The Soldier Tsar

Tsar Nicholas I

The Decembrist Revolt

Why let a good plot go to waste, though? They decided still to go ahead with their plan, just as the new tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825–55) was being crowned, and in the process ensure that his reign would be devoted to an undeviating defense of the status quo. Russia’s story is full of such tragic ironies.

Nicholas had not even been meant to be tsar. Alexander left no legitimate heirs but two brothers. The younger, Nicholas—Nikolai—had instead trained as a soldier because Grand Duke Konstantin, governor of Poland, was next in line. But Konstantin married a Catholic Polish countess in 1820, and thus had secretly surrendered his claim to the throne. Dutiful, energetic and unimaginative, Nicholas then accepted the crown just as the liberal conspirators rushed to try and seize the initiative. What became known as the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 saw some 3,000 young army officers and their fellow travelers take to the streets in St. Petersburg. They demanded a constitution, they wanted reform, they got Nicholas. Cannon blasted them out of Senate Square, and loyal troops rounded the survivors up at bayonet-point, most ending up exiled to Siberia. The new tsar would come to power in battle, and from the first saw his role as being a soldier in the frontline against anarchy and insurrection. He saw no contradiction between his view that an autocrat had to be “gentle, courteous and just,” and building a police state and ruthlessly suppressing liberal writers and radical thinkers alike.

He looked at the empire as he would at an army. Just as an army needed discipline, so too did a nation, and at a time of revolutionary sentiment, it needed something to hold it together. In the wake of the Decembrist Revolt, which was considered in part a product of dangerous, foreign-inspired freethinking among the educated young, it fell on Count Sergei Uvarov, as education minister, to provide an answer. In 1833, he proposed the notion of “Official Nationality,” a doctrine that claimed that Russia’s traditional values needed to be defended against alien notions. The formula that was adopted was “Orthodoxy. Autocracy. Nationality.”

Leaning on Russia’s role as the last true Orthodox state was nothing new, but after a century of lip service to the idea of getting beyond tradition and embracing Western rationalism, this became a justification for quite the opposite. “Europe” was now a source of contamination that Nicholas said was “in harmony with neither the character nor the feelings of the Russian nation.” God meant Russia to be Russia, not a pallid copy of Western Europe. This was the job of autocracy, undiluted by constitutionalism. This did not mean tyranny for its own sake but what one could call, in contrast with Catherine’s ideal, unenlightened despotism: rigid central power in the name of the common interest. In the pursuit of national unity and a single loyalty, all subjects of the tsar should embrace a single faith and values. This was an era of “Russification,” as the Catholic Church in Poland came under new restrictions and Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Bessarabians were pressed to learn Russian.

Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine, was a liberal French aristocrat who traveled through a Russia that clearly appalled him, and he opined that “This empire, vast as it is, is only a prison to which the emperor holds the key.” The irony was that the tsar who has largely gone down in history as the epitome of the unreasoning martinet, the humorless defender of a dying and despotic order, was actually deeply skeptical of it. He genuinely believed in his divine right to rule, but believed that this required him to be hardworking, mindful of his responsibilities to Russia and the divine. He created the Special Corps of Gendarmes and the fearsome political police of the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery, both under General Count Alexander Benckendorff, but genuinely saw them as protectors of the people, policing them for their own good. Nicholas notoriously gave Benckendorff a handkerchief with the enjoinder to wipe away the tears of his subjects. He also oversaw a regime of censorship that often verged on the farcical—in some cookery books, references to “free air” were excised as sounding too subversive, and both Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevsky, greats of the Russian literary canon, would fall foul of the Third Section—but which was nonetheless seen as essential to hold back the tide of destructive ideas from the West.

He was not a self-indulgent tsar, and over time became increasingly disenchanted with the triviality and pomp of court entertainments. He certainly had no illusions about the aristocracy: according to legend, he told his ten-year-old son Alexander, “I believe you and I are the only people in Russia who don’t steal.” Indeed, his reign was noteworthy for the proliferation of generals appointed to ministries and Baltic German aristocrats (like Benckendorff) from the empire’s northwestern margins elevated to key positions: he felt he had to go outside the usual pool of officials and noblemen in the hope of finding honest and efficient personnel. Sadly, that often didn’t work, either.

Most strikingly, Nicholas also disapproved of the institution of serfdom. Through his reign, he would convene a series of secret commissions to try and find some way of squaring the circle: how to abolish a system of land-slavery that was inefficient, inhumane and a source of periodic uprisings without totally destabilizing the whole social order and alienating the rural gentry, the landlords who were the backbone of the tsarist order in the countryside. Nicholas was brave enough faced with physical danger, but he never dared tackle this challenge, concluding that “There is no doubt that serfdom in its present position is evil … but trying to extinguish it now would be a matter of even more disastrous evil.” And why take the risk? Hadn’t victory over Napoleon proved that, however backward it might seem, the Russian system was strong enough to triumph and survive? So Russia’s rulers told themselves, as long as they could.

For a while, they could continue to do so. For most of his reign, Nicholas was a successful warrior-tsar. He certainly devoted passion, time and excessive amounts of money to the Russian military. His army would grow to a million men—out of a total population of 60 to 70 million—but it would later become clear that he mistook spit and polish for real combat effectiveness.

Like Alexander, Nicholas considered championing the traditional order as an internationalist duty. During his reign Russia would become known as the “Gendarme of Europe” for his enthusiasm to help fellow monarchs stamp out the fires and embers of revolution. In 1831, his army crushed a revolt in Poland triggered by his rolling back of the Poles’ constitutional rights. Once a subject kingdom with its own parliament, Poland was reduced to the status of a mere province, under an appointed governor. When a series of revolutions erupted across Europe in 1848, even though Russia was suffering from famine caused by unusually poor harvests and a cholera epidemic, his troops would again march in the name of the status quo. Having already helped the Austrians suppress the revolt of the Free City of Krakow in 1846, Nicholas broke the 1848 Moldavian national movement and then sent his armies to join the Habsburg Empire in putting down the Hungarian revolution in 1849.

Again, the double-headed eagle looked both ways. Nicholas was at once committed to—as he saw it—saving Europe from its own ungodly and illegitimate dalliance with liberalism, as well as protecting Russia from European ideas. Aware of the advances in Western science and technology, he wanted to adopt the elements of the West that looked useful, while ignoring the social, political and legal contexts from which they sprang. Without a thriving mercantile class to generate investment capital, without free and open debate in universities and educated circles to generate ideas, and without greater social mobility to generate new cohorts of innovators and skeptics, Russia would always remain backward, desperately trying to adopt and adapt the inventions of others.

This did not matter so much while Nicholas’s armies were deployed against rioters, even when their enemies were Persians and Turks. It would matter a great deal when they found themselves fighting the British and the French—the most advanced military powers of the age—in Crimea, a war Nicholas had never wanted to fight, and which was paradoxically triggered by his desire to protect the European status quo.

Despite Western portrayals that presented him as just one more incarnation of a Russia bear eager to gobble up territories to the south and the southwest, in the main he felt he was acting to maintain stability. This was a real challenge when it came to Russia’s old rival, the Ottoman Empire. There was traditional bad blood there, not least given the Muslim Turks’ occupation of Orthodox Christian lands (and the “Second Rome,” Constantinople). Nicholas feared, though, that any serious pressure on this decaying empire risked bringing it down, causing chaos in southeastern Europe, angering Ottoman allies France and Britain and alienating ally Austria. Instead, he wanted to keep the Ottomans weak enough not to be a threat—and potentially even becoming Russian vassals—but not so weak that their fractious empire broke apart. Nicholas also needed to guarantee passage rights through the straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, as this was a crucial trade route for Russia, especially its grain exports.

The Greeks had been battling for independence since 1821, and in 1827, fearing an Ottoman collapse or a unilateral Russian intervention, the British and French joined with the Russians to force the empire to grant them at least autonomy. At Navarino, the allied fleet decisively defeated a larger but antiquated Ottoman force, but Sultan Mahmud II was still not willing to concede. He closed the Dardanelles to Russian shipping. In response, Nicholas put 100,000 men into the field and, after some hard fighting, by 1829 the Ottomans had been forced to sue for peace.

Crimea and Punishment

Ultimately, though, the “Eastern Question” was less about Turkey than European great-power politics. Britain feared Russian expansionism: both London and St. Petersburg saw fiendish long-term strategy in their rival’s clumsy short-term responses to a chaotic world. France’s newly minted emperor, Napoleon III, was looking for glory. The Ottomans feared Russia. And Nicholas not only feared being locked away from the Mediterranean, but resented what he saw as Western double standards. He found his sentiments accurately reflected in a report by a Russian scholar, Mikhail Pogodin, who wrote that “we can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice.”

A squabble over the rights of Christians in the Ottoman-occupied Holy Land led to Nicholas asserting himself as guardian of the Orthodox community. Attempts to broker an agreement fell through, and in 1853 the Ottomans—believing they had British and French support—declared war on Russia. It started badly for them, as Russian troops crossed the Danube into Romania and Russian ships smashed a naval squadron at Sinope. Fearing an Ottoman collapse, the French and British rushed forces to the Balkans, just as the Russians pulled back.

Having stirred up jingoistic sentiment at home, neither government could afford to remain, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels put it, with “the French doing nothing and the British helping them as fast as possible.” So they chose instead to turn their attentions to the Crimean Peninsula and Russia’s main base on the Black Sea, Sevastopol. It took almost a year for an allied force to take the city in a war marked as much for the incompetence as the bravery shown on both sides. The infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, when miscommunication sent British cavalry straight at Russian cannon, was in many ways the epitome of both.

Nonetheless, this war was to prove a turning point for Russia, albeit one Nicholas himself would not see through. He died in 1855, while Sevastopol was under siege, and with him, it seemed, died the comforting notion that Russia was not at risk from its backwardness. With steamships, British and French forces could be reinforced and resupplied more quickly than the Russians, even though they were fighting on their own soil, could manage on foot. The rifles the British and French infantry used could outrange antiquated smoothbore Russian cannon. The brilliance of some tsarist generals and the stoic bravery of many of their troops could not conceal the fact that Russia’s serf army was outgunned, undertrained and often badly led. It was, in every way, a metaphor for the country’s social, economic and technological circumstances.

The war would prove a catalyst for arguably the most ambitious social engineering project Russia had yet to see. The new tsar, Nicholas’s son Alexander II (r. 1855–81), quickly sued for peace, and turned his gaze inward. Russia had failed to modernize, and that failure risked leaving it vulnerable in an age of aggressive imperialism and a changing European balance of power. The serfs wanted their land, but had no answer as to what this would do to an empire that depended on its landed elites. The Westernizers wanted constitutional monarchy and industrialization, but had no answer as to what this would mean for Russia. The conservative Slavophiles clung to the notion that Russian culture needed to be purged of Western decadence, but had no answer as to how that could be reconciled with necessary modernization. Everyone agreed something had to be done—as Tolstoy put it, “Russia must either fall or be transformed”—but there was no agreement as to what. All eyes turned to Alexander.