1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nicholas I.

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13523691911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 19 — Nicholas I.Walter Alison Phillips

NICHOLAS I. [Nikolai Pavlovich], emperor of Russia (1796–1855), eighth child of the emperor Paul I. and his wife Maria Feodorovna, was born at Tsarskoe-Selo on the 25th of June (July 6, N.S.) 1796. He was only five years old when his father’s murder brought his brother Alexander I. to the throne (1801). In the following year his education was entrusted to M. von Lambsdorff, director of the 1st cadet corps and ex-governor of Courland, a man of character and wide knowledge, who superintended it for the next fifteen years. But Nicholas had as little taste for learning as his brother Constantine. The royal pupils spent their lesson hours, as Nicholas afterwards confessed, “partly in dreaming, partly in drawing all sorts of nonsense,” in the end “cramming” just enough to scrape through their examinations without discredit. Their chief bent was in the direction of everything connected with military matters. Religious training was confined to instruction in the forms of the Orthodox Church and the repetition of prayers by rote; dogmatic questions Nicholas neither understood nor cared about; and, in spite of his reverence for his brother Alexander, the latter’s mysticism had not the faintest influence upon him.

Though a colonel in his cradle and a general since 1808, the grand-duke Nicholas did not see any active service until 1814, when he was allowed to join the Russian head-quarters in France but not to take part in any fighting. It is characteristic of him that from this time onwards he never wore civilian dress. In 1815 he was with the Allies in Paris, and in the following year set out on the grand tour, visiting Moscow and the western provinces of Russia, Berlin (where his engagement to Princess Charlotte Louise, daughter of Frederick William III., was arranged) and England, where his handsome presence and charming address created a profound impression.[1] On the 1/13th of July 1817 took place at St Petersburg his marriage to Princess Charlotte (Alexandra Feodorovna), the beginning of those intimate relations between the courts of Berlin and St Petersburg which were later to become of great international importance. On the 17/29th of April 1818 their first child, the future emperor Alexander II., was born. In the autumn Nicholas was placed in command of the 2nd brigade of the 1st division of the Guard. In 1819 the emperor Alexander first mentioned his intention to abdicate in favour of Nicholas, Constantine consenting to stand aside; but he took no steps to initiate his prospective heir in affairs of state, and the grand-duke continued to be confined to his military duties. In 1820 a further important step in the matter of the succession was taken in the divorce of Constantine from the grand-duchess Anne and his re-marriage to Johanna Grudzinska (see Constantine Pavlovich). In January 1822 it was decided in a family council, with the knowledge though not in the presence of Nicholas, that Constantine’s petition to be relieved of the burden of the crown, for which he felt himself unfitted, should be granted. It was not, however, until August 1823 that the emperor drew up the necessary papers, in the presence of the metropolitan Philaret and other witnesses, and deposited them in sealed packets, to be opened at his death, with the council of state, the senate and the holy synod. For some reason, which can only be conjectured, Constantine was not made a party to this proceeding.

Alexander I. died at Taganrog on the 1st of December 1825. When, some days later, the news reached St Petersburg, all was confusion and uncertainty. Constantine was at Warsaw; Nicholas, who on the 3rd of May of the same year had become chief of the 2nd division of the infantry of the Guard, was too conscious of his unpopularity in the army—the fruit of his drastic discipline—to dare to assume the crown without a public abdication on the part of the legitimate heir. No steps were taken to open the sealed packets, and he himself took the oath to Constantine, and, with characteristic contempt for constitutional forms, usurped the functions of the senate and council of state by himself ordering its imposition on the regiments stationed in St Petersburg. But Constantine refused to come to St Petersburg, or to do more than himself take the oath to Nicholas as emperor, and write assuring him of his loyalty. The result was a three weeks’ interregnum, of which the discontented spirits in the army took advantage to bring to a head a plot that had long been hatching in favour of constitutional reform. When on the 14th of December the troops who had already taken the oath to Constantine were ordered to take another to Nicholas it was easy to persuade them that this was a treasonable plot against the true emperor. The Moscow regiment refused to take the oath, and part of it marched, shouting for Constantine and “Constitution,”[2] to the square before the Senate House, where they were joined by a company of the Guard and the sailors from the warships. In this crisis Nicholas showed high personal courage, if little decision and initiative. It was entirely uncertain how many, and Which, regiments could be trusted. For hours he stood, or sat on horseback, amid the surging crowd, facing the mutinous soldiers—who had loaded their muskets and formed square—while effort after effort was made to bring them to reason, sometimes at the cost of life—as in the case of Count Miloradovich, military governor of St Petersburg, who was mortally wounded by a pistol shot while arguing with the mutineers. Nicholas was saved by the very belief of the conspirators in the universal sympathy of the army with their aims. Had the mutinous troops early in the day received the order to attack, they would have carried the waverers with them; but they hesitated to fire on comrades whom they expected to see march over to their side; and when at last the emperor had steeled his heart to use force, a few rounds of grape-shot sufficed to quell the mutiny. The chief conspirators—Prince Shchepin-Rostovski, Suthoff, Ryleyev, Prince Sergius Trubetskoi, Prince Obolenski and others—were arrested the same night and interrogated by the emperor in person. A special commission, consisting entirely of officers, was then set up; and before this, for five months, the prisoners were subjected to a rigorous inquisition.[3] It was soon clear that the Decabrist[4] rising was but one manifestation of a vast conspiracy permeating the whole army. A military rising on a large scale in the south was only averted by the news of the failure of the mutiny at St Petersburg; and at Moscow there were many arrests, including that of Colonel Paul Pestel, the chief of the revolutionary southern league. The prisoners were finally brought to trial before a supreme criminal court established by imperial ukaz on the 1st of June 1826; there were 121 of them and their trial had concluded by the 12th of June. Some were condemned to death, others to solitary confinement in fortresses, others to the Siberian mines and colonies. Of the latter many were accompanied by their wives, though the Russian law allows divorce in the case of such sentences; the emperor unwillingly allowed the devoted women to go, but decreed that any children born to them in Siberia would be illegitimate.

Firmly seated on his throne, Nicholas proceeded to fill up the gaps in his education by studying the condition of his empire. In spite of his reverence for his brother’s memory, he made a clean sweep of “the angel’s” Bible Society,[5] and other paraphernalia of official hypocrisy; as for Alexander’s projects of reform, the pitiful legacy of a life of unfulfilled purposes, these were reported upon by committees, considered and shelved. Nicholas too saw the need for reform; the Decabrist conspiracy had burnt that into his soul; but he had his own views as to the reform needed. The state was corrupt, disorganized; what was wanted was not more liberty but more discipline. So he put civil servants, professors and students into uniform, and for little offences had them marched to the guard-house; thought was disciplined by the censorship, the army by an unceasing round of parades and inspections. The one great gift of Nicholas I. to Russia, a gift which he really believed would be welcome because it would bring every subject into immediate contact with the throne, was—the secret police, the dreaded Third Section.[6]

The crowning fault of Nicholas was, however, that he would not delegate his authority; whom could he trust but himself? In this he resembled his contemporary the emperor Francis I. But Francis would “sleep upon” a difficult problem; Nicholas never slept. His constitution was of iron, his capacity for work prodigious; reviews and parades, receptions of deputations, visits to public institutions, then eight or nine hours in his cabinet reading and deciding on reports and despatches—such was his ordinary day’s work. Yet, in spite of all this, his activity could not but prove the narrow limits of autocratic power. Under the “Iron Tsar” the outward semblance of authority was perfectly maintained; but behind this imposing façade the whole structure of the Russian administrative system continued to rot and crumble. The process was even hastened; for the emperor’s stern discipline crushed out all independence of initiative and silenced all honest criticism. The secret police provided but a poor substitute for the assistance which an argus-eyed and articulate public opinion gives to the efficient working of a constitutional system; for the greatest of autocrats has but two eyes, and it is no difficult task to deceive him. Thus it came about that, as Professor Schiemann puts it, “Potemkin’s scenery was brought out again,” and Nicholas walked with conscious self-approval through a Russia seemingly well ordered, but in fact merely temporarily prepared for each stage of his progress.

War is the ultimate and sharpest test of the soundness of a state, and to this test Russia was submitted soon after the accession of Nicholas, who could not be blind to the revelations that resulted, though he drew the wrong moral. These revelations had, indeed, begun before the outbreak of the war with Turkey in 1828. The new tsar had devoted especial attention to the reform and reconstruction of the navy, which under Alexander I. had been suffered to decay. Yet the newly organized squadron which in 1827 set out on the cruise which ended at Navarino only reached Plymouth with difficulty, and there had to be completely refitted. The disastrous Balkan campaign of 1828 was an even more astounding revelation of corruption, disorganization and folly in high places; and the presence of the emperor did nothing to mitigate the attendant evils. He was indefatigable, in war as in peace, in parading and inspecting; the weary and starving soldiers were forced to turn out amid the marshes of the Dobrudscha as spick and span as on the parade grounds of St Petersburg; but he could do nothing to set order in the confusion of the commissariat, which caused the troops to die like flies of dysentery and scurvy; or to remedy the scandals of the hospitals, which inflicted on the wounded unspeakable sufferings. On the other hand, his presence was sufficient to hamper the initiative of Prince Wittgenstein, the nominal commander-in-chief; for Nicholas was constitutionally incapable of leaving him a free hand. This was one reason for the failure of the opening campaign.[7] Another was more creditable to the tsar’s heart than to his head; he turned from the sight of wounds and blood, and would not make up his mind to sanction operations which, at the cost of a few hundred lives, would have saved thousands who perished miserably of disease.[8]

These then were the leading principles which underlay Nicholas’s domestic and foreign policy from first to last: to discipline Russia, and by means of a disciplined Russia to discipline the world. So far as the latter task was concerned, he again sharply divided the issues which Alexander had confused. The mission of Russia in the West was, in accordance with the principles of the Holy Alliance as Nicholas interpreted them, to uphold the cause of legitimacy and autocracy against the Revolution; her mission in the East was, with or without the co-operation of “Europe,” to advance the cause of Orthodox Christianity, of which she was the natural protector, at the expense of the decaying Ottoman empire. The sympathy of Europe with the insurgent Greeks gave the tsar his opportunity. The duke of Wellington was sent to St Petersburg in 1826 to congratulate the new tsar on his accession and arrange a concert in the Eastern Question. The upshot proved the diplomatic value of Nicholas’s apparent sincerity of purpose and charm of manner; the “Iron Duke” was to the “Iron Tsar” as soft iron to steel; Great Britain, without efficient guarantees for the future, stood committed to the policy which ended in the destruction of the Ottoman sea-power at Navarino and the march of the Russians on Constantinople. By the treaty of Adrianople in 1829 Turkey seemed to become little better than a vassal state of the tsar, a relation intensified, after the first revolt of Mehemet Ali, by the treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi in 1833 (see Mehemet Ali). In the West, meanwhile, the revolutions of 1830 had modified the balance of forces. Nicholas himself proposed an armed intervention of the Alliance in order “to restore order” in Belgium and France;[9] and when his allies held back even proposed to intervene alone, a project rendered impossible by the outbreak of the great insurrection in Poland, which tied the hands of all three powers (see Poland: History). In the circumstances, Nicholas was forced to give a grudging recognition to the title of Louis Philippe as king of the French; his recognition of that of Leopold, king of the Belgians, was postponed until King William of the Netherlands had finally resigned his rights. Then, the insurrection in Poland once crushed, and Poland itself scarce surviving even as a geographical expression,[10] he drew the three eastern autocratic powers together in a new “Holy Alliance” by the secret convention of Berlin (3rd Oct. 1833) reaffirming the right and duty of intervention at the request of a legitimate sovereign. The cordial understanding with Austria, cemented at Münchengrätz and Berlin, was renewed, after the accession of the emperor Ferdinand, at Prague and Töplitz (1835); on the latter occasion it was decided “without difficulty” to suppress the republic of Cracow, as a centre of revolutionary agitation.[11] The Triple Alliance was now, in the tsar’s opinion, “the last anchor of safety for the monarchical cause.” To its maintenance he had sacrificed “his religious convictions” and “the traditions of Russian policy” in consenting to uphold the integrity of Turkey; a sacrifice perhaps the less hard to make since, as he added, the Ottoman empire no longer existed.[12] He allowed himself to be persuaded by Metternich to support the cause of Don Carlos in Spain,[13] and so early as May 1837, in view of the agitation in Hungary, he announced that “in every case” Austria might count on Russia.

These cordial ties were loosened, however, by the fresh crisis in the Eastern Question after 1838. Metternich was anxious to summon a European conference to Vienna, with a view to placing Turkey under a collective guarantee. To Nicholas this seemed to be a blow aimed at Russia, and he refused to be a party to it.[14] Moreover, in view of the tendency of Austria to forget the conventions of Münchengrätz and Töplitz, and to approach the maritime powers, he determined to checkmate her by himself coming to an agreement with Great Britain, in order to settle the Eastern Question according to his own views: a double gain, if by this means Queen Victoria (a “legitimate” sovereign) could be drawn away from her unholy alliance with the Jacobin Louis Philippe. This is the explanation of those concessions in the Eastern Question which ended in the Quadruple Alliance of 1840 and the humiliation of Louis Philippe’s government (see Mehemet Ali).

The new Anglo-Russian entente led in 1844 to a visit of the tsar to the English court. This visit, in spite of the favourable personal impression made by the emperor, was the starting-point of a fresh and fateful divergence; for it was now that the tsar first openly raised the question of the eventual partition of the inheritance of the “Sick Man,” as he called Turkey. The whole question, however, was indefinitely postponed by the events culminating in the revolutions of 1848. Nicholas foresaw the troubles brewing, and warned Frederick William IV. of Prussia, in a tone of lofty and paternal remonstrance, of the inevitable results of his constitutional experiments. When the storm burst, he remained entrenched behind the barriers of his own disciplined empire; sovereigns truckling in a panic to insurgent democracies he would not lift a finger to help;[15] it was not till Francis Joseph of Austria in 1849 appealed to him in the name of autocracy, reasserting its rights, that he consented to intervene, and, true to the promise made at Münchengrätz in 1833, crushed the insurgent Hungarians and handed back their country as a free gift to the Habsburg king. Scarcely less valuable to Austria was the tsar’s intervention in the quarrel between Austria and Prussia arising out of the Hesse incident and the general question of the hegemony of Germany. In October 1850 he had a meeting with Francis Joseph at Warsaw, at which Count Brandenburg and Prince Schwarzenberg were present. Prussia, he declared, must in the German question return to the basis of the treaties of 1815 and renew her entente with Austria; this was the only way of preserving the old friendship of Prussia and Russia. In face of the threat conveyed in this, the Prussian government decided to maintain peace (Nov. 2), Radowitz resigning as a protest. Thus Nicholas, who refused to believe in the perfidy ascribed by Frederick William to Austria,[16] was the immediate cause of Prussia’s humiliation at Olmütz.

Nicholas was soon to have personal experience of the perfidy of Austria. It was a small matter that Count Prokesch-Osten, the Austrian ambassador, was discovered to be supplying a “foul Jew” editor with copy; more serious was Austria’s attitude in the troubles that led up to the Crimean War. Gratitude, in the tsar’s opinion, should have made her neutral if not friendly; the revelation of her ingratitude came upon him with the shock of a painful surprise. The first cause of all the evils that followed was his attitude towards Napoleon III. He was forced to recognize the new French empire, but he would recognize no more than the fact of its existence (du fait en lui-même); he refused to address the emperor of the French as a brother sovereign. He attempted, moreover, to revive the function of the triple alliance as guardian of Europe against French aggression. The resentment of Napoleon awakened the slumbering Eastern Question by reviving the obsolescent claims of France to the guardianship of the Holy Places, and this aroused the pride of the Orthodox tsar, their guardian by right of faith and in virtue of a clause of the treaty of Kuchuk Kainardji (1774), as interpreted in the light of subsequent events. Nicholas could not believe that Christian powers would resent his claim to protect the Christian subjects of the sultan; he believed he could count on the friendship of Austria and Prussia; as for Great Britain, he would try to come to a frank understanding with her (hence the famous conversations with Sir Hamilton Seymour on the 9th and 14th of January 1853, reviving the “Sick Man” arguments of 1844), but in any case he had the assurance of Baron Brunnow, his ambassador in London, that the influence of Cobden and Bright, the eloquent apostles of peace, was enough to prevent her from appealing to arms against him.

The disillusionment that followed was profound. In October 1853 Nicholas met his brother monarchs of the triple alliance at Warsaw for the last time. In December, at the conference of Vienna, Austria had already passed over to the enemy. Prussia was wavering, neutral indeed, but joining the other powers in a guarantee of the integrity of Turkey (9th April 1854), urging the tsar to accept the decisions of the Vienna conference, and on his refusal signing a defensive alliance with Austria (April 20, 1854), which included among the casus belli the incorporation in Russia of the banks of the Danube and a Russian march on Constantinople. Thus Nicholas, the pillar of the European alliance, found himself isolated and at war, or potentially at war, with all Europe. The invasion of the Crimea followed, and with it a fresh revelation of the corruption and demoralization of the Russian system. At the outset Nicholas had grimly remarked that “Generals January and February” would prove his best allies. These acted, however, impartially; and if thousands of British and French soldiers perished of cold and disease in the trenches before Sevastopol, the tracks leading from the centre of Russia into the Crimea were marked by the bones of Russian dead. The revelation of his failure broke the spirit of the Iron Tsar, and on the 2nd of March 1855 he threw away the life which a little ordinary care would have saved.

The character of the emperor Nicholas was summed up with great insight by Queen Victoria in a letter to the king of the Belgians, written during the tsar’s visit to England (June 11, 1844). “He is stern and severe—with fixed principles of duty which nothing on earth will make him change; very clever I do not think him, and his mind is an uncivilized one; his education has been neglected; politics and military concerns are the only things he takes great interest in; the arts and all softer occupations he is insensible to, but he is sincere, I am certain, sincere even in his most despotic acts, from a sense that that is the only way to govern; he is not, I am sure, aware of the dreadful cases of individual misery which he so often causes, for I can see by various instances that he is kept in utter ignorance of many things, which his people carry out in most corrupt ways, while he thinks that he is extremely just . . . and I am sure much never reaches his ears, and (as you observed) how can it? He is, I should say, too frank, for he talks so openly before people, which he should not do, and with difficulty restrains himself. His anxiety to be believed is very great, and I must say his personal promises I am inclined to believe; then his feelings are very strong; he feels kindness deeply. . . . He is not happy, and that melancholy which is visible in the countenance made me sad at times; the sternness of the eyes goes very much off when you know him, and changes according to his being put out or not. . . . He is bald now, but in his chevalier Garde uniform he is magnificent still, and very striking.”

The emperor was a kind husband and father, and his domestic life was very happy. He had seven children: (1) the emperor Alexander II. (q.v.); (2) the grand-duchess Maria (1819–1876), duchess of Leuchtenberg; (3) the grand-duchess Olga (1822–1892), consort of King Charles of Württemberg; (4) the grand-duchess Alexandra (1825–1844), married to Prince Frederick of Hesse-Cassel; (5) the grand-duke Constantine Nikolayevich (1827–1892); (6) the grand-duke Nicholas Nikolayevich (1831–1891); (7) the grand-duke Michael Nikolayevich (b. 1832). The second son of the latter, the grand-duke Michael Mikhailovich (b. 1861), who was morganatically married, his wife bearing the title of Countess Torby, took up his residence in England.

Authorities.—All other works on Nicholas I. have been more or less superseded by Professor Theodor Schiemann’s Geschichte Russlands unter Kaiser Nikolaus I., of which the 1st vol., Kaiser Alexander I. und die Ergebnisse seiner Lebensarbeit, was published at Berlin in 1904; the 2nd, carrying the history of Nicholas’s reign down to the revolutions of 1830, in 1908. It is based on a large mass of unpublished material, and considerably modifies, e.g. the account of the accession of Nicholas and of the Decabrist conspiracy given in chapter xiii. of vol. x. of the Cambridge Modern History, and tells for the first time the secret history of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29. The great Recueil des traités conclus par la Russie of T. T. de Martens (St Petersburg, 1874–1909) contains admirable introductory essays, based on the unpublished Russian archives, and giving much material for the study of Nicholas’s character and policy. Many documents are published for the first time in Schiemann’s work; some, from the archives of Count Nesselrode, are published in the Lettres et papiers du Chancelier Comte de Nesselrode, t. vi. seq. For other works see bibliographies attached to the chapters on Russia in vol. x. and xi. of the Cambridge Modern History.  (W. A. P.) 

  1. See Stockmar, Denkwürdigkeiten (Brunswick, 1872), p. 98 seq.; and, for a later impression, Queen Victoria to the king of the Belgians, 4th of June 1844, in Queen Victoria’s Letters.
  2. They had been told that this was the name of Constantine’s wife.
  3. The prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in the casemates of the inner fortress of St Peter and St Paul. They were brought blindfolded before the commission, and then suddenly confronted with their interrogators. Many went mad under the ordeal, one died, and one starved himself to death (Schiemann, ii. 73).
  4. From Russ. Dekabr, December.
  5. “The Holy Scriptures distributed with an absurd profusion in a country where the clergy itself is hardly able to understand and explain them” had been the “prime source of all the secret societies established in the empire.” Pièce remise par S.M. l’Empereur Nicolas, in Nesselrode vi. 275.
  6. I.e. of the Private Chancery of the emperor.
  7. Nicholas remained in Russia in 1829, and Diabitsch had a free hand.
  8. He once sentenced an unhappy Jew to run the gauntlet of 10,000 strokes, exclaiming as he signed the warrant, “Thank God, we have no capital punishment in Russia!” Yet his nature had its kindly side: “He feels kindness deeply—and his love for his wife and children, and for all children, is very great” (Queen Victoria, loc. cit). He also spent much personal effort in organizing the charitable institutions of the dowager empress Maria, and founded a great number of institutions for technical education.
  9. Martens, Recueil, viii. 164, &c., especially the autograph mem. of the tsar on the situation (p. 168): “But apart from honour, is it to our interest to consent to this fresh iniquity? . . . . Even if France invade Austria, Prussia says she will give her moral support! Is that—Great God!—the alliance created by the immortal emperor? . . . . Let us preserve the sacred fire for the moment of the struggle with the infernal powers!”
  10. Nicholas himself ascribed his hatred of Poles and Jews to the stories told him by his English nurse, Miss Lyon, of her sufferings during the siege of Warsaw in 1794.—Schiemann, i. 181.
  11. This convention was not acted upon till 1846.
  12. Conversation with Count Ficquelmont (Feb. 13, 1833) in Martens Recueil, iv. pt. i. p. 443.
  13. Ib. p. 475.
  14. Ib. p. 481.
  15. “Russia cannot aid a power which has abjured its traditions and is under the empire of revolutionary institutions.”—Nicholas to Frederick William IV., Sept. 26, 1848. Martens, Recueil, viii. 376.
  16. See Frederick William’s letter to the tsar (Nov. 4) and the latter’s reply. Martens, viii. 384, 386.