To what extent was the government of Nicholas I nothing more than a repressive regime?
It would be erroneous to say that Nicholas I reign was made up entirely of rigid repression. Up to 1848, there were many aspects of his time in government that reformed Russia and its international relations for the better, and I shall now endeavour to explore the notion that repression wasn’t the only substantial characteristic of his reign.
Nicholas was very concerned about the plight of Russia’s state peasants. In 1836 the ‘Fifth Section’ was created with the aim of improving the poor administration of the state peasants. Nicholas wanted to make state peasants more efficient producers, which in turn would benefit the state and he hoped that this would set a good example to landowners to follow with their serfs.
In 1837, Nicholas started the Ministry of State Domains with the German Kiselev at its head, and over the next 18 months considerable progress was made in improving the lives of state peasants. New land was surveyed and opened up to landless peasants alongside the building of hospitals, schools and churches to cater for the 200,000 that had settled on new land. Resettlement though was not voluntary, and naturally this caused much resentment amongst some peasants and led to a series of riots between 1841 and 1843. Though there were drawbacks, one must consider that the conditions of the peasants were unlikely to improve had these attempts not been made.
The years of 1826 to 1830 had seen limited reform in Russia, but the 1830 Polish Revolt marked a significant turning point in Nicholas’s reign. Across Europe there were mass uprisings in Belgium, France, Italy and Germany, and this worried Nicholas who feared the worst for Russia, especially after the Decembrist revolts at the beginning of his Tsardem. He thus tried to co-ordinate international action against the revolutionists, but received little support from other governments.
In November 1830 his fears came true when Russia was attacked by revolutionists from neighbours Poland. It took nine months for the Russians to suppress the uprisings, and when they did, Nicholas was determined to keep the Poles under control. To do this, he revoked the constitution and replaced it with a much more restrictive statute. Whenever there was any revolt, like the one in Poland, Nicholas was keen to stamp it out and local institutions were swept away and replaced by Russian institutions and governments. This imposition of Russian ways was called ‘russification’.
This ‘russification’ meant essentially the promotion of Russian culture and institutions as something that should be treasured and preserved. Extremists demanded ‘russification’ for all the lands and all the people on the edges of the Russian Empire. Despite all the support and strong patriotism, Nicholas resisted the wishes of some of his people. Instead he preferred a calm and well ordered society. He saw no reason to introduce change unless it was necessary or certain to bring clear benefits. This meant that countries that didn’t revolt and were considered loyal to the might of Russia, like Finland, were left unharmed.
Nicholas also set up several initiatives to improve serfdom. In 1827 he set out clear limitations to landowners’ rights to send serfs to Siberia. He also prohibited the selling of serfs via public auction in 1833 as well as splitting up serf families and banning ‘mortgaging’ serfs without land in order to obtain credit. In 1842, he made it easier for serfs to buy their freedom and lastly in 1847, serfs were given the right to buy their freedom if their village was sold at a public auction.
It was obvious that under serfdom, Russia would remain economically stagnant. However Nicholas’s government did preside over advances in the industrial sector. Between 1800 and 1850, the production of pig-iron in Russia doubled. In 1825 there were 340,000 workers employed in industry and by 1860 this number had increased to 860,000. This industrial age rendered serfdom and autocracy virtually inappropriate.
Despite these reforms, Nicholas I reign is often associated with fierce repression, especially in the last seven years of his government, from 1848 to his death in the Crimean War in 1855.
Rebellions were sweeping across Europe in 1848 and Russia being autocratic had strong reasons to fear revolts. Such was Nicholas’s fears about the fragility of Russia being exposed that he even asked Queen Victoria for help in protecting Russia against these dangerous movements, she predictably declined.
Nicholas’s fears were also heightened by internal events. There was a cholera epidemic and the worst crop failure in 30 years, which led to bread doubling in price. Nicholas once again took firm and decisive action. He moved 400,000 troops to the western borders to prevent the spread of anarchy and another secret committee was set up to root out any subversive influence.
The actions of the Third Section had effectively turned Russia into a police state. In 1849 it discovered the secret organised opposition ‘The Petrashevsky Circle’. Petrashevsky was a clerk in the foreign ministry who was an educated and middle class civil service. His group evolved a programme which wanted to put equality before the law, abolish censorship, improve freedom of the press and make Russia a democratic republic.
39 members were arrested and accused of revolutionary conspiracy, and despite an extensive investigation which found no real evidence of revolutionary conspiracy, Nicholas sentenced 21 of the 39 arrested to death. At the last minute Nicholas staged a dramatic reprieve before the members were executed. He wanted to show potential revolutionaries of the dangers of revolutionary action but also to show how merciful he was. However many people saw this as an unnecessary act of cruelty putting the 21 men through needless anguish and mental torment just for effect.
Nicholas’s repressiveness was highlighted by the fact that all universities in Russia were nearly closed down. Due to the strict controls in terms of admissions and curriculum on universities student numbers dramatically fell during the last few years of his reign. Count Uvarov who Nicholas had appointed as his Minister of Education was forced to resign by a secret committee over voicing his support for the declining universities. His replacement the subservient Shikmatov bizarrely stated:
“I have no thought, no will of my own- I am a blind instrument of the will of my sovereign”. Student numbers fell by 25 per cent over the next five years, to 3,600 people.
All the while Nicholas was still enforcing rigid censorship, like the arbitrary censorship of the early few years of his reign. This included the prohibiting of all foreign literature, including the tales of Hans Christian Anderson, and strict limits on what newspapers were able to report, especially in terms of foreign news, which was linked with Nicholas’s fear of westernisation. By 1850 there were twelve separate bodies all with censorship duties. Ivan Turgenev the novelist and playwright, was placed under house arrest for merely writing an obituary of Nikolai Gogal another writer. Even the Slavophiles who were strongly opposed to westernisation were prohibited from publishing a set of articles putting forward their views, on the grounds that they might be misinterpreted by a wider audience.
Despite the domestic problems, Nicholas was responsible for limiting the impact of the 1848 revolutions across Europe. He loaned 6 million roubles to support the Austrian regime, put down a nationalist revolt in Moldavia- Wallachia and in 1849 he sent 150,000 troops to Hungary to help crush a rebellion led by Lajos Kossuth. Also in 1850 he managed to persuade the Prussians to terminate their plans for a German ‘Union’. Many across Europe perceived Russia to be a very stable nation that was at the peak of its powers.
However, the Crimean War of 1853-6 severely exposed their instability. A poorly equipped army not trained to fight a modern war combined with the lack of a necessary industrial and economic base to supply the troops properly and without a decent transport system or any real organisation; the result was ignominious defeat for Russia. During the war Nicholas contracted pneumonia and his refusal to rest coupled with a strenuous programme of inspections resulted in his death on the 18th of February 1855. One commentator reported that his death concluded: ‘A long and, one must admit, a joyless page in the history of the Russian Empire has been written out to the last word’.
Rigid repression did not fully grip the Russian Empire until 1848, but by then Nicholas had already caused a vast amount of damage to the country and he insisted on giving it no positive or new direction when it so desperately needed it. The repression was born out of fear of new ideas and his belief in the intrinsic values of the old ways and system. His unshakable belief in autocracy and tradition prevented Russia from developing. Though his government did preside over some positive reforms, and internationally they did have some success and built up good relations with other countries, internally Nicholas effectively starved his own people of any freedom of speech or thought, and that is why many people consider the government of Nicholas I to be nothing more than a repressive regime.