Background - i.e. personality, upbringing, circumstances in which he came to rule
"Nicholas had no knowledge of the world or of men, of politics or government to help him make the difficult and weighty decisions that the Tsar alone must make. The only guided stars he recognised were the inherited belief in the moral rightness of autocracy, and a religious faith that he was in God's hands, and his actions were divinely inspired." (Historian, Hans Rogger).
Shy, quiet man, later dominated by his wife, the Tsarina.
Educated, like his father, by arch-conservative Pobedonostsev. Excellent education, but as his father, AIII, expected to reign for another 20-30 years, Nicholas was given little practical experience in how to rule before his father's sudden death in 1894.
Faced with expectations that he might relax his father's oppression, Nicholas II dismissed claims of the zemstva for more political responsibility as "senseless dreams". He would face far greater problems than those encountered by his father, and his failure to deal with them led to the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the imperial tradition of tsarist rule in 1917.
Key aims as Tsar:
Main aim was to “maintain the principle of autocracy just as firmly and unflinchingly as it was preserved by my unforgettable dead father”, in addition to modernize without revolution!
In terms of foreign policies, Tsar Nicholas the Second aimed to
To gain a warm water port.
To get the Straits of the Dardanelles (the entrance to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean) reopened to its warships. This had been closed to Russian ships after the Crimean War.
To extend her influence in the Balkans, taking advantage of the decline of Turkish power.
To promote a conservative, religious alliance among Slavs in Eastern Europe (Pan-Slavism) as a cover for expanding Russian control.
To expand eastwards into Asia especially in Iran, Tibet and India
Methods and policies to achieve these:
The Fundamental Law of the Empire of 1906 - “the Emperor of All of Russia has supreme autocratic power”
(Methods and policies further explained in failures and success)
Successes (from whose perspective?)
The Czar turned to advice to Count Witte who urged him to agree to fundamental reform. On 30 October the Czar issued the October Manifesto that promised a constitution and a parliament or Duma elected by the people. The Russians were also promised full civil liberties.
The duma provided an arena in which the various political groups (liberals, SD, SR) could argue and become more divided. This, together with Stolypin’s ruthless suppression of opposition, helped to marginalize the opponents of the regime’s position after 1905.
His main device for resisting revolution was the introduction of land reform. He felt that this could make the better-off peasants loyal supporters of the regime. He introduced reforms in 1906 that allowed peasants to leave the local commune (Mir) where land was held in common and receive their share of land in private property. This would allow them to become permanent owners of their own farms. These reforms had some success and by 1915 about half of the peasants in European Russia owned their farms. He also encouraged smaller farmers to enlarge their holdings with aid from a Peasant Bank that he established. Peasants were encouraged to settle in Siberia in order to alleviate land shortage.
The policies of Nicholas the Second’s Minster of Finance (1892-1903) Witte strengthened Russia leading up to WW1. Huge capital investment led to considerable industrial and railway developments, bringing clear economic and military benefits to Russia. In this sense, successful economic modernization achieved from a very low base - though it should also be noted there were clear limitations to this economic modernization, it should not be over-exaggerated.
Failures (from whose perspective?) and reasons for his downfall and the collapse of the 300 year old Romanov dynasty in February 1917:
"The 1905 revolution did more than anything else during Nicholas II's reign to undermine support for the regime." Historian Richard Charques.
His stubborn personality limited him in his success. Nicholas the Second failed to deal with Russia’s serious political problems. In addition to his failure to consider reform led to the growth of opposition.
The depth of opposition to the Czar was shown by the events of 1905 that was brought on by defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. The conduct of the war exposed the inefficiency and corruption of the Czarist system of government and contributed directly to the revolution of 1905.
The Czar refused to listen to demands for political change. This led to political discontent caused by the absence of political reform, economic discontent caused by poor wages and increasing taxation, in addition to the defeat and poor management of the war against Japan.