Nicholas I of Russia

Еhe Emperor of Russia from 1825 until 1855

Vladimir Sverchkov (1820-1888), Portrait of the Emperor Nicholas I (1856), canvas, oil
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He was also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland. He is best known as a political conservative whose reign was marked by geographical expansion, repression of dissent, economic stagnation, poor administrative policies, a corrupt bureaucracy, and frequent wars that culminated in Russia's disastrous defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-56.

Portrait by Franz Krüger, 1852
pinterest button Portrait by Franz Krüger, 1852 [show]Franz Krüger (1797–1857), Public Domain

His biographer Nicholas Riasanovsky says that Nicholas displayed determination, singleness of purpose, and an iron will, along with a powerful sense of duty and a dedication to very hard work. He saw himself as a soldier – a junior officer totally consumed by spit and polish. A handsome man, he was highly nervous and aggressive. Trained as an engineer, he was a stickler for minute detail. His reign had an ideology called «Official Nationality» that was proclaimed officially in 1833. It was a reactionary policy based on orthodoxy in religion, autocracy in government, and Russian nationalism.

He was the younger brother of his predecessor, Alexander I. Nicholas inherited his brother's throne despite the failed Decembrist revolt against him and went on to become the most reactionary of all Russian leaders. His aggressive foreign policy involved many expensive wars, having a disastrous effect on the empire's finances.

He was successful against Russia's neighbouring southern rivals as he seized the last territories in the Caucasus held by Persia (comprising modern day Armenia and Azerbaijan) by successfully ending the Russo-Persian War (1826–28). By now, Russia had gained what is now Dagestan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia from Persia, and had therefore at last gained the clear upper hand in the Caucasus, both geo-politically as well as territorially. He ended the Russo-Turkish War (1828–29) successfully as well. Later on, however, he led Russia into the Crimean War (1853–56) with disastrous results. Historians emphasize that his micromanagement of the armies hindered his generals, as did his misguided strategy. Fuller notes that historians have frequently concluded that «the reign of Nicholas I was a catastrophic failure in both domestic and foreign policy.» On the eve of his death, the Russian Empire reached its geographical zenith, spanning over 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles), but in desperate need of reform.

Early life and road to power

Nicholas was born in Gatchina to Emperor Paul I and Empress Maria Feodorovna. He was a younger brother of Alexander I of Russia and of Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia.

Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich (ca. 1821).
pinterest button Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich (ca. 1821). George Dawe, Public Domain

Nicholas was not brought up to become the Emperor of Russia; he had two elder brothers. In 1825, when Alexander I died suddenly of typhus, Nicholas was caught between swearing allegiance to his second-eldest brother, Constantine Pavlovich, and accepting the throne for himself.

The interregnum lasted until Constantine Pavlovich, who was in Warsaw at that time, confirmed his refusal. Additionally, on 25 (13 Old Style) December, Nicholas issued the manifesto proclaiming his accession to the throne.

That manifesto retroactively named 1 December (19 November Old Style), the date of Alexander I's death, as the beginning of his reign. During this confusion, a plot was hatched by some members of the military to overthrow Nicholas and to seize power. This led to the Decembrist Revolt on 26 (14 Old Style) December 1825, an uprising Nicholas was successful in quickly suppressing.

Emperor and principles

Nicholas completely lacked his brother's spiritual and intellectual breadth; he saw his role simply as that of a paternal autocrat ruling his people by whatever means necessary. Nicholas I began his reign on 14 December 1825, which fell on a Monday; Russian superstition held that Mondays were unlucky days. This particular Monday dawned very cold, with temperatures of −8 degrees Celsius. This was regarded by the Russian people as a bad omen for the coming reign.

  The accession of Nicholas I was marred by a demonstration of 3,000 young Imperial Army officers and other liberal-minded citizens. This demonstration was an attempt to force the government to accept a constitution and a representative form of government. Nicolas ordered the army out to smash the demonstration. The «uprising» was quickly put down and became known as the Decembrist Revolt. Having experienced the trauma of the Decembrist Revolt on the very first day of his reign, Nicholas I was determined to restrain Russian society. The Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery ran a huge network of spies and informers with the help of Gendarmes. The government exercised censorship and other forms of control over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life.

Tsar Nicholas abolished several areas of local autonomy. Bessarabia's autonomy was removed in 1828, Poland's in 1830 and the Jewish Qahal was abolished in 1843. As an exception to this trend, Finland was able to keep its autonomy partly due to Finnish soldiers' loyal participation in crushing the November Uprising in Poland.

Russia's first railway was opened in 1838, a 16-mile line between St. Petersburg and the suburban residence of Tsarskoye Selo. The second was the Moscow – Saint Petersburg Railway, built in 1842–51. Nevertheless, by 1855 there were only 570 miles of Russian railways.

In 1833, the Ministry of National Education, Sergey Uvarov, devised a program of «Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality» as the guiding principle of the regime. The people were to show loyalty to the unrestricted authority of the tsar, to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, and to the Russian language. These romantic and conservative principles outlined by Uvarov were also espoused by Vasily Zhukovsky, one of the tutors of the Grand Duke Alexander. The results of these Slavophile principles led, broadly speaking, to increasing repression of all classes, excessive censorship and surveillance of independent minded intellectuals like Pushkin and Lermontov and to the persecution of non-Russian languages and non-Orthodox religions. Taras Shevchenko, later to become known as the national poet of Ukraine, was exiled to Siberia by a direct order of Tsar Nicholas after composing a poem that mocked the Tsar, his wife, and his domestic policies. By order of the Tsar, Shevchenko was kept under strict surveillance and prevented from writing or painting.

From 1839, Tsar Nicholas also used a former Byzantine Catholic priest named Joseph Semashko as his agent to force Orthodoxy upon the Eastern Rite Catholics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. This caused Tsar Nicholas to be condemned by a succession of Roman Pontiffs, the Marquis de Custine, Charles Dickens, and many Western governments. See also Cantonists.

Nicholas disliked serfdom and toyed with the idea of abolishing it in Russia, but declined to do so for reasons of state. He feared the aristocracy and believed they might turn against him if he abolished serfdom. However, he did make some efforts to improve the lot of the Crown Serfs (serfs owned by the government) with the help of his minister Pavel Kiselev. During most of his reign he tried to increase his control over the landowners and other influential groups in Russia. In 1831, Nicholas restricted the votes in the Noble Assembly to those with over 100 serfs, leaving 21,916 voters. In 1841, landless nobles were banned from selling serfs separate from the land. From 1845, attainment of the 5th highest rank (out of 14) in the Table of Ranks was required to be ennobled, previously it had been the 8th rank.

Culture

The official emphasis on Russian nationalism fueled a debate on Russia's place in the world, the meaning of Russian history, and the future of Russia. One group, the westernizers, believed that Russia remained backward and primitive and could progress only through more Europeanization. Another group, the Slavophiles, enthusiastically favored the Slavs and their culture and customs, and had a distaste for westerners and their culture and customs.

The Slavophiles viewed Slavic philosophy as a source of wholeness in Russia and were sceptical of Western rationalism and materialism. Some of them believed that the Russian peasant commune, or Mir, offered an attractive alternative to Western capitalism and could make Russia a potential social and moral savior, thus representing a form of Russian messianism. However the ministry of education had a policy of closing philosophy faculties because of possible harmful effects.

In the wake of the Decembrist revolt, the tsar moved to protect the status quo by centralizing the educational system. He wanted to neutralize the threat of foreign ideas and what he ridiculed as «pseudo-knowledge.» However, his minister of education, Sergei Uvarov, quietly promoted academic freedom and autonomy, raised academic standards, improved facilities, and opened higher education to the middle classes. By 1848 the tsar, fearing the political upheavals in the West might uprisings in Europe, ended Uvarov's innovations. The universities were small and closely monitored, especially the potentially dangerous philosophy departments. Their main mission was to train a loyal, athletic, masculinized senior bureaucracy that avoided the effeminacy of office work.

Despite the repressions of this period, Russia experienced a flowering of literature and the arts. Through the works of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev and numerous others, Russian literature gained international stature and recognition. Ballet took root in Russia after its importation from France, and classical music became firmly established with the compositions of Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857).

Military and foreign policy

Nicholas lavished attention on his very large army; with a population of 60-70 million people, the army included a million men. They had outdated equipment and tactics, but the tsar, who dressed like a soldier and surrounded himself with officers, gloried in the victory over Napoleon in 1812 and took enormous pride in its smartness on parade. The cavalry horses, for example, were only trained in parade formations, and did poorly in battle. The glitter and braid masked profound weaknesses that he did not see. He put generals in charge of most of his civilian agencies regardless of their qualifications. An agnostic who won fame in cavalry charges was made supervisor of Church affairs. The Army became the vehicle of upward social mobility for noble youths from non-Russian areas, such as Poland, the Baltic, Finland and Georgia.

Monument to Nicholas I on St. Isaac's Square
pinterest button Monument to Nicholas I on St. Isaac's Square unknown, Public Domain

 On the other hand, many miscreants, petty criminals and undesirables were punished by local officials by enlisting them for life in the Army. The conscription system was highly unpopular with people, as was the practice of forcing peasants to house the soldiers for six months of the year. Curtiss finds that «The pedantry of Nicholas' military system, which stressed unthinking obedience and parade ground evolutions rather than combat training, produced ineffective commanders in time of war.» His commanders in the Crimean War were old and incompetent, and indeed so were his muskets as the colonels sold the best equipment and the best food.

For much of Nicholas's reign, Russia was seen as a major military power, with considerable strength. At last the Crimean war at the end of his reign demonstrated to the world what no one had previously realized: Russia was militarily weak, technologically backward, and administratively incompetent. Despite his grand ambitions toward the south and Turkey, Russia had not built its railroad network in that direction, and communications were bad. The bureaucracy was riddled with graft, corruption and inefficiency and was unprepared for war. The Navy was weak and technologically backward; the Army, although very large, was good only for parades, suffered from colonels who pocketed their men's pay, poor morale, and was even more out of touch with the latest technology as developed by Britain and France. By wars' end, the Russian leadership was determined to reform the Army and the society. As Fuller notes, «Russia had been beaten on the Crimean peninsula, and the military feared that it would inevitably be beaten again unless steps were taken to surmount its military weakness.»

Vladimir Sverchkov (1820-1888), Portrait of the Emperor Nicholas I (1856), canvas, oil
pinterest button Vladimir Sverchkov (1820—1888), Portrait of the Emperor Nicholas I (1856), canvas, oil   George Shuklin, Public Domain

In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and as guardian against revolution. It has often been noticed that such policies were linked with the Metternich counter-revolutionary system; indeed, Austrian special ambassador Count Karl Ludwig von Ficquelmont was well known for his extensive influence over the tsar of whom he was a close friend. Nicholas's offers to suppress revolution on the European continent, trying to follow the pattern set by his eldest brother, Tsar Alexander I, earned him the label of gendarme of Europe. Immediately on his succession Nicholas began to limit the liberties that existed under the constitutional monarchy in Congress Poland. In return, after the November Uprising broke out, in 1831 the Polish parliament deposed Nicholas as king of Poland in response to his repeated curtailment of its constitutional rights. The Tsar reacted by sending Russian troops into Poland. Nicholas crushed the rebellion, abrogated the Polish constitution, reduced Poland to the status of a province, Privislinsky Krai, and embarked on a policy of repression towards Catholics. In the 1840s Nicholas reduced 64,000 Polish nobles to commoner status.

In 1848, when a series of revolutions convulsed Europe, Nicholas was in the forefront of reaction. In 1849, he helped the Habsburgs to suppress the uprising in Hungary, and he also urged Prussia not to adopt a liberal constitution.

While Nicholas was attempting to maintain the status quo in Europe, he adopted an aggressive policy toward the neighboring empires to the south, namely the Ottoman Empire as well as Persia. Nicholas I was following the traditional Russian policy of resolving the so-called Eastern Question by seeking to partition the Ottoman Empire and establish a protectorate over the Orthodox population of the Balkans, still largely under Ottoman control in the 1820s. This move proved to be both costly and largely futile.

In 1826—1828, Alexander I fought the Russo-Persian War (1826—1828), which ended with Persia forcefully ceding its last remaining territories in the Caucasus, comprising modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Iğdır. By now, Russia had conquered all Caucasian territories of Iran in both the North Caucasus as well as the South Caucasus, comprising modern-day Georgia, Dagestan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, through the course of the 19th century.

Russia fought a successful war against the Ottomans in 1828-29, but it did little to increase its power in Europe. Only a small Greek state became independent in the Balkans, with limited Russian influence. In the Caucacus, the Russians did not fare much better. It fought long, costly wars for some small territories that would not be pacified until the reign of Alexander II. In 1833, Russia negotiated the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi with the Ottoman Empire. The major European parties mistakenly believed that the treaty contained a secret clause granting Russia the right to send warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. By the London Straits Convention of 1841, they affirmed Ottoman control over the straits and forbade any power, including Russia, to send warships through the straits. Buoyed up by his role in suppressing the revolutions of 1848 and his mistaken belief that he had British diplomatic support, Nicholas moved against the Ottomans, who declared war on Russia on 8 October 1853. On 30 November 1853, Russian Admiral Nakhimov caught the Turkish fleet in the harbor at Sinope and destroyed it.

In 1854, fearing the results of an Ottoman defeat by Russia, Britain, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire joined forces in the conflict known as the Crimean War to the Ottomans and Western Europeans, but often known in Russia as the Eastern War, Russian: Восточная война, Vostochnaya Vojna (March 1854 – February 1856). In April 1854, Austria signed a defensive pact with Prussia. Thus, Russia found herself in a war with the whole of Europe allied against her.

Austria offered the Ottomans diplomatic support, and Prussia remained neutral, thus leaving Russia without any allies on the continent. The European allies landed in Crimea and laid siege to the well-fortified Russian base at Sebastopol. The Russians lost battles at Alma in September 1854. This failure was followed by lost battles at Balaklava and Inkerman. After the prolonged Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855) the base fell, exposing Russia's inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil. On the death of Nicholas I, Alexander II became Tsar. On 15 January 1856, the new tsar took Russia out of the war on very unfavorable terms which included the loss of a naval fleet on the Black Sea.

Emperor Nicholas I on deathbed
pinterest button Emperor Nicholas I on deathbed Владимир Иванович Гау, Public Domain

Death

Nicholas died on 2 March 1855, during the Crimean War. He caught a chill and refused medical treatment and died of pneumonia, although there were rumors he committed suicide.

Years of life: 6 July [O.S. 25 June] 1796 – 2 March [O.S. 18 February] 1855

Useful Information

Nicholas I
Russian: Николай I
Nikolai I Pavlovich
Russian: Николай I Павлович, r

Legacy

There have been many damning verdicts on Nicholas's rule and legacy. At the end of his life, one of his most devoted civil servants, A.V. Nikitenko, opined, "The main failing of the reign of Nicholas Pavlovich was that it was all a mistake." However, from time to time, efforts are made to revive Nicholas's reputation. Historian Barbara Jelavich points to many failures, including the "catastrophic state of Russian finances," the badly equipped army, the inadequate transportation system, and a bureaucracy "which was characterized by graft, corruption, and inefficiency."

Kiev University was founded in 1834 by Nicholas. In 1854, there were 3600 university students in Russia, 1000 fewer than in 1848. Censorship was omnipresent; Historian Hugh Seton-Watson says, "The intellectual atmosphere remained oppressive until the end of the reign."

As a traveler in Spain, Italy and Russia, the Frenchman Marquis de Custine said in his widely read book Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia that, inside, Nicholas was a good person, and behaved as he did only because he believed he had to. "If the Emperor, has no more of mercy in his heart than he reveals in his policies, then I pity Russia; if, on the other hand, his true sentiments are really superior to his acts, then I pity the Emperor."

Nicholas figures in an urban legend about the railroad from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. When it was planned in 1842, he supposedly demanded the shortest path be used despite major obstacles in the way. The story says he used a ruler to draw the straight line itself. However the false story became popular in Russia and Britain as an explanation of how badly the country was governed. By the 1870s, however, Russians were telling a different version, claiming the tsar was wise to overcome local interests that wanted the railway diverted this way and that. Actually what happened was that the road was laid out by engineers and he endorsed their advice to build in a straight line.

Titles and styles

  • 6 July 1796 – 1 December 1825: His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich of Russia
  • 1 December 1825 – 2 March 1855: His Imperial Majesty The Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias

Issue

On 13 July 1817, Nicholas married Charlotte of Prussia (1798–1860), who thereafter went by the name Alexandra Feodorovna. Charlotte's parents were Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Nicholas and Charlotte were third cousins, as they were both great-great-grandchildren of Frederick William I of Prussia.

NameBirthDeathNotes
Tsar Alexander II29 April 181813 March 1881married 1841, Marie of Hesse and by Rhine; had issue
Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna18 August 181921 February 1876married 1839, Maximilian de Beauharnais; had issue
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna11 September 182230 October 1892married 1846, Karl of Württemberg
Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna of Russia24 June 182510 August 1844married 1844, Landgrave Friedrich-Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel
Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich21 September 182725 January 1892married 1848, Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg; had issue
Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich8 August 183125 April 1891married 1856, Alexandra of Oldenburg; had issue
Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich25 October 183218 December 1909married 1857, Cecilie of Baden; had issue

Illegitimate issue

Many sources state that Nicholas did not have an extramarital affair until after 25 years of marriage, in 1842, when the Empress's doctors prohibited her from having sexual intercourse, due to her poor health and recurring heart attacks. Many facts dispute this claim. Nicholas fathered three known children with mistresses prior to 1842, including one with his most famous and well documented mistress, Varvara Nelidova.

With Anna-Maria Charlota de Rutenskiold (1791–1856)

  • Youzia Koberwein (12 May 1825 – 23 February 1923)

With Varvara Yakovleva (1803–1831):

  • Olga Carlovna Albrecht (10 July 1828 – 20 January 1898)

With Varvara Nelidova (d. 1897):

  • Alexis Pashkine (17 April 1831 – 20 June 1863)