Nicholas II became czar under inauspicious circumstances. He inherited the throne in 1894 after his father's unexpected death at the age of 48 from a kidney infection and was not prepared to rule. As the new 26- year-old czar himself put it, "I know absolutely nothing about matters of state." This did not bode well for a country only two years removed from the terrible famine of 1891-92 and the epidemic of cholera that followed it. Nicholas then made a bad situation worse. In reaction to increasing talk about possible political reforms to make Russia a constitutional monarchy, in early 1895 he publicly dismissed such ideas as "senseless dreams," a statement that discredited him in the eyes of many moderates and liberals whose support he would some day need.
The czar's foolish statement was followed by bad luck. Nicholas's coronation in 1896 was transformed into a tragedy when a huge Moscow crowd celebrating the grand event stampeded after hearing rumors that the free beer and mugs they had been promised were running out. More than a thousand people died, mainly from trampling or because they suffocated when they fell and were smothered by those who fell on top of them. Meanwhile, the underground revolutionary movement, quiescent for most of the previous decade, was beginning to revive.
The reign of Nicholas II was distinguished by three things. First, compared to previous reigns, major events were driven less by what the czar and his advisers did and more by what the regime's various opponents did, and indeed by what the country's masses did. Second, over time the czar and his officials increasingly found themselves overmatched by the problems they faced. Finally, Russia suffered disastrous defeats in two wars: the Russo-Japanese war, which shook but did not topple the regime, and World War I, which overwhelmed the czar, the monarchy, and Russia itself and ultimately led to not one but two revolutions in a single year.