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Nicholas I
Preceded by Alexander I
Succeeded by Alexander II
Personal details
Born (1796-07-06)6 July 1796
Gatchina, Russian Empire
Died 2 March 1855(1855-03-02) (aged 58)
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Spouse(s) Charlotte of Prussia
Religion Eastern Orthodox

Nicholas I (Николай I Павлович, r Nikolai I Pavlovich; 6 July [O.S. 25 June] 1796 – 2 March [O.S. 18 February] 1855) was the Emperor of Russia from 1825 until 1855. He was also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland. He was the younger brother of his childless predecessor, Alexander I. Nicholas inherited his brother's throne despite the failed Decembrist revolt against him, and went on to become the most reactionary of Russian monarchs. In his last years, Nicholas I led the Imperial Russian Army in the unsuccessful Crimean War. However, he was also instrumental in helping to create an independent Greek state and defeated the Ottoman empire in the Russo-Turkish war 1828-1829. Thus he was a key player in the ascendency of Russia as a world power and helped hasten the disintegration of the aging Ottoman empire. On the eve of his death, the Russian Empire reached its historical zenith, spanning over 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles).

Early life and road to power

Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich, future emperor Nicholas I (ca. 1820).

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

Nicholas was not brought up to become the Emperor of Russia; he had two elder brothers. In 1825, when Alexander I died suddenly 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, on 25 (13 Old Style) December, Nicholas issued the manifesto proclaiming his accession to the throne. That manifesto retroactively named 1 December (19 November Old Style), the date of Alexander I's death, as the beginning of his reign. During this confusion, a plot was hatched by some members of the military to overthrow Nicholas and to seize power. This led to the Decembrist Revolt on 26 (14 Old Style) December 1825, an uprising Nicholas was successful in quickly suppressing.

Emperor and principles

Imperial Monogram

Nicholas completely lacked his brother's spiritual and intellectual breadth; he saw his role simply as that of a paternal autocrat ruling his people by whatever means necessary.[1] Nicholas I began his reign on 14 December 1825,[2] which fell on a Monday; Russian superstition held that Mondays were unlucky days.[3] This particular Monday dawned very cold, with temperatures of −8 degrees Celsius.[3] This was regarded by the Russian people as a bad omen for the coming reign. The accession of Nicholas I was marred by a demonstration of 3,000 young Imperial Army officers and other liberal-minded citizens. This demonstration was an attempt to force the government to accept a constitution and a representative form of government. Nicolas ordered the army out to smash the demonstration. The "uprising" was quickly put down and became known as the Decembrist Revolt. Having experienced the trauma of the Decembrist Revolt on the very first day of his reign, 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 forms of control over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life.

Tsar Nicholas abolished several areas of local autonomy. Bessarabia's autonomy was removed in 1828, Poland's in 1830 and the Jewish Qahal was abolished in 1843. As an exception to this trend, Finland was able keep its autonomy partly due to Finnish soldiers' loyal participation in crushing the November Uprising in Poland.[4]

Russia's first railway was opened in 1838, a 16-mile line between St. Petersburg and the suburban residence of Tsarskoye Selo. The second was the Moscow – Saint Petersburg Railway, built in 1842–51. Nevertheless, by 1855 there were only 570 miles of Russian railways.[5]

In 1833, the Ministry of National Education, Sergey Uvarov, devised a program of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality" as the guiding principle of the regime. The people were to show loyalty to the unrestricted authority of the tsar, to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, and to the Russian language. These romantic and conservative principles outlined by Uvarov were also espoused by Vasily Zhukovsky, one of the tutors of the Grand Duke Alexander.[6] The results of these Slavophile principles led, broadly speaking, to increasing repression of all classes, excessive censorship and surveillance of independent minded intellectuals like Pushkin and Lermontov and to the persecution of non-Russian languages and non-Orthodox religions.[7] Taras Shevchenko, later to become known as the national poet of Ukraine, was exiled to Siberia by a direct order of Tsar Nicholas after composing a poem that mocked the Tsar, his wife, and his domestic policies. By order of the Tsar, Shevchenko was kept under strict surveillance and prevented from writing or painting.

From 1839, Tsar Nicholas also used a former Byzantine Catholic priest named Joseph Semashko as a means to force Orthodoxy upon the Eastern Rite Catholics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. This caused Tsar Nicholas to be condemned by a succession of Roman Pontiffs, the Marquis de Custine, Charles Dickens,[8] and many Western governments. See also Cantonists.

Nicholas disliked serfdom and toyed with the idea of abolishing it in Russia, but declined to do so for reasons of state. He feared the aristocracy and believed they might turn against him if he abolished serfdom. However, he did make some efforts to improve the lot of the Crown Serfs (serfs owned by the government) with the help of his minister Pavel Kiselev. During most of his reign he tried to increase his control over the landowners and other influential groups in Russia. In 1831, Nicholas restricted the votes in the Noble Assembly to those with over 100 serfs, leaving 21,916 voters.[9] In 1841, landless nobles were banned from selling serfs separate from the land.[10] From 1845, attainment of the 5th highest rank (out of 14) in the Table of Ranks was required to be ennobled, previously it had been the 8th rank.[11]


The official emphasis on Russian nationalism fueled 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 sceptical 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 savior, thus representing 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

Monument to Nicholas I on St. Isaac's Square

In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and as guardian against revolution. It has often been noticed that such policies were linked with the Metternich counter-revolutionary system; indeed, Austrian special ambassador Count Karl Ludwig von Ficquelmont was well known for his extensive influence over the tsar of whom he was a close friend.[citation needed] Nicholas's offers to suppress revolution on the European continent, trying to follow the pattern set by his eldest brother, Tsar Alexander I, earned him the label of gendarme of Europe. Immediately on his succession Nicholas began to limit the liberties that existed under the 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, reduced Poland to the status of a province, Privislinsky Krai, and embarked on a policy of repression towards Catholics.[12] In the 1840s Nicholas reduced 64,000 Polish nobles to commoner status.[13]

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 to suppress the uprising in Hungary, and he also urged Prussia not to adopt a liberal constitution.

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 against the Ottomans in 1828-29. 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. Buoyed up by 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 on 8 October 1853. On 30 November 1853, Russian Admiral Nakhimov caught the Turkish fleet in the harbor at Sinope and destroyed it.[14]

In 1854, fearing the results of an Ottoman defeat by Russia, Britain, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire joined forces in the conflict known as the Crimean War to the Ottomans and Western Europeans, but often known in Russia as the Eastern War, Russian: Восточная война, Vostochnaya Vojna (March 1854 – February 1856). In April 1854, Austria signed a defensive pact with Prussia.[15] Thus, Russia found herself in a war with the whole of Europe allied against her.[16]

Austria offered the Ottomans diplomatic support, and Prussia remained neutral, thus leaving Russia without any allies on the continent. The European allies landed in Crimea and laid siege to the well-fortified Russian base at Sebastopol. The Russians lost battles at Alma in September 1854.[17] This failure was followed by lost battles at Balaklava and Inkerman.[17] After the prolonged Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855) the base fell, exposing Russia's inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil. On the death of Nicholas I, Alexander II became Tsar. On 15 January 1856, the new tsar took Russia out of the war on very unfavorable terms which included the loss of a naval fleet on the Black Sea.


Nicholas died on 2 March 1855, during the Crimean War. He caught a chill and refused medical treatment and died of pneumonia,[18] although there were rumors he committed suicide.[19]


There have been many damning verdicts on Nicholas's rule and legacy. At the end of his life, one of his most devoted civil servants, A.V. Nikitenko, opined that, "The main failing of the reign of Nicholas Pavlovich was that it was all a mistake."[20] However, from time to time, efforts are made to revive Nicholas's reputation. He believed, it is said, in his own oath and in respecting other people's rights as well as his own; witness Poland before 1831 and Hungary in 1849. It is also said that 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. Shortly before his death, he made his son Alexander II promise to abolish serfdom.[citation needed]

According to Igor Vinogradov, Nicholas and his Minister of Public Education Uvarov spread education through the Empire at all levels.

Kiev University was founded in 1834 by Nicholas.

As a traveler in Spain, Italy and Russia, the Frenchman Marquis de Custine said in his widely read book Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia that, inside, Nicholas was a good person, and behaved as he did only 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."[21]

Nicholas figures 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 route 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.[22] This curve had to be eliminated in the early 2000s when the speed of the trains running between the two cities needed to be increased.


Titles and styles

  • 6 July 1796 – 1 December 1825: His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich of Russia
  • 1 December 1825 – 2 March 1855: His Imperial Majesty The Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias


On 13 July 1817, Nicholas married Charlotte of Prussia (1798–1860), who thereafter went by the name Alexandra Feodorovna. Charlotte's parents were 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.

Emperor Alexander II, born 17 April 1818, successor of father Nicholas I, assassinated 13 March 1881, married 1841, Marie of Hesse and by Rhine

Name Birth Death Notes
Emperor Alexander II 29 April 1818 13 March 1881 married 1841, Marie of Hesse and by Rhine; had issue
Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna 18 August 1819 21 February 1876 married 1839, Maximilian de Beauharnais; had issue
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna 11 September 1822 30 October 1892 married 1846, Karl of Württemberg
Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna of Russia 24 June 1825 10 August 1844 married 1844, Landgrave Friedrich-Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Nikolaevna of Russia 7 June 1826 1829
Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich 21 September 1827 25 January 1892 married 1848, Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg; had issue
Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich 8 August 1831 25 April 1891 married 1856, Alexandra of Oldenburg; had issue
Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich 25 October 1832 18 December 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's doctors prohibited her from having sexual intercourse, due to her poor health and recurring heart attacks.[citation needed] 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, Varvara Nelidova.[citation needed]

With Anna-Maria Charlota de Rutenskiold (1791–1856)[23][unreliable source?]

  • Youzia Koberwein (12 May 1825 – 23 February 1923)

With Varvara Yakovleva (1803–1831):[citation needed]

  • Olga Carlovna Albrecht (10 July 1828 – 20 January 1898)

With Varvara Nelidova (d. 1897):[citation needed]

  • Alexis Pashkine (17 April 1831 – 20 June 1863)

See also

  • History of Russia
  • Imperial Russia
  • Tsars of Russia family tree
  • The Third Section
  • La Russie en 1839


  1. W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs (The Dial Press: New York, 1981) p. 411.
  2. Edward Crankshaw, The Shadow of the Winter Palace (Viking Press: New York, 1976) p. 13.
  3. 3.0 3.1 W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs, p. 409.
  4. Lifgardets 3 Finska Skarpskyttebataljon 1812-1905 ett minnesblad. 1905 Helsinki by Söderström & Co
  5. Henry Reichman, Railwaymen and revolution: Russia, 1905 page 16
  6. W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs, p. 428.
  7. W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs, p. 490.
  8. Charles Dickens, THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUNS OF MINSK, Household Words, Issue No. 216. Volume IX, Pages 290-295.
  9. Richard Pipes, Russia under the old regime, page 179
  10. Geroid Tanquary Robinson, Rural Russia under the old régime: a history of the landlord-peasant world, page 37
  11. Geoffrey Hosking, Russia: People and Empire, page 155
  12. An introduction to Russian history
  13. Richard Pipes, Russia under the old regime, page 181 By Robert Auty, Dimitri Obolensky. p 180. [1]
  14. Edward Crankshaw, The Shadow of the Winter Palace, p. 133.
  15. Edward Crankshaw, The Shadow of the Winter Palace, pp. 135–136
  16. Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar, p. 94.
  17. 17.0 17.1 W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs, p. 425.
  18. Peter Oxley, Russia: from Tsars to Commissars, Oxford University Press, (2001), ISBN 0-19-913418-9.
  19. Yevgeny Anismov, Rulers of Russia, Golden Lion press, St. Petersburg Russia (2012).
  20. Edward Crankshaw (1978) The Shadow of the Winter Palace: the Drift To Revolution 1825–1917. London, Penguin: 50
  21. George F. Kennan, The Marquis de Custine and his Russia in 1839, Princeton University Press, (1971), ISBN 0-691-05187-9.
  22. O'Flynn, Kevin (24 October 2001). "Tsar's Finger sliced off on the Moscow express". London: Guardian Unlimited.,2763,579665,00.html. 
  23. Lundy, Darryl (18 March 2003). "Anna-Maria Charlota de Rutenskiold". The Peerage. p. 5963 §i59624. 
  • 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, appropriate credit should be given to the series." Please leave this statement intact so that credit can be given.
  •  This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website

External links

Nicholas I of Russia
House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov
Cadet branch of the House of Oldenburg
Born: 6 July 1796 Died: 2 March 1855
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Alexander I
Emperor of Russia
Grand Duke of Finland

1825 – 1855
Succeeded by
Alexander II
King of Poland
1825 – 1830
Vacant King of Poland
1831 – 1855
Succeeded by
Alexander II

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