Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Monarch Profile: Czar Nicholas I of Russia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.