Birthday: July 6, 1796
Died At Age: 58
Sun Sign: Cancer
Born Country: Russia
Born in: Leningrad Oblast
Famous as: Emperor of Russia
Emperors & Kings
Spouse/Ex-: Alexandra Feodorovna
father: Paul I of Russia
mother: Maria Feodorovna
siblings: Alexander I of Russia, Anna Pavlovna of Russia, Catherine Pavlovna of Russia, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich of Russia, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich of Russia
children: Alexander II of Russia, Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna of Russia, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Nicholaevna of Russia, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich of Russia, Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich of Russia, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich of Russia, Olga Carlovna Albrecht, Olga Nikolaevna of Russia, Youzia Koberwein
Died on: March 2, 1855
place of death: Saint Petersburg
Founder/Co-Founder: Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv
Who was Nicholas I of Russia?
Nicholas I was the emperor of Russia from 1825 to 1855 and was known for his autocratic and orthodox policies. Since he was a political conservative, his reign was known for geographical expansion, suppression of disagreement, economic stagnation, poor administrative policies, a corrupt bureaucracy, and frequent wars. His accession to the throne was followed by severe bloodshed and turmoil. When he came to power, Nicholas extensively exercised reactionary policies, which eventually brought down Russia's economic and military power. Under his rule, the arbitrary use of power was common, which led to huge corruption. However, Nicholas expanded Russian territories to present-day Dagestan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. It was the catastrophic Crimean War (1853–1856), which culminated in Nicholas's downfall. Historians blame the micromanagement of his armies and his misguided strategy for the defeat. However, till Nicholas's last day of life, the Russian Empire was in its geographical zenith, perhaps, with a desperate need for reformation. Nicholas believed he was God's representative, sent purposely for Russia's well-being. A staunch Orthodox Christian, he made sure that all Russians followed his ideologies. However, at the end of his reign, many believed that Nicholas's rule had been a disaster for Russia. Interestingly, this self-proclaimed God's son was a broken and exhausted man toward the end of his life. Unlike his life as a “czar,” Nicholas's personal life was a peaceful one.
Childhood & Early Life
Nicholas was born Nicholas I Pavlovich, on July 6, 1796, at the ‘Gatchina Palace’ of Gatchinsky District in Leningrad Oblast, Russia, to Grand Duke Paul and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia. His elder brothers were Emperor Alexander I of Russia, who succeeded to the throne in 1801, and Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia.
Nicholas received his primary education from a Scottish nurse, Jane Lyon, who was appointed by his grandmother, Catherine II. Lyon stayed with him for the first 7 years of his life. Nicholas learned a lot from her, including the Russian alphabet, his first Russian prayers, and immense hatred for the Poles.
From 1802, there were more men than women in Nicholas's entourage. He learned formalism and severe discipline under the tutelage of General Matthew Lamsdorff.
Growing up, Nicholas studied French, German, Russian, world history, and the history and geography of Russia. Later, religion, arts, physics, arithmetic, geometry, and algebra were also added to his curriculum.
Nicholas was also trained in dance, music, singing, and horseback riding. Since an early age, he was introduced to theater, costume balls, and other court entertainment. He completed his training with two educational voyages: an extensive tour of Russia from May to September in 1816 and a tour of England.
With two older brothers, Nicholas's chance of becoming a “czar” (Russian for “ruler” or “emperor”) was extremely bleak. However, when both Alexander I and Constantine failed to produce sons, the probability increased.
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Accession to the Throne
In 1825, Alexander's sudden death was followed by an uproar. The army swore to Constantine, and having no support, Nicholas gave up his power. However, even Constantine, who was in Warsaw at that time, refused to take over the reins. Therefore, Nicholas was forced to be the “czar.”
On December 25 (13 Old Style), Nicholas declared his accession to the throne. His manifesto stated, "The morning after tomorrow, I'm either Czar or dead." The date of Alexander's death was mentioned as the beginning of his reign, which led to confusion among the officials of the empire.
Some members of the military plotted a rebellion against Nicholas, which triggered the Decembrist Revolt on December 26 (14 Old Style), 1825. Although Nicholas successfully suppressed the uprising, it was a traumatic experience for him.
Early Reign & Gendarmes
Nicholas I had a bloody start to his reign, which led to his obsession with revolutionary ideas and dissent. Unlike Alexander I, he was not spiritual and lacked intellectual depth. Nicholas practiced autocracy, which he considered a paternal right.
Moreover, Nicholas's reign began on December 14, 1825 (Old Style), which was a Monday. According to a Russian superstition, Mondays were considered unlucky. Hence, Russians considered his birth a bad omen for the coming days.
Nicholas decided to limit Russian society. He exercised restrictions over education, publishing, and all forms of expression of public life.
Nicholas's Chancellery head, Alexander Benckendorff, ordered the secret-police department of Imperial Russia, known as the 'Third Section' of the 'Imperial Chancellery,' to create a huge network of spies and informers in association with the 'Special Corps of Gendarmes.' This was done in the name of the empire's security.
Nicholas eradicated the autonomy of Bessarabia (of Eastern Europe) in 1828. He also dismissed the autonomy of Poland in 1830 and abolished the Jewish Qahal in 1843. In 1848, he suppressed a Hungarian uprising against Austrian control. All his suppression brought immense hatred to Russia from Western liberal thinkers, while Nicholas was labeled the "gendarme of Europe."
Russia opened its first railway line in 1828. In 1833, the 'Ministry of National Education' declared the motto of Nicholas's reign to be "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality," to suppress non-Russian nationalities and promote Orthodox Christianity.
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In 1839, Nicholas appointed a former Byzantine Catholic priest, Joseph Semashko, as his agent to enforce his orthodox values upon the Eastern Rite Catholics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania.
Nicholas's doctrine had two schools of thought. The Westernizers advocated the European ways and values and believed that his orthodoxy would make Russia backward and primitive. On the other hand, the Slavophiles favored his principles and believed that they would help Russia to progress differently from Western Europe.
Even though Nicholas was not in favor of serfdom (the status of many peasants under feudalism), he did not abolish it, as it could have turned against him. However, he tried to improve a lot of the government-owned serfs with the help of his minister Pavel Kiselyov.
Under Nicholas's reign, several civil institutions were reshaped according to the military tradition. Bureaucracy flourished, but the cultural and spiritual aspects of life were strictly controlled.
Though Nicholas made efforts to develop technical education and engineering, he highly controlled the universities and the admission procedure in his country. He exercised censorship at all educational institutions, including the 'Kiev University,' which he had established in 1834.
Nicholas's reign was marred by corruption. Although he opposed corrupt practices and made efforts to stop them, little did he realize that his autocracy was the root cause of corruption.
The Condition of Minorities
In 1851, the Jewish population in Russia controlled Poland, making them one of the largest “inorodtsy” (a special ethnicity-based category of the population) minorities in the Russian Empire.
On August 26, 1827, a proclamation of military recruitment ("Ustav rekrutskoi povinnosti") was introduced, according to which Jewish boys had to serve the Russian military for 25 years from the age of 18. However, Jews in Ukraine were exempt from the forced military conscription, in the wake of Jewish agricultural colonization.
In an attempt of Russification, Nicholas reformed the education of the Jews and abolished the study of the ‘Talmud,’ to stop their segregation from the Russian society. He further exercised censorship on the publication of Jewish books.
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Expansion & Downfall
Under Nicholas's reign, Russia rapidly expanded its territory by procuring control over the Far East and pushing its borders toward the Pacific Rim.
Nicholas was instrumental in the creation of an independent Greek state. He also successfully revolted against Russia's neighboring southern rivals and seized the last Persia-controlled territories in the Caucasus (including modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan), which ended the Russo–Persian War (1826–1828), the final conflict between the Russian Empire and Iran.
Russia successfully suppressed the Ottomans in 1828–1829. However, it did little to add to the Russian power in Europe. In 1833, Russia signed the 'Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi' with the Ottoman Empire. The major European parties wrongly believed that a secret clause in the treaty allowed Russia to transport warships through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.
Nicholas believed he had a major role in suppressing the revolutions of 1848, while his mistake of believing that he had British diplomatic support triggered the revolt against the Ottomans. Unfortunately, Nicholas's attempt to control the Ottoman Empire and the Orthodox population of the Balkans led to the Crimean War of 1853–1856.
Russia was considered a major military power for much of Nicholas's reign, a belief that was proved wrong after the fateful Crimean War at the end of his reign.
Russia saw a huge defeat at the hands of Britain, France, and Turkey. Russia's backward economy and incompetent army were the prime reasons for its defeat in the Crimean War.
Nicholas's aggressive foreign policy triggered several expensive wars, which crashed the Russian Empire's finances.
Personal Life & Death
Nicholas and Princess Charlotte of Prussia were engaged on November 4, 1815, at a state dinner in Berlin. They got married on July 13, 1817. Charlotte adopted the name “Alexandra” after she embraced Orthodox Christianity.
The union signified an imperial and political arrangement, which proved to be beneficial during the crucial years against Napoleon and during the peace settlement at the ‘Congress of Vienna’ after the Napoleonic Wars.
They had seven legitimate children. Nicholas is also speculated to have fathered Count Constantin Kleinmichel, Countess Catherine d'Andrini (1849–1937), Natalia Wodimova (1819–1876), and Alexei Pashkine (April 17, 1831–June 20, 1863).
On March 2, 1855, during the Crimean War, Nicholas died at his 'Winter Palace' in St. Petersburg. He was suffering from a severe cold, which later turned to pneumonia due to his refusal of treatment. It was rumored that Nicholas had committed suicide, as he could not bear Russia's disastrous defeat.
Nicholas was buried in the 'Peter and Paul Cathedral.'
Despite having a complex personality, Nicholas is referred to as a militant and reactionary in Russian history. His obsession with the military rule and orthodoxy had earned him the nickname ''Nicholas Palkin'' (derived from “Palka,” meaning “stick”).
In 'Empire of the Czar: A Journey through Eternal Russia,' authored by French aristocrat Marquis de Custine, Nicholas was depicted as a good person.
Some historians regard Nicholas as an intensely ''militaristic'' man, who considered the army as the best and greatest institution in Russia and an ideal model for society.
Nicholas's biographer, Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, describes him as a man of determination, singleness of purpose, an iron will, and a powerful sense of duty.