Nicholas I

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: As Czar of the Russian Empire, 1825-1855, Nicholas I partially succeeded in restoring the historic power and position of the autocracy in Russian life and European affairs. His reign marks the high point of Russian conservative reaction to the French Revolution, Napoleonic Europe, and the Decembrist Revolt.

Early Life

Nikolay Pavlovich, known in the West as Nicholas I, was born on July 6, 1796, in Tsarskoye Selo, the third surviving son of Emperor Paul I and Empress Maria Fyodorovna, a former Princess of Württemberg. Being the third son, Nicholas was not expected to rule in his own right but rather to serve one of his elder brothers, the future Czar Alexander I or the Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich. Consequently, Nicholas was not initially prepared to rule but rather was given a traditional, conservative, military education. What liberal training Nicholas did receive probably came from one of his tutors, the German economist Heinrich Storch. Nicholas proved to have no mind for abstraction; he was interested in science and technology and was especially talented in mathematics. Like his father before him, he took a strong interest in military affairs.

Nicholas’ natural conservatism was profoundly deepened during the last years of Alexander’s reign, after 1812-1814, and as a result of the Decembrist Revolt in 1825. After he returned from the Congress of Vienna, Alexander—and Russia through him—came under the sway of conservative German mystical Romanticism from the West. Opposition arose from young reform-minded noble military officers and civil servants, who staged demonstrations in St. Petersburg to influence the new czar, Constantine, upon the somewhat sudden death of the childless Alexander in 1825. Unbeknown to the Decembrists, however, Constantine secretly had renounced his right to succeed in 1822, in favor of Nicholas, when he had married a Roman Catholic Polish aristocrat. When they realized that Nicholas was the new emperor, the Decembrists went into rebellion in St. Petersburg and Kiev. The Decembrist Revolt was thoroughly crushed, and Nicholas I saw it as a manifestation of the liberal treason of much of the nobility, an attitude which set the tone for his entire reign at home and abroad.

Life’s Work

Not only did the Decembrist Revolt strengthen Nicholas’ conservative resolve, but also it forced him to rebuild the historic power of the Russian autocracy and concentrate on internal affairs over foreign relations throughout most of his reign. To do this he surrounded himself with reasonably talented conservative and reactionary advisers in key positions, many of whom came from military backgrounds. Together they created and enforced the state ideology of official nationalism, with its four-pronged attack: autocracy, orthodoxy, nationality, and legitimacy. Autocracy meant the historic direct, divine-right absolutism of the czar; orthodoxy reaffirmed Russian Orthodoxy as the one true faith and condoned the persecution of all dissenters, especially Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Jews; nationality called for the protection of the unique Russian character from the decadence of the West; and legitimacy was a guide for foreign policy, allowing for intervention abroad to preserve the antirevolutionary status quo.

To create a degree of bureaucratic efficiency, Nicholas did not reform the bureaucracy as such; rather, he added yet another layer, His Majesty’s Own Imperial Chancery, which was more directly responsible to him. It contained six sections: Sections 1 and 6 dealt with charity and welfare, respectively. Section 2, under Count Michael Speransky, very successfully carried out the codification and some modernization of Russian law from 1833 to 1835, a prelude to the judicial reforms to come under the reign of Alexander II in 1864. Section 4 managed the conquest of the Caucasus Mountains region, which began under Nicholas and continued in the reigns that followed. Part of Armenia was secured in a war with Persia in 1826-1828 and the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea in a war with Turkey in 1828-1829. Section 5, under General Paul Kiselyov, considered the reform of serfdom. Nicholas wanted to do something about this pressing problem, which had kept Russia economically and socially backward, had in large part precipitated the Decembrist Revolt, and had constantly fueled debate and dissent in the Russian Empire. As with so many important matters, however, he never committed himself to doing anything about it.

The most infamous of these sections, though, was the third, the secret police, under General Alexander Benckendorff. Based on French Revolutionary and Napoleonic models, it was a modern, professional police establishment...

(The entire section is 1948 words.)