Czar Nicholas I and War


Two Cuirassiers from the Regiment of Czar Nicholas I


NICHOLAS I, emperor 1825–55, son of Paul I and Maria Alexandra Fyodorovna (née Princess Charlotte of Prussia), empress, Nicholas’s wife, ‘Mouffy’

On 20 February 1848, at a court ball, Nicholas heard the shocking news that Paris had risen and that King Louis-Philippe had abdicated and fled. ‘We were all thunderstruck!’ wrote the twenty-year-old Kostia in his diary. ‘Only blood is visible on the horizon. Mama too is frightened.’ The ferment had started in Palermo but spread rapidly across Europe.

A day later, Kostia heard that France was ‘a republic governed by a committee of journalists and a worker. This is what we’ve come to!’ he exclaimed, adding a few days later: ‘The young officers rejoice because there is hope of war!’

‘When Paris sneezes,’ said Metternich, ‘Europe catches cold.’ In Austria, Chancellor Metternich himself was overthrown, fleeing for his own safety, and Emperor Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his young nephew Franz Josef. Revolution infected Berlin, Frankfurt, Budapest – and Wallachia and Moldavia, technically Ottoman-ruled but Orthodox in religion.

‘This insolence threatens in its madness even Our Russia, entrusted to us by God,’ declared Nicholas. ‘But it will not succeed.’ In a panic of fear and outrage, he crushed the revolution in Wallachia and Moldavia, forcing the sultan to concede greater Russian control. In Paris and Vienna, the revolutions were suppressed but, right next to Poland, in Hungary, the revolutionaries declared independence. On 29 May, Franz Josef requested Russian intervention. Eight days later, Paskevich with forces totalling 350,000 invaded Hungary. But while another Russian army immediately defeated the Hungarians, Paskevich bungled his offensive, driving Nicholas to distraction: ‘I very much regret that [rebel general] Gorgei with his entire army escaped you! I will only understand when you personally explain it to me.’ On 18 July, the rebels surrendered. ‘Hungary lies at the feet of Your Imperial Majesty,’ wrote Paskevich, who was praised by the tsar: ‘Thou art the glory of my twenty-five-year reign.’

Nicholas’s power had reached its peak, but his hegemony was fragile. He was resented almost as much by his allies Austria and Prussia as by his enemies Britain and France. Worse, Russia itself was sclerotic. The emperor’s fatigue and rigidity had become potentially catastrophic problems. Nicholas had failed to realize that the world had changed. His Olympian isolation blinded him to what the country needed to compete with the West.

His swelling bureaucracy, staffed by thousands of clerks, awaiting automatic promotions – witheringly satirized by Gogol’s play The Inspector-General – vomited forth millions of documents that monarch and ministers could scarcely absorb, and further divided the tsar and Petersburg from the country. His army was antiquated, its arsenal of rifles obsolete, yet Chernyshev, war minister since 1827, now prince and president of the State Council, reported that the army ‘needed no changes whatsoever’. His ministers were decrepit – Nesselrode had been foreign minister since 1814. His brother Michael dropped dead; Mouffy was ill; Nicholas himself suffered gout. ‘The theatre is our only pastime,’ he told Annette. ‘We’re leading a very peaceful life.’

Nicholas tightened censorship which, soon under twelve different committees, became suffocating: the word ‘republic’ was removed from Greek and Roman history books while Shakespeare’s Richard III was banned. Alexei Orlov, who had succeeded Benckendorff as head of the secret police, started to monitor an eccentric civil servant, Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky, whose circle discussed socialism and atheism. Nicholas ordered its immediate dissolution. At 4 a.m. on 23 April 1849, the twenty-seven-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky, a doctor’s son and trained engineer who had won praise for his first novel Poor Folk, awoke to find two Gendarmes in his bedroom. Taken to 16 Fontanka, Dostoevsky and fifty others were inspected by Orlov, then despatched to the Peter and Paul Fortress where they were interrogated for months until Nicholas had Dostoevsky, Petrashevsky and fourteen others condemned to death by firing squad.

On 22 December 1849, Alexander, as commander of the Guards, supervised the spectacle as Dostoevsky and his comrades were led out to the scaffold in Semyonovsky Square where ‘the sentence of death was read to us, we all were made to kiss the cross, a sword was broken over our heads and we were told to don our white execution shirts’. The first three were tied to stakes as the firing squad raised their rifles. ‘Aim!’ cried the commanding officer.

‘For me,’ wrote Dostoevsky, ‘only one minute of life remained . . . Then the drums sounded “retreat” . . . and an order from His Imperial Majesty granted us our lives.’ Nicholas had himself devised this sadistic trick, which drove at least one of the youths to madness. ‘There was no joy at returning to living,’ wrote Dostoevsky. ‘People around me were shouting, but I didn’t care. I had already lived through the worst.’ Dostoevsky departed for four years of hard labour in Siberia. Nicholas had overreacted and the crisis that would lead to the humbling of Nicholas started not in Petersburg but in Jerusalem.

On Good Friday, 26 March 1846, forty monks were killed in a battle between Orthodox and Catholics in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which had been ruled by the Ottomans since 1517. The Sepulchre had long been run by the Orthodox and indeed Jerusalem was dominated by the Russians, who regarded the pilgrimage there as an essential preparation for death. Nicholas himself planned to go that year, though his own pilgrimage had been cancelled due to the revolutions. Now the Catholics threatened Orthodox rights guaranteed in Catherine the Great’s treaties.

A year later, the silver star, donated by French kings, set in the marble floor of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity was stolen. The Catholics blamed the Orthodox. Once again, the monks fought. In Constantinople, the French insisted on their right to replace the star; Nicholas disagreed.

In December 1851, the French president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the politically agile nephew of the great Napoleon, overthrew the Second Republic before crowning himself Emperor Napoleon III. His glistening but flimsy empire needed Catholic prestige and military glory abroad – and revenge for 1815: the Holy Land was a useful pretext. But, for Nicholas, predominance in Constantinople was the real issue. Both emperors were determined to force their will on Sultan Abdul Mecid. In February 1852, Nicholas got his way, until Napoleon threatened the sultan who buckled and granted paramountcy over the Holy Sepulchre to the Catholics. Nicholas could not let this stand.

‘I cannot recede from a sacred duty,’ Nicholas told the British ambassador. He claimed he might abandon Catherine the Great’s claims to Constantinople, but then he went on to propose ‘reckless’ schemes for reducing the Ottomans to a rump protectorate or temporarily occupying Constantinople.

The emperor had always taken most decisions on his own, but now he had become exactly what Marcus Aurelius warned against: hopelessly ‘over-Caesarified, dyed in the purple’. ‘This sovereign’, wrote the French ambassador the marquis de Castelbajac, ‘has been spoiled by adulation, success and the religious prejudices of the Muscovite nation.’ His Caesarian grandiloquence was now not merely absurdly portentous† but alarmingly messianic: he saw himself as an Orthodox Crusader – his father after all had been grand master of the Hospitaller Order of Jerusalem. If he had ‘something of Peter the Great, Paul I and a medieval knight’, noted Castelbajac, ‘now the qualities of Paul rise to the fore’. Observing him for the first time, after arriving at court, a maid-of-honour, Anna Tyutcheva, noted his ‘arrogant and cruel expression’.

Nicholas decided to bully the sultan into the restoration of Orthodox paramountcy and an ‘alliance’ that would turn the empire into a Russian protectorate – or face war. His calculations were not just sacred: he was risking a gamble to take a step closer to settling the Eastern Question on terms advantageous to Russia – without Britain going to war for the Ottomans. His confidence was delusional. To enforce his plans, he appointed Alexander Menshikov as commander-in-chief of his southern armies and his negotiator in Constantinople.

Castrated by the Turkish cannonball in 1828, Menshikov, now sixty-five, the great-grandson of Peter the Great’s favourite, was Nicholas’s model of an all-purpose martinet, having governed Finland, served as ambassador to Persia, run the Admiralty for decades and most recently directed censorship. Haughty, inept and sarcastic, he was exhausted and hoped ‘this will be the last official action in my life which demands repose’. But now he was the ‘envoy-plenipotentiary of peace and war’.

On 16 February 1853, Prince Menshikov arrived in Constantinople, forced the dismissal of the grand vizier, then demanded a Russian protectorate. But the castrated paladin had left his maps behind, which gave the forceful British ambassador time to ruin his negotiations. Menshikov himself counselled moderation, but Nicholas replied that ‘without a crisis of compulsion it would be difficult’ to dominate Constantinople.

image protecton file artisans-lane vintage-views

In May, Menshikov presented his ultimatum, but the sultan, knowing that the British and French were sailing to his rescue, rejected it. On the 14th Menshikov broke off relations and returned to Sebastopol to take command of the armies. ‘War is imminent,’ Nicholas told Annette. ‘I still don’t know what the English are preparing for us.’ A month later, Nicholas invaded the Danubian Principalities – Moldavia and Wallachia. ‘I must go by my own path,’ he told Paskevich. ‘You can’t imagine how much all this saddens me. I’ve grown old . . .’ Nicholas was tempted to seize Constantinople in a coup de main, but Paskevich advised a more cautious approach.

That summer, Austria offered a peace plan, the Vienna Note, that was too generous to Nicholas, who accepted it, but too humiliating for the sultan, who proposed alterations – dismissed by the tsar. When Napoleon offered Western withdrawal in return for Russian withdrawal, Nicholas rejected it. His intransigence threw away his last chance of peace, yet he congratulated himself on ‘waging war neither for worldly advantages nor conquests but for a solely Christian purpose’, as he explained it to Frederick William of Prussia, ‘under the banner of the Holy Cross’. Russia would lead the Orthodox Slavs of the Balkans in a crusade against the sultan.

‘Nothing is left to me but to fight, to win or perish with honour.’ He was haunted by death. ‘I am stricken with worries,’ he told Annette, ‘and I’ve already paid by my first attack of gout – the sad privilege of my fifty-eight years which is truly too many – and place myself in the hands of divine will.’

On 4 October 1853, the sultan declared war on Russia, joined on 28 March 1854 by Britain and France. Nicholas was flabbergasted when the Austrian emperor (whose throne he had just saved) not only refused to back him but instead threatened war. Nicholas turned Franz Josef’s painting to the wall and wrote ‘Ingrate’ on the back. ‘Time to prepare to fight not against the Turks but against treacherous Austria,’ he told Paskevich, ‘to punish severely its shameful ingratitude.’


The Armenian Front During the Crimean War, from 1853 until 1856.

Russia possessed a million soldiers, but the so-called Crimean War was fought on many fronts. In the Far East Anglo-French ships bombarded Kamchatka. In the Black Sea the Russian fleet destroyed the Ottomans. In the Baltic, the Royal Navy fired at Kronstadt. ‘Our peaceful Peterhof was so calm,’ Alexander reported jauntily to his aunt Annette, ‘now the enemy is at the door. For several days the entire enemy fleet was visible from the Cottage.’ Yet the main Russian army had to be ready on the western border to fight the Austrians – and Paskevich got bogged down at Silistria and resigned. Since the allies threatened to relieve the Ottomans, Nicholas withdrew from the Principalities, the cause of the war – but now it was too late. ‘The main and real object of the war’, declared Viscount Palmerston, the Russophobic British home secretary, ‘was to curb the aggressive ambition of Russia’ and destroy Russian power in the Black Sea. Thinly stretched, badly commanded, under-supplied, Russia faced Europe’s two richest, most modern powers – alone.

Nicholas and Mouffy retired to Gatchina, ‘dark and silent’, where the maid-of-honour Anna Tyutcheva observed the emperor. In July, his face was ‘furrowed with suffering, his extreme pallor gave the appearance of an antique marble statue’.


On 1 September 1854, an armada of 400 ships landed 60,000 French and British troops at Eupatoria in Crimea. The most vulnerable moment of a sea invasion is the landing, but Menshikov, who had never commanded more than a regiment, was taken by surprise, not expecting an attack till spring. Nonetheless he did nothing, waiting with his 35,000 men and 100 guns at the Alma Heights to block the road to Sebastopol. On 7 September, the allies advanced towards their prize. Menshikov was so confident that he invited the ladies of Sebastopol to spectate, but the Russians broke and fled, hampered by their old flintlock muskets, shattered by the Anglo-French Minié rifle, bad morale and the prince’s bungled command. Five thousand died, and the French overran Men-shikov’s carriage, which was found to contain a kitchen, letters from Nicholas, his boots, ladies’ underwear – and French pornography. Men-shikov, berefit of military talents, tried to hide his defeats from Nicholas.

Right at the start the fighting revealed the fundamental changes in Europe since 1815: whatever the limitations of their own inept generals, the French and British fought, communicated and manoeuvred with the technology and wealth of the industrial revolution, far exceeding those of Russia, which was left behind in the age of the first Emperor Napoleon. This would decide the war’s outcome, but the tsar was bewildered by Menshikov’s defeat, encouraging the wavering prince: ‘Don’t give up, I repeat, we should prove to everyone, we’re the same Russians who defended Russia in 1812!’ But he was soon infuriated by his commander: ‘Newspapers are full of reports about the battle and I got nothing. I require detailed, truthful reports . . . It’s time for this to end!’

Fortunately for the Russians, the allied armies, in which the French provided the largest contingent, were almost as badly organized. If they had stormed Sebastopol now, it might have fallen, but by October the Russians had turned it into a fortress.

‘I hope you find the chance to strike a blow at the enemy to maintain the honour of our arms,’ Nicholas urged Menshikov. On 13 October, Menshikov’s reinforced army, 60,000 infantry and thirty-four squadrons of cavalry, almost overwhelmed the British at the drawn Battle of Balaclava, after which Raglan gave his preposterous order for the 661 men of the Light Brigade to charge the Russian guns in ‘the valley of death’.

Nicholas, at Gatchina, rushed in to share the news of Balaclava with Mouffy, ‘so overcome with emotion that in front of all of us’, wrote Tyutcheva, ‘he threw himself on to his knees before the icons and burst into tears’. The ill empress, thinking Sebastopol had fallen, joined him – until Nicholas claimed Balaclava as a victory. But some trace of the old Jupiter remained: he now ordered Menshikov to attack again, despatching his younger sons Nikolai and Mikhail to encourage him. The Russians were superior in numbers, but Menshikov’s offensive against the British at Inkerman was over-complicated: Menshikov and the grand dukes watched the massacre of 12,000 Russian troops. ‘The men were disordered because they were badly directed,’ Nikolai reported to Alexander. ‘The disorder came from Menshikov.’ The prince collapsed. ‘Cheer up, dear Menshikov!’ wrote the emperor, though he concluded that ‘This defeat has so depressed Prince Menshikov that I fear the worst. He sees no more hope to attack the allies and predicts the fall of Sebastopol. Such a thought horrifies me!’

The defeats broke Jupiter. By 24 November, the courtiers ‘were dejected, none dared speak’, while Nicholas was ‘not sleeping or eating, he spends the night in the empress’s room, wearing only socks’ so that his steps did not wake her: Jupiter in socks! The ‘sovereign gets more depressed every day . . . his beautiful majestic figure’ like ‘the oak that never knew how to bend and can only perish in the storm’.

The allies besieged Sebastopol. Nicholas sent Alexander down to raise morale, but on his return he told his father that Sebastopol would fall. ‘That giant, so intolerant of men’s tears, now often wept,’ observed Anna Tyutcheva. Every evening, he gave his granddaughter her soup: ‘I come to feed this little cherub – the only good moment of the day, the only time I forget my anxieties.’ The tsar saw that his autocracy had in some ways been futile: ‘Ascending the throne, I passionately wanted to know the truth, but after listening to lies and flattery daily for thirty years, I’ve lost the ability to tell truth from lies.’

As winter inflicted suffering on all three armies, Menshikov proposed the abandonment of Sebastopol. ‘For what was the heroism of the troops, such heavy losses, if we accept defeat?’ replied Nicholas. ‘I cannot agree with your opinion. Do not submit, I say, and don’t encourage others to do so . . . We have God on our side.’

‘The sight of the sovereign is enough to break your heart,’ reported Tyutcheva. ‘He’s become more and more morose.’ Nicholas ordered Menshikov to recapture Eupatoria in case the allies landed more troops, but here too the Russians were crushed.

On 31 January 1855, Nicholas caught a cold at the wedding of Count Kleinmikhel’s daughter, Alexandra. ‘The influenza that you had is the same that has taken hold here,’ he told Annette. ‘I’ve been near it a few days and my wife was seriously ill with it. She is spending a very sad winter.’ So was he. ‘Nothing is happening to gladden us.’ While ‘my younger sons are at Sebastopol’, he now revealed that if Austria continued to threaten him, ‘I should shortly be joining the army. God will do the rest.’ God had other plans.

On 13 February, he reviewed troops in temperatures of minus 23 degrees. As he lay in his study on his army cot, his wheezing cold worsened. On the 15th, handing over some duties to Alexander, he dismissed Menshikov, replacing him with the abler general Prince Mikhail Gorchakov.

‘There’s nothing dangerous about His Majesty’s condition,’ insisted Dr Martin Mandt the next day, but suddenly pneumonia gripped the emperor’s lungs. Late on the 17th, Mandt summoned a priest.

‘We were called on the 17th,’ wrote Grand Duke Kostia’s wife, always known as ‘Sanny’, ‘and spent the entire night outside the room where he took Communion.’

‘Am I dying?’ Nicholas asked Dr Mandt.

‘Your Majesty, you have only hours to live.’

‘Thank you for your courage in telling me.’

Nicholas directed his own deathbed, ordering the Guards brought to the palace to take the oath to Alexander. When his family sat around the bed, ‘He blessed us,’ recalled Sanny, ‘and kissed us telling us, “Stay united as during my time.”’

He saw each of them alone and made Elena, the ‘Family Intellectual’, promise to help Alexander abolish serfdom.

Then the family and retainers retired: just Mouffy, Alexander and Marie remained. Nicholas blessed Mouffy and then Marie: ‘Remember: remain friends!’ He told Mouffy to ‘say goodbye to his beautiful dear Peterhof’. When an aide-de-camp arrived from Sebastopol with letters from his sons Nikolai and Mikhail, he refused: ‘No, these things aren’t my concern any more. That could hold me to life. Give the messages to my son.’

As the courtiers, including our diarist Anna Tyutcheva, gathered sobbing quietly to the rattle of the tsar’s lungs, ‘In the corridors, on the stairs, everywhere there were faces, frightened, anxious, upset, people rushed somewhere, not knowing where or why.’ As they ‘watched the drama of the night of agony’, Tyutcheva ‘suddenly saw that unhappy Nelidova appear in the lobby, an expression of horror and deep despair reflected in her confused eyes and beautiful features, frozen and white as marble. Passing, she hurt me, grabbed my arm. “Lovely night, Mademoiselle Tyutcheva, beautiful night,” she said in a hoarse voice. Only now did I understand the vague rumours of the relationship between the emperor and this beautiful woman.’

Just then, Mouffy, empress of the ‘angelic kindness’, remembered the mistress wandering the corridors. She told her husband, ‘They wish to say goodbye to you,’ naming her ladies-in-waiting, a list that ended, ‘and Varenka Nelidova’.

‘No my dear, I must not see her any more,’ he said. ‘Tell her I ask her forgiveness and ask her to pray for me.’ Nelidova went on wandering the palace, hair dishevelled, whispering ‘Lovely night, beautiful night.’

The emperor was overcome with shame for failing his army. ‘I’ve always tried to do what I can for them,’ he told Alexander, ‘and where I failed, it was due not to lack of goodwill but to lack of knowledge and intelligence. I ask them to forgive me.’ He supposedly added: ‘I loved war too much.’ As the night passed, Nicholas ‘thanked all his servants and called in his ministers, gave meticulous orders for his burial and warned the governor-generals of Moscow and Warsaw of his imminent death’. Dr Mandt thought there was ‘something superhuman’ in this death. But the patient started to suffocate. ‘If this is the beginning of the end, it’s painful,’ he said, telling the heir: ‘I want to take everything difficult, serious, upon my shoulders and leave you a peaceful, well-ordered, happy realm.’ Peering up at his family, he added, ‘I’ve loved you more than anything.’ To Alexander, he said: ‘Serve Russia!’ Then in the ultimate masterclass of autocracy, he raised his hand to Alexander and clenched his fist – ‘Hold everything like this!’ His three successors tried to live by this dictum.

The rasping breath was so loud that Nicholas asked Mandt: ‘Will this disgusting music go on long?’ He told Mouffy: ‘You were my guardian angel.’ Then: ‘I’m cold.’

‘Shall we light a fire?’

‘There’s no point.’ The priest prayed; Mouffy coughed; the breathing slowed, the death rattle deepening; the family fell to their knees – and the caesarevich arose as Alexander II. The war could not be won – but could it be ended with honour…

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