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The Modern Era

1789 - 1914

In Europe, the revolutionary transformation of the ruling systems and state structures began with a bang: In 1789 the French Revolution broke out in Paris, and its motto "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite"—Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood—took on an irrepressible force. A fundamental reorganization of society followed the French Revolution. The ideas behind the revolution were manifest in Napoleon's Code Civil, which he imposed on many European nations. The 19th century also experienced a transformation of society from another source: The Industrial Revolution established within society a poorer working class that stood in opposition to the merchant and trading middle class. The nascent United States was shaken by an embittered civil war. The economic growth that set in following that war was accompanied by the development of imperialist endeavors and its rise to the status of a Great Power.



Liberty Leading the People,
allegory of the 1830 July revolution that deposed the French monarchy,
with Marianne as the personification of liberty,
contemporary painting by Eugene Delacroix.



see also:

PUSHKIN ALEXANDER "Eugene Onegin", "The Bronze Horseman"




Russia from the Treaty of Tilsit to the Abdication of the Last Czar



Russia remained isolated from many of the political and economic developments that transformed Western Europe in the 19th century. Domestically autocratic and with an economy long based on a semi-feudal agricultural system, Russia faced a growing gulf between the vast majority of the population and the high nobility. Although Russia conquered large territories, its failures in foreign affairs weakened  czarism. Tentative reform initiatives were always followed by periods of extreme reaction which forced moderate liberals toward radicalism. With the onset of industrialization urban workers joined radical intellectuals in the Revolution.


Expansionism, Poland, and the Decembrist Rebellion

1 Russia was able to expand its vast territory and Poland fought unsuccessfully to regain its independence. Young liberal army officers sought to bring about reform in a failed revolt.


1 Czars' residence: Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

The pact with Napoleon in the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 gave the Russian Czar 2 Alexander I the opportunity to expand his own empire.

2 Czar Alexander I Pavlovitch, portrait by Franz Kruger, 1812

Alexander I

emperor of Russia
Russian in full Aleksandr Pavlovich
born Dec. 23 [Dec. 12, old style], 1777, St. Petersburg, Russia
died Dec. 1 [Nov. 19, O.S.], 1825, Taganrog

emperor of Russia (1801–25), who alternately fought and befriended Napoleon I during the Napoleonic Wars but who ultimately (1813–15) helped form the coalition that defeated the emperor of the French. He took part in the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), drove for the establishment of the Holy Alliance (1815), and took part in the conferences that followed.

Early life.
Aleksandr Pavlovich was the first child of Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich (later Paul I) and Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna, a princess of Württemberg-Montbéliard. His grandmother, the reigning empress Catherine II (the Great), took him from his parents and raised him herself to prepare him to succeed her. She was determined to disinherit her own son, Pavel, who repelled her by his instability.

A friend and disciple of the philosophers of the French Enlightenment, Catherine invited Denis Diderot, the encyclopaedist, to become Alexander’s private tutor. When he declined, she chose Frédéric-César La Harpe, a Swiss citizen, a republican by conviction, and an excellent educator. He inspired deep affection in his pupil and permanently shaped his flexible and open mind.

As an adolescent, Alexander was allowed to visit his father at Gatchina, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, away from the court. There, Pavel had created a ridiculous little kingdom where he devoted himself to military exercises and parades. Alexander received his military training there under the direction of a tough and rigid officer, Aleksey Arakcheyev, who was faithfully attached to him and whom Alexander loved throughout his life.

Alexander’s education was not continued after he was 16, when his grandmother married him to Princess Louise of Baden-Durlach, who was 14, in 1793. The precocious marriage had been arranged to guarantee descendants to the Romanov dynasty, and it was unhappy from the beginning. The sweet and charming girl who became Yelisaveta Alekseyevna was loved by everyone except her husband.

Catherine had already written the manifesto that deprived her son of his rights and designated her grandson as the heir to the throne, when she died suddenly on Nov. 17 (Nov. 6, O.S.), 1796. Alexander, who knew of it, did not dare to disclose the manifesto, and Pavel became emperor.

Ascent to the throne.
Paul I’s reign was a dark period for Russia. The monarch’s tyrannical and bizarre behaviour led to a plot against him by certain nobles and military men, and he was assassinated during the night of March 23 (March 11, O.S.), 1801. Alexander became tsar the next day. The plotters had let him in on the secret, assuring him they would not kill his father but would only demand his abdication. Alexander believed them or, at least, wished to believe that all would go well.

After the darkness into which Paul had plunged Russia, Alexander appeared to his subjects as a radiant dawn. He was handsome, strong, pleasant, humane, and full of enthusiasm. He wanted his reign to be a happy one and dreamed of great and necessary reforms. With four friends, who were of noble families but motivated by liberal ideas—Prince Adam Czartoryski, Count Pavel Stroganov, Count Viktor Kochubey, and Nikolay Novosiltsev—he formed the Private Committee (Neglasny Komitet). Its avowed purpose was to frame “good laws, which are the source of the well-being of the Nation.”

Alexander and his close advisers corrected many of the injustices of the preceding reign and made many administrative improvements. Their principal achievement was the initiation of a vast plan for public education, which involved the formation of many schools of different types, institutions for training teachers, and the founding of three new universities. Nevertheless, despite the humanitarian ideas inculcated in him by La Harpe and despite his own wish to make his people happy, Alexander lacked the energy necessary to carry out the most urgent reform, the abolition of serfdom. The institution of serfdom was, in the Tsar’s own words, “a degradation” that kept Russia in a disastrously backward state. But to liberate the serfs, who composed three-quarters of the population, would arouse the hostility of their noble masters, who did not want to lose the slaves on whom their wealth and comfort depended. Serfdom was a continuing burden on the Russians. It prevented modernization of the country, which was at least a century behind the rest of Europe.

Out of a sincere desire to innovate, Alexander considered a constitution and “the limitation of the autocracy,” but he recoiled before the danger of imposing sudden change on a nobility that rejected it. Moreover, he was a visionary who could not transform his dreams into reality. Because of his unstable personality, he would become intoxicated by the notion of grand projects, while balking at carrying them out. Finally, the “Western” theoretical education of Alexander and his young friends had not prepared them for gaining a clear vision of the realities of Russian life.

Early foreign policy.
Displaying an astonishing inconstancy, Alexander abandoned his internal reforms to devote himself to foreign policy, to which he would commit the major portion of his reign. Sensitive to fluctuations in continental politics, he was a “European” who hoped for peace and unity. He felt that he was called to be a mediator, like his grandmother, who had been called the “Arbiter of Europe.”

As soon as he came to power, Alexander resealed an alliance with England that had been broken by Paul I. He nonetheless maintained good relations with France in the hope of “moderating” Bonaparte by restraining his spirit of conquest. A feeling of chivalry attached Alexander to the king of Prussia, Frederick William III, and to Queen Louisa, and a treaty of friendship was signed with Prussia. Later, he got on good terms with Austria. His idealism persuaded him that these alliances would lead to a European federation.

Napoleon had other ideas. His territorial encroachments, desire for world hegemony, and his coronation in 1804 as emperor forced Alexander to declare war against him. Assuming the role of commander in chief, he relied on the Austrian generals and scorned the counsel of the Russian general Prince Kutuzov, a shrewd strategist. The Russians and Austrians were defeated at Austerlitz, in Moravia, on Dec. 2, 1805, and the emperor Francis II was forced to sign the peace treaty, since his territory was occupied by the enemy. Russia remained intact behind its frontiers. Moreover, Napoleon wanted to spare the Tsar; he hoped to gain his friendship and to divide the world with him. Such a notion did not occur to Alexander, who wanted revenge.

In 1806 Napoleon defeated Prussia at Jena and Auerstädt. Despite the warnings of both his mother and his advisers, the Tsar rushed to the aid of his friend. The battles were fought in east Prussia. After a partial success at Eylau, the Russian Army, under General Bennigsen, was decimated at Friedland, on June 14, 1807. Then occurred the meeting (June 25) of the two emperors on a raft in the middle of the Niemen off Tilsit (now Sovetsk). The sequel of these events demonstrates that, in the course of the Tilsit interview, it was the Tsar of Russia who deceived the Emperor of the French. Seeking to gain time he used his charm to play the admiring friend. He accepted all the victor’s conditions, promising to break with England, to adhere to the Continental System set up by Napoleon to isolate and weaken Great Britain, and to recognize the creation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, formed from the part of Poland given to Prussia during the Partition of 1795. In “recompense” Napoleon gave Alexander liberty to expand at the expense of Sweden and Turkey.

From Tilsit to the 1812 invasion.
Most Russians were angered and humiliated by the Tilsit Alliance; they thought that breaking off trade with England would inevitably create a disastrous economic situation, but Alexander kept his plans secret and bided his time. He reorganized and strengthened his armies with the competent aid of Arakcheyev, the instructor from Gatchina who had become his indispensable colleague. Meanwhile, the monarch’s popularity dropped; all levels of the population accused him of having uselessly sacrificed Russian blood and of ruining the country.

Alexander once again turned his attention to internal reforms. He placed responsibility for them on a remarkable legal writer, Mikhail Mikhaylovich Speransky. Of modest origins, Speransky’s talent caused him to rise rapidly. He conceived a vast plan for total reorganization of Russian legal structures and authored a complete collection and a systematically coordinated digest of Russian laws. Only a very small part of his great plan was applied, for once again Alexander withdrew from any practical fulfillment, partly because foreign events distracted him from rebuilding his empire on new foundations.

Despite the strong Russian reaction against France, the Tsar again met Napoleon, at Erfurt in Saxony, in 1808, where he showed himself to have become distant from his Tilsit ally. When a new war broke out between France and Austria in 1809, Alexander, despite his commitments, did not intervene in Napoleon’s behalf, contenting himself with feigning a military advance. Napoleon reproached the Tsar for trading with England under cover of neutral vessels and for refusing him the hand of his sister, the grand duchess Anna Pavlovna. For his part Alexander tried in vain to obtain from Napoleon a commitment not to create an independent Kingdom of Poland. When Napoleon annexed the German territories on the Baltic, including the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, a fief of the Tsar’s brother-inlaw, Alexander protested against what he considered a personal offense.

All of this was a pretext for military preparations on both sides. A violent shift of opinion against Napoleon appeared in Russia. The hostility toward France among the court compelled Alexander to exile his legal adviser, Speransky, an admirer of Napoleon and his Code. Changing his opinions yet again, the Tsar adopted the reactionary ideas of a patriotic group dominated by his favourite sister, the grand duchess Yekaterina Pavlovna. He judged that, under the conditions then prevailing, Russia had best keep its traditional institutions.

The defeat of Napoleon.
Napoleon and his Grand Army of 600,000 men invaded Russia on June 24, 1812. The conflict that ensued was justly called the Patriotic War by the Russians; in it, the strong resistance and outstanding endurance of an entire people were displayed. The war transformed Alexander, suffusing him with energy and determination. The French advanced as rapidly as the Russians retreated, drawing them away from their bases. Napoleon thought that, once Moscow was taken, the Tsar would capitulate. But after the bloody Battle of Borodino, Napoleon entered a largely deserted Moscow, which was soon nearly destroyed by fire. The conqueror had to camp in a ruined city where he could not remain, and Alexander did not sue for peace. The Tsar, meanwhile, under pressure of public opinion, had named Kutuzov, whom he detested, supreme commander. The old warrior, through brilliant strategy and with the aid of heroic partisans, pursued the enemy and drove him from the country. The retreat from Russia, combined with Napoleon’s reverses in Spain, precipitated his downfall.

Alexander had declared, “Napoleon or I: from now on we cannot reign together!” He said that the burning of Moscow had “illuminated his soul.” He called Europe to arms, to rescue the people who had been enslaved by Napoleon’s conquests. His enthusiasm, perseverance, and steadfast determination to triumph aroused the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria, and the enheartened allies were victorious at Leipzig in October 1813. This “Battle of Nations” could have been decisive, but Alexander wanted no peace until he reached Paris. He entered Paris triumphantly in March 1814. Napoleon abdicated, and the Tsar reluctantly accepted the restoration of the Bourbons, for whom he had little esteem, and imposed a constitutional charter on the new ruler, Louis XVIII. Alexander showed his generosity toward France, alleviating its condition as a defeated country and protesting that he had made war on Napoleon and not on the French people.

He had become the most powerful sovereign in Europe and the arbiter of its destinies, as he had wished. He inspired the convening of the greatest international congress in history in Vienna, in the autumn of 1814. It was a time of sumptuous feasts and also of diplomatic intrigues and bitter quarrels. The Tsar’s allies, whom he had saved, now feared his power and opposed the annexation of Poland to Russia. It was his only claim in reward for what he had done, and he was determined to achieve it.

When Napoleon returned from his exile in Elba and regained the throne, the war resumed, ending with his final defeat by the allies at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Again the victorious sovereigns met in Paris to frame a peace treaty, and once again Alexander intervened on behalf of France.

The final decade.
This period marked a turning point for the Tsar. Since the invasion of his country, he had become religious; he read the Bible daily and prayed often. It was his frequent visits with the pietistic visionary Barbara Juliane Krüdener in Paris that turned him into a mystic. She considered herself a prophetess sent to the Tsar by God, and, if her personal influence was of brief duration, Alexander nevertheless retained his newly found evangelical fervour and came to profess a nondogmatic “universal religion” strongly influenced by Quaker and Moravian beliefs.

Alexander obtained Poland, set it up as a kingdom with himself as king, and gave it a constitution, declaring his attachment to “free institutions” and his desire to “extend them throughout all the countries dependent on him.” These words awakened great hopes in Russia, but, when the Tsar returned home after a long absence, he was no longer thinking of reform. He devoted his entire attention to the Russian Bible Society and to an unfortunate innovation, the military colonies, by which he attempted to settle soldiers and their families on the land so that they might enjoy more stable lives. These ill-conceived colonies brought great suffering to Russian soldiers and peasants alike.

After the Second Treaty of Paris, Alexander I, inspired by piety, formed the Holy Alliance, which was supposed to bring about a peace based on Christian love to the monarchs and peoples of Europe. It is possible to see in the alliance the beginnings of a European federation, but it would have been a federation with ecumenical, rather than political, foundations.

The idealistic Tsar’s vision came to a sad end, for the alliance became a league of monarchs against their peoples. Its members—following up the congress with additional meetings at Aix-la-Chapelle, Troppau, Laibach (Ljubljana), and Verona—revealed themselves as the champions of despotism and the defenders of an order maintained by arms. When a series of uprisings against despotic regimes in Italy and Spain broke out, the “holy allies” responded with bloody repression. Alexander himself was badly shaken by the mutiny of his Semyonovsky regiment and thought he detected the presence of revolutionary radicalism.

This marked the end of his liberal dreams, for, from then on, all revolt appeared to him as a rebellion against God. He shocked Russia by refusing to support the Greeks, his coreligionists, when they rose against Turkish tyranny, maintaining they were rebels like any others. The Austrian chancellor, Prince Metternich, to whom the Tsar abandoned the conduct of European affairs, shamelessly exploited Alexander’s state of mind.

After his return to Russia, he left everything in Arakcheyev’s hands. For Alexander, it was a period of lassitude, discouragement, and dark thoughts. For Russia, it was a period of reaction, obscurantism, and struggle against real and imagined subversion. Alexander thought he saw “the reign of Satan” everywhere. In opposition, secret societies spread, composed of young men, mostly from the military, who sought to regenerate and liberalize the country. Plots were made. Alexander was warned of them, but he refused to act decisively. His crown weighed heavily on him, and he did not hide from his family and close friends his desire to abdicate.

The Empress was ill, and Alexander decided to take her to Taganrog, on the Azov Sea. This dismal, windy townlet was a strange watering place. The royal pair, however, who had been so long estranged, enjoyed a calm happiness there. Soon after, during a tour of inspection in the Crimea, Alexander contracted pneumonia or malaria and died on his return to Taganrog.

The Tsar’s sudden death, his mysticism, and the bewilderment and the blunders of his entourage all went into the creation of the legend of his “departure” to a Siberian retreat. The refusal to open the Tsar’s coffin after his death has only served to deepen the mystery.

Daria Olivier

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Russia gained the Aland Islands and Finland from Sweden in 1809 and Bessarabia after the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-1812. In 1813 it seized Dagestan in a war with Persia; Czar Paul I had already occupied neighboring Georgia in 1801. After Napoleon had been defeated in his Russian campaign and definitively eliminated at the Battle of Waterloo, the 1815 Congress of Vienna also awarded Russia the major part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

Poland was not prepared to accept the foreign rule of the Russians.

Although it initially remained an independent kingdom, resistance—particularly the 3 November 1830 insurrection—was suppressed, and Poland lost its autonomy.

A further Polish uprising in 1863 was 4 crushed, and Russia completely dissolved the kingdom five years later.

Domestically, Alexander I initially introduced some liberal reforms, such as the reorganization of the government and education system. The Holy Alliance that Russia formed with Austria at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 for the purpose of preserving the monarchical order in Europe led to the czar's post-1820 restoration policy. In effect Russia became a bulwark against political radicalism in Europe, intervening to support regimes threatened by popular unrest. Within the Russian Empire, Alexander increased censorship and police powers.

3 Soldiers and citizens prepare for
the defense of the Polish capital,
Warsaw, against Russian attack
in 1830

4 The Polish Prometheus as personification of the
rebels, in the talons of the eagle, heraldic symbol
of czarist Russia




Decembrists at the Senate Square

Many Russian intellectuals were influenced by Western reform ideas and opposed an autocratic Russia. Some formed secret societies. Shortly after the death of Alexander I, a group of young liberal officers who wished to establish a constitutional monarchy organized a revolt in December 1825 in St. Petersburg.

Though their demands were moderate Nicholas was deeply alarmed by the events. The extreme reaction and harshness of his reign is often linked to the effect of this revolt on the young czar. Six hundred of the Decembrists were subsequently condemned, five executed, and more than too exiled.

Execution of Decembrists on board the Russian warship Grand Duke Vladimir

Medallion with the leaders of the Decembrist revolt:
Pestel, Ruilejev, Bestuchev, Muravjev, Kachovski





Russian history

Russian Dekabrist, Main
any of the Russian revolutionaries who led an unsuccessful uprising on Dec. 14 (Dec. 26, New Style), 1825, and through their martyrdom provided a source of inspiration to succeeding generations of Russian dissidents. The Decembrists were primarily members of the upper classes who had military backgrounds; some had participated in the Russian occupation of France after the Napoleonic Wars or served elsewhere in western Europe; a few had been Freemasons, and some were members of the secret patriotic (and, later, revolutionary) societies in Russia—the Union of Salvation (1816), the Union of Welfare (1818), the Northern Society (1821), and the Southern Society (1821).

The Northern Society, taking advantage of the brief but confusing interregnum following the death of Tsar Alexander I, staged an uprising, convincing some of the troops in St. Petersburg to refuse to take a loyalty oath to Nicholas I and to demand instead the accession of his brother Constantine. The rebellion, however, was poorly organized and easily suppressed; Colonel Prince Sergey Trubetskoy, who was to be the provisional dictator, fled immediately.

Another insurrection by the Chernigov regiment in the south was also quickly defeated. An extensive investigation in which Nicholas personally participated ensued; it resulted in the trial of 289 Decembrists, the execution of 5 of them (Pavel Pestel, Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, Pyotr Kakhovsky, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin, and Kondraty Ryleyev), the imprisonment of 31, and the banishment of the rest to Siberia.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Pavel Ivanovich Pestel


Russian officer

born July 5 [June 24, Old Style], 1793, Moscow, Russia
died July 25 [July 13], 1826, St. Petersburg

Russian military officer and a radical leader of the Decembrist revolutionaries.

The son of a government official, Pestel attended school in Dresden, Saxony, from 1805 to 1809. He entered the elite Corps of Pages in St. Petersburg in 1810 and, upon graduation in 1811, was commissioned as an ensign in the Lithuanian Regiment of Guards. After fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, he returned to St. Petersburg with a sense of Russia’s backwardness in comparison with western and central Europe. In 1816 Pestel joined the Union of Salvation to discuss ideas for Russian reforms and the institution of a constitutional monarchy. In 1818 he organized a branch of the Union of Welfare at Tulchin, and in 1821 he organized the more radical Southern Society of Decembrists. His plan for the socioeconomic and political transformation of Russia, titled Russkaya Pravda (1824; “Russian Truth”), called for the execution of the imperial family, the emancipation of the serfs, the replacement of the tsarist autocracy by a republican form of government, and the allotment of land to the freed serfs.

During the succession crisis following the death of Alexander I and on the day before the Decembrists’ planned uprising took place in St. Petersburg, Pestel was arrested in Tulchin (Dec. 25 [Dec. 13, Old Style], 1825), having been betrayed by an officer newly recruited into the Southern Society. He was executed a few months later in Petropavlovsk fortress with four other Decembrists.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Kondraty Fyodorovich Ryleyev


Russian poet
Ryleyev also spelled Ryleev
born Sept. 18 [Sept. 29, New Style], 1795, Batovo, Russia
died July 13 [July 25], 1826, St. Petersburg

Russian poet and revolutionary, a leader in the Decembrist revolt of 1825.

Ryleyev came from a family of poor gentry. He served in the army, spending time in Germany, Switzerland, and France. After his return to Russia, he went to live in Voronezh province, where his impressions from abroad sharply contrasted with the life around him. On his father’s death he went to St. Petersburg and began his literary career. Some of his poems are historical and patriotic; perhaps his best verse, however, is that inspired by his revolutionary spirit.

Ryleyev was recruited into the Northern Society in 1823 and soon came to head the radical wing within that secret society. He assumed the leadership of the Decembrist conspiracy in St. Petersburg and tried unsuccessfully to gather support for the dissident troops in that city on December 14. The revolt was quickly suppressed, and Ryleyev was arrested and imprisoned that same night. He was hanged in Peter and Paul Fortress in 1826. Ryleyev had continued to write up to the last few days before the Decembrist revolt, producing eloquent revolutionary verses.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Territorial Gains and the Crimean War

Nicholas I intensified repressive policies and led his country to war in the Crimea.


6 Nicholas I, brother and successor to Alexander I, increased repression through a clampdown on liberal universities and the arrest of dissidents.

Nicholas I

6 Czar Nicholas I Pavlovitch

tsar of Russia
Russian in full Nikolay Pavlovich
born July 6 [June 25, Old Style], 1796, Tsarskoye Selo [now Pushkin], near St. Petersburg, Russia
died March 2 [Feb. 18, O.S.], 1855, St. Petersburg

Russian emperor (1825–55), often considered the personification of classic autocracy; for his reactionary policies, he has been called the emperor who froze Russia for 30 years.

Early life
Nicholas was the son of Grand Duke Paul and Grand Duchess Maria. Some three and a half months after his birth, following the death of Catherine II the Great, Nicholas’ father became Emperor Paul I of Russia. Nicholas had three brothers, two of whom, the future emperor Alexander I and Constantine, were 19 and 17 years older than he. It was the third, Michael, his junior by two years, and a sister, Anne, who became his childhood companions and intimate lifelong friends.

Paul was extremely neurotic, overbearing, and despotic. Yet it is believed that he showed kindness and consideration to his younger children and that, in fact, he loved and cherished them tenderly. He was killed in a palace revolution of 1801, which made Alexander emperor when Nicholas was not quite five years old. Maria, on the contrary, remained formal and cold in her relationship to the children, very much in keeping with her general character. She belonged, apparently, among those human beings who combine numerous conventional virtues with a certain rigidity and lack of warmth. In the words of a competent observer: “The only failing of this extraordinary woman was her being excessively, one may say, exacting of her children and of the people dependent on her.”

The future emperor’s first guardian and instructor was a Scottish nurse, Jane Lyon, who was appointed by Catherine II to care for the infant and who stayed with Nicholas constantly during the first seven years of his life. From Lyon the young grand duke learned even such things as the Russian alphabet, his first Russian prayers, and his hatred of the Poles (at least he liked later to trace the origin of his bitter antipathy toward that people to the stories told by his nurse about her painful experience in Warsaw in the turbulent year of 1794).

In 1802–03 men replaced women in Nicholas’ entourage, and his regular education began. As directed by Gen. Matthew Lamsdorff, it emphasized severe discipline and formalism. The growing grand duke studied French and German as well as Russian, world history, and general geography in French, together with the history and geography of Russia. Religion, drawing, arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and physics were added to the curriculum. Nicholas received instruction also in dancing, music, singing, and horseback riding and was introduced at an early age to the theatre, costume balls, and other court entertainment.

A more advanced curriculum went into effect in 1809, with courses ranging from political economy, logic, moral philosophy, and natural law to strategy. English, Latin, and Greek were added to the language program. Though, on the whole, a belief that Nicholas had not been trained for his role of Russian sovereign is wrong, he did profit little from the instruction, which he found rigid and tedious. He loved only military science, becoming a fine army engineer and expert in several other areas of military knowledge. Moreover, he always remained in his heart a dedicated junior officer.

Circumstances also favoured militarism. Nicholas’ education, as well as that of his younger brother, was interrupted and largely terminated by the great struggles against Napoleon in 1812–15. The grand dukes were allowed to join the army in 1814, and, although they saw no actual fighting, they lived through the heady emotions of those momentous years and also enjoyed the opportunities to stay in Paris and other places in western and central Europe. On Nov. 4, 1815, at a state dinner in Berlin, Alexander I and King Frederick William III rose to announce the engagement of Nicholas and Princess Charlotte of Prussia (Alexandra, after she became Orthodox).

The solemn wedding followed some 20 months later, on July 13, 1817. The match represented a dynastic and political arrangement sought by both reigning houses, which had stood together in the decisive years against Napoleon and after that at the Congress of Vienna—the peace settlement following the Napoleonic Wars—and it proved singularly successful. Not only was Nicholas in love with his wife, but he became very closely attached to his father-in-law as well as to his royal brothers, one of whom was later to be his fellow ruler as King Frederick William IV. Beyond that, Nicholas was powerfully attracted by the Prussian court and even more so by the Prussian Army. He felt remarkably happy and at home in his adopted family and country, which for many years he tried to visit as often as he could.

To complete his training, Grand Duke Nicholas was sent on two educational voyages—an extensive tour of Russia that lasted from May to September in 1816 and a journey to England, where the future emperor spent four months late that same year and early in 1817. The Russian trip covered much ground at great speed and was quite superficial, but it has interest for the historian because of the notes that Nicholas, following the instructions of his mother, took on everything seen and heard. The grand duke’s observations deal, typically, with appearances rather than with causes and reflect a number of his prejudices, including his bitter dislike of Poles and Jews. Such quick inspection tours later became almost an obsession of the Emperor.

In England, Nicholas stayed mostly in London, although he travelled to a score of other places. While he did attend the opening of the houses of Parliament and in general obtained some knowledge of English politics, his only recorded comments on that score were unfavourable. The future emperor found it much more congenial to examine military and naval centres. His favourite English companion was the Duke of Wellington. Less than a year after his return to Russia and a few months after his marriage, Nicholas was appointed inspector general of the army corps of engineers. In subsequent years he held several other military positions but of secondary significance.

Ascension to the throne
Alexander I’s unexpected death in southern Russia on Dec. 1, 1825, led to a dynastic crisis. Because Alexander I had no direct male successor, Constantine was next in line for the throne. But the heir presumptive had married a Polish woman not of royal blood in 1820 and renounced his rights to the crown. Nicholas was thus to become the next ruler of Russia, the entire matter being stated, in 1822, in a manifesto confirmed with Alexander I’s signature. But the manifesto remained unpublished, and Nicholas questioned the legal handling of the whole issue and the reaction in the country, which expected Constantine to succeed Alexander. In any case, Constantine and the Polish kingdom of which he was commander in chief swore allegiance to Nicholas, but Nicholas, the Russian capital, and the Russian Army swore allegiance to Constantine.

It was only after Constantine’s unyielding reaffirmation of his position and the resulting lapse of time that Nicholas decided to publish Alexander’s manifesto and become emperor of Russia. On Dec. 26, 1825 (Dec. 14, O.S.), when the guard regiments in St. Petersburg were to swear allegiance for the second time in rapid succession, this time to Nicholas, liberal conspirators staged what came to be known as the Decembrist Rebellion. Utilizing their influence in the army, in which many of them were officers, they started a mutiny in several units, which they entreated to defend the rightful interests of Constantine against his usurping brother. Altogether some 3,000 misled rebels marched in military formation to the Senate Square—now the Decembrist Square—in the heart of the capital. Although the rebellion had failed by nightfall, it meant that Nicholas I ascended the throne over the bodies of some of his subjects and in actual combat with the dreaded revolution.

Nicholas I has come down in history as the classic autocrat, in appearance and manner as much as in behaviour and policy. To quote Andrew Dickson White, a United States diplomat:

With his height of more than six feet, his head always held high, a slightly aquiline nose, a firm and well-formed mouth under a light moustache, a square chin, an imposing, domineering, set face, noble rather than tender, monumental rather than human, he had something of Apollo and of Jupiter . . . Nicholas was unquestionably the most handsome man in Europe.

Or to refer to Adolphe, marquis de Custine, whose lasting literary fame rests on his denunciation of the Russia of Nicholas I: “Virgil’s Neptune . . . one could not be more emperor than he.” In short, Nicholas I came to represent autocracy personified: infinitely majestic, determined and powerful, hard as stone, and relentless as fate. Yet, on closer acquaintance, the other side of the Emperor emerged. The detachment and the superior calm of an autocrat, which Nicholas I tried so often and so hard to display, were essentially a false front. The sovereign’s insistence on firmness and stern action was based on fear, not on confidence; his determination concealed a state approaching panic, and his courage fed on something akin to despair. Nicholas’ violent hatred could concentrate apparently with equal ease on an individual, such as the French king Louis-Philippe; a group, such as the Decembrists; a people, such as the Poles; or a concept, such as revolution. His impulse was always to strike and keep striking until the object of his wrath was destroyed.

Aggressiveness, however, was not the Emperor’s only method of coping with the problems of life. He also used regimentation, orderliness, neatness, and precision, an enormous effort to have everything at all times in its proper place. Nicholas I was by nature a drill master and an inspector general; the army remained his love, almost an obsession, from childhood to the end of his life. But, in every other sphere of activity and existence too, the Emperor insisted on minute and precise regulation, with nothing to be left to chance. Position, circumstances, and his own character placed an almost intolerable burden on his shoulders. Still, he managed to carry it for three decades, sustained by his overwhelming sense of duty and devotion to hard work, by his sincere religious convictions, and by his family. His outlook, however, became ever more pessimistic and fatalistic, until in the disaster of the Crimean War the autocrat declared simply: “I shall carry my cross until all my strength is gone.” “Thy will be done.”

Nicholas’ views fitted his personality to perfection. In contrast to Alexander I, he had been brought up at the time of wars against Napoleon and of reaction, which he accepted wholeheartedly as his own cause. Eventually the Russian wing of European reaction, represented by Nicholas I and his government, found its ideological expression in the doctrine of so-called Official Nationality.

Formally proclaimed in 1833 by Count Sergey Uvarov, the Emperor’s minister of education, Official Nationality rested on three principles: Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality. Autocracy meant the affirmation and maintenance of the absolute power of the sovereign, which was considered the indispensable foundation of the Russian state; in foreign relations it was transformed into legitimism and a defense of the Vienna settlement. Orthodoxy referred to the official church and its important role in Russia and also to the ultimate source of ethics and ideals that gave meaning to human life and society. Nationality (narodnost) described the particular nature of the Russian people, considered as a mighty and dedicated supporter of its dynasty and government. Whereas Alexander I had never quite abandoned dreams of change, Nicholas I was determined to defend the existing order in his motherland, especially autocracy.

Nicholas I’s rule reflected in a striking manner both his character and his principles. The new regime became preeminently one of militarism and bureaucracy. The Emperor surrounded himself with military men, to the extent that late in his reign there were almost no civilians among his immediate assistants. Also, he relied heavily on special emissaries, most of them generals of his suite, who were sent all over Russia on particular assignments to execute immediately the will of the sovereign. Operating outside the regular administrative system, they represented an extension, so to speak, of the monarch’s own person. In fact, the entire machinery of government came to be permeated by the military spirit of direct orders, absolute obedience, and precision, at least as far as official reports and appearances were concerned. Corruption and confusion, however, lay immediately behind this facade of discipline and smooth functioning.

In his conduct of state affairs, Nicholas I often bypassed regular channels and generally resented formal deliberation, consultation, or other procedural delay. The importance of the Committee of Ministers, the State Council, and the Senate decreased in the course of his reign. Instead of making full use of them, the Emperor depended more and more on special bureaucratic devices meant to carry out his intentions promptly while remaining under his immediate and complete control. As one favourite method, Nicholas I made extensive use of ad hoc committees that stood outside the usual state machinery. The committees were typically composed of a handful of the most trusted assistants of the Emperor; because these were few in number, the same men in different combinations formed these committees throughout Nicholas’ reign. As a rule, the committees carried on their work in secret, adding further complication and confusion to the already cumbersome administration of the empire. The failure of one committee to perform its task merely led to the formation of another. For example, some nine committees tried to deal with the issue of serfdom during Nicholas’ reign.

The propensities of the autocrat found expression also in the development and the new role of His Majesty’s Own Chancery. Organized originally as a bureau to deal with matters that demanded the sovereign’s personal participation and to supervise the execution of the Emperor’s orders, it acquired five new departments: in 1826 the Second and the Third, to deal with the codification of law and the newly created corps of gendarmes, respectively; in 1828 the Fourth, to manage the charitable and educational institutions under the jurisdiction of the empress dowager Maria; in 1836 the Fifth, to reform the condition of the state peasants (soon replaced by the new Ministry of State Domains); in 1843 the Sixth, to draw an administrative plan for Transcaucasia.

The departments of the Chancery served Nicholas I as a major means of conducting a personal policy that bypassed the regular state channels. Its Third Department, the political police, acted as the autocrat’s main weapon against subversion and revolution and as his principal agency for controlling the behaviour of his subjects and for distributing punishments and rewards among them. Its assigned fields of activity ranged from “all orders and all reports in every case belonging to the higher police” to “reports about all occurrences without exception!” The two successive heads of the Third Department—Count Aleksandr Benckendorff and Prince Aleksey Orlov—probably spent more time with Nicholas than did any of his other assistants; they accompanied him, for instance, on his repeated trips of inspection throughout Russia. During his entire reign the Emperor strove to follow the principle of autocracy—to be a true father of his people concerned with their daily lives, hopes, and fears.

Yet Nicholas I could do little for them beyond the minutiae. Determined to preserve autocracy, afraid to abolish serfdom, and suspicious of all independent initiative and popular participation, the Emperor and his government could not introduce in their country the much-needed basic reforms. In practice as well as in theory they looked backward. Important developments took place only in a few areas in which change would not threaten the fundamental structure of the Russian Empire. Thus Count Mikhail Speransky codified law, and Count Pavel Kiselev changed and improved the lot of the state peasants; but even limited reforms became impossible after 1848.

Final years
Frightened by European revolutions, Nicholas I became completely reactionary. During the last years of the reign the Emperor’s once successful foreign policy collapsed, leading to isolation and to the tragedy of the Crimean War. A dauntless champion of legitimism and a virtual hegemony of eastern and central Europe following the revolutions of 1848–49, Nicholas—in part because of his own miscalculations, rigidity, and bluntness—found himself alone fighting the Crescent (the Ottoman Empire), supported by such countries of the Cross as France, Great Britain, and Sardinia.

Although it is unlikely that Nicholas committed suicide, as several historians have claimed, death did come as liberation to the weary and harassed Russian emperor. An ordinary cold picked up in late February 1855 turned into pneumonia, which the once mighty, but now apparently exhausted, organism refused to fight. To the end the autocrat retained lucidity and dignity. His last words to his heir and his family were: “Now I shall ascend to pray for Russia and for you. After Russia, I loved you above everything else in the world. Serve Russia.” Nicholas I was survived by his wife, Empress Alexandra, and their six children: Emperor Alexander II, the grand dukes Constantine, Nicholas, and Michael, and the grand duchesses Maria and Olga. Another daughter, Grand Duchess Alexandra, had died in 1844.

Nicholas V. Riasanovsky

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Following the European revolutions of 1848, he tightened these measures further and sent Russian troops into Austria to fight the Hungarian revolt there. Furthermore, he planned to Russianize the non-Russians in his empire in language and religion to make them loyal subjects.

Externally he continued an expansionist course. In 1828, Persia was forced to cede territories in Armenia.

The sixth Russo-Turkish War secured sovereignty for Russia in the Caucasus and a "protectorate" over 7 Walachia and Moldavia in the Treaty of Adrianople on September 14, 1829.

7 Villagers in Walachia

Nicholas I occupied these territories militarily in 1853 with the aim of taking control of the Dardanelles, thereby fulfilling a long held ambition to gain naval access to the Mediterranean. This alarmed other major powers and drove his country into the calamitous Crimean War.

The Ottoman Empire allied itself with France, Great Britain, and the Kingdom of Sardinia against Russia.

The Russians were able to annihilate 9 the Ottoman fleet on November 30,1853, but when the coalition declared war on Russia in 1854 Austria failed to enter the war on the side of its longtime ally, Russia.

9 Destruction of a part of the Ottoman fleet by the Russians in the port of Sinope, November 10, 1853

The Habsburgs's neutrality ended up alienating both sides.

In September, the Allies then launched an attack in the Crimea against the main port of the Russian Black Sea fleet, 5 Sevastopol.

After an 11-month siege of the city, the Russians surrendered on September 9, 1855.

Under the terms of the subsequent 8 Treaty of Paris of March 30,1856, Russia lost Armenia and southern Bessarabia, as well as its protectorate over the Danubian principalities.

The Black Sea was declared a neutral demilitarized zone, which represented a major setback to Russian ambitions in the region.

5 The capture of Fort Malakoff in
Sevastopol by the French General
Mac-Mahon, September 8, 1855

8 Paris Congress from January to March 1856



The Crimean War

The significance of the Crimean War lay less in the conflict over a particular region. Rather, it was a turning point in the 19th century that sealed the end of the European balance of power that had been in place since the Congress of Vienna.

For the first time in four decades the Great Powers engaged in a major war and the Holy Alliance of Austria and Russia was torn apart. The modest success of the British and French forces also helped to preserve the weak Ottoman empire from Russian expansionism.

Russia's role in continental affairs, developed under czars Alexander I and Nicholas I, was significantly weakened by the Crimean War.

Detail of Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol (1904)

Detail of Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol (1904)




Crimean War

Eurasian history [1853–56]
(October 1853–February 1856), war fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula between the Russians and the British, French, and Ottoman Turkish, with support, from January 1855, by the army of Sardinia-Piedmont. The war arose from the conflict of great powers in the Middle East and was more directly caused by Russian demands to exercise protection over the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman sultan. Another major factor was the dispute between Russia and France over the privileges of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the holy places in Palestine.

Supported by Britain, the Turks took a firm stand against the Russians, who occupied the Danubian principalities (modern Romania) on the Russo-Turkish border in July 1853. The British fleet was ordered to Constantinople (Istanbul) on September 23. On October 4 the Turks declared war on Russia and in the same month opened an offensive against the Russians in the Danubian principalities. After the Russian Black Sea fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron at Sinope, on the Turkish side of the Black Sea, the British and French fleets entered the Black Sea on Jan. 3, 1854, to protect Turkish transports. On March 28, Britain and France declared war on Russia. To satisfy Austria and avoid having that country also enter the war, Russia evacuated the Danubian principalities. Austria occupied them in August 1854. In September 1854 the allies landed troops in Russian Crimea, on the north shore of the Black Sea, and began a year-long siege of the Russian fortress of Sevastopol. Major engagements were fought at the Alma River on September 20, at Balaklava on October 25, and at Inkerman on November 5. On Jan. 26, 1855, Sardinia-Piedmont entered the war and sent 10,000 troops. Finally, on Sept. 11, 1855, three days after a successful French assault on the Malakhov, a major strongpoint in the Russian defenses, the Russians blew up the forts, sank the ships, and evacuated Sevastopol. Secondary operations of the war were conducted in the Caucasus and in the Baltic Sea.

After Austria threatened to join the allies, Russia accepted preliminary peace terms on Feb. 1, 1856. The Congress of Paris worked out the final settlement from February 25 to March 30. The resulting Treaty of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856, guaranteed the integrity of Ottoman Turkey and obliged Russia to surrender southern Bessarabia, at the mouth of the Danube. The Black Sea was neutralized, and the Danube River was opened to the shipping of all nations. The Crimean War was managed and commanded very poorly on both sides. Disease accounted for a disproportionate number of the approximately 250,000 men lost by each side.

The war did not settle the relations of the powers in eastern Europe. It did awaken the new Russian emperor Alexander II (who succeeded Nicholas I in March 1855) to the need to overcome Russia’s backwardness in order to compete successfully with the other European powers. A further result of the war was that Austria, having sided with Great Britain and France, lost the support of Russia in central European affairs. Austria became dependent on Britain and France, which failed to support that country, leading to the Austrian defeats in 1859 and 1866 that, in turn, led to the unification of Italy and Germany.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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