czar nicholas i

Nicholas I of Russia

Nicholas I (Russian: Николай I Павлович, Nikolaj I Pavlovič), (6 July, 17962 March, 1855), was the Emperor of Russia from 1825 until 1855, known as one of the most reactionary of the Russian monarchs. On the eve of his death, the Russian empire reached its historical zenith spanning almost 5 billion acres. He was also King of Poland until his deposition in 1831.

He was born in Gatchina to Emperor Paul I and Empress Maria Feodorovna. He was a younger brother to Alexander I of Russia and Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia.

Early life and road to power

Nicholas was not brought up to be the Emperor of Russia, as he had two elder brothers before him. As such, in 1825, when Alexander I suddenly died of typhus, Nicholas was caught between swearing allegiance to his second-eldest brother Constantine Pavlovich and accepting the throne for himself. The interregnum lasted until Constantine Pavlovich who was in Warsaw at that time confirmed his refusal. Additionally, in December 25 (13 Old Style) Nicholas issued the manifesto claiming his accession to the throne. That manifesto named December 1 as official date of his reign start. During that confusion a plot was hatched by the military to overthrow Nicholas and to usurp power. This led to the Decembrist Revolt in December 26 (14 Old Style), 1825 where Nicholas almost lost his life but in the end was successful in suppressing the uprising.

Emperor and principles

Nicholas completely lacked his brothers' spiritual and intellectual breadth; he saw his role simply as one paternal autocrat ruling his people by whatever means were necessary. Having experienced the trauma of the Decembrist Revolt, Nicholas I was determined to restrain Russian society. The Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery ran a huge network of spies and informers with the help of Gendarmes. The government exercised censorship and other controls over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life. In 1833 the minister of education, Sergey Uvarov, devised a program of "autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality" as the guiding principle of the regime. The people were to show loyalty to the unlimited authority of the tsar, to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, and, in a vague way, to the Russian nation. These principles did not gain the support of the population but instead led to repression in general and to suppression of non-Russian nationalities and religions in particular. For example, the government suppressed the Greek-Catholic Churches in Ukraine and Belarus in 1839. See also Cantonists.

Nicholas refused to abolish serfdom during his reign, since it enabled the landlords to govern the peasants-something the relatively small Russian bureaucracy was unable to do directly. However, he did make some efforts to improve the lot of the state peasants (serfs owned by the government) with the help of the minister Pavel Kiselev.


The official emphasis on Russian nationalism contributed to a debate on Russia's place in the world, the meaning of Russian history, and the future of Russia. One group, the Westernizers, believed that Russia remained backward and primitive and could progress only through more Europeanization. Another group, the Slavophiles, enthusiastically favored the Slavs and their culture and customs, and had a distaste for westerners and their culture and customs. The Slavophiles viewed Slavic philosophy as a source of wholeness in Russia and were skeptical of Western rationalism and materialism. Some of them believed that the Russian peasant commune, or Mir, offered an attractive alternative to Western capitalism and could make Russia a potential social and moral saviour. The Slavophiles, therefore, represented a form of Russian messianism.

Despite the repressions of this period, Russia experienced a flowering of literature and the arts. Through the works of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and numerous others, Russian literature gained international stature and recognition. Ballet took root in Russia after its importation from France, and classical music became firmly established with the compositions of Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857).

Foreign policy

In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and guardian against revolution. His offers to suppress revolution on the European continent, accepted in some instances, earned him the label of gendarme of Europe. In 1825 Nicholas I was crowned and began to limit the liberties of constitutional monarchy in Congress Poland. In return, after the November Uprising broke out, in 1831 the Polish parliament deposed Nicholas as king of Poland in response to his repeated curtailment of its constitutional rights. The Tsar reacted by sending Russian troops into Poland. Nicholas crushed the rebellion, abrogated the Polish constitution, and reduced Poland to the status of a Russian province and embarked on a policy of repression towards Catholics In 1848, when a series of revolutions convulsed Europe, Nicholas was in the forefront of reaction. In 1849 he intervened on behalf of the Habsburgs and helped suppress an uprising in Hungary, and he also urged Prussia not to accept a liberal constitution. Having helped conservative forces repel the specter of revolution, Nicholas I seemed to dominate Europe.

Russian dominance proved illusory, however. While Nicholas was attempting to maintain the status quo in Europe, he adopted an aggressive policy toward the Ottoman Empire. Nicholas I was following the traditional Russian policy of resolving the so-called Eastern Question by seeking to partition the Ottoman Empire and establish a protectorate over the Orthodox population of the Balkans, still largely under Ottoman control in the 1820s. Russia fought a successful war with the Ottomans in 1828 and 1829. In 1833 Russia negotiated the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi with the Ottoman Empire. The major European parties mistakenly believed that the treaty contained a secret clause granting Russia the right to send warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. By the London Straits Convention of 1841, they affirmed Ottoman control over the straits and forbade any power, including Russia, to send warships through the straits. Based on his role in suppressing the revolutions of 1848 and his mistaken belief that he had British diplomatic support, Nicholas moved against the Ottomans, who declared war on Russia in 1853. Fearing the results of an Ottoman defeat by Russia, in 1854 Britain and France joined what became known as the Crimean War on the Ottoman side. Austria offered the Ottomans diplomatic support, and Prussia remained neutral, leaving Russia without allies on the continent. The European allies landed in Crimea and laid siege to the well-fortified Russian base at Sevastopol. After a year's siege the base fell, exposing Russia's inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil. Nicholas I died before the fall of Sevastopol, but he already had recognized the failure of his regime. Russia now faced the choice of initiating major reforms or losing its status as a major European power.


Nicholas died on 2 March 1855. The cause of his death is unclear though many believe he poisoned himself after learning of Russia's defeat at Evpatoria during the Crimean War.


From time to time efforts are made to revive Nicholas' reputation.
Nicholas believed in his own oath and in respecting other people's rights as well as his own; witness Poland before 1831 and Hungary in 1849. He hated serfdom at heart and would have liked to destroy it, as well as detesting the tyranny of the Baltic squires over their 'emancipated' peasantry.... He must not be judged by the panic period of 1848-1855... we must not forget that his Minister of Public Education was Uvarov... who did an immense amount to spread education through the Empire at all levels. (Igor Vinogradoff)

The Marquis de Custine was open to the possibility that, inside, Nicholas was a good person, and only behaved as he did because he believed he had to. "If the Emperor, has no more of mercy in his heart than he reveals in his policies, then I pity Russia; if, on the other hand, his true sentiments are really superior to his acts, then I pity the Emperor."

Nicholas is involved in an urban myth about the railroad from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. When it was to be constructed, the engineers proposed to Nicholas that he draw the path of the future railroad on the map himself. So he is said to have taken a ruler and put one end at Moscow, the other at Saint Petersburg, and then drawn a straight line - but his finger was slightly sticking out, and this left the railroad with a small curve. In fact, this curve was added in 1877, 26 years after the railway's construction, to circumvent a steep gradient that lasted for 15 km, and interfered with the railway's functionality. This curving had to be rectified in the early 2000s when the speed of the trains running between the two cities had to be increased.



Nicholas married Charlotte of Prussia (1798 - 1860) who thereafter went by the name Alexandra Feodorovna. Charlotte was daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Nicholas and Charlotte were third cousins, as they were both great-great-grandchildren of Frederick William I of Prussia.

Name Birth Death Notes
Tsar Alexander II April 17 1818 March 13 1881 married 1841, Marie of Hesse and by Rhine; had issue
Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna August 18 1819 February 21 1876 married 1839, Maximilian de Beauharnais; had issue
Stillborn Daughter 22 July 1820 22 July 1820
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna September 11 1822 October 30 1892 married 1846, Karl of Württemberg
Stillborn Daughter 23 October 1823 23 October 1823
Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna of Russia June 24 1825 August 10 1844 married 1844, Landgrave Friedrich-Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Nikolaevna of Russia 7 June 1826 c.1829
Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich September 91827 January 13 1892 married 1848, Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg; had issue
Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich July 27 1831 April 13 1891 married 1856, Alexandra of Oldenburg; had issue
Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich October 13 1832 December 18 1909 married 1857, Cecilie of Baden; had issue

Illegitimate Issue

Many sources state that Nicholas did not have an extramarital affair until after 25 years of marriage, in 1842, when the Empress was forbidden from sex, due to her poor health and recurring heart-attacks, by her doctors. Many facts dispute this claim. Nicholas fathered three known children with mistresses prior to 1842, including one with his most famous, and well documented, mistress Barbara Nelidova.

With Anna-Maria Charlota de Rutenskiold (1791-1856)

With Varvara Yakovleva (1803-1831)

With Varvara Nelidova (d. 1897)

See also


  • The first draft of this article was taken with little editing from the Library of Congress Federal Research Division's Country Studies series. As their home page at says, ''"Information contained in the Country Studies On-Line is not copyrighted and thus is available for free and unrestricted use by researchers. As a courtesy, however, approp

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