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Russian History between 1801 and 1861: Alexander I and Nicholas I

Russian History between 1801 and 1861: Alexander I and Nicholas I

The Russian history of the nineteenth century is a complicated phenomenon that embraces a variety of political, economic, social and cultural factors that determined domestic and foreign policies. This paper is aimed to examine crucial characteristics and transformation of Russian society during the reigns of Alexander I and Nicholas I, as well as to make connection between events of that time and the previous century. Alexander I initiated a variety of effective reforms that favored the improvement of different spheres of life in Russia, since Russian society had witnessed severe economic, political and ideological difficulties that made it an outdated and ineffective state.

After Catherine the Great died in 1796, her son Paul became an Emperor. Since he was sure that his mother was guilty of his father’s death, he had behaved as an unstable and tyrannical ruler until he was murdered in 1801. It illustrates that the eighteenth century was different for nobles and the peasantry due to stratification as a result of Catherine’s and Paul’s policies. Though these rulers promoted the modernization of Russia and imperial expansion, living standards for average people were not satisfying. It showed serious political and social issues. After Paul had been killed, his son Alexander I became an Emperor, who wanted to dissociate from his father’s despotism. It is worth recognizing his efforts to reform Russia to establish a constitutional monarchy in accordance with the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment (Palmer 52). For instance, Alexander I wanted to remove a highly centralized and ineffective governmental system by appointing the Privy Committee made of his friends to replace old ministers. New ministries were created instead of the old Collegia, while head ministers were responsible to the Crown. Reforms regarding transformations of the outdated government included Speransky’s initiative to form the parliament and the State Council to make a clear distinction between executive and legislative powers and to share responsibilities in accordance with strict order. Another reform was to transform the Governing Senate into the Supreme Court. However, this reform, as well as a new constitutional project, were doomed to fail because of the Napoleonic Wars in 1810. In 1802, Alexander I issued the Manifesto, in which he declared new order of executive powers in the Russian Empire.

Another important aspect of the domestic policy of Alexander I was to adjust the status of serfs. Alexander I was not aimed to abolish slavery, instead, he granted rights to own land to most categories of subjects. He also created a category of free agriculturalists who were serfs, emancipated by their masters in 1801. Nevertheless, it did not affect most of the serfs, who had not been freed until 1861. The military reform initiated by Alexander I was focused on making the army a self-supportive system: soldiers were supposed to till a farm under military control, which allowed the army having own recruits. When it comes to cultural policies, the reign of Alexander I was marked by sufficient aid to arts and sciences. For instance, he promoted the development of sciences and literacy by establishing new universities in Kharkov, Kazan and St. Petersburg, whereas universities in Moscow, Vilna and Dorpat were strengthened sufficiently.

Domestic reforms were accelerated by changing foreign policy that should be marked with instability and controversies. The matter was that Europe faced the French Revolt, and it was the reason why old European monarchies were going to protect their political regimes. For example, Alexander I made peace with Britain in 1801 and entered a close alliance with Prussia. When most part of Europe submitted to Napoleon, Alexander I recognized that he had a divine mission to free Europe from the oppressor. However, when the Emperor had realized that Napoleon was going to win, he entered a short-term alliance with him, though anti-Napoleon moods dominated in Russian society. The Russian army won against Napoleon’s forces andmanaged to gain much profit from the rest European countries.

Nicholas I was a nephew of Alexander I, who managed to accede to the throne in 1826 despite the Decembrist revolt. His reign should be marked with aggressive expansive policies that resulted in financial problems for the Empire. According to Lincoln, Nicholas I considered himself to be an autocrat, who ruled by means of necessity (411). Under Alexander I, Russian society faced a variety of transformations that were aimed to improve living standards within the Empire. On the contrary, Nicholas I focused on control rather than improvement. Since the Decembrist revolt happened on the first day of his reign for the purpose to establish a representative form of government and the constitution, his further reign was considerably affected by it. He sent spies, informers and gendarmes to check if other revolts are planned. His policies were completely different from his uncle’s transformations. Nicholas I centralized governmental power by removing autonomies from Poland, Bessarabia and Qahal, though the one was granted to Finland.

Cultural domestic policies of Nicholas I were designed to strengthen nationalism and autocracy. During his rule, the government used censorship to control each sphere of public life, including publishing activities and education. For example, in 1833, Minister of Education Sergei Uvarov established a program based on orthodoxy, autocracy and nationalism as the key principles of the regime. The role of the unrestricted will of the tsar, Russian language and the Christian Orthodox Church was emphasized and encouraged. It led to the increased oppression of all classes of people throughout the Empire, excessive censorship, as well as the discrimination of other religions and languages. For example, independent intellectuals were oppressed and arrested. Other nations on the territory of the Russian Empire witnessed the discrimination of their native culture, language, and literature. For instance, Taras Shevchenko, an outstanding Ukrainian poet, writer and painter, was sent to Siberia and forbidden to write and to paint according to Nicholas’s order, since the former criticized tsar’s family and policies. The nationalist policy led to debates of Westernizers and Slavophiles about two extreme philosophical and ideological viewpoints concerning the role and mission of Russia in the world. Westernizers believed that the development of Russian society and the state was possible only through Europeanization and the acceptance of European values and principles. On the contrary, Slavophiles thought that the development of Russia was possible if it followed its own culture without outside effects, while Russia had God’s mission in the world. Thus, under Nicholas I, Russian society witnessed a cultural rise due to the popularization of Westernizers’ and Slavophiles’ philosophies, though philosophy faculties were closed throughout the state because of possible harmful effects (Seton-Watson 277). Nicholas I attempted to centralize education by protecting it from foreign influences to strengthen nationalism. However, due to Uvarov’s quiet reforms of the education system, universities and schools improved sufficiently. Such intellectual development was also affected by the debates mentioned above, which resulted in the rise of art, literature and the intellectual life overall, even it was out of official establishments.

Despite a tsarist regime, Nicholas I was afraid of conflicts with aristocracy, whose visions were very important for the state. Though he wanted to abolish serfdom, he did not do this because aristocracy might have disapproved this policy and stood against it. However, he extended the rights and opportunities of state serfs, as well as increased control over landowners and other influential groups. Essentially, it improved the position of certain categories of people, but also caused difficulties to other classes.

The military policy was changed after Nicholas I had become an Emperor. Since he was very proud of victory over Napoleon in 1812, he wore soldier’s uniform and surrounded himself by officers. During his reign, the army had one million people serving, which demanded great costs and attention. Nicholas organized parades, in which military servants showed their might on untrained horses. While Alexander’s efforts were directed to strengthen the army and make it cost-effective, Nicholas spent too much money on parades, but did not pay attention to training. As a result, the Russian army on weak horses with old equipment, incompetent commanders and untrained soldiers was defeated in the Crimean war. According to Chapman, “the extent of the problems facing the Russian army were clearly exposed by the war and its lessons were to lead to huge changes in Russia in the reign of the next tsar” (ch. 4). This war demonstrated that Russian army was large, but incompetent and without modern equipment. Corruption, inefficiency and the absence of railroads and other communication methods had made Russia weak and old as compared to France and Britain. Another weakness was noticed in tsar’s foreign policies. For instance, he was called a gendarme because he wanted to suppress revolutionary moods in Europe to make Russia follow his uncle’s rules. For example, in 1831, Nicholas crushed the Uprising in Poland, reducing the latter to the status of province and depriving its people of numerous rights and liberties. That is why, he is considered one of the most reactionary rulers. Nicholas’s aggressive domestic reforms were determined so strengthen his power and influence, whereas foreign policies were aimed to expand the territory by fighting with neighboring empires and led to the Russo-Persian War in 1826-1828.

Though visions of Nicholas’s rule vary among academic communities, most researchers agree that it was a disaster. For example, one of his most devoted servants Nikitenko claimed that, “The main failing of the reign of Nicholas Pavlovich was that it was all a mistake” (Crankshaw 50). Though historians attempt to justify Nicholas I and adjust his reputation, the biggest cohort, including Barbara Jelavich, criticize his policies, that led to “the badly equipped army, the inadequate transportation system, and a bureaucracy, which was characterized by graft, corruption, and inefficiency” (119). A comparative analysis of the policies of Alexander I and Nicholas I demonstrates that most reforms of the former were successful promoting the improvement of people’s living standards, whereas Nicholas’s policies contradicted to his uncle’s liberalist views and led to ineffective financial changes, as well as the absence of well-administrated executive power. Though social stratification and a gap between society and the state have always been attributed to Russia, during Nicholas’s rule, the state became more oppressive towards society, which attempted to resist oppression quietly. Domestic policies of both Alexander and Nicholas were focused on certain categories of people instead of the entire population. The position of the aristocracy and nobles were the priority, whereas interests of poor serfs were paid less attention, despite the attempts to improve their position.

In conclusion, the in-depth analysis of policies of Alexander I and Nicholas I has been conducted to discover political, economic, military, social and cultural transformations of Russian society in the nineteenth century. Alexander’s reign is marked with effective modernization and optimization of the Russian government, continuing the reforms of his eighteenth-century predecessors. Though Alexander’s policies should not be absolutized, he had sufficiently contributed to the liberalization of Russian society and the improvement of living standards for the peasantry. Nicholas I took a different course, which made Russia a militarily weak, cost-ineffective and outdated state with a corrupted administration. Thus, Russian society faced a rise during Alexander’s rule, while Nicholas’s reign was associated with restrictions, wars and oppression.


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