Nicholas I

Nicholas I, emperor of Russia, son of Paul I and Maria Fyodorovna, brother of Alexander I, husband of Princess Fredericke Luise Charlotte Wilhelmine of Prussia, father of Alexander II, suppressed the Decembrist Revolt in 1825 and died during the Crimean War
Born: 1796, Tsarskoe Selo
Died: 1855, St Petersburg

Nicholas I was the ninth child and third son of Paul I and Maria Fyodorovna. He was born in Tsarskoe Selo on 25 June 1796 and baptised on 6 July 1796 with his brother Alexander and sister Alexandra as godparents.

Nicholas was born in the last year of the reign of Catherine the Great, less than five months before she died. The empress described her impressions of her third grandson: “He is two feet in length, with arms no shorter than mine and a deep bass voice. I have never seen such a cavalier. If he continues to grow, his brothers will be dwarves in comparison with this colossus. Although he has two elder brothers, I believe that he is destined to rule.”

As a boy, Nicholas was rude and mischievous. The only member of the family that he would listen to was his mother, to whom he was very close. He was educated first by a Scottish nanny, Jane Lyon, and then by General Gustav Matthias Jakob von Lambsdorff. The general was not particularly intellectual and used traditional teaching methods. His best way of getting his point across was to rap his pupil across the knuckles with a ruler or a ramrod.

Lacking a broad mind and an inquiring intellect, Nicholas did not enjoy being educated. Later in life, he recalled how he had hated learning. Unlike his grandmother (Catherine II) or his brother (Alexander I), he did not like books. The young prince only brightened up when his lessons came to an end and he was allowed to don a military uniform and engage in war games.

From an early age, Nicholas fell in love with army life, conceiving an acute passion for marching, drilling and other military exercises. There was nothing he enjoyed more than taking part in manoeuvres at Krasnoe Selo or parades on the Field of Mars. Practical and realistic, he worked eighteen hours a day, amazing contemporaries with his stamina.

Like many great commanders of the past, Nicholas led a spartan lifestyle. He slept on an iron camp bed under an army overcoat and ate simple food. Such personality traits as a love of order and discipline betray the soldier in Nicholas. Although he could be harsh with his subordinates, he always tried to be fair. As a result, the future emperor was respected, rather than liked.

But Nicholas was more than just a limited man married to the army. He was an excellent draughtsman and, like another famous military commander, Frederick the Great, played well on the flute. He enjoyed attending the opera and ballet, danced well at court balls, cracked jokes, collected paintings, liked the company of women and was only a moderate drinker.

Tall and handsome, with a classical face, Nicholas was stately and imposing. A contemporary wrote that he was “more German than Slav.” This was not surprising as, by this time, the Romanovs were only Russian in name. The Slav blood in the Romanov veins was further diluted in 1817, when another German princess joined the imperial family. Nicholas married the daughter of King Frederick William III of Prussia, Princess Fredericke Luise Charlotte Wilhelmine, who had converted to Orthodoxy as Alexandra Fyodorovna.

Their first child was a boy, who was born in 1818. Nicholas hoped that everything in his family would be just like his parents’ marriage, so he called his eldest son Alexander. These plans faltered in 1819, when a girl was born. She was called Maria and succeeded by two more girls, Olga in 1822 and Alexandra in 1825. Only then did a series of boys appear, named in strict accordance with the family of Paul I – Konstantin in 1827, Nikolai in 1831 and Mikhail in 1832.

Nicholas enjoyed interacting and playing with boys and girls, often allowing them much unwarranted freedom. A pupil of the Gatchina Orphans Institute remembered the day that they were visited by the tsar, who delighted all the children with his good humour. Once it was time to go, he let the noisy crowd of laughing children carry him out to the entrance in their arms. When he was getting in his sledge, one of the boys even pinched the emperor on the behind, but Nicholas only wagged a finger at him.

As he was not expected to inherit the throne, Nicholas was appointed colonel of one of the guards regiments and later promoted to inspector general of the engineers in 1817, commander of a guards brigade in 1818 and head of a division in 1825. But all this changed when Alexander I unexpectedly died in the southern port of Taganrog on 19 November 1825.

On 27 November 1825, Nicholas led the rest of St Petersburg in swearing allegiance to his elder brother Konstantin, who was living in Warsaw. To everyone’s surprise, Konstantin made public a letter written to Alexander I on 14 January 1822, renouncing his rights to the throne. As a result, Alexander had signed a secret manifesto on 16 August 1823, naming Nicholas as his successor. When the confusion was finally cleared up, the whole country prepared to take a second oath to the correct tsar on 14 December 1825.

A group of officers saw the temporary interregnum as their chance to stage an armed uprising and radically change the existing order in Russia. Their plan was to forcibly prevent the Senate and army from taking the oath to the new emperor. While the throne was still vacant, they would arrest or kill Nicholas and replace the monarchy with a provisional government, which would issue a constitution and hold free and democratic elections to a popular assembly.

Nicholas learnt of the plot on 10 December, but refused to postpone the swearing of the oath. At seven o’clock in the morning of 14 December, he gathered his generals and regimental commanders at the Winter Palace. His main ally was his closest friend, Count Alexander von Benckendorff, infantry general and head of the guards corps. Taking him aside, the tsar whispered: “We might not be alive tonight, but at least we will have died fulfilling our duty.”

The events of 14 December became known as the Decembrist Revolt. At eleven o’clock, thirty officers led 3,000 men from the Moscow and Grenadiers Regiments and the Garde Équipage onto Senate Square. Nicholas appeared in person and surrounded the rebels with 12,000 loyal troops. After a stand-off lasting several hours, the tsar ordered his artillery to open fire. In the ensuing battle, the rebels were defeated and a total of 1,271 people were killed.

Nicholas’s behaviour in 1825 was not the only example of his personal bravery. On 23 June 1831, during cholera riots in St Petersburg, he went out alone to an angry crowd of several thousand people, demanding an immediate end to the disorders. He was equally courageous when the Winter Palace caught fire in December 1837, helping to put out the flames and save the palace property.

Nicholas was crowned in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow on 22 August 1826. This was followed by a second Polish coronation in Warsaw on 12 May 1829. Ascending the throne at the age of twenty-nine, the tsar began his reign full of uncertainty and doubts. He worried about the future of Russia just as much as the Decembrists, whose uprising he had brutally suppressed. But while acutely aware of his responsibilities and genuinely desiring the best for the nation, he only vaguely understood the task that lay ahead.

Nicholas had not been brought up as a future emperor. His elder brother had more rights to the throne and, like Alexander I, was much older than he was (Konstantin was seventeen years his senior, old enough to be his father). The fate of Nicholas I was, in many ways, no less tragic than that of the previous tsar. Alexander I had genuinely wanted to pass important domestic reforms, but was unable to overcome conservative public opinion and the absence of any political forces which might have supported his initiatives. The new tsar faced the exact same problems.

Nicholas was traumatised by the inauspicious start to his reign. In his very first days as emperor, he told the French ambassador: “I am beginning my reign, I reiterate, under an unhappy omen and with terrible obligations. But I will succeed in fulfilling them. I will show mercy, much mercy, some will even say too much mercy, yet there will be no pity on the ringleaders and instigators of this plot... I will be inexorable, as I am obliged to teach Russia and Europe a lesson. But, I repeat, it breaks my heart to constantly see, before my eyes, the terrible sight that took place on the day of my accession to the throne.”

On 17 December 1825, Nicholas launched an official investigation into the uprising, which published its report on 30 May 1826. Two days later, the prisoners were handed over to a special criminal court to be sentenced. On 13 July 1826, five of the ringleaders – Pavel Pestel, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Pyotr Kakhovsky – were executed by hanging at the Kronwerk of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Around 120 others were exiled to Siberia or sentenced to hard labour. The troops who had joined the rebellion were flogged and sent to fight in the Caucasus.

Passing sentence on the Decembrists, Nicholas announced: “We have given the criminals a just punishment and purged the fatherland of the consequences of the infection that has festered for so many years in its midst.” But the emperor went on to promise that conditions in Russia would be improved, only “not because of impudent dreaming, which is always destructive,” but because there was a clear need for change, through gradual government reforms and “perfection of the national institutions.”

The Decembrists hoped that their views and dreams would one day be implemented by the tsar and, therefore, be of benefit to the nation. This is exactly what happened – or, at least, almost happened. After the trial and execution of the ringleaders, Nicholas ordered a digest of their testimony and opinions to be compiled, to give him a better insight into the state of the nation and how to overcome domestic problems. But although this document lay on his desk and was often consulted, the emperor never managed to pass the reforms envisaged by Decembrists.

Nicholas formed numerous secret committees to discuss and implement change, but always shelved their projects, filing them away for some later date. While understanding the need for reforms, the tsar feared shaking the foundations of the empire, which he felt duty bound to pass on to his descendants as he had inherited it from those before him. Convinced that the strength of the empire lay in the power of the autocracy, the army and serfdom, he lacked the heart and political will to overhaul these institutions.

There were other obstacles to reforms. The tsar’s immediate family, whose views were a major influence on his actions and policies, was extremely conservative. There were no statesmen who might have prodded Nicholas into passing reforms. His officials were, if anything, even more conservative than he was, opposing the most modest proposals for change.

Nicholas was himself partly to blame for this situation. Strong-willed and authoritarian, the emperor did not stand for any objections or doubts. As a result, he found himself surrounded by people who were capable and hard-working, but above all obedient and submissive. This led to a cult of lies, sycophancy and hypocrisy.

Distrusting the bureaucratic apparatus, Nicholas extended the powers of his own chancellery, which controlled the main branches of the administration, replacing the higher state organs. In 1826, he founded the Special Corps of Gendarmes, which was modelled on the French military police and headed by Count Alexander von Benckendorff. Aided by a large network of informers and agents up and down the country, the blue-uniformed gendarmes investigated criminals and collected information on the mood of the towns and villages.

Count von Benckendorff was also appointed the head of the secret police, otherwise known as the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery. He was responsible for such delicate tasks as acting as intermediary between the tsar and Alexander Pushkin (their extensive correspondence still survives). Between 1826 and 1829, Benckendorff kept the poet under close surveillance at the personal request of the emperor.

Nicholas’s slogan was Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality. His reign marked the heyday of absolute monarchy in Russia. Non-Russian nationalities were subjected to an intense policy of russification and christianisation. The Old Believers were persecuted, censorship was increased, the nobility was given priority over all other classes. Almost the entire state budget was spent on the bureaucracy and army.

In his foreign policy, Nicholas believed in the Concert of Europe, a system established after the Congress of Vienna, whereby the great powers would work together to stamp out any revolutionary upheavals or threats to peace. This earned him the label of the “gendarme of Europe.” The tsar crushed the November Uprising in Poland and sent a Russian army into Hungary to put down the revolutionary war for independence from Austria in 1849.

While Russia’s supremacy was firmly established in Europe after 1814, Asia was a different matter. Russian expansion into the Caucasus led to wars with Persia in 1826 and the Ottoman Empire in 1828. After defeating these two foreign powers, the tsar then had to quell the Muslim hill tribes in his own domains, when they united against the Russian army in the Caucasian War.

In 1828, when Nicholas was fighting against the Turks in the Balkans, he almost fell into enemy hands. After setting sail from the Bulgarian port of Varna to Odessa on 2 October 1828, his battleship, Empress Maria, was caught in a storm and carried towards the Turkish coast. Fortunately, the wind changed and the ship made it safely to Odessa.

As the Ottoman Empire continued to decline in the first half of the nineteenth century, the other European powers competed for control of the Middle East. In June 1853, Russia broke off diplomatic relations with the Porte and occupied the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. On 30 November 1853, Admiral Pavel Nakhimov destroyed the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinop.

But Nicholas badly misjudged the situation. Fearing that Russia was on the point of capturing Constantinople and the strategically important Straits, Great Britain and France joined forces and declared war in March 1854. They sent their navies to the Black Sea to defend the Turks and besieged the Russian port of Sebastopole. This conflict became known as the Crimean War.

In August 1854, the war unexpectedly reached the very gates of St Petersburg. From Belvedere and other elevations around Peterhof, Nicholas could see British and French warships blockading Kronstadt. The presence of the enemy fleet on the horizon was a bitter blow to the great autocrat, who had once struck fear into the rest of Europe. Now, his enemies seemed to be laughing at him.

The siege of Kronstadt symbolised the ignominious failure of the tsar’s reactionary policies. On 22 August 1854, Anna Tyutcheva observed Nicholas at a service in the Gothic Chapel: “Standing close by him at church, I was amazed at the enormous change that he has recently undergone. His appearance was downcast; the sufferings have left his face in wrinkles.”

Tired and humiliated, the proud emperor could not bear the thought of defeat and died in the Winter Palace on 18 February 1855. Although Nicholas officially died of pneumonia, there were rumours that he was poisoned or committed suicide. He was buried in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on 5 March 1855.

Random articles