Reign of Nicholas I – the emperor historians compare to Putin

Reign of Nicholas I – the emperor historians compare to Putin

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Reign of Nicholas I – the emperor historians compare to Putin

Suspilne Culture is launching a project on how Russia affected the development of Ukraine. Russia's attempts to destroy Ukrainian identity have been going on for quite some time. Top historians are here to explain just how Russians have been trying to destroy all things Ukrainian for several centuries.

We will publish both English and Ukrainian translations of these texts. Russia's informational aggression has been a part of the daily discourse for a long time, but especially acute after 2014's Maidan. Now we need to spread awareness abroad to show just how much of a bad influence Russia has always been.

Journalist and YouTuber Oleh Kryshtopa (History for Adults) writes about Nicholas I reign, whom historians often compare to Putin.

Ukrainian version is available here.

Scientific editing by Mykhailo Nazarenko.

Translated from Ukrainian by Ivan Korniienko.

Nicholas`s I reign was the peak of absolutist power in Russian Empire. He's worth a closer look since it's him Russian historians love to compare to Putin.

Nikolai was fanatically sure that he was the god-chosen ruler of the country. His father, emperor Paul, was killed when Nicholas was four. Nicholas`s mother sent him off to be raised by the military. He was punished hard for his temper – teachers hit him with a ruler. No wonder Nicholas was never much of a bookworm. His only interest was the army with its easy to understand hierarchy and discipline

Future tzar's aggression stems from his childhood. Palace records from 1802-1809 are rich with such stories:

"Whatever happened, whether he fell down or bumped into something or considered his will not done and himself insulted, he was quick to swear <...>, chopped his toys and drums with an ax, broke them, hit his friends with a stick or whatever was at hand".

He spat on his sister Anne in moments of rage. Once he hit his friend Adlerberg with a children's rifle's butt so hard that he was left with a scar for life.

Even stepping onto the throne didn't mellow him out. He once publically scolded court minister Volkonsky (tzar's senior by 20 years) because the steamboat's cook prepared too little food. He pinched Kleinmichel, the loyal minister of transportation several times so hard that the latter was left with bruises, for the fact that railroad station windows were hard to open. Never you mind those who were of lower ranks. Minor oversights on their parts were good enough reason for Nicholas to yell and swear so hard people fainted.

Nicholas`s enthronement conceded with the Decembrists' uprising, which was mercilessly put down. He took it upon himself to punish the mutineers and interrogated them personally. This explains the series of confessions, penitences, and calumniation. But those who believed in his pardon were wrong to do so. Five Decembrists were sentenced to death by hanging. Three of the poor souls survived, though, the ropes couldn't hold their weights and tore. One of them yelled out: "Oh poor Russia! They can't even hang a man properly here!". According to an unwritten rule, they had to be let go after this. But Nicholas didn't change his decision. Executioners had to hurry off, looking for a new rope. Mutineers were finally hanged for the second time.

After this tzar created the secret police – Third Department of the Chancellery, the harbinger of future KGB and FSB to find and punish anyone who dissented. Nicholas also introduced total censorship. 1836 saw a scandal explode in Saint-Petersburg. "Teleskop" magazine printed Petr Chaadaev's "Philosophical letters" criticizing Russia's politics and culture. Here's an excerpt:

"We gave nothing to the world, took nothing from the world, we haven't contributed anything to the mass of human ideas".

Chaadaev was declared insane by the state – put under home arrest for a year, the censor got fired, the magazine was shut down and the editor Nadezhdin was sent off to Siberia.

Nicholas considered protecting the "Holy Rus" from liberalism, (which, naturally, came from the West) to be his holy mission. Nicholas hated everything foreign. Especially France, where republicans won again in 1848. His hatred has real consequences: leaving Russia under his reign was next to impossible. In April 1834, Russian subjects were limited in the time they could spend abroad: five years for noblemen, three years for everyone else. Age restrictions were introduced in 1844: people younger than 25 couldn't leave the country at all. Tzar once had an interesting talk with baron Corf, who has just returned from abroad:

– Are there lots of Russian youths in foreign lands? – emperor asked.

– Very few, your highness, almost none.

– That's too many still.

Add total distrusts of everyone and everything. Sometimes it was almost comical. One Nicholas noticed two soldiers entering a tavern, despite his strictest orders against going so. He stopped his sled and ran after them. He broke inside and started looking for the criminals, but in vain. "We didn't see them" – the tavernkeeper told him with a very innocent (albeit a bit silly) look.

And of course, like all the Russian tzars, Nicholas I fought a lot of wars, seizing new land: war with Persia, the Caucasian War, war with Turkey. He nailed the Polish uprising, canceled the Polish constitution. He ordered a fort to be built nearby Warsaw, which he personally came to see and was left satisfied.

It's his reign that came to define Russia's national idea as "autocracy, orthodoxy, nation".

Nicholas was also knee-deep in debauchery. To quote de Custine:

"If he takes a liking to a woman on a walk, in a theater, in the world, he says a word to his aide. A person has attracted who the Godliness' attention is quickly put under surveillance. If she's married, her husband is warned, if she's a girl, her parents are told of the honor they are bestowed upon. There were no cases when this honor was accepted with anything else but deep gratitude. Everything was put on rails and girls were usually married off to one of the courtiers..."

De Custine thought that no other than empress Alexandra was responsible for these "matches". Nicholas didn't have sex with his wife since 1832. Nothing personal, just a doctor's prescription. After the hard birth of the seventh child, doctors forbade Charlotte-Alexandra to become pregnant. Since there were no contraception methods around back then, this effectively meant no sex. So Alexandra Fedorivna just looked the other way.

His hatred towards the West finally pushed Nicholas I to start a "small victorious war". The Crimean war came as a result of Russia's multi-century sickly obsession with capturing Constantinople (since 16th-century Muscovian rulers seriously thought of Moscow as the Third RomeThe theory came about in the 16th century and became an imperial ideology in the late 19th century – Editor’s Note). Turkey was weakened and, to Nicholas, seemed like a perfect target. Ambassador arrived in Turkey bearing an ultimatum: he said that the Turkish were infringing on the rights of the orthodoxes and the tzar, as their protector, just could not allow that. So he demands all orthodoxes to enter the protectorate of the Russian tzar. Of course, the sultan declined. Thus began the war.

Russian fleet attacked Turkish ships in the bay of Sinop in the fall of 1853. Having an advantage in the number of cannons, the Russians sank Turkish ships. But they continued to fire at the city and Sinop was effectively leveled. After this, both the British and French entered the war, siding with Turkey. Joint French, Turkish and British landings took place near Eupatoria in Crimea and the siege of Sevastopol has begun. The patriotic rage of Russians quickly subsided. A thought came about, though that there's only one "right" country — Russia, and that enemies are encircling. Nicholas I inspected soldiers to be sent to Crimea in January 1855, wearing only light clothes. Naturally, he caught a cold. After another sudden military defeat tzar got worse and he died. Soon afterward, Russia gave up Sevastopol and signed the "shameful peace". Does this remind you of something?

Russia's punishment for that war of aggression was too light and soon enough it embarked on more wars. Tzars changed. Russia didn't.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Suspilne Culture.

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