Nicholas I

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

W. Bruce Lincoln, Associate Professor of Russian and Modern European History at Northern Illinois University, has aptly demonstrated that he is now an outstanding young American scholar in nineteenth century Russian history with the publication of his first book, Nicholas I: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. In his study, Lincoln points out that Nicholas I, who was one of the greatest of the Romanov czars, has suffered both from a negative public image and from neglect by biographers. The usual accounts of Nicholas familiar to Western readers are the pen portraits rendered by Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries who were driven into exile by him and who therefore portrayed him as a cruel or mentally unbalanced tyrant. Lincoln in this work has attempted not a whitewash or defense but rather a balanced biographical study which discusses Nicholas in relation to his own historical epoch and does not presume to judge him from the standpoint of a different era’s mores. The author’s attempt has been successful.

Rather than giving a standard chronological account of Nicholas’ life, Lincoln begins his work with a close analysis of the crisis which not only began but, in a very real sense, determined Nicholas’ role in nineteenth century Russian history. This event was the revolt of a group of young Russian aristocrats who attempted to end the autocracy of the Russian emperors in December, 1825, when Nicholas ascended the Russian throne. The opportunity for revolt was created because of the peculiar succession situation which confronted Russia. Emperor Paul I, son of Catherine II (Catherine the Great), and his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna, had four sons: the Grand Dukes Alexander (b. 1777), Constantine (b. 1779), Nicholas (b. 1796), and Michael (b. 1798). When Paul I was assassinated in March of 1801, his eldest son became Emperor Alexander I, who reigned from 1801 until 1825. Neither Alexander nor his next oldest brother, the Grand Duke Constantine, had legitimate children who survived them. Also, since 1815 Constantine had repeatedly expressed to his older brother his determination never to accept the Russian crown. This had prompted Alexander I to issue a manifesto in August, 1823, declaring that Constantine had renounced his rights to the Russian throne in favor of their younger brother, the Grand Duke Nicholas. But this manifesto was a secret document. In fact, when news of Alexander’s death reached St. Petersburg, the Russian capital, in early December, 1825, Nicholas himself took the oath of loyalty to Constantine as the new emperor and ordered the army and government officials to follow his example. This action on Nicholas’ part has been criticized by many historians, as Nicholas was aware that he was Alexander’s heir. But Lincoln convincingly argues that Nicholas wanted the principle of legitimacy to be upheld in the succession to the throne, in contrast to what had occurred during the eighteenth century.

Unfortunately, there was a weakness in Nicholas’ plan: for almost two weeks Constantine refused to do anything to clarify the situation. He neither accepted nor rejected the throne and his inability to come to a decision forced Nicholas to publish the secret manifesto of 1823 and to proclaim himself emperor on December 26, 1825. This, in turn, allowed a group of young noblemen who belonged to two secret societies, the Southern and Northern Societies (which aimed at reforming Russia by ending the Czar’s autocratic power and replacing it by a constitution), to start a rebellion posing as the defenders of Constantine’s right to the throne. From the very beginning of the revolt, the rebels showed an enormous lack of organization, while Nicholas proved himself to be a born leader by his behavior during the crisis. He quickly organized his troops and tried to dispel the rebels without bloodshed. But at last he ordered his artillery to open fire on the rebels when one of his closest aides told him it was necessary to save his throne. After the revolt of the Decembrists—as these rebels were later called—was suppressed, Nicholas ordered a special Investigating Commission to determine the causes of the rebellion. For five months the commission questioned 579 persons, and the evidence revealed widespread oppression and corruption in every facet of Russian life. Nicholas, on the whole, showed leniency towards the rebels, as only five individuals were executed and thirty-one others imprisoned for life. A digest was compiled of the grievances of the Decembrists, and it was given to the new Czar, who studied it for the remainder of his life. Two vitally important legacies of the revolt were that Nicholas I now viewed himself as the champion of Law and Order against the malignant virus of...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Economist. CCLXVIII, June 24, 1978, p. 130.

Library Journal. CIII, August, 1978, p. 1501.

New Statesman. XCVI, July 7, 1978, p. 25.

Times Literary Supplement. October 6, 1978, p. 1112.