Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich Romanov of Russia was a Russian general in World War I. A grandson of Nicholas I of Russia, he was commander in chief of the Russian armies on the main front in the first year of the war, and was later a successful commander-in-chief in the Caucasus.
Nicholas, named after his paternal grandfather the emperor, was born as the eldest son to Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaevich of Russia (1831–1891) and Alexandra Petrovna of Oldenburg (1838–1900) on 18 November 1856. His father was the sixth child and third son born to Nicholas I of Russia and his Empress consort Alexandra Fedorovna of Prussia (1798–1860). Alexandra Fedorovna was a daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
Nicholas' mother, his father's first cousin's daughter, was a daughter of Duke Konstantin Peter of Oldenburg (1812–1881) and Princess Therese of Nassau (1815–1871). His maternal grandfather was a son of Duke George of Oldenburg and Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna of Russia, daughter of Paul I of Russia and Maria Fedorovna of Württemberg. (Catherine was later remarried to William I of Württemberg.) His maternal grandmother was a daughter of Wilhelm, Duke of Nassau (1792–1839) and Princess Luise of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The Duke of Nassau was a son of Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Nassau (1768–1816) and Burgravine Louise Isabelle of Kirchberg. His paternal grandparents were Duke Karl Christian of Nassau-Weilburg (1735–1788) and Carolina of Orange-Nassau. Carolina was a daughter of William IV of Orange and Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange. Anne was the eldest daughter of George II of Great Britain and Caroline of Ansbach.
Grand Duke Nicholas was the first cousin once removed of Tsar Nicholas II. To distinguish between them the Grand Duke was often known within the Imperial family as "Nikolasha"; the Grand Duke was also known as "Nicholas the Tall" while the Tsar was "Nicholas the Short".
Grand Duke Nicholas was educated at the school of military engineers and received his commission in 1873. During the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78, he was on the staff of his father who was commander in chief. He distinguished himself on two occasions in this war. He worked his way up through all the ranks until he was appointed commander of the Guard Hussar Regiment in 1884.
The young aristocrat served in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877/1878, first as aide to his father, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich "the Elder," the Russian field commander, then in the Guards Cavalry. He was a major general at the age of twenty-nine, by which time his brother had taken the throne as Tsar Alexander III. Nikolai Nikolaevich served as the army's inspector general of cavalry from 1895 to 1905; and in 1901 under his nephew, Tsar Nicholas II, he was promoted to general of cavalry. During the 1905 revolution the tsar offered his uncle the opportunity to crush national unrest in the role of government dictator; the grand duke refused, helping to push the monarch into constitutional reform instead. He thereby acquired a lasting, albeit exaggerated, reputation as a political liberal.
In the period between the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War and the outbreak of World War I, the grand duke developed the reputation of military reformer. From 1905 to 1908 he led the Council on State Defense, with the charge of coordinating the activities of the army and navy so as to avoid repeating the confusion that had marked military operations in the Far East. Young military reformers were attracted to the imperial uncle, although perhaps more for his commitment to a strengthened military establishment than for his feel for a modern army. Compared to the other guiding star for military reformers, War Minister Sukhomlinov, the grand duke enjoyed a reputation for reassuring personal honesty. Nonetheless, he was identified by leading members of the Duma with the clique of grand dukes, that is, members of the imperial family who allegedly enjoyed limitless power and were barring the way to necessary military modernization. He responded to criticism in the Duma by resigning from the Council on State Defense in 1908 and busied himself with his work as inspector general of the cavalry and commander of the St. Petersburg Military District.
On August 2, 1914, the tsar suddenly appointed his uncle commander in chief. The old general had anticipated the lesser responsibility of directing the Sixth Army at St. Petersburg. Stone suggests that the monarch and Sukhomlinov declined the supreme command, assuming that real power would rest elsewhere, and thus Grand Duke Nikolai was picked to fill the need for an attractive figurehead, "a great poster." General Yury Danilov, the grand duke's deputy chief of staff, argues, more plausibly, that the tsar intended to command the armies, but developed cold feet at the last moment. In any case, Nikolai Nikolaevich found himself hoisted to a post he had not anticipated, to carry out war plans with which he was barely familiar.
On August 14 the new generalissimo reached his headquarters at Baranovichi to begin a series of sweeping offensives; these continued for over three months. The grand duke's unwavering offensive preferences stand as his chief contribution to the 1914 campaign. There was no way he could effectively control operations. The Russian army's system of command, based on the premise that the tsar would command in the field, called for two fronts, in effect army groups. The northwestern front faced Germany; the southwestern front faced Austria-Hungary. Such a system certainly avoided burdening a militarily uninformed monarch with excessive responsibility, but it delivered effective authority into the hands of the front commanders. Grand Duke Nikolai became a distant spectator and critic after the fact for much of the army's work.
Thus, the generalissimo insisted on an early thrust into East Prussia, in response to cries from Paris for immediate efforts to weaken the German drive into France. The Second Army under General Samsonov was annihilated in late August at Tannenberg, and the First Army under General Rennenkampf was subsequently mauled in the battle of the Masurian Lakes. The grand duke could react to this glaring example of military mismanagement only by dismissing General Zhilinsky, the commander of the northwestern front. The simultaneous Galician victories by General Ivanov and his chief of staff, General Alekseev, against the Austrians were equally beyond the generalissimo's reach.
The offensives continued as General Joffre badgered the Russians to press Germany at any cost. Russian armies advanced against Silesia in late September and early October, only to be thrown back by a German counterattack launched from Cracow northward toward Warsaw. In November the grand duke again pointed his armies westward, and again a well-found German offensive, this time from Thorn southeastward toward Lodz, rocked him back on his heels. An ominous pattern became evident: using their superb rail system, German armies could move easily along a north-south axis to halt the Russian "steamroller" over and over. The Russian taste for the offensive combined with unlimited but poorly equipped and inadequately led hordes of troops merely produced huge casualty lists. By late November the grand duke and his armies welcomed the onset of winter. Slow, deliberate, and stubborn, Nikolai Nikolaevich had no strategic answer for Russia's military dilemma.
As Russia's supreme commander, the grand duke was drawn into questions beyond the purely military sphere. In August 1914, urged on by Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, he proclaimed Russia's intention to restore Polish unity under the Russian crown. Such pledges answered Nikolai Nikolaevich's concern about keeping the loyalty of the population in Russian Poland and thus securing the areas immediately to the rear of the fighting front. But the grand duke's reputation as a "liberal" swelled not necessarily to his advantage back at Petrograd. Moreover, the tsar was persuaded by conservatives like Minister of the Interior Maklakov not to endorse the action officially, for fear that all of Russia's numerous minorities lodge similar claims. When the Turks launched an offensive in the Caucasus in late December, the grand duke played Joffre's part and called on his allies to divert the foe by offensive operations. This action reinforced the views of such "Easterners" as Winston Churchill and Aristide Briand and helped create the imbroglio at Gallipoli.
The new year began with the grand duke playing his accustomed role of mediator between his front commanders. When the forces of the northwestern front came to grief in February at the Masurian Lakes another example of a timely German offensive shattering Russian hopes the generalissimo gave Ivanov and the southwestern front the main task for 1915. This opened the way to calamity. Already stretched thinly to cover the perimeter of the huge Polish salient, the Russian army could advance only at the cost of further lengthening its line. By spring Ivanov had been able to push into the Carpathians and threatened to penetrate the plains of Hungary, which was sufficient to persuade General von Falkenhayn to reinforce the hard-pressed Austrians. General von Mackensen crashed through the Russian front at Gorlice in early May 1915. The grand duke stirred the French to strike on the western front, but nothing could hold back the Austro-German tide for fully three months. By late August all of Poland was lost, and the enemy stood at the gates of territory inhabited by ethnic Russians. The High Command itself was compelled to retreat from Baranovichi to Mogilev.
Grand Duke Nikolai's critics then had a clear field of fire. The old cavalryman could be castigated for failing to foresee the Gorlice offensive, for mismanaging the flow of reserves, and for refusing, until nearly too late, to withdraw his exposed forces from Warsaw. Indeed, by late August, eight of the eleven field armies had gathered under Alekseev, then commander of the northwestern front, and the grand duke's star was evidently setting. Even more telling was the political attack on the tsar's uncle. His questionable reputation as a liberal had received a dangerous boost during summer riots in Moscow: crowds called on him to take power in place of the hapless tsar. By September the monarch had taken over direct control of Russia's field armies and packed his uncle off to the Caucasus.
As governor general of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai could bask in the glow of military victories, provided with regularity by his able military commander, General Yudenich. During 1916 the grand duke was approached by liberal political leaders, as opposition elements in the Duma and military circles sought a means to oust the tsar and revive the Russian war effort. In this political shadow play, the grand duke apparently refused to join in action against his nephew; but neither did he pass word of the plots to the tsar. Rather, in November 1916, he saw the monarch at Mogilev and demanded constitutional reforms as the only way to avoid political upheaval.
When the March Revolution struck, Grand Duke Nikolai joined the other front commanders in urging the tsar to abdicate. The monarch attempted to restore his uncle to the post of supreme military commander, as a final link between the imperial family and postrevolutionary Russia, but the provisional government would have none of that.
The retired grand duke settled in the Crimea, and in March 1919 went into exile. He quietly lived out his last years in Italy and France. He refused to play an active political role but remained for the White émigré community the pretender to the Russian throne until his death in Antibes, January 5, 1929.
He had a reputation as a tough commander, yet one respected by his troops. His experience was more as a trainer of soldiers than a leader in battle. Nicholas was a very religious man, praying in the morning and at night as well as before and after meals. He was happiest in the country, hunting or caring for his estates.
Nicholas was a hunter. Ownership of borzoi hounds was restricted to members of the highest nobility, and Nicholas's packs were well-known. As the Russian dogs perished in the Revolution of 1917–18, the borzoi of today are descended from gifts he made to European friends before World War I. In his lifetime, Nicholas and his dogs caught hundreds of wolves. A pair of borzoi were used, which caught the wolf, one on each side, while Nicholas dismounted and cut the wolf's throat with a knife. Hunting was his major recreation, and he traveled in his private train across Russia with his horses and dogs, hunting while on his rounds of inspection.
On 29 April 1907, Nicholas married Princess Anastasia of Montenegro (1869–1935), the daughter of King Nicholas I, and sister of Princess Milica, who had married Nicholas's brother, Grand Duke Peter. They had no children. She had previously been married to George Maximilianovich, 6th Duke of Leuchtenberg, by whom she had two children, until their divorce in 1906. Since the Montenegrins were a fiercely Slavic, anti-Turkish people from the Balkans, Anastasia reinforced the Pan-Slavic tendencies of Nicholas.