Very interesting discussion you all had a while ago! If anyone is still reading, I would only add that we have to make a different yardstick for different time periods -- to calibrate the difficulty of a Tsar or Tsaritsa's job against the hurdles of his/her reign.
I think what we are trying to create here is an 'ultimate yardstick' where we rate Tsar Nicholas based on several different categories then average them out in order to judge his overall legacy. If I were rating Nicholas I'd have to rate him against the following...
1) Against other Russian Tsars throughout history
2) Against other world leaders from his time period
3) His ability to overcome obstacles faced
4) Adjusting for the level of difficulty of events during his reign
5) Hi legacy as both a leader and a person
For #1 I'd say he probably deserves to be considered roughly an average or perhaps below average Tsar. There were quite a number of ineffective Tsar's throughout Russian history or those who did an average job without having near the obstacles to overcome that Nicholas was faced with.
For #2 I think it's again fair to say that Nicholas was pretty typical of most European monarchs during his era. He does however fall well short of Theodore Roosevelt or even Woodrow Wilson in terms of overall world leaders from the late-19th and early-20th century. Keeping with the theme of comparing him to American Presidents I think Tsar Nicholas ranks at about William Howard Taft or Grover Cleveland level. Five Presidents (Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson) served during Nicholas's 22 1/2 year reign. Taft is generally ranked low in Presidential polls and Cleveland's second term (1893-97) is generally considered a failure.
For #3 I'd consider Nicholas an almost complete failure in overcoming the many obstacles he faced, but one also needs to take into account the possibility that no matter what he did the monarchy was doomed to fail. Certainly no other Russian Tsar and few world leaders in general have ever had so much to overcome as Nicholas II.
I believe #5 presents a rather difficult question to answer. His legacy as a leader has been viewed as largely negative but as we have learned more about the man, his many great dilemmas and the reasons for his methods, his personal legacy, overall, has greatly improved over the past several decades.
He was Tsar at the apex of this (in Imperial Russia) which meant that some problems his father and grandfather faced were much more deeply entrenched, more serious and widespread during his reign. For instance, Nicholas faced huge increases in city populations; St. Petersburg's population nearly tripled from Alexander II's reign to Nicholas II's reign! Think how disruptive this must have been; people moved from farm to factories and faced the grimness of city life, the physical risks of factory work, the facile spread of disease in fast-developing cities, and the relative ease of the spread of Socialist thought in concentrated, poor and discontented city populations.
An interesting and somewhat compelling factor you mention that I'm sorry to only be responding to now. I don't think that any of us are oblivious to unbelievable complexities of the era in which Nicholas reigned. It's only the fact that he seems to have managed to take the wrong route on the course of such a higher percentage of the decisions made that compels one to be harshly critical.
My yardstick for Nicholas II is very simple: I'm the yardstick. I could not have done any better.
I'm not sure if that's fair though. Were you raised by a Tsar of Russia like Nicholas was? Were you given opportunities to change course or broaden your perspectives as leader in the first decade of your reign before the series of calamitous events (starting with the Russo-Japanese War) occurred? Give me nine or ten good years as Tsar, learning on the job, and honestly I'm not certain you or I couldn't have been a wiser or more effective leader...at least in certain areas of governing.
So his real accomplishment is this: how did he retain his good-natured spirit, his kindness and loving temperament, and not become cynical and hardened? By that yardstick he is a truly exceptional man.
Yes I agree. And that's not something that should be discounted, the way some would dismiss of it and focus only on his failures as Tsar, for it sets a standard for others to follow. In our current era full of petty and unscrupulous politicians the thought of a simple, good-natured and well-meaning Tsar certainly has it's appeal.