The Year of the last Romanovs – The coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and the Khodynka tragedy

(public domain)

Tsar Nicholas was crowned and formally bestowed with his title of Tsar Nicolas II on 26 May 1896. He had become Tsar almost eighteen months earlier, but the coronation did not occur at the same time as the vast celebrations and ceremonies had to be carefully planned.

Tsar Nicholas was not universally liked at the time of his coronation. He followed in his father’s footsteps and was firm in his belief of absolutist rule despite a call for a constitutional monarchy. He and his father Alexander III took Russia back a step and halted many of the reforms rolled out by Tsar Alexander II. A spectacular coronation with the new Empress Alexandra by his side was what Nicholas needed to win doubters over.

The festivities surrounding the coronation lasted for weeks, beginning when the royal couple entered Moscow on the 9th of May and took part in a procession with many high-ranking guests, beginning at the Petrovsky Palace.

The coronation itself took place in Uspensky Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin; which was the traditional location for the crowning of Russian Tsars. The coronation went smoothly and a wonderful day was had by all in attendance. Tsar Nicholas wrote that “luckily the weather was heavenly. The Grand Staircase presented a glittering sight. Everything took place in the Uspensky Cathedral, and although it seems like a dream, I will remember it all my life!”

At the coronation, Emperor Nicholas was presented with an Imperial silk crown as a memento of the day; something which had not happened in the past, it was presented from the Russian Empire to be retained as Imperial property. Also, in the evening the Kremlin shone brightly with the use of electric lighting which was a novelty for many people attending.

Despite the success of the weeks before the coronation and the coronation day itself, this period is remembered as a time of sorrow and was seen as a bad omen for the new Emperor because of the events that followed.

A few days after the coronation, a tragedy occurred at an event which was supposed to be fun for the general public. On 30 May a public event was put on to coincide with the coronation. The event was held at Khodynka field which was believed big enough for the large amount of people who would be visiting. As part of the celebrations, food including sausages, pretzels and gingerbread were distributed along with drinks. 150 separate buffet zones had been set up to distribute the food and drink to members of the public and pubs were built to accommodate people. On top of the food and drinks, to mark the celebration of the coronation a commemorative cup was given out as a gift.

(public domain)

The celebrations and merriment turned to tragedy after far more people showed up to the event than authorities were expecting. By 6 am on the 30th of May there were an estimated half a million people waiting in the field already. As rumours spread that there were not enough food or gifts to go around and that the commemorative cups may contain a gold coin, panic ensued, and a huge police force was called in to calm people down. As the police tried to calm the situation, thousands of people began to flee in order to get away from the scene, but this resulted in a stampede which killed 1389 people and injured over a thousand more.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Tsar Nicholas was seen as cold-hearted by many people, because he attended a ball the same evening. He stated that he was not made aware of what had happened straight away and was urged to attend the ball in order to maintain relations with France, but this explanation did not placate people. The royal couple visited the survivors of the stampede in hospitals the following day and paid for the burial of the dead, but the damage had been done. The event was seen as a bad omen for Nicholas’s reign, and he was given the nickname ‘Nicholas the Bloody’ by his opponents after the tragedy.

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