Russia after Napoleon



Alexander I’s Domestic Reforms

Tsar Alexander I wanted to reform the serf system but was stymied. With his news law, only 7,300 male peasants with families were freed (about 0.5%), but all classes except the serfs could own land, a privilege previously confined to the nobility.

Learning Objectives

Determine the significance of Alexander I’s efforts to reform the serf system in Russia

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Alexander I, who ruled as Tsar of Russia from 1801-1825, was raised on the ideals of the Enlightenment by his grandmother, Catherine II, leading him to adopt liberal rhetoric and a spirit of reform.
  • In the first years of his reign, he initiated some minor social reforms and in 1803–04 major liberal education reforms, such as building more universities.
  • One of his main goals was to reform the inefficient, highly centralized systems of government that Russia relied upon.
  • He promised to reform serfdom in Russia but made no concrete proposals; his new laws only freed 0.5% of the serf population.
  • However, he did extend land ownership to all classes except serfs, a privilege previously confined to the nobility.
  • After 1815, military settlements (farms worked by soldiers and their families under military control) were introduced, with the idea of making the army or part of it self-supporting economically and for providing it with recruits.

Key Terms

  • serf: The status of many peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism. It was a condition of bondage, which developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted in some countries until the mid-19th century. Those who occupied a plot of land were required to work for the lord of the manor who owned that land, and in return were entitled to protection, justice, and the right to exploit certain fields within the manor for their own subsistence. They were often required not only to work on the lord’s fields, but also his mines, forests, and roads.
  • state-owned peasants: A special class in 18th-19th century Russia that during some periods comprised half of the agricultural population. In contrast to private Russian serfs, these were considered personally free although attached to the land.
  • Age of Enlightenment: An intellectual movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. It centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy and advanced ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. It was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy.

Alexander I reigned as Emperor of Russia from March 23, 1801, to December 1, 1825. He was born in Saint Petersburg to Grand Duke Paul Petrovich, later Emperor Paul I, and succeeded to the throne after his father was murdered. He ruled Russia during the chaotic period of the Napoleonic Wars. As prince and emperor, Alexander often used liberal rhetoric, but continued Russia’s absolutist policies in practice. In the first years of his reign, he initiated some minor social reforms and in 1803–04 major, liberal educational reforms, such as building more universities. He promised constitutional reforms and a desperately needed reform of serfdom in Russia but made no concrete proposals. Alexander appointed Mikhail Speransky, the son of a village priest, as one of his closest advisers. The Collegia was abolished and replaced by the The State Council, created to improve legislation. Plans were also made to set up a parliament and sign a constitution.

In the second half of his reign he was increasingly arbitrary, reactionary, and fearful of plots against him; he ended many earlier reforms. He purged schools of foreign teachers as education became more religiously oriented and politically conservative. Speransky was replaced as adviser with the strict artillery inspector Aleksey Arakcheyev, who oversaw the creation of military settlements. Alexander died of typhus in December 1825 while on a trip to southern Russia. He left no children as heirs and both of his brothers wanted the other to become emperor. After a period of great confusion that included the failed Decembrist revolt of liberal army officers, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Nicholas I.

Early Reign

At first, the Orthodox Church exercised little influence on Alexander’s reign. The young tsar was determined to reform the inefficient, highly centralized systems of government upon which Russian relied. While he retained the old ministers for a time, one of the first acts of his reign was to appoint the Private Committee, comprising young and enthusiastic friends of his own—Victor Kochubey, Nikolay Novosiltsev, Pavel Stroganov, and Adam Jerzy Czartoryski—to draw up a plan of domestic reform, which was supposed to result in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in accordance with the teachings of the Age of Enlightenment.

In a few years the liberal Mikhail Speransky became one of the Tsar’s closest advisors, and drew up many plans for elaborate reforms. By the Government reform of Alexander I the old Collegia were abolished and new Ministries created in their place, headed by ministers responsible to the Crown. A Council of Ministers under the chairmanship of the Sovereign dealt with all interdepartmental matters. The State Council was created in order to improve technique of legislation. It was intended to become the Second Chamber of representative legislature. The Governing Senate was reorganized as the Supreme Court of the Empire. The codification of the laws initiated in 1801 was never carried out during his reign.

Domestic Improvements

When Alexander’s reign began, there were three universities in Russia, at Moscow, Vilna (Vilnius), and Dorpat (Tartu). These were strengthened, and three others were founded at St. Petersburg, Kharkov, and Kazan. Literary and scientific bodies were established or encouraged, and the reign became noted for the aid lent to the sciences and arts by the Emperor and the wealthy nobility. Alexander later expelled foreign scholars.

After 1815, military settlements (farms worked by soldiers and their families under military control) were introduced, with the idea of making the army, or part of it, self-supporting economically and providing it with recruits.

The Status of Serfs

Alexander wanted to resolve another crucial issue in Russia—the status of the serfs, although this was not achieved until 1861 during the reign of his nephew Alexander II. His advisers quietly discussed the options at length. Cautiously, he extended the right to own land to most classes of subjects, including state-owned peasants, in 1801 and created a new social category of “free agriculturalist” for peasants voluntarily emancipated by their masters in 1803. The new laws allowed all classes except the serfs to own land, a privilege previously confined to the nobility. As the title of the 1803 decree, informally known as “Decree on Free Ploughmen” says, the serfs were freed and endowed with land by the will on the serf owner under payment or work obligations. During the reign of Alexander I only about 7,300 male peasants (with families) or about 0.5% of serfs were freed.

The Russian state also continued to support serfdom due to military conscription. The conscripted serfs dramatically increased the size of the Russian military, leading to victory in the Napoleonic Wars and Russo-Persian Wars; this did not change the disparity between Russia and the rest of Western Europe, who were experiencing agricultural and industrial revolutions. Compared to Western Europe it was clear that Russia was at an economic disadvantage. European philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment criticized serfdom and compared it to medieval labor practices which were almost non-existent in the rest of continent. Most Russian Nobles were not interested in change toward western labor practices that Catherine the Great proposed. Instead they preferred to mortgage serfs for profit. In 1820, 20% of all serfs were mortgaged to state credit institutions by their owners. This was increased to 66% in 1859.

The painting shows several peasants with their belongings packed onto a cart tied to a horse, standing by a small house. A large farm field is shown in the background.

The painting shows several peasants with their belongings packed onto a cart tied to a horse, standing by a small house. A large farm field is shown in the background.

A painting by Sergei V. Ivanov from 1908, depicting a family of serfs leaving their landlord on Yuriev Day, a two-week period that was the only time of the year when the Russian peasants were free to move from one landowner to another before the abolition of serfdom in 1861

Territorial Gains Under Alexander I

Tsar Alexander I, one of the most brilliant diplomats of his time, focused his foreign affairs on the Napoleonic Wars and the expansion of Russian territory.

Learning Objectives

List some of the territorial gains made by Tsar Alexander I

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Tsar Alexander I, who ruled the Russian Empire from 1801-1825, had a complicated relationship with Napoleon during the lengthy Napoleonic Wars.
  • He changed Russia’s position relative to France four times between 1804 and 1812 among neutrality, opposition, and alliance.
  • In 1805 he joined Britain in the War of the Third Coalition against Napoleon, but after the massive defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz he switched and formed an alliance with Napoleon by the Treaty of Tilsit (1807) and joined Napoleon’s Continental System.
  • The tsar’s greatest triumph came in 1812 as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia proved a total disaster for the French.
  • As part of the winning coalition against Napoleon, Russia gained Finland and Poland at the Congress of Vienna.
  • He formed the Holy Alliance to suppress revolutionary movements in Europe that he saw as immoral threats to legitimate Christian monarchs.
  • Under Alexander, Russia also fought a successful war with Persia, gaining disputed territory in the Caucasus region, which provides vital access to the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Key Terms

  • Russo-Persian War (1804–13): One of the many wars between the Persian Empire and Imperial Russia that like many of their wars began as a territorial dispute. The new Persian king, Fath Ali Shah Qajar, wanted to consolidate the northernmost reaches of his kingdom—modern day Georgia—which had been annexed by Tsar Paul I several years after the Russo-Persian War of 1796. Like his Persian counterpart, the Tsar Alexander I was also new to the throne and equally determined to control the disputed territories. The war ended in 1813 with the Treaty of Gulistan, which irrevocably ceded the previously disputed territory of Georgia to Imperial Russia, but added the Iranian territories of Dagestan, most of what is nowadays Azerbaijan, and minor parts of Armenia.
  • Napoleonic Wars: A series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, primarily led and financed by the United Kingdom. The wars resulted from the unresolved disputes associated with the French Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars, which had raged for years before concluding with the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. The resumption of hostilities the following year paved the way for more than a decade of constant warfare. The wars had profound consequences for global and European history, leading to the spread of nationalism and liberalism, the rise of the British Empire as the world’s premier power, the independence movements in Latin America and subsequent collapse of the Spanish Empire, the fundamental reorganization of German and Italian territories into larger states, and the establishment of radically new methods in warfare.
  • Caucasus region: A strategically valuable region at the border of Europe and Asia, situated between the Black and the Caspian seas. It is home to the Caucasus Mountains, which contain Europe’s highest mountain, Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet).

Alexander I’s Foreign Affairs: Persia and France

Tsar Alexander I was perhaps the most brilliant diplomat of his time. His primary focus was not on domestic policy but foreign affairs, particularly Napoleon. Fearing Napoleon’s expansionist ambitions and the growth of French power, Alexander joined Britain and Austria against Napoleon. Napoleon defeated the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805 and the Russians at Friedland in 1807. The Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 was one of the most important and decisive engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. In what is widely regarded as the greatest victory achieved by Napoleon, the Grande Armée of France defeated a larger Russian and Austrian army. Austerlitz brought the War of the Third Coalition to a rapid end, with the Treaty of Pressburg signed by the Austrians later in the month. The battle is often cited as a tactical masterpiece, in the same league as other historic engagements like Cannae or Arbela.

After these defeats, Alexander was forced to sue for peace with France, and with the Treaty of Tilsit, signed in 1807, he became Napoleon’s ally. Russia lost little territory under the treaty, and Alexander made use of his alliance with Napoleon for further expansion. By the Finnish War he wrested the Grand Duchy of Finland from Sweden in 1809, and acquired Bessarabia from Turkey as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, 1806-1812.

Alexander was determined to acquire disputed territories in the Caucasus region and beyond, mainly held by Persia. His predecessors had already waged small wars against Persia, but they had not been able to consolidate Russian authority over the regions, so these were either ceded or conquered back by Persia.

After the Russian armies officially liberated allied Georgia from centuries-long Persian occupation in 1801,, Alexander fought the Russo-Persian War (1804–13), the first full-scale war against the neighboring Persia, over the control and consolidation of Georgia and eventually Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and the entire Caucasus.

After nine long years of battle, Russia managed to end the war on highly favorable terms, completing Russian consolidation and suzerainty over major parts of the Caucasus including the gains of Dagestan, Georgia, most of Azerbaijan, and other regions and territories in the Caucasus over Persia. By now, Russia had full, comfortable access to the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and would use these newly gained grounds for further wars against Persia and Turkey.

The Russo-French alliance gradually became strained. Napoleon was concerned about Russia’s intentions in the strategically vital Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. At the same time, Alexander viewed the Duchy of Warsaw, the French-controlled reconstituted Polish state, with suspicion. The requirement of joining France’s Continental Blockade against Britain was a serious disruption of Russian commerce, and in 1810 Alexander repudiated the obligation. In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 troops—a force twice as large as the Russian regular army. Napoleon hoped to inflict a major defeat on the Russians and force Alexander to sue for peace. As Napoleon pushed the Russian forces back, however, he became seriously overextended. Obstinate Russian forces, members of which declared the Patriotic War, brought Napoleon a disastrous defeat: Less than 30,000 of his troops returned to their homeland. Victory came at a high cost as the areas of the country the French army had marched through lay in ruins. The campaign was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. The reputation of Napoleon was severely shaken and French hegemony in Europe was dramatically weakened. The Grande Armée, made up of French and allied invasion forces, was reduced to a fraction of its initial strength. These events triggered a major shift in European politics. France’s ally Prussia, soon followed by Austria, broke its imposed alliance with France and switched sides. This triggered the War of the Sixth Coalition.

Image of the Russian soldiers storming a castle wall during the battle of Ganja.

Russo-Persian War: The Battle of Ganja (1804) during the Russo-Persian War (1804–1813). From this war, the Russian Empire gained major parts of the Caucasus including Dagestan, Georgia, most of Azerbaijan, and other regions and territories in the Caucasus from Persia.

Congress of Vienna and Beyond

As the French retreated, the Russians pursued them into Central and Western Europe and to the gates of Paris. After the allies defeated Napoleon, Alexander became known as the savior of Europe and played a prominent role in the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the same year, Alexander initiated the creation of the Holy Alliance, a loose agreement pledging the rulers of the nations involved—including most of Europe—to act according to Christian principles. More pragmatically, in 1814 Russia, Britain, Austria, and Prussia formed the Quadruple Alliance. When Napoleon suddenly reappeared, Russia was part of the alliance that chased him down. The conservative Bourbons were back in power in Paris and on good terms with Russia. The allies created an international system to maintain the territorial status quo and prevent the resurgence of an expansionist France. The Quadruple Alliance, confirmed by a number of international conferences, ensured Russia’s influence in Europe.

At the same time, Russia continued its expansion. The Congress of Vienna, held in Vienna from November 1814 to June 1815, aimed to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. The tsar had two main goals: to gain control of Poland and promote the peaceful coexistence of European nations. The Congress created the Congress Poland (formerly the Duchy of Warsaw), to which Alexander granted a constitution. Though officially the Kingdom of Poland was a state with considerable political autonomy guaranteed by a liberal constitution, its rulers, the Russian Emperors, generally disregarded any restrictions on their power. Effectively it was little more than a puppet state of the Russian Empire. Thus, Alexander I became the constitutional monarch of Poland while remaining the autocratic tsar of Russia. He was also the monarch of Finland, which had been annexed in 1809 and awarded autonomous status. The Congress finalized Russia control of Finland.

Despite the liberal, romantic inclinations of his youth, later in his rule Alexander I grew steadily more conservative, isolated from the day-to-day affairs of the state, and inclined to religious mysticism. Once a supporter of limited liberalism, as seen in his approval of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Poland in 1815, at the end of 1818 Alexander’s views began to change. A revolutionary conspiracy among the officers of the guard and a foolish plot to kidnap him on his way to the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle are said to have shaken the foundations of his liberalism. At Aix he came for the first time into intimate contact with Metternich, initiating the ascendancy of conservatism over the mind of the Russian emperor and in the councils of Europe. It was the apparent triumph of disorder in the revolutions of Naples and Piedmont, combined with increasingly disquieting symptoms of discontent in France, Germany, and among his own people, that completed Alexander’s conversion.

Alexander had upheld the ideal of a free confederation of the European states, symbolized by the Holy Alliance, against the policy of a dictatorship of the great powers, symbolized by the Quadruple Treaty; he had protested against the claims of collective Europe to interfere in the internal concerns of the sovereign states. But on November 19, 1820, he signed the Troppau Protocol, which consecrated the principle of intervention against revolution and wrecked the harmony of the concert created at the Congress of Vienna.

The lofty hopes that the tsar had once held for his country were frustrated by its immense size and backwardness. While vacationing on the Black Sea in 1825, Alexander fell ill with typhus and died at only 47, although there were unfounded stories that he faked his own death, became a monk, and wandered the Siberian wilderness for many years afterwards.

The Decembrist Revolt

On December 26, 1825, Russian army officers led about 3,000 soldiers in a protest against Nicholas I’s assumption of the throne after the death of Tsar Alexander I.

Learning Objectives

Identify the impetuses for the Decembrist Revolt

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A revolutionary movement was born during the reign of Alexander I.
  • The background of the Decembrist Revolt lay in the Napoleonic Wars, when a number of well-educated Russian officers in Western Europe during the course of military campaigns were exposed to its liberalism and encouraged to seek change on their return to autocratic Russia.
  • Army officers created the Union of Salvation, aimed at the abolishment of serfdom and introduction of constitutional monarchy by means of armed revolt at the next emperor’s succession to the throne.
  • The revolt occurred on December 1825, when about 3,000 officers and soldiers refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Alexander’s brother Nicholas, proclaiming instead their loyalty to the idea of a Russian constitution and a constitutional monarchy.
  • The revolt was easily crushed, and the surviving rebels exiled to Siberia, leading Nicholas to turn away from the modernization program begun by Peter the Great.

Key Terms

  • Peter the Great: He ruled the Tsardom of Russia and later the Russian Empire from May 7, 1682, until his death, jointly ruling before 1696 with his elder half-brother, Ivan V. Through a number of successful wars, he expanded the Tsardom into a much larger empire that became a major European power. He led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with ones that were modern, scientific, westernized, and based on The Enlightenment. His reforms made a lasting impact on Russia, and many institutions of Russian government trace their origins to his reign.
  • Union of Salvation: The first secret political society of the Decembrists. Founded in 1816 at the initiative of Alexander Nikolayevich Muravyov by a group of young officers of the Russian army who had taken part in the Patriotic War of 1812 and foreign campaigns of 1813–1814. They aimed at the abolishment of serfdom and introduction of constitutional monarchy by means of armed revolt at the time of next emperor’s succession to the throne.

The Decembrist revolt took place in Imperial Russia on December 26, 1825. Russian army officers led about 3,000 soldiers in a protest against Nicholas I’s assumption of the throne after his elder brother Constantine removed himself from the line of succession.

The Decembrist revolt was an aristocratic movement whose chief actors were army officers and members of the nobility. The reasons for Decembrist Uprising were manifold: opposition on part of the nobility to the regime that successfully limited its privileges through its peasant policy spread among a section of young officers with liberal and even radical ideas, along with fears among the nationalist section of society inspired by some of Alexander’s policies. Officers were particularly angry that Alexander granted Poland a constitution while Russia remained without one.

Several clandestine organizations were preparing for an uprising after Alexander’s death. There was confusion about who would succeed him because the next in line, his brother Constantine Pavlovich, relinquished his right to the throne. A group of officers commanding about 3,000 men refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Alexander’s brother Nicholas, proclaiming instead their loyalty to the idea of a Russian constitution. Because these events occurred in December 1825, the rebels were called Decembrists. Nicholas easily overcame the revolt, and the surviving rebels were exiled to Siberia.

Background: Union of Salvation

In 1816, several officers of the Imperial Russian Guard founded a society known as the Union of Salvation, or of the Faithful and True Sons of the Fatherland. The society acquired a more liberal cast after it was joined by the idealistic Pavel Pestel. After a mutiny in the Semenovsky Regiment in 1820, the society decided to suspend activity in 1821. Two groups, however, continued to function secretly: a Southern Society, based at Tulchin, a small garrison town in Ukraine, in which Pestel was the outstanding figure, and a Northern Society, based at St Petersburg, led by Guard officers Nikita Muraviev, Prince S. P. Trubetskoy and Prince Eugene Obolensky. The political aims of the more moderate Northern Society were a British-style constitutional monarchy with a limited franchise, the abolition of serfdom, and equality before the law. The Southern Society, under Pestel’s influence, was more radical and wanted to abolish the monarchy, establish a republic, and redistribute land, taking half into state ownership and dividing the rest among the peasants.

At first, many officers were encouraged by Tsar Alexander’s early liberal reformation of Russian society and politics. In 1819 Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky was appointed as the Governor of Siberia, with the task of reforming local government. Equally, in 1818 the Tsar asked Count Nikolay Nikolayevich Novosiltsev to draw up a constitution. However, internal and external unrest, which the Tsar believed stemmed from political liberalization, led to a series of repressions and a return to a former government of restriction and conservatism.

Meanwhile, spurred by their experiences of the Napoleonic Wars and realizing many of the harsh indignities through which the peasant soldiers were forced, Decembrist officers and sympathizers displayed their contempt for the regime by rejecting court lifestyle, wearing their cavalry swords at balls (indicating their unwillingness to dance), and committing themselves to academic study. This new lifestyle captured the spirit of the times, as a willingness to embrace both the peasant (i.e. the “Russian way of life”) and ongoing reformative movements abroad.

The Events of the Revolt

When Tsar Alexander I died on December 1, 1825, the royal guards swore allegiance to the presumed heir, Alexander’s brother Constantine. When Constantine made his renunciation public and Nicholas stepped forward to assume the throne, the Northern Society acted. With the capital in temporary confusion and one oath to Constantine having already been sworn, the society scrambled in secret meetings to convince regimental leaders not to swear allegiance to Nicholas. These efforts would culminate in the Decembrist Revolt. The leaders of the society (many of whom belonged to the high aristocracy) elected Prince Sergei Trubetskoy as interim dictator.

On the morning of December 26, a group of officers commanding about 3,000 men assembled in Senate Square, where they refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Nicholas I, proclaiming instead their loyalty to Constantine and their Decembrist Constitution. They expected to be joined by the rest of the troops stationed in Saint Petersburg, but were disappointed. The revolt was further hampered when it was deserted by its supposed leader Prince Trubetskoy, who had a last minute change of heart and failed to turn up at the Square. His second in command, Colonel Bulatov, also vanished from the scene. After a hurried consultation the rebels appointed Prince Eugene Obolensky as a replacement leader.

For long hours there was a stand-off between the 3,000 rebels and the 9,000 loyal troops stationed outside the Senate building, with some desultory shooting from the rebel side. A vast crowd of civilian on-lookers began fraternizing with the rebels, but did not join the action. Eventually Nicholas, the new Tsar, appeared in person at the square and sent Count Mikhail Miloradovich, a military hero who was greatly respected by ordinary soldiers, to parley with the rebels. Miloradovich was fatally shot by Pyotr Kakhovsky while delivering a public address to defuse the situation. At the same time, a rebelling grenadier squad, led by lieutenant Nikolay Panov, entered the Winter Palace but failed to seize it and retreated.

After spending most of the day in fruitless attempts to parley with the rebel force, Nicholas ordered a cavalry charge which slipped on the icy cobbles and retired in disorder. Eventually, at the end of the day, Nicholas ordered three artillery pieces to open fire, with devastating effect. To avoid the slaughter the rebels broke and ran. Some attempted to regroup on the frozen surface of the river Neva to the north but were targeted there by the artillery and suffered many casualties. As the ice was broken by the cannon fire, many of the dead and dying were cast into the river. After a nighttime mopping-up operation by loyal army and police units, the revolt in the north came to an end. The surviving rebels were tried and sentenced to exile in Siberia.

For the most part, the rebellion led Nicholas to turn away from the modernization program begun by Peter the Great and champion the doctrine of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.

Though defeated, the Decembrists did effect some change on the regime. Their dissatisfaction forced Nicholas to turn his attention inward to address the issues of the empire. To some extent, the Decembrists were in the tradition of a long line of palace revolutionaries who wanted to place their candidate on the throne, but because the Decembrists also wanted to implement classical liberalism, their revolt has been considered the beginning of a revolutionary movement. The uprising was the first open breach between the government and reformist elements of the Russian nobility, which would subsequently widen.

Image of the Decembrist revolt in Peters Square. The image shows loyalist cavalry firing upon the rebels in the center of the square, with onlookers surrounding the fighting.

Decembrist Revolt: Decembrists at the Senate Square. On December 26, 1825, Russian army officers led about 3,000 soldiers in a protest against Nicholas I’s assumption of the throne after his elder brother Constantine removed himself from the line of succession.

The Wars of Nicholas I

In war, Tsar Nicholas I was successful against Russia’s neighboring southern rivals, Persia and the Ottoman Empire, seizing the last territories in the Caucasus held by Persia. Later in his rule, however, he led Russia into the Crimean War (1853–56) with disastrous results.

Learning Objectives

Recall some of the wars fought by Nicholas I

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Nicholas I became Tsar of Russia in 1925 after crushing the Decembrist revolt against him and went on to become the most reactionary of all Russian leaders.
  • His reign had an ideology called “Official Nationality,” proclaimed officially in 1833, that was a reactionary policy based on orthodoxy in religion, autocracy in government, and Russian nationalism.
  • His aggressive foreign policy involved many expensive wars that had a disastrous effect on the empire’s finances.
  • The late 1820s were successful military years. Despite losing almost all recently consolidated territories in the first year of the Russo-Persian War of 1826-28, Russia managed to end the war with highly favorable terms. This included the official gains of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iğdır Province, earning the clear geopolitical and territorial upper hand in the Caucasus region.
  • In the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish War, Russia invaded northeastern Anatolia and occupied strategic Ottoman holdings, posing as protector and savior of the Greek Orthodox population and thus receiving extensive support from the region’s Greek population.
  • In 1854-55, Russia lost to Britain, France, and Turkey in the Crimean War.
  • Since playing a major role in the defeat of Napoleon, Russia was regarded as militarily invincible, but once opposed against a coalition of the great powers of Europe, the defeats it suffered in the Crimean War revealed the weakness and backwardness of Tsar Nicholas’ regime.

Key Terms

  • “Official Nationality”: The dominant ideological doctrine of Russian emperor Nicholas I. It was “the Russian version of a general European ideology of restoration and reaction” that followed the Napoleonic Wars. It was a reactionary policy based on orthodoxy in religion, autocracy in government, and Russian nationalism.
  • Crimean War: A military conflict fought from October 1853 to March 1856 in which the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia. The immediate cause involved the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land, part of the Ottoman Empire. The French promoted the rights of Roman Catholics while Russia promoted those of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The longer-term causes involved the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the unwillingness of Britain and France to allow Russia to gain territory and power at Ottoman expense.
  • Eastern Question: Refers to the strategic competition and political considerations of the European Great Powers in light of the political and economic instability in the Ottoman Empire from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Characterized as the “sick man of Europe,” the relative weakening of the empire’s military strength in the second half of the 18th century threatened to undermine the fragile balance of power system largely shaped by the Concert of Europe.

Tsar Nicholas I

Nicholas I was the Emperor of Russia from 1825 until 1855 as well as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland. He is best-known as a political conservative whose reign was marked by geographical expansion, repression of dissent, economic stagnation, poor administrative policies, a corrupt bureaucracy, and frequent wars that culminated in Russia’s disastrous defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-56. His biographer Nicholas V. Riasanovsky says that Nicholas displayed determination, singleness of purpose, and an iron will, along with a powerful sense of duty and a dedication to hard work. He saw himself as a soldier – a junior officer totally consumed by spit and polish. Trained as an engineer, he was a stickler for minute detail. In his public persona, says Riasanovsky, “Nicholas I came to represent autocracy personified: infinitely majestic, determined and powerful, hard as stone, and relentless as fate.”

His reign had an ideology called “Official Nationality” that was proclaimed officially in 1833. It was a reactionary policy based on orthodoxy in religion, autocracy in government, and Russian nationalism. He was the younger brother of his 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 all Russian leaders. His aggressive foreign policy involved many expensive wars, with a disastrous effect on the empire’s finances.

He was successful against Russia’s neighboring southern rivals as he seized the last territories in the Caucasus held by Persia (comprising modern day Armenia and Azerbaijan) by successfully ending the Russo-Persian War (1826-28). Russia had gained what is now Dagestan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia from Persia, and therefore had the clear geopolitical and territorial upper hand in the Caucasus. He ended the Russo-Turkish War (1828–29) successfully as well. Later, however, he led Russia into the Crimean War (1853–56) with disastrous results. Historians emphasize that his micromanagement of the armies hindered his generals, as did his misguided strategy. Fuller notes that historians have frequently concluded that “the reign of Nicholas I was a catastrophic failure in both domestic and foreign policy.” On the eve of his death, the Russian Empire reached its geographical zenith, spanning over 7.7 million square miles but in desperate need of reform.

Military and Foreign Policy

For much of Nicholas’s reign, Russia was seen as a major military power with considerable strength. At last the Crimean war at the end of his reign demonstrated to the world what no one had previously realized: Russia was militarily weak, technologically backward, and administratively incompetent. Despite his grand ambitions toward the south and Turkey, Russia had not built its railroad network in that direction, and communications were bad. The bureaucracy was riddled with graft, corruption, and inefficiency and was unprepared for war. The Navy was weak and technologically backward; the Army, although very large, was good only for parades, suffering from colonels who pocketed their men’s pay, poor morale, and disconnection with the latest technology developed by Britain and France. By war’s end, the Russian leadership was determined to reform the Army and the society.

In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and guardian against revolution. In 1830, after a popular uprising occurred in France, the Poles in Russian Poland revolted. They resented limitation of the privileges of the Polish minority in the lands annexed by Russia in the 18th century, and sought to reestablish the 1772 borders of Poland. Nicholas crushed the rebellion, abrogated the Polish constitution, and reduced Congress Poland to the status of a Russian province, Privislinsky Krai.

In 1848, when a series of revolutions convulsed Europe, Nicholas was in the forefront of reaction. In 1849, he helped the Habsburgs suppress the uprising in Hungary and urged Prussia not to adopt a liberal constitution.

While Nicholas was attempting to maintain the status quo in Europe, he followed a somewhat more aggressive policy toward the neighboring empires to the south, namely the Ottoman Empire and Persia. Nicholas was widely believed to be 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. In fact, in line with his commitment to upholding the status quo in Europe, he feared any attempt to devour the decaying Ottoman Empire would both upset its ally Austria, which also had interests in the Balkans, and bring about an Anglo-French coalition in defense of the Ottomans.

Further, during the war of 1828-29, the Russians had defeated the Ottomans in every battle fought in the field and advanced deep into the Balkans, but the discovered that they lacked the necessary logistical strength to take Constantinople. Nicholas’s policy towards the Ottoman Empire was to use the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, which gave Russia a vague right to be the protector of the Orthodox peoples in the Balkans, to place the Ottoman Empire into the Russian sphere of influence. This was seen as a more achievable goal than conquering the entire Ottoman Empire. Nicholas actually wanted to preserve the Ottoman Empire as a stable but weak state that would be unable to stand up to Russia, as he viewed the country first and foremost as a European power and regarded Europe as more important than the Middle East.

In 1826-1828, Nicholas fought the Russo-Persian War (1826–28), which ended with Persia being forced to cede its last remaining territories in the Caucasus, comprising modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iğdır. By now, Russia had conquered all Caucasian territories of Iran in both the North and South Caucasus, comprising modern-day Georgia, Dagestan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, through the course of the 19th century.

Fearing the results of an Ottoman defeat by Russia, in 1854 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 and in Russia as the “Eastern War.” In April 1854, Austria signed a defensive pact with Prussia. Thus, Russia found itself in a war with the whole of Europe.

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 followed by lost battles at Balaklava and Inkerman. After the prolonged Siege of Sevastopol (1854–55) 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 January 15, 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. Since playing a major role in the defeat of Napoleon, Russia was regarded as militarily invincible, but once opposed against a coalition of the great powers of Europe, the reverses it suffered on land and sea exposed the decay and weakness of Tsar Nicholas’ regime. Russia now faced the choice of initiating major reforms or losing its status as a major European power.

Detail of Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting The Siege of Sevastopol (1904). It depicts a chaotic battlefield, focusing on the Russian solders defending their position.

Siege of Sevastopol: After the prolonged Siege of Sevastopol (1854–55) the base fell, exposing Russia’s inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil and leading to defeat in Crimean War.

The Westerners and the Slavophiles

During the second half of the 19th century, a group of “Slavophiles” emerged in intellectual circles. They opposed the modernization and westernization begun by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and advocated for a return to a simple peasant-based society centered on the Orthodox faith.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the opinions and goals of the Westerners and the Slavophiles

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Peter the Great, the Tsar of Russia from 1672-1725, started a trend in Russia of modernization and westernization of Russian culture and economics.
  • Peter implemented absolute social modernization by introducing French and western dress to his court and requiring courtiers, state officials, and the military to shave their beards and adopt modern clothing styles.
  • Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762 until her death in 1796, continued Peter’s project and helped herald the Russian Enlightenment, transforming education and culture to mirror the European Enlightenment.
  • This trend of westernization and modernization continued into the 19th century, but was eventually opposed by the ” Slavophiles,” a group of intellectuals opposing the influences of Western Europe in Russia.
  • The Slavophiles aimed at returning Russia to a simple peasant-based society centered on the Orthodox faith.

Key Terms

  • Slavophiles: An intellectual movement originating in the 19th century that wanted the Russian Empire to be developed upon values and institutions derived from its early history, opposing the influences of Western Europe in Russia.
  • enlightened despot: A form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment, that embraced rationality, fostered education, and allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the right to hold private property.
  • Pochvennichestvo: A late 19th-century Russian movement tied closely with its contemporary ideology, the Slavophile movement, whose primary focus was to change Russian society by the humbling of the self and social reform through the Russian Orthodox Church rather than the radical implementations of the intelligentsia.

During the second half of the 19th century, a faction of so-called “Slavophiles” emerged in intellectual circles. They were convinced that Peter the Great made a mistake in trying to modernize and Westernize the country and that Russia’s salvation lay in the rejection of Western ideas. Slavophiles believed that while the West polluted itself with science, atheism, materialism, and wealth, they should return to a simple peasant-based society centered on the Orthodox faith. The government rejected these ideas in favor of rapid modernization.

The Westernization of Russia

Peter the Great, the Tsar of Russia from 1672-1725, started a cultural revolution in Russia that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with those that were modern, scientific, westernized, and based on the Enlightenment. Peter’s reforms made a lasting impact on Russia and many institutions of Russian government trace their origins to his reign.

Peter implemented sweeping reforms aimed at modernization. Heavily influenced by his advisers from Western Europe, Peter reorganized the Russian army along modern lines and dreamed of making the country a maritime power. He faced much opposition to these policies at home, but brutally suppressed any and all rebellions against his authority: Streltsy, Bashkirs, Astrakhan, and the greatest civil uprising of his reign, the Bulavin Rebellion.

Peter implemented absolute social modernization by introducing French and western dress to his court and requiring courtiers, state officials, and the military to shave their beards and adopt modern clothing styles. One means of achieving this end was the introduction of taxes for long beards and robes in September 1698. Peter also taxed many Russian cultural customs such as traditional bathing, fishing, and beekeeping.

Catherine the Great, the most renowned and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796, revitalized Russia under her reign, allowing it to grow larger and stronger than ever and become recognized as one of the great powers of Europe. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of The Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot. Catherine held western European philosophies and culture, especially from the French Enlightenment, close to her heart, and she wanted to surround herself with like-minded people within Russia. She believed a “new kind of person” could be created by inculcating Russian children with European education. This meant developing individuals both intellectually and morally, providing them knowledge and skills, and fostering a sense of civic responsibility.

“Westernization” carries different meanings in different countries at different times. In reference to 18th century Russia, it meant legislative changes to economics, politics, and culture. It also entailed the Russian gentry’s adherence to a set standard and its imitation of the Western values. Westernization in Russia included the modernization of machinery, the refinement of a more efficient bureaucracy, and the acceptance of Western European tastes.

Peter and Catherine’s reforms set the tone for Russian domestic policies for centuries to come. His legacy could be seen into the 19th century and beyond. Westernizers were a group of 19th century intellectuals who believed that Russia’s development depended upon the adoption of Western European technology and liberal government. In their view, western ideas such as industrialization needed to be implemented throughout Russia to make it a more successful country.

Marble statue of Catherine II in the guise of Minerva (1789–1790), by Fedot Shubin.

Catherine the Great: Marble statue of Catherine II in the guise of Minerva (1789–1790), by Fedot Shubin. The style exemplifies Catherine’s love for Western philosophy and culture, Minerva being the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Slavophilia

Slavophilia was an intellectual movement originating in the 19th century that wanted the Russian Empire to be developed upon values and institutions derived from its early history. Slavophiles opposed the influences of Western Europe in Russia. There were similar movements in Poland, Hungary, and Greece. Depending on the historical context, its opposite could be termed Slavophobia, a fear of Slavic culture, or even what some Russian intellectuals called Westernism, begun by Peter the Great’s efforts in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Slavophonism developed into many branches of the same movement. Some were leftist and noted that progressive ideas such as democracy were intrinsic to the Russian experience, as proved by what they considered to be the rough democracy of medieval Novgorod. Some were rightist and pointed to the centuries-old tradition of the autocratic tsar as the essence of the Russian nature.

The Slavophiles were determined to protect what they believed were unique Russian traditions and culture. In doing so, they rejected individualism. The role of the Orthodox Church was seen as more significant than the role of the state. Socialism was opposed by Slavophiles as an alien thought, and Russian mysticism was preferred over “Western rationalism.” Rural life was praised by the movement, which opposed industrialization and urban development, and protection of the “mir” (peasant village communities) was an important measure to prevent the growth of the working class.

The movement originated in Moscow in the 1830s. Drawing on the works of Greek Church Fathers, the poet Aleksey Khomyakov (1804–60) and his devoutly Orthodox colleagues elaborated a traditionalistic doctrine that claimed Russia has its own distinct way that should avoid imitating “Western” institutions. The Russian Slavophiles criticized the modernization of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and some of even adopted traditional pre-Petrine dress.

Pochvennichestvo (roughly “return to the soil”) was a late 19th-century Russian movement tied closely with its contemporary ideology, the Slavophile movement. Both were for the complete emancipation of serfdom, stressed a strong desire to return to the idealized past of Russia’s history, and opposed Europeanization. The movement also chose a complete rejection of the nihilist, classical liberal, and Marxist movements of the time. Their primary focus was to change Russian society by the humbling of the self and social reform through the Russian Orthodox Church rather than the radical implementations of the intelligentsia.

The major differences between the Slavophiles and the movement were that the former detested the Westernization policies of Peter the Great, but the latter praised what were seen as the benefits of the notorious ruler but maintained a strong patriotic mentality for the Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. Another major difference was that many of the movement’s leaders and supporters adopted a militantly anti-Protestant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic stance.

The concept had its roots in the works of the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who focused primarily on emphasizing the differences among people and regional cultures. In addition, it rejected the universalism of the Enlightenment period. The most prominent Russian intellectuals who founded the ideology were Nikolay Strakhov, Nikolay Danilevsky, and Konstantin Leontyev.

The 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs

In 1861 Alexander II freed all serfs (over 23 million people) in a major agrarian reform, stimulated in part by his view that “it is better to liberate the peasants from above” than to wait until they won their freedom by uprisings “from below.”

Learning Objectives

Determine the effectiveness of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The emancipation reform of 1861 that freed the serfs was the single most important event in 19th-century Russian history; it was the beginning of the end for the landed aristocracy’s monopoly of power.
  • Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but its abolition was achieved on terms not always favorable to the peasants and increased revolutionary pressures.
  • The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private estates and by this edict more than 23 million people received their liberty.
  • Through emancipation, serfs gained the full rights of free citizens, including rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property, and to own a business.
  • The serfs from private estates were given less land than they needed to survive, which led to civil unrest.

Key Terms

  • Alexander II: The Tsar of Russia from March 2, 1855, until his assassination in 1881. He was also the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland. His most significant reform as emperor was emancipation of Russia’s serfs in 1861, for which he is known as Alexander the Liberator.
  • mir: Peasant village communities, as opposed to individual farmsteads or khutors, in Imperial Russia. The vast majority of Russian peasants held their land in communal ownership within a community, which acted as a village government and a cooperative. Arable land was divided in sections based on soil quality and distance from the village. Each household had the right to claim one or more strips from each section depending on the number of adults in the household.
  • 1848 revolutions: A series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848 that remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history. The revolutions were essentially democratic in nature, with the aim of removing the old feudal structures and creating independent national states. The revolutionary wave began in France in February and immediately spread to most of Europe and parts of Latin America. Over 50 countries were affected, but with no coordination or cooperation between their respective revolutionaries.

The Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia was the first and most important of liberal reforms effected during the reign (1855-1881) of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. The reform effectively abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire.

The 1861 Emancipation Manifesto proclaimed the emancipation of the serfs on private estates and of the domestic (household) serfs. By this edict more than 23 million people received their liberty. Serfs gained the full rights of free citizens, including rights to marry without having to gain consent, to own property, and to own a business. The Manifesto prescribed that peasants would be able to buy the land from the landlords. Household serfs were the least affected, gaining only their freedom and no land.

In Georgia the emancipation took place later, in 1864, and on much better terms for the nobles than in Russia. The serfs were emancipated in 1861, following a speech given by Tsar Alexander II on March 30, 1856. State-owned serfs, those living on Imperial lands, were emancipated in 1866.

Background

The liberal politicians who stood behind the 1861 manifesto recognized that their country was one of a few remaining feudal states in Europe. The pitiful display by Russian forces in the Crimean War left the government acutely aware of the empire’s backwardness. Eager to grow and develop industrial and therefore military and political strength, they introduced a number of economic reforms, including the end of serfdom. It was optimistically hoped that after the abolition the mir (peasant village communities) would dissolve into individual peasant land owners and the beginnings of a market economy.

The main issue was whether the serfs should remain dependent on the landlords or be transformed into a class of independent communal proprietors. The land owners initially pushed for granting the peasants freedom but not land. The tsar and his advisers, mindful of 1848 revolutions in Western Europe, were opposed to creating a proletariat and the instability this could bring. But giving the peasants freedom and land left existing land owners without the large and cheap labor force they needed to maintain their estates and lifestyles. By 1859, however, a third of their estates and two -thirds of their serfs were mortgaged to the state or noble banks, so they had no choice but to accept the emancipation.

To balance this, the legislation contained three measures to reduce the potential economic self-sufficiency of the peasants. First, a transition period of two years was introduced, during which the peasant was obligated as before to the land owner. Second, large parts of common land were passed to the major land owners as otrezki (“cut off lands”), making many forests, roads, and rivers accessible only for a fee. The serfs also had to pay the land owner for their allocation of land in a series of redemption payments, which in turn were used to compensate the land owners with bonds. Three-quarters of the total sum would be advanced by the government to the land owner and then the peasants would repay the money plus interest to the government over 49 years. These redemption payments were finally canceled in 1907.

The painting shows few dozen peasants stand around a porch with a nobleman reading from a piece of paper, in front of a yellow house.

Emancipation Reform of 1861: A 1907 painting by Boris Kustodiev depicting Russian serfs listening to the proclamation of the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861.

Effects of Emancipation

Although the emancipation reform was commemorated by the construction of the enormous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Moscow and history books give Alexander II the name of “Alexander the Liberator,” its results were far from ideal. Household serfs were the worst affected as they gained only their freedom and no land. Many of the more enlightened bureaucrats had an understanding that the freeing of the serfs would bring about drastic changes in both Russian society and government. However, their idea that these changes would affect only the “lower stories” of society and strengthen the autocracy, rather than weaken it was wrong. In reality, the reforms created a new system in which the monarch had to coexist with an independent court, free press, and local governments that operated differently and more freely than in the past.

More specifically, in regards to new localized government, the reforms put in place a system where the land owners had more of a say within their newly formed “provinces.” While this was not the direct intent of the reforms, it was evident that it significantly weakened the idea of the autocracy. Now, the “well-to-do” serfs, along with previously free peoples, were able to purchase land as private property. While early in the reforms the creation of local government changed few things about Russian society, the rise in capitalism drastically affected not only the social structure of Russia, but the behaviors and activities of the self-government institutions.

The serfs from private estates were given less land than they needed to survive, which led to civil unrest. The redemption tax was so high that the serfs had to sell all the grain they produced to pay the tax, which left nothing for their survival. Land owners also suffered because many of them were deeply in debt, and the forced selling of their land left them struggling to maintain their lavish lifestyles. In many cases, the newly freed serfs were forced to “rent” their land from wealthy landowners. Furthermore, when the peasants had to work for the same landowners to pay their “labor payments,” their own fields were often neglected. Over the next few years, the yields from the peasants’ crops remained low, and soon famine struck a large portion of Russia. With little food and in a similar condition as when they were serfs, many peasants started to voice their disdain for the social system.

Lastly, the reforms transformed the Russian economy. The individuals who led the reform were in favor of an economic system similar to that of other European countries, which promoted the ideas of capitalism and free trade. The idea of the reformers was to promote development and encourage private property ownership, free competition, entrepreneurship, and hired labor. They hoped this would bring about an a more laissez-faire economic system with minimal regulations and tariffs. Soon after the reforms, there was a substantial rise in the amount of grain production for sale.