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Nicholas I


(17961855), tsar and emperor of Russia from 1825 to 1855.

Nicholas Pavlovich Romanov came to power amid the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 and died during the Crimean War. Between these two events, Nicholas became known throughout his empire and the world as the quintessential autocrat, and his Nicholaevan system as the most oppressive in Europe.

When Nicholas I was on his deathbed, he spoke his last words to his son, soon to become Alexander II: "I wanted to take everything difficult, everything serious, upon my shoulders and to leave you a peaceful, well-ordered, and happy realm. Providence decreed otherwise. Now I go to pray for Russia and for you all." Earlier in the day, Nicholas ordered all the Guards regiments to be brought to the Winter Palace to swear allegiance to the new tsar. These words and actions reveal a great deal about Nicholas's personality and his reign. Nicholas was a tsar obsessed with order and with the military, and his thirty years on the throne earned him a reputation as the Gendarme of Europe. His fear of rebellion and disorder, particularly after the events of his ascension to the throne, would affect him for the remainder of his reign.

education, december 1825, and rule

Nicholas I was not intended to be tsar, nor was he educated to be one. Born in 1796, Nicholas was the third of Paul I's four sons. His two elder brothers, Alexander and Constantine, received upbringings worthy of future rulers. In 1800, by contrast, Paul appointed General Matthew I. Lamsdorf to take charge of the education of Nicholas and his younger brother, Mikhail. Lamsdorf believed that education consisted of discipline and military training, and he imposed a strict regimen on his two charges that included regular beatings. Nicholas thus learned to respect the military image his father cultivated and the necessity of order and discipline.

Although Nicholas received schooling in more traditional subjects, he responded only to military science and to military training. In 1814, during the war against Napoleon, he gave up wearing civilian dress and only appeared in his military uniform, a habit he kept. Nicholas also longed during the War of 1812 to see action in the defense of Russia. His brother, Alexander I, wanted him to remain in Russia until the hostilities ended. Nicholas only joined the Russian army for the victory celebrations held in 1814 and 1815. The young Nicholas debuted as a commander and was impressed with the spectacles and their demonstration of Russian political power. For Nicholas, as Richard Wortman has noted, these parades provided a lifelong model for demonstrating political power.

After the war, Nicholas settled into the life of a Russian grand duke. He toured his country and Europe between 1816 and 1817. In 1817 Nicholas married Princess Charlotte of Prussia, who was baptized as Grand Duchess Alexandra Fyodorovna. The following year, in April 1818, Nicholas became the first of his brothers to father a son, Alexander, the future Alexander II. For the next seven years, the family lived a quiet life in St. Petersburg's Anichkov Palace; Nicholas later claimed this period was the happiest of his life. The idyll was only broken once, in 1819, when Alexander I surprised his brother with the news that he, and not Constantine, might be the successor to the Russian throne. Alexander and Constantine did not have sons, and the latter had decided to give up his rights to the throne. This agreement was not made public, and its ambiguities would later come back to haunt Nicholas.

Alexander I died in the south of Russia in November 1825. The news of the tsar's death took several days to reach the capital, where it caused confusion. Equally stunning was the revelation that Nicholas would succeed Alexander. Because of the secret agreement, disorder reigned briefly in St. Petersburg, and Nicholas even swore allegiance to his older brother. Only after Constantine again renounced his throne did Nicholas announce that he would become the new emperor on December 14.

This decision and the confusion surrounding it gave a group of conspirators the chance they had sought for several years. A number of Russian officers who desired political change that would transform Russian from an autocracy rebelled at the idea of Nicholas becoming tsar. His love for the military and barracks mentality did not promise reform, and so three thousand officers refused to swear allegiance to Nicholas on December 14. Instead, they marched to the Senate Square where they called for a constitution and for Constantine to become tsar. Nicholas acted swiftly and ruth-lessly. He ordered an attack of the Horse Guards on the rebels and then cannon fire, killing around one hundred. The rest of the rebels were rounded up and arrested, while other conspirators throughout Russia were incarcerated in the next few months.

Although the Decembrist revolt proved ineffective, its specter continued to haunt Nicholas. His first day in power had brought confusion, disorder, and rebellion. During the next year, Nicholas pursued policies and exhibited characteristics that would define his rule. He personally oversaw the interrogations and punishments of the Decembrists, and informed his advisors that they should be dealt with mercilessly because they had violated the law. Five of the leaders were executed; dozens went into permanent Siberian exile. At the same time he pursued justice against the Decembrists, Nicholas established a new concept of imperial rule in Russia, one that relied upon the parade ground and the court as a means of demonstrating power and order. Within the first few months of his rule, he initiated ceremonies and reviews of military and dynastic might that became hallmarks of his reign. Above all, the Decembrist revolt convinced Nicholas that Russia needed order and firmness and that only the autocrat could provide them.

The Nicholaevan system of government built upon these ideas and upon the tsar's mistrust for the Russian gentry in the wake of the Decembrist Revolt. Nicholas placed a circle of ministers in important positions and relied on them almost exclusively to govern. He also used His Majesty's Own Chancery, the private bureau for the tsar's personal needs, to rule. Nicholas divided the Chancery into sections to exert personal control over the functions of governingthe First Section continued to be responsible for the personal needs of the tsar, the Second Section was established to enact legislation and codify Russian laws, and the Fourth was responsible for welfare and charity. The Third Section, established in 1826, gained the most notoriety. It had the task of enforcing laws and policing the country, but in practice the Third Section did much more. Headed by Count Alexander Beckendorff, the Third Section set up spies, investigators, and gendarmes throughout the country. In effect, Nicholas established a police state in Russia, even if it did not function efficiently.

It was through the Second Section that Nicholas achieved the most notable reform of his reign. Established in 1826 to rectify the disorder and confusion within Russia's legal system that had manifested itself in the Decembrist revolt, the Second Section compiled a new Code of Law, which was promulgated in 1833. Nicholas appointed Mikhail Speransky, Alexander I's former advisor, to head the committee. The new code did not so much make new laws as collect all those that had been passed since the last codification in 1648 and categorize them. Published in forty-eight volumes with a digest, Russia had a uniform and ordered set of laws.

Nicholas came to epitomize autocracy in his own lifetime, largely through the creation of an official ideology that one of his advisers formulated in 1832. Traumatized by the events of 1825 and the calls for constitutional reform, Nicholas believed fervently in the necessity of Russian autocratic rule. Because he had triumphed over his

opponents, he searched for a concrete expression of the superiority of monarchy as the institution best suited for order and stability. He found a partner in this quest in Count Sergei Uvarov (17861855), later the minister of education. Uvarov articulated the concept of Official Nationality, which in turn became the official ideology of Nicholas's Russia. It had three components: Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.

Uvarov's formula gave voice to trends within the Nicholaevan system that had developed since 1825. For Nicholas and his minister, an ordered system could function only with religious principles as a guide. By invoking Orthodoxy, Uvarov also stressed the Russian Church as a means to instill these principles. The concept of Autocracy was the clearest of the principlesonly it could guarantee the political existence of Russia. The third concept was the most ambiguous. Although usually translated as "nationality," the Russian term used was narodnost, which stressed the spirit of the Russian people. Broadly speaking, Nicholas wanted to emphasize the national characteristics of his people, as well as their spirit, as a principle that made Russia superior to the West.

Nicholas attempted to rule Russia according to these principles. He oversaw the construction of two major Orthodox cathedrals that symbolized Russia and its religionSt. Isaac's in St. Petersburg (begun in 1768 and finished under Nicholas) and Christ the Savior in Moscow (Nicholas laid the cornerstone in 1837 but it was not finished until 1883). He dedicated the Alexander column on Palace Square to his brother in 1834 and a statue to his father, Paul I, in 1851. Nicholas also held countless parades and drills in the capital that included his sons, another demonstration of the might and timelessness of the Russian autocracy. Finally, Nicholas cultivated national themes in performances and festivals held throughout his empire. Most prominently, Mikhail Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (1836) became the national opera, while General Alexander Lvov and Vasily Zhukovsky's "God Save the Tsar" became Russia's first national anthem in 1833.

Nicholas also dealt with two other areas of Russian society. The first involved local government and ruling over such a vast country, long a problem for Russian monarchs. Nicholas oversaw a reform in the local government in 1837 that granted more power to the governors. More importantly, Nicholas expanded the Russian bureaucracies and training for the civil service. The Nicholaevan system thus became synonymous with bureaucrats, as the writings of Nikolai Gogol brilliantly depict.

The second pressing concern was serfdom. Nicholas appointed a secret committee in 1835 that tackled the question of reform, and even abolition, of serfdom. Led by Paul Kiselev (17881872), the committee recommended abolition, but its conclusions were not implemented. Instead, Nicholas declared serfdom an evil but emancipation even more problematic. He had Kiselev head a Fifth Section of the Chancery in 1836 and charged him with improving farming methods and local conditions. Finally, Nicholas passed a law in 1842 that allowed serf owners to transform their serfs into "obligated peasants." Few did so, and while continued committees recommended abolition, Nicholas halted short of freeing Russia's serfs. By 1848, therefore, Nicholas had established a system of government associated with Official Nationality, order, and might.

war, 1848, and the crimean debacle

Nicholas defined himself and his system as a militaristic one, and the first few years of his rule also witnessed his consolidation of power through force. He continued the wars in the Caucasus begun by Alexander I, and consolidated Russian power in Transcaucasia by defeating the Persians in 1828. Russia also fought the Ottoman Empire in 18281829 over the rights of Christian subjects in Turkey and disagreements over territories between the two empires. Although the fighting produced mixed results, Russia considered itself a victor and gained concessions. One year later, in 1830, a revolt broke out in Poland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. The revolt spread from Warsaw to the western provinces of Russia, and Nicholas sent in troops to crush it in 1831. With the rebellion over, Nicholas announced the Organic Statute of 1832, which increased Russian control over Polish affairs. The Polish revolt brought back memories of 1825 for Nicholas, who responded by pushing further Russification programs throughout his empire. Order reigned, but nationalist reactions in Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere would ensure problems for future Russian rulers.

Nicholas also presided over increasingly oppressive measures directed at any forms of perceived opposition to his rule. Russian culture began to flourish in the decade between 1838 and 1848, as writers from Mikhail Lermontov to Nikolai Gogol and critics such as Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen burst onto the Russian cultural scene. Eventually, as their writings increasingly criticized the Nicholaevan system, the tsar cracked down, and his Third Section arrested numerous intellectuals. Nicholas's reputation as the quintessential autocrat developed from these policies, which reached an apex in 1848. When revolutions broke out across Europe, Nicholas was convinced that they were a threat to the existence of his system. He sent Russian troops to crush rebellions in Moldavia and Wallachia in 1848 and to support Austrian rights in Lombardy and Hungary in 1849. At home, Nicholas oversaw further censorship and repressions of universities. By 1850, he had earned his reputation as the Gendarme of Europe.

In 1853, Nicholas's belief in the might of his army set off a disaster for his country. He provoked a war with the Ottoman Empire over continued disputes in the Holy Land that brought an unexpected response. Alarmed by Russia's aggressive policies, England and France joined the Ottoman Empire in declaring war. The resulting Crimean War led to a humiliating defeat and the exposure of Russian military weakness. The war also exposed the myths and ideas that guided Nicholaevan Russia. Nicholas did not live to see the final humiliation. He caught a cold in 1855 that grew serious, and he died on February 18. His dream of creating an ordered state for his son to inherit died with him.

Alexander Nikitenko, a former serf who worked as a censor in Nicholas's Russia, concluded: "The main shortcoming of the reign of Nicholas consisted in the fact that it was all a mistake." Contemporaries and historians have judged Nicholas just as harshly. From Alexander Herzen to the Marquis de Custine, the image of the tsar as tyrant circulated widely in Europe during Nicholas's rule. Russian and Western historians ever since have largely seen Nicholas as the most reactionary ruler of his era, and one Russian historian in the 1990s argued "it would be difficult to find a more odious figure in Russian history than Nicholas I." W. Bruce Lincoln, Nicholas's most recent American biographer (1978), argued that Nicholas in many ways helped to pave the way for more significant reforms by expanding the bureaucracies. Still, his conclusion serves as an ideal epitaph for Nicholas: He was the last absolute monarch to hold undivided power in Russia. His death brought the end of an era.

See also: alexander i; alexandra fedorovna; autocracy; crimean war; decembrist movement and rebellion; national policies, tsarist; uvarov, sergei semenovich


Curtiss, J. H. (1965). The Russian Army under Nicholas I, 18251855. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Custine, Astolphe, Marquis de. (2002). Letters From Russia. New York: New York Review of Books.

Gogol, Nikolai. (1995). Plays and Petersburg Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Herzen, Alexander. (1982). My Past and Thoughts. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kasputina, Tatiana. (1996). "Emperor Nicholas I, 1825-1855." In The Emperors and Empresses of Russia: Rediscovering the Romanovs, ed. Donald Raleigh. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. (1978). Nicholas I: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. (1982). In the Vanguard of Reform: Russia's Enlightened Bureaucrats, 18251861. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas. (1959). Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 18251855. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Whittaker, Cynthia. The Origins of Modern Russian Education: An Intellectual Biography of Count Sergei Uvarov, 17861855. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Wortman, Richard. (1995). Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, Vol. 1: From Peter the Great to the Death of Nicholas I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stephen M. Norris

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Nicholas I

Nicholas I

The Russian czar, statesman, and autocrat Nicholas I (1796-1855) reigned from 1825 to 1855. During his reign Russian 19th-century autocracy reached its greatest power.

The third son of Czar Paul I, Nicholas was tutored in political economy, government, constitutional law, jurisprudence, and public finance. He learned to speak Russian, French, German, and English, and he studied Greek and Latin. Nicholas showed great aptitude for the science of warfare, especially military engineering, and became an expert drillmaster. His education ended in the middle of 1813. In 1814 Nicholas joined the army, for which he retained a strong affection throughout his life. On July 1, 1817, he married Charlotte of Prussia, daughter of King Frederick William III. Nicholas took no part in the administration of public affairs during the reign of his brother Alexander I. He was put in charge of a brigade of the guards and was inspector general of army engineers.

Paul I's second son had renounced his right to the throne, and on Alexander's death in 1825 Nicholas became czar. But the confusion over the succession led to the Decembrist Rebellion of 1825. This uprising was a shock to Nicholas, for it involved the army, especially the guards, whom the Czar regarded as the backbone of the throne. Nicholas supervised the investigation of the conspiracy. He labeled the Decembrists "a handful of monsters." In spite of numerous secret committees and proposals, no significent reforms were enacted. The general attitude of Nicholas is pointed out by his remarks on the emancipation of serfs. "There is no doubt that serfdom, in its present form, is a flagrant evil which everyone realizes," Nicholas proclaimed in the state council on March 20, 1842, "yet to attempt to remedy it now would be, of course, an evil even more disastrous."

Nicholas's rigid conservatism, his fear of the masses, and his desire to preserve autocracy and to protect the interests of the nobility hindered reforms. Thus, his regime became a dictatorship.

Nicholas's conservative views determined Russian foreign policy, over which he exercised personal control. His opposition to the principle of national self-determination, which spread throughout Europe, caused him to come into conflict with every democratic and liberal movement in England and on the Continent. His aggressive and unpredictable foreign policy in Asia and the Near East annoyed the European powers and caused suspicion. His bloody suppression of the Polish insurrection of 1830-1831 and the destruction of Polish autonomy enhanced Nicholas's unpopularity.

Under Nicholas I the first railway between St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo (Pushkin), 17 miles long, was opened to the public in 1837. By the end of his reign Russia had 650 miles of railways. Some progress was also made with river shipping.

It is a paradox that during the absolutism of Nicholas I the golden age of Russian literature occurred. Of the authors whose work does not extend beyond the chronological limits of Nicholas's rule, the most prominent were Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermentov, Aleksei Koltsov, and Nikolai Gogol. In addition, intellectual movements emerged to debate the destiny and the contributions to civilization of Russia. The two best-known movements were the Westerners and the Slavophiles. The Westerners were primarily Russian humanitarians. They admired European science and wanted constitutional government, freedom of thought and of the press, and emancipation of the serfs.

Slavophilism of the 1840s was a romantic nationalism that praised Russian virtues as superior to those of the decadent West. The Orthodox Church, according to this movement, was the source of strength in the past and Russia's hope for the future. The Slavophiles criticized the Westernization of Peter the Great as an interruption in the harmonious course of Russian history.

Certainly, Nicholas's defeat in the Crimean War exposed the military and technological backwardness of Russia to the world. He was aware of the failure of his reign, and whatever illusions he might have cherished were dispelled by the Crimean War. He died in St. Petersburg on March 2, 1855.

Further Reading

Two histories of the Romanov dynasty, both written for the general reader and based on solid scholarship, offer biographical information and a discussion of Nicholas I: John Bergamini, The Tragic Dynasty (1969), and Ian Grey, The Romanovs: The Rise and Fall of a Dynasty (1970). Alexander I. Herzen, My Past and Thoughts (6 vols., 1924-1927), is a classic autobiography and an unsurpassed source of information and insight into the life of the Russian intelligentsia in the reign of Nicholas I.

Both Sidney Monas, The Third Section: Police and Society in Russia under Nicholas I (1961), and P. S. Squire, The Third Department: The Establishment and Practices of the Political Police in the Russia of Nicholas I (1969), are studies of the foundation and development of the organization in which the czarist secret police received its classic embodiment in the first half of the 19th century. An outline of the ideology of the reign of Nicholas I and discussions of the personalities involved are in Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 1825-1855 (1959).

Recommended for general historical background are Alexander A. Kornilov, Modern Russian History from the Age of Catherine the Great to the End of the Nineteenth Century, translated by Alexander S. Kaun (1943), which gives an excellent picture of internal policies in the 19th century, and Michael T. Florinsky, Russia: A History and an Interpretation (1953), the most thorough narrative of prerevolutionary Russian history available in English. □

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Nicholas I (czar of Russia)

Nicholas I, 1796–1855, czar of Russia (1825–55), third son of Paul I. His brother and predecessor, Alexander I, died childless (1825). Constantine, Paul's second son, was next in succession but had secretly renounced (1822) the throne after marrying a Polish aristocrat. This secrecy resulted in confusion at Alexander's death and touched off the Decembrist uprising, a rebellion against Nicholas, which he crushed on the first day of his reign.

Nicholas strove to serve his country's best interests as he saw them, but his methods were dictatorial, paternalistic, and often inadequate. One important achievement, however, was the codification (1832–33) of existing Russian law. A few measures attempted to limit the landlords' powers over their serfs, and the condition of peasants belonging to the state was improved. Industry progressed somewhat; the first Russian railroad was completed in 1838. Efforts were made to stabilize the ruble and reduce the growing national debt.

The motto "autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality," expressing the principles applied to a new system of education, was also used by Nicholas in suppressing liberal thought, controlling the universities, increasing censorship, persecuting religious and national minorities, and strengthening the secret police. Intellectual life was in ferment, the revolutionary movement took form, and the two schools of thought held by Slavophiles and Westernizers emerged. With Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol a golden age in literature began.

Under Nicholas, Russia gained control of part of Armenia and the Caspian Sea after a war with Persia (1826–28). A war with the Ottoman Empire (1828–29; see Russo-Turkish Wars) gave Russia the eastern coast of the Black Sea and the mouth of the Danube. Nicholas brutally suppressed the uprising (1830–31) in Poland and abrogated the Polish constitution and Polish autonomy. In 1849 he helped Austria crush the revolution in Hungary. His attempts to dominate the Ottoman Empire led to the disastrous Crimean War (1853–56). He was succeeded by his son Alexander II.

See biographies by B. W. Lincoln (1978) and A. E. Presniakov (1978); P. Kurth, Tsar (1995).

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Nicholas I (king of Montenegro)

Nicholas I, 1841–1921, prince (1860–1910) and king (1910–18) of Montenegro, successor of his uncle, Danilo II. In 1862, after a series of frontier incidents, Nicholas was forced into war with the Ottoman Empire. Despite heroic resistance he had to conclude an unfavorable peace. He then reorganized his army. Although he rivaled Serbia for leadership of the South Slavs, in 1876 he allied himself with Serbia, intervened in favor of the rebels in Bosnia and Herzegovina, declared war on the Ottomans, and waged a successful campaign in Herzegovina. Russia's entrance (1877) into the war assured him of success. The Treaty of San Stefano (1878) trebled the size of Montenegro; the final boundaries adopted at the Congress of Berlin reduced the Montenegrin gains but gave access to the Adriatic Sea. Montenegro was recognized as fully independent, and, in 1910, Nicholas proclaimed himself king. He sided with Serbia in World War I but sought (1915) a separate peace with the Central Powers after his troops had been routed. When Montenegro was occupied by Austrian troops, he fled the country. In exile, he resisted the proposed union of Montenegro with Serbia under a Serbian king and as a result was deposed (1918) by a national assembly, which proclaimed the union. Nicholas succeeded in marrying his five daughters into the ruling houses of Europe, including those of Italy, Russia, and Serbia.

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Nicholas I

Nicholas I (1796–1855) Tsar of Russia (1825–55). As tsar, he was immediately confronted by the Decembrist revolt, during which a secret society of officers and aristocrats assembled some 3000 troops in St Petersburg, demanding a representative democracy. Having crushed the rebels, Nicholas ruthlessly suppressed rebellion in Poland and assisted Austria against the Hungarian Revolutions of 1848. His pressure on Turkey led to the Crimean War (1853–56).

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