Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Monarch Profile: Czar Nicholas I of Russia

One of the more controversial monarchs Russia has had, both in his own time and today, is Czar Nicholas I. For being ready, willing and able to stamp out threats to traditional authority across the continent, he was known in his own time as the “Gendarme of Europe”, the policeman walking the beat on watch for revolutionary republicans. Later he would also be nicknamed, “the Iron Czar” and more recently he is often referred to, slanderously by those who I think are showing their political bias, as the ‘Stalin of Imperial Russia’. This, needless to say, is absurd as the two men were absolutely nothing alike in terms of character, background, worldview or their policies. It is said, I think, for the simplistic reason that both made use of secret police forces, both were intolerant of dissent and that is about where the similarities end. The same, of course, could be said about the vast majority of leaders of countries throughout history and even today. Personally, I think the comparison is more often due to a desire to ‘normalize’ Joseph Stalin in an effort to deny the truth which is that he was the most vicious, sadistic, incompetent and murderous ruler the Russian people have ever had to endure and no one comes close to him in comparison.

Czar Nicholas I, however, did not murder tens of millions of his subjects, he did not stamp out talent wherever he could find it, he did not encourage rebellion and terrorism around the world nor did he have any desire to dominate the planet. He was an autocrat and he was, thus, autocratic but the Czar himself would not have considered this an insulting or derogatory term. He believed to his last breath that it was his duty to God to be autocratic and that his autocracy was exercised in the service of his people as an obligation from God. Czar Nicholas I was a man of deep faith, a man who passionately believed in Russian Orthodox Christianity, in Christian monarchy, traditional authority and in the “Divine Right of Kings” to use a rather outdated term. Czar Nicholas I was also very much a nationalist. His greatest affection was for the Russian people, he believed that Russia was for the Russian people and should be as Russian as humanly possibly. Secondarily, he also had great affection for the Slavic peoples of Europe and felt that it was his duty, after safeguarding the Russian people, to safeguard or liberate to the extent possible other Slavic peoples. His views and priorities could be best illustrated by the slogan for his reign which was, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”. Those are the things he valued most, in that order and each being derived from the former.

Nicholas Pavlovich Romanov was born at Gatchina on June 25, 1796 to Czar Paul and his wife Czarina Maria Feodorovna (Dorothea of Wurttemberg). He did not lead a pampered childhood at all, as was common in Russia despite what people think of royalty in general. He was made to sleep on an army bed, a habit he kept up for the rest of his life (just as Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria would) and kept to a very strict routine of study and exercise overseen by General Count Lamsdorf. He was not fond of study but very early on came to love the army and military life. He also had instilled in him a very strong and sincere Orthodox Christian faith, which he also tended to view in military terms. God was his supreme commander, he would be His general and lead people on the path to salvation. He joined the Imperial Russian Army in 1814 but, to his deep regret, did not see action in the battles against the French that made Russia famous.

In 1815 he visited Berlin where, as a military man, he was awed by the discipline and professionalism of the Prussian army. He was also very much taken by the daughter of King Friedrich Wilhelm III, Princess Charlotte and he was decisive in his choice of wife. In 1817 the two were married, beginning many years of marital bliss as the two were deeply attached to each other. Taking the Russian name of Alexandra Feodorovna, she gave birth to their first child, the future Czar Alexander II, a year later in 1818. With his army life and his Prussian bride, he was as happy and contented as he could be. Despite his appearance, being a strict and no-nonsense military man, he was a very passionate individual and could become quite emotional at times. One such occasion, when he burst into tears, was when he was told that his brother Constantine had no desire to be Emperor of Russia and that the duty would likely fall on him. His life was just as he wanted it and he did not aspire to the imperial throne. However, as a man of duty, he would do as duty required even if it was a sacrifice for him.

The problem was that there were deep divisions in the upper echelons of the Imperial Russian Army at the time of the death of Czar Alexander I in 1825. During the wars against Napoleon, many Russian officers had picked up a great deal of French thinking and wanted to import these ideas to Russia. Many also disliked Nicholas because he was so strict as a commander and expected everyone to obey army regulations to the letter, regardless of how lofty their rank. Because of this, and because Constantine did not wish to be Czar but refused to make a public statement to that affect, Nicholas was caught in an awkward position. Taking advantage of Constantine’s obstinacy, the liberal army officers began plotting a military coup, thinking they could overthrow Nicholas and have Constantine, a man who had no wish to rule, as a puppet Czar who would do nothing while they made Russia more like Napoleonic France. Some, like Colonel Pavel Pestel, of the Southern Society, even wanted to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic. Fortunately for Nicholas, someone informed him about what these secret societies were up to.

On December 14, 1825 Nicholas was proclaimed Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias and only hours later a group of these army dissidents, known as Decembrists, gathered in Senate Square in St Petersburg, demanding a constitution for Russia, emancipation of the serfs and pledging themselves loyal to Constantine. Nicholas was ready for them and soon came out with his loyal troops to surround them. There was a period of tension as Nicholas demanded that these men return to duty as he wished to avoid spilling Russian blood if at all possible. However, there would be no stepping down for the Decembrists and, as much as he disliked doing so, Czar Nicholas I would not shirk his duty and he ordered the artillery to open fire on them. The attempted uprising was crushed at the outset and 56 men were killed. The new Czar spent the first night of his reign at the Winter Palace interrogating the dissidents and, in the end, 253 were punished with various terms of imprisonment or exile, 31 were sent to spend the rest of their lives in hard labor in Siberia but only 5 were executed.

There would certainly be no constitution and no emancipation of the serfs for the Russian Empire under Nicholas I and this incident on the very first day of his reign only convinced him that revolutionary republicanism was a disease that was easily spread and he would have to be all the more strict and all the more on guard that it never be allowed to take root in Russia. He would be a very ‘hands-on’ ruler, toured the country extensively, had studies taken of the situation and would enact any needed changes gradually and carefully. In domestic policy, his focus was on stability. In foreign policy, he was certainly no warmonger, fearing that wars cause stress that could be exploited by revolutionaries. However, war was not long in coming to his door due to the traditional enemies of Russia in Persia and Turkey. In 1826 the Persians (Iranians) arrested the Russian ambassador and launched a war to regain provinces in the Caucasus lost to Russia in a previous conflict. Czar Nicholas responded swiftly and forcefully.

From the spring of 1826 to 1828 the Russians and Persians fought for control of the Caucasus. In the end, Russia was again victorious and Armenia, Azerbaijan and what is now Igdir Province were ceded to Russia and Russia was able to have a fleet on the Caspian Sea. This was the last of the official Russo-Persian Wars but they still resonate today. Russia, which aids and has helped to arm and strengthen modern-day Iran, mostly does not remember these conflicts but the Iranians certainly do and still consider all of these areas, as well as parts of what is today southern Russia, to rightfully belong to them and they still intend to take it all back someday. That Russia would assist in strengthening Iran is a notion that Czar Nicholas I would have considered too ridiculous to even be entertained for a moment. The Turkish Ottoman Empire was also a regime that the Czar never trusted for a moment, yet it was a more difficult issue. He detested the fact that the Caliph of Islam continued to rule over large populations of Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, yet he also believed in traditional authority and that, as the legitimate monarch, all of the subjects of the Ottoman Sultan had a duty to submit to him.

The Persian conflict had been one of self-defense, forced on him by the Persians. However, as long as the Turkish Sultan did not attack Russia, he could take no action. Again, he knew how easily revolution can spread and just as the Turkish Sultan would not want his Christian subjects to rebel, the Czar would not wish the Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim subjects of the Russian Empire to rebel against him. Instead, he cooperated with the British and French to push for the Greeks to be given autonomy within the Ottoman Empire and for Russian merchant ships to have access to the Straits to reach the Mediterranean. However, the Sultan refused to grant autonomy to the Greeks and after signing an agreement granting Russian ships access to the Straits, the Sultan then closed the Straits, and this finally induced the Czar to declare war on the Turks in 1828. Once again, the Imperial Russian Army was everywhere victorious on both the Balkan and Caucasian fronts. When Russian troops captured Adrianople in August of 1829, moving toward Constantinople, the Turkish Sultan decided to sue for peace. The resulting treaty gave autonomy and Russia the right to occupy Moldavia and Wallachia until the Turks completed their war reparations payments and gave autonomy to Serbia. It also gave Turkish recognition to Russian sovereignty over Armenia and Georgia and granted autonomy to Greece which, by 1830, the major powers of Europe agreed to advance to complete independence for a Greek kingdom.

The early years of the reign of Nicholas I had been ones of calm at home and glorious victories over Russia’s enemies abroad. Things were going very well. However, in 1830, the Czar was alarmed when revolution broke out in France in July and in Belgium (then part of the United Netherlands) in August. The situation in France ended fairly quickly but the Czar was slow to recognize the new regime of King Louis Philippe, however, he did finally do so as he soon had his own problems to deal with. As he was always eager to help any brother monarch threatened by revolution, when the Belgians rose in revolt, he quickly messaged King Willem I of the Netherlands with an offer of a Russian and Polish army to help him crush the Belgians. This, however, set off an uprising in Poland as the Poles had no desire to do such a thing, particularly considering that they were Catholics living under an Orthodox monarch and could sympathize with the Catholic Belgians who were subjects of a Protestant monarch. The Polish uprising of November 1830 was very serious indeed. Many Poles had never been happy ever since the Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov monarchs had partitioned their country out of existence and suppressing them would take a fair amount of time and energy. It was not until September of 1831 that Russian Imperial troops were able to regain control of Warsaw.

In the aftermath of this rebellion, Czar Nicholas I was convinced that previous Russian monarchs had been far too lenient on the Poles. He considered Poland vital to the status of Russia as a power in Europe, placing it within reach of the western powers and he would not tolerate any dissent there. He closed down Polish universities, abolished the Polish parliament and the separate Polish army. Poland would be ruled more directly from St Petersburg and he also began forcing the Poles to speak Russian. The Czar who believed in, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” wanted to suppress disunity in his empire and one way was to have everyone be conversant in the same language. He placed similar requirements on Belorussia and Ukraine in what has since been called a campaign of ‘Russification’. To the extent possible, he wanted to make Russia an empire of one people, with one faith under one monarch. Obviously, there would be differences among his subjects but he wanted to at least apply pressure toward greater unity in language and religion.

Despite what many have said since, the Russian economy grew during the reign of Czar Nicholas I, though certainly not as quickly as occurred in some other countries. The Czar was not a fan of modernization and feared that railroads would ‘weaken the moral fiber of Russian society’. However, if it could help in suppressing revolution, he could be persuaded. When he saw how quickly the British were able to dispatch their redcoats from Manchester to Liverpool to respond to a rebellion in Ireland, he thought he might give railroads a chance and so the first Russian rail line, running from Tsarskoe Selo to St Petersburg, was opened in 1837. Russia still lagged behind the other great powers but things were certainly not stagnant as they are often portrayed. Wars, which the Czar did not start but had forced upon him, did tend to cause inflation but it did not get out of control and exports of wheat increased and the cotton industry grew.

When it came to serfdom, which the Decembrists had wanted to abolish, Czar Nicholas I was, again, quite different from how he is often portrayed. The Czar did not like serfdom, indeed, he strongly opposed it. Yet, the Czar did not feel it would be right to impose emancipation on the nobility who depended on serfdom. To do so would doubtless inflame the nobility against the monarchy and it could cause immense social unrest by raising expectations, not only among the emancipated serfs, but the rest of the Russian populace as well. Instead, true to character, Czar Nicholas tried to lead by example. The Crown Estates of Russia covered vast tracts of the country and were home to a huge number of serfs. The Czar ordered the general in charge of these lands to enact changes to improve the lives of the serfs who lived and worked on these imperial properties. Poorer serfs were allotted more land, schools were built for their children and new model farms were established. Nicholas hoped that the rest of the nobility would follow his example in this regard and do similar things to improve the lives of their own serfs. Some noble Russian aristocrats did exactly this but, unfortunately, most did not.

Another internal matter for which Nicholas I is often attacked is in the area of education. Modern historians tend to associate the reign of Nicholas I with censorship and excessive use of the secret police. However, the Czar increased spending on education and opened a number of new technical and vocational schools. The Czar was certainly not opposed to education or thought it of no value, he simply insisted that the education teach things of practical value (imagine that) and teach students to be loyal, patriotic and pious Russians. He would not tolerate the dissemination of revolutionary ideas and these things did tend to circulate most heavily among the educated class which is why the Czar tended to distrust them. What is also often overlooked is that the Third Section, tasked with hunting down subversive elements, was also tasked with finding and eliminating corruption within the government, dishonest and incompetent officials which is something that is almost always overlooked. It is also worth noting that despite this intolerant atmosphere of censorship that liberal historians moan about, newspaper circulation increased under Nicholas I and Russian literature flourished. Nicholas I was also very interested in architecture and patronized a number of building projects throughout his reign.

The one area at home in which Nicholas could be faulted somewhat was in his private life. Unlike Alexander III or Nicholas II, Czar Nicholas I did have a mistress, one Vervara Nelidova, one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting. However, I am more inclined to be forgiving of the Czar on this score than I would be with most other monarchs because of the circumstances. As stated previously, Nicholas and his wife truly loved each other and that never changed. They were extremely close, very affectionate and very familiar with each other. She called him “Nicks” and he called her “Mouffy”. Unfortunately, the Czarina began to suffer from increasingly poor health and was eventually diagnosed with a heart condition. She became increasingly frail and finally the doctors advised that she cease from performing her marital duties. It was only at that point that Nicholas began his affair with Nelidova. He never lost any of his respect or affection for his wife and would have preferred restricting his affections to her but, as her condition did not allow this, the Czar found that while the spirit indeed was willing, his flesh was weak. He would not endanger the health of his beloved wife so he would satisfy his physical desires with Nelidova. It was a purely sexual relationship and the Czarina always remained his most beloved and his most trusted confidant. Unfortunately, gossip of such things does tend to spread and when, due to his own health problems, the Czar began to show his age, his enemies spread lurid tales that greatly exaggerated his extramarital escapades. Whispers grew to the effect that Nelidova was wearing him out and things of that nature. It was not true of course but it arose from the one blot on an otherwise spotless record of moral fortitude.

As the Czar of Russia, Nicholas of course had many obligations to distract him from such things and one subject that remained a constant problem was the Turks. Nicholas worried a great deal about the state of the many Orthodox Christians living under Turkish rule, yet he showed more astute judgment than many Twentieth Century politicians would in that he understood that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would lead to chaos. By supporting the Turks against the Egyptians he gained a favorable agreement regarding the Straits and he also agreed with the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria that the Ottoman Empire should be maintained and to oppose the French in their efforts to increase their influence by undermining the Turks. The three monarchs agreed that, if the Ottoman Empire should begin to dissolve, they would work together to see to it this would be done in an orderly way, particularly in the Balkans, under their cooperative guidance. Privately, Nicholas thought that the Ottoman Empire was doomed but he was convinced that it would require all of the great powers working together to handle this when the time came. Unfortunately for him, while Nicholas thought that the British were on the same page as he was, the British did not think he was being sincere and with their liberal press full of stories portraying Nicholas as a harsh, authoritarian tyrant, they were convinced that he intended to expand Russian territory at the expense of Turkey and that they should, therefore, support the Turks. This would have very disastrous consequences in the years to come.

The Turkish situation soon faded to the background when the worst thing possible in the mind of Nicholas I occurred in 1848 when revolutions began breaking out all across Europe. Whereas, in 1830, the Czar had been quick to offer help to any imperiled monarch, this time he was slower to respond, fearing trouble at home as the unrest spread so far, so quickly. He did not want to have his army far away in a foreign country if a major rebellion suddenly broke out in the Russian Empire itself. However, the threat of revolution on the doorstep of Russia was another matter. He stamped down calls for a constitution in Moldavia and Wallachia but the real crisis arose when revolution broke out in the Austrian Empire. The Hungarians rebelled and the Polish areas under the Habsburg Crown rose up as well to support them. This greatly alarmed the Czar as he feared the bulk of the Polish population, under the Romanov Crown, might follow their example. However, there were uprisings in almost all parts of the Austrian Empire, even in Vienna itself but most seriously in Italy and Hungary and the Austrians simply could not cope with them all. Czar Nicholas I decided to intervene and sent the Imperial Russian Army into Hungary to crush the rebellion there in support of the new Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. A fair-minded man, he also intervened in Germany to prevent Prussian aggression against Denmark, resulting in an agreement by 1850.

Although there had been no serious unrest in Russia itself, the revolutions of 1848 caused Nicholas to redouble his efforts to guard against any hint of unrest or dissent and not unreasonably so. He was more vigilant than ever, yet, the next great crisis would be the most serious of his reign and it would come from without rather than within. It all started in the Holy Land where the French, under Napoleon III, demanded privileges from the Ottoman Sultan for the local Catholic population which had previously been given to the Orthodox Christians. Czar Nicholas, quite understandably, objected to this and intervened with the Sultan on behalf of the Orthodox Christians, seeing himself as their protector. He also did not want to see French influence spread in the region and assumed that, as in the past, the British and Austrians would be in agreement with him, particularly as he had just pulled Austria’s chestnuts out of the fire in Hungary. However, they did not and, backed by the French and British, the Turks were defiant and soon Russia broke off diplomatic relations and sent an army to the Russo-Turkish border in the Balkans.

The British media worked the public into a furor on the issue and the politicians made harsh denunciations of Russia that they could not back down from, accusing Russia of preparing for a war of conquest against the Turks. The Czar wanted no such thing and tried to settle the issue by compromise but, emboldened by the French and British showing support, the Turkish Sultan refused to budge and furthermore demanded that the Russians withdraw from Moldavia and Wallachia. In October of 1853 Russia and Turkey began what became known as the Crimean War. Britain and France soon joined in on the side of Turkey, the Italian Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia would later as well. This was all bad enough, but the most infuriating thing of all was when the Emperor of Austria demanded that Russia evacuate Moldavia and Wallachia as well, threatening to join the war on the allied side otherwise. Nicholas thus had no choice but to comply but he was positively enraged that the Habsburg monarch, of all people, would do such a thing, having so recently come to his rescue when the Habsburg monarchy was in real danger of total collapse. It was a slight that the Russians would not forget.

As the war went, the initial battles with the Turks had been Russian victories. However, as the British and French landed expeditionary forces on the Crimean Peninsula, things began to go badly. The shortage of railroads meant that the Russian generals could not get troops and supplies where they were needed quickly enough. The Russians were not as well equipped as the French and British, and whereas they could focus on the Crimean front, Russia had to maintain troops there, in the Balkans and in the Caucasus against the Turks. The war devolved into a bloody stalemate and siege warfare, focused around Sevastopol in a way that would look very familiar to observers of the last year of the American Civil War or most of World War I. More than half a million Russians would die in the conflict and it would end in defeat, a bitter blow for the nation which had previously known victories over the pan-European army of Napoleon, the Shah of Persia and the Ottoman Sultan. Many believed that Czar Nicholas I would have sooner killed himself than agree to the peace Russia was eventually forced to make but he did not live long enough to see the end. He caught pneumonia after a military parade and died on February 18, 1855.

As the length of this profile probably indicates, I will admit to being very partial to Czar Nicholas I and likely all the more so because he tends to be so often and unjustly criticized. In his own time, his fellow monarchs almost invariably had a low opinion of him which seems like a disgusting level of ingratitude for the man who was ever ready to rush to the defense of any one of them in their time of crisis. He was a very monarchist monarch, a man of principle and integrity. He was a man of faith and a ruler who took his duties to God and his nation very seriously. He was a man of good character and a much more capable and successful ruler than most are willing to give him credit for. Modern liberal historians describe him only in terms of a reactionary who oppressed everyone and enforced stagnation on his country. Not true. Literature and architecture flourished under his reign, the economy expanded and he ruled over a Russian Empire that was larger than it had ever been before or ever would be again. True, other powers advanced more quickly in technology and industry but given the fact that Nicholas was confronted by one crisis after another, from his very first day on the throne, it is entirely understandable that he would make security and stability his top priorities. He was a great man and a great monarch. Russia was fortunate to have such a man at such a difficult time.


  1. By far, my favorite Russian monarch, and one of my favorite monarchs of all time, along with Philip II of Spain. The man is smeared to no end however. I think I brought this up once before on this blog a year or so ago, most of my friends and family are leftists, and each and every time I bring up the Romanovs, they talk about their supposed viscous anti semitism, with many even claiming that the Russian right laid the ground work for nazism. Nicholas I is also singled out for this. Could you possibly elaborate on Nicholas's I position on jews? As most sources I've read claim that he accused jews of being disloyal and forced them into the military and supposedly expanded the pale of settlement. What are your thoughts on these claims?

    1. Czar Nicholas I, as stated in the article, wanted Russia to be Russian and so, obviously, regarded the Jews with suspicion, just as he was not wild about Catholic Poles or Ukrainians. However, Pope Gregory XVI condemned nationalism and any opposition to established order even for Catholics living under non-Catholic monarchs. The Jews have survived for so long because they have maintained their own identity but it is also for that very reason that tensions have almost always existed between them and their host country. There were a lot of anti-Jewish pogroms in Czarist Russia but a pogrom is, by definition, a spontaneous event and not something directed from on high. Nicholas I was certainly no great fan of the Jewish presence in Russia but it did not become a major issue until the reign of Nicholas II and that was for two reasons; for one, the British in the time of Edward VII began to be more critical of Russian attitudes toward the Jews and another reason was that Jews were disproportionately represented in anti-Romanov revolutionary movements and that is simply a statistical fact.

      As for the Romanovs being the model for the Nazis, I find that a rather absurd notion given that the Nazis considered the Slavs subhuman and it is hard to imagine them taking their example from a Slavic power.


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