their armies, and to seek the peaceful settlement of international disputes. The Peace Conference at the Hague in 1899 laid the groundwork for the League of Nations and the United Nations.
It was upon his ascension to the throne that his devotion to the Holy Orthodox Church in which he showed his greatest strength. In the words of Archpriest Michael Polsky, "In the person of the Emperor Nicholas II the believers had the best and most worthy representative of the Church, truly 'The Most Pious' as he was referred to in church services. He was a true patron of the Church, and a solicitor of all her blessings."
Nicholas considered it his sacred duty to restore to Russia her ancient traditional culture, which had been abandoned by many of the "educated" classes in favor of modern, Western styles. He spent an enormous sum on the building of new churches, and encouraged their construction in the ancient architectural styles.
In spite of opposition from both the Duma and his ministers, Nicholas ensured that state subsidies to the Church increased annually from 30 million rubles in 1908 to 53 million rubles in 1914.
It was during his reign that the Russian Orthodox Church reached her fullest development and power. The number of churches increased by more than 10,000. There were 57,000 churches by the end of the period. The number of monasteries also grew by 250, bringing their total up to 1025. Ancient churches were renovated. The construction and renovation of churches was either financed by the state or supported directly by funds provided by Nicholas from the crown. The Emperor himself took part in the laying of the first cornerstones and the consecration of many churches. He visited churches and monasteries in all parts of the country, venerating their saints.
Nicholas II took a particular interest in the art of Viktor Vasnetsov and Mikhail Nesterov, both famous for their religious symbolism.
The Emperor stressed the importance of educating the peasant children within the framework of church and parish and, as a result, the number of parish schools grew to 37,000.
In 1903, Nicholas II responded to raising fears that traditional Russian icon painting was in danger of extinction. The fear stemmed from the fact that icons painted by hand in monasteries were being squeezed out of the market by cheap, foreign factory-produced icons. Thus, the emperor ordered the creation of a Committee for the Defence of Russian Iconography, who commissioned the painting of large numbers of icons in the Byzantine and Old Russian styles, adorning many churches with them.
Christian literature also flourished during his reign. Excellent journals were published, which provided the Russian people with spiritual nourishment as never before.
During his reign, the pious Emperor Nicholas II sanctioned the canonization of more saints than any previous sovereign. At his own insistence, one of the most revered of Russia's saints, Seraphim of Sarov, was glorified by the Church in 1903. The Emperor arrived at the Sarov Monastery to take part in the transfer of the relics.
The events at Sarov marked a momentous occasion in the life of Nicholas II. It was at this time, Nicholas was made aware of the future apostasy and downfall of the Russian nation and Church through a prophetic letter written by St. Seraphim himself. The saint had, shortly before his death in 1833, written this letter, sealed it with five wax seals and addressed it "to the Tsar in whose reign I shall be glorified". He then gave it to Elena Motovilova, the young wife of N.I.Motovilov, who is now well-known for recording his conversation with the saint about the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. She kept that letter for seventy years and gave it to the Tsar at the glorification ceremony. While the exact contents are today unknown, it is nevertheless certain that St. Seraphim prepared Nicholas for the coming tribulations.
Furthermore, on the return trip from Sarov, the Imperial Family visited St. Seraphim's Diveyevo Convent where Blessed Pasha (Parasceva) the Fool-for-Christ spoke to them for several hours; it is said that she foretold to them their own martyrdom as well as that of Holy Russia.
Throughout his reign, the "first son of the Church" continued to set a model of Orthodox piety in his private life. This he shared with his wife and their five children, who were brought up in a spirit of deep religious faith, and who always had boundless respect and placed great value on everything dear to their parents.
The late Russian historian, an expert on the life and reign of Nicholas II, Alexander Bokhanov, describes the emperor as "a strong but gentle Christian, a brave and religious man who was able to understand the masses of common people in Russia because of his religiosity, but consequently was misunderstood by the elite of society, the intelligentsia, and the autocracy."
Emperor Nicholas II reigned for 22 years and 4 months. With his murder, the last Orthodox Christian monarch, along with the thousand-year history of thrones and crowns in Russia, which places Christ at its head, ended, ushering in an era of lawlessness, apostasy and confusion, one which would sweep Holy Orthodox Russia into an abyss which would last more than 70 years.
Emperor Nicholas II and his family were glorified as new martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1981. On 20 August 2000, after some 8 years of study, Nicholas II and his family were canonized as passion bearers by the Moscow Patriarchate.
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