It was a tragedy for the world that Alexander III died in 1894, when he was barely fifty. Had he lived for twenty or thirty years longer, his toughness, ability and realism might have saved Russia from the calamities that befell her during the first two decades of this century. Instead, the unwieldy Empire passed to his twenty-six year old son, the amiable but weak Nicholas II. Compared with the big, forceful men who sat on the Throne of Russia before him, Nicholas looked almost like a child: a frail, gentle figure with "a caressing expression" in his eyes and a soft, low-pitched voice. To everyone with whom he had dealings, whether they were his subjects, his Royal relations or the ambassadors accredited to him, he was kind and considerate, but distant. As his cousin, Queen Marie of Roumania, wrote of him: "He seemed to live in a sort of Imperial mist".

Had Nicholas been married to a friendly and warm-hearted Princess like his mother, all might have been well with him; but the Empress Alexandra was even more withdrawn from the world than he was. Her fragile beauty was spoilt by her tight lips and the coldness of her eyes: she always looked miserable some thought. She was stiff, haughty, for ever on the defensive. This was due in part to shyness; but also to a sense of being superior to all other mortals, which had little or nothing to do with the fact that she was Royal, or an Empress; for the grandest of her Royal relations found her just as haughty and aloof as any of her subjects. Queen Marie of Roumania could remember " the pinched, unwilling, patronizing smile with which she received all you said as if it were not worth while answering". To make matters worse, she spoke in a whisper.

For most of her husband's reign, the Empress Alexandra refused to appear in public or to perform any of the duties of an Empress. Her behavior can to a certain extent be explained by her desperate anxiety over her only son, the Tsarevitch Alexis, who was frequently in danger of death and very often in agony owing to the haemophilia which he had inherited from her side of the family. It was her belief that the so-called "holy man" could cure Alexis which led to her friendship with Rasputin. But even before Alexis was born, she had virtually become a recluse. Such was the Tsar's devotion to her and his own reserve that it was all too easy for him to stay with her in her seclusion. Father, mother and children became entirely self-contained; they led a quiet, rather dull family life in a plainly-furnished corner of one of the vast and glittering Imperial palaces. St. Petersburg society was, to all intents and purposes, without an Emperor and Empress. The most influential section of the community came to regard the Imperial couple with indifference, or even resentment.

Nicholas II cannot be fitted into the pattern of autocratic Tsars alternating with liberal tsars; for he was neither autocratic nor liberal.