Nicholas I of Russia - the "Apogee of Autocracy"?

"The apogee of absolutism": is this an accurate description of the regime of Nicholas I?
The reign of Nicholas I is remembered as a particularly dark period of Tsarist Russian history. He is remembered as a reactionary autocrat, even a tyrant, and often the founder of the police state. His long reign of 33 years is also a period of great contradictions - it was in many ways the golden age of Russian literature and there were also very great advances in other aspects of Russia’s cultural development, improvements in the economy and trade with the world, advances in Russian science; yet all of this was achieved at a time of harsh government control and censorship, the decaying and obsolete influence of serfdom, and a general suspicion by the government and Tsar of virtually all sections of society.

Perhaps the defining event of the reign was right at its start - the Decembrist Revolt. This was the revolt which may have ended the life of Nicholas’ father, Alexander I, had he lived until the plotters had planned to assassinate him. As he died several months too early they staged the revolt, rather hurriedly, in the confusion over the succession. They were a group, including many army officers who had served in France and been impressed by the freedom there, who wanted a new more liberal government - although they were divided on the exact aims. The revolt itself was a chaotic disaster, outwitted by the government and totally suppressed, but it made a definite impression on the mind of Nicholas. He spent much time in its investigation, and there was a wave of arrests - 121 were brought before a special court and a handful were executed, which made a deep impression on the public. More important was the long term significance, especially in the mind of Nicholas, who still had over 3 decades of power before him. It left him with an increased mistrust of those around him, even the military and nobility, from whom the revolt had risen. He never forgot the feeling of danger and anxiety that he faced in those first few days of his reign and never trusted a society that was ready to overthrow autocracy with revolution.

However, despite Nicholas being shaken by the Decembrist, the first few years of his reign were the "honeymoon years", with improvements in the law codes, efforts to help the state peasants, successful foreign policy, relaxed censorship and a good relationship with the intellectuals. These years did not last however, and the 1830’s saw a change in direction in Nicholas’ government. In 1830 the overthrow of the king of France shook the government and hardened their attitude towards radicals. 1831 saw cholera striking Russia and a rebellion in Poland against the Tsar. From then on, the fear of revolution, ever in the mind of Nicholas, determined policy far more. The Honeymoon was over. Internal repression was stepped up and Russification was increased in the non-Russian areas of the empire. Then later came the "Year of Revolutions" in Europe, causing even more repression in Russia of any signs of dissent against the government and order as Nicholas became completely reactionary. Russians were forbidden to travel abroad and university autonomy was greatly reduced. This repressive attitude was shown by the attack on a group called the Petrashevsky Circle, which discussed currant affairs from a radical point of view. This was infiltrated, its members arrested and 15 sentenced to death, although these were commuted to exile. This group was hardly organising revolution but it would not be tolerated by the increasingly paranoid government.

One of the ways in which Nicholas I is now thought is the creator of the modern Police State in Russia, with the establishment of the infamous Third Section. In the reign of Nicholas this organisation, answerable to the Tsar, only attacked two major movements - the Petrashevsky Circle in 1849 and a Ukrainian nationalist and Slavophile group in 1847, the latter of these involving a general suppression of Ukrainian national identity. Indeed the Third Section was mobilised to combat a threat which simply did not exist in the Russian Empire, but Nicholas did not know that there would never be a serious plot in his reign. It was established in 1827 to investigate and arrest subversive elements, something not new to Russia, and was intended by its first chief, Benckendorff, to be respected by the community as something protecting rather than threatening them. Indeed this was to an extent true at first - the Third Section unmasked several corrupt officials, to public acclaim - but this did not last. One main problem was denunciation - people were encouraged to inform and were rewarded for doing so, which obviously led to more false denunciations. Problems were also caused by the secrecy of the organisation, which led to negligence as no-one would be held responsible. The Third Section grew quickly because its power was in theory virtually unlimited, including investigation, arrest and punishment of anyone considered subversive, observation of followers, report on public opinion and even supervision of prisons. It was shadowing about 2,000 people even before 1848 greatly increased the sense of danger the state felt.

The Third Section is certainly an extension of the authority of autocracy in Russia - the fact that it was set up to be responsible to him, rather than a minister, shows the mistrust he felt of regular government machinery and also of course his people. He used the new political police force he built up to get round the government institutions and also to keep track of the feelings and actions of the people and the activities of groups which could threaten his position. The Third Section extended not only the power of the government, but vastly increased his own autonomy and power within the government.

Through the reign of Nicholas the governmental structure did not appear to alter a great deal, however, this hides a significant alteration in the process of administration. The Imperial Chancery was enhanced to allow Nicholas to have more control over the system, and it was divided into administrative sections, which were not headed by a minister but rather answerable only to the Tsar, therefore putting direct authority in Nicholas’ hands, rather than his administrators. He also relied very heavily on special emissaries, who would be sent all over Russia to execute the personal will of the Sovereign, as effective extensions of the Monarchs own person, increasing his direct control over the country.

Therefore, the power of the government was increased at the expense of the freedom of the people, with the extension of the police state, and the independence of the bureaucracy, with the changes to the government, at a time when all over Europe the "old orders", the traditional monopolies on power by a section of society, were fading. This was justified by the government with reference to the idea of "Official Nationality", expressed by the slogan "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality". This was expounded by many people in the government and media as a rational alternative to Democracy and a the genuine belief in it from people justified the reactionary nature of the government.

The first word of the slogan, Orthodoxy, implied a belief in the divine right of the Tsar to rule absolutely, so giving his autocracy more legitimacy. The role that the church played in giving the autocracy legitimacy was shown in the reign of Alexander II when, once a year, the priests declared a curse on "those who do not believe that the Orthodox monarchs have been elevated to the throne thanks to God’s special grace, and that from the moment they are anointed with the Holy oil, are infused with the gifts of the Holy Ghost" The second word of the slogan, Autocracy, meant that because of his divine right to rule, the Tsar expected complete submission from the people to his will, as he was entrusted by God with the task of keeping the people under control. The third word, Nationality, could perhaps be better translated as Russianism. This implied that Russia was neither Asian or European, but rather distinctive. The exponents of this felt that Russia was not only special but superior, a virtuous system, rooted in Autocracy and the Orthodox faith; and this meant it should not be changed, as it was already perfect.

This was the ideological justification for the autocracy of the Russian system, and a justification not just expounded as an excuse but genuinely believed in by many. The autocratic system was seen to be the best option, supported by God, because it was the only way to rule Russia effectively. The Russian people were seen as great, but dangerous if they were not controlled. Because of its size and the diversity of the nationalities contained within it, Russia had always been hard to govern, and the reign of Nicholas saw this at its most true, as the Empire was near its greatest extent and modern communications and travel (e.g. Telegraph and Railways) were only just being introduced. However, this justification is still flawed. All the arguments have some basis in fact, especially that strong government is needed in Russia, but this ignored the possibility that there was a better way of governing, or even another way that could work.

The Russian state under Nicholas I has been described by De Custine as "The discipline of the camp - it is a state of siege become the normal state of society". This describes well the feeling that drove Nicholas and his regime to introduce the levels of censorship, intrusion and general control of as may aspects of life in Russia as was deemed necessary that they did. The autocracy did feel that it was under siege - not only from forces in other countries polluting Russia, but also from forces within Russia. Kochan described Nicholas as living in a vacuum beset by uncertainty and insecurity. And of course it was a society that had deep problems that received little help from the autocracy. It was not that Nicholas was unaware of the inadequacies of the country, He had studied the testimonies of the Decembrists very carefully, had little sympathy with aristocratic privilege, knew of the misery in the army and the country and knew the evil of serfdom. However, despite the claim that autocracy was the only way to rule Russia, these glaring and obvious problems were hardly tackled by Nicholas because of the paranoiac (though perhaps sometimes justified) fear he had of revolt from the masses against autocracy, fear enhanced by events of 1830, 1848 and of course, the Decembrist Revolt. This he showed to us at a speech to the State Council in 1842:

"There is no doubt that serfdom, as it exists at present in our land, is an evil, palpable and obvious to all. But to touch it now would prove an even more disastrous evil...The Pugachev Rebellion proved how far popular rage can go."

This may not be a sign of weakness, as he could act decisively when he chose, but rather an instinctive fear of alteration of the system, not because he believed it was perfect, but because he was simply afraid of the consequences, the forces he might unleash, with change. It was this same fear that drove him to act to increase his personal autocratic power, trusting neither the masses, the nobility, nor even the army, but rather only himself. This would reduce the validity of the argument for autocracy that only such a strong government could rule well, as by ignoring problems which he knew existed he showed weakness, either real or perceived by himself, in the system. However, this does not change the fact that, for several reasons, the reign of Nicholas I was indeed the apogee of Autocracy.

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