The Army of Nicholas I

Whether as a deterrent or as a combat force, then, the army played a central role in the foreign policies of the regime of Nicholas I. Indeed, it is impossible to think of the reign of Nicholas I without thinking of his army, for Nicholas’s boundless devotion to even the minutiae of military life has become a historiographic cliché. So pervasive was militarism under Nicholas I that some have depicted the Russia of his time as a gigantic garrison state, an armed camp under the rigorous supervision of an autocratic drillmaster. Although this picture may be overdrawn, Nicholas’s love of the military is beyond dispute.

That is somewhat surprising in light of the fact that it was the army that had produced the Decembrist conspiracy, the only truly serious domestic challenge to the Tsar’s authority. Nor could the Decembrists be dismissed merely as a small band of juvenile dreamers; among the persons implicated in the plot were sixteen colonels and two major generals. Of course, in public statements about the case, most particularly in discussions with foreign ambassadors, Nicholas tried to downplay the military character of the revolt. The majority of the army, he insisted, was deeply devoted to both himself and his house; the very fact that the rebellion had been so quickly suppressed, he said, supplied the proof. Privately, however, the Decembrist conspiracy left Nicholas with considerable doubts about the loyalty of his military officers. When the Tsar established his secret police, the Third Section, one of its principle functions was the collection of evidence about political thinking and attitudes within the Russian officer corps. In his very first report of 1827, General Benkendorf concluded that many officers were indeed disaffected for reasons ranging from poverty and boredom to liberalism. Nicholas’s anxiety about potential subversive activities on the part of his officers resulted in his planning of secret agents within the regiments to keep an eye on what the officers were saying and thinking. That anxiety also underpinned his command, after 1831, that the officers of the Warsaw garrison be rotated frequently, presumably to prevent them from identifying with the cause of the Poles. “It is the moral contagion,” the Emperor wrote, “that I fear the worst of all.”

If Nicholas was tormented with fears about the reliability of his army, why did he rely upon it so much? At least one scholar has suggested that the militarism of Nicholas must be seen as an excrescence of his psyche. Neurotically timorous, Nicholas was obsessed with military regimentation, discipline, and hierarchy, which served him as some sort of a psychological defense mechanism. Nicholas thus used his vast autocratic power to create an external environment that would allay his deep-rooted insecurity and dread.

There obviously is something to this view, for there is abundant evidence about the aberrant psychological makeup and bizarre phobias of the Emperor. Yet in my opinion to explain the military system of Nicholas I exclusively in terms of the Tsar’s deformed psyche is to overlook the functional hypothesis. Neurosis may have played a role in the sort of military system that the Emperor created, but so too did rational (if mistaken) calculations about the nature of the international environment and the directions in which Russia wanted to shape it. Nicholas relied on the army because it was the only institution in the Empire that could be used to achieve his foreign objectives. And, more than this, despite its manifold flaws the army of Nicholas I was logically suited to serve the aims for which Nicholas intended it.

For example, the immensity of the Nicholaevan army is readily understandable when we remember that it was the Tsar’s intention to use that army in a deterrent capacity. The reign of Nicholas witnessed a slow but impressive expansion in the size of the army. If in 1826 there were roughly 729,000 soldiers present and accounted for, by the 1850s the army had grown to more than 930,000 regulars plus 240,000 irregulars. For comparative purposes, two of the other major Continental armies, the French and the Austrian, numbered roughly 275,000 men and 250,000 men respectively in 1840. To be sure, as we shall see shortly, Russia did have problems bringing all that vast manpower to bear in wartime. Because one of the main purposes of the army was precisely to be imposing, to overawe foreigners, the regime of Nicholas I was hardly inclined to publicize those difficulties. Certainly the Russian government did nothing to correct the errors of those travelers who, like Haxthausen, falsely estimated that if Russia had gone to war in Western Europe in 1848 it could have dispatched 355,000 regulars and 400,000 irregulars for such a campaign without much trouble. The distribution of those forces—chiefly on the perimeters of the Empire—further enhanced their deterrent value. Up until the mid-1840s, Russia deployed four of its eight infantry corps in Poland. Obviously those troops were in part an army of occupation. Yet they were also designed to be an ostentatious threat to Western and Central Europe. The V corps was stationed on the Black Sea and was thus theoretically available for operations either in Transcaucasia or in the Balkans. The VI Corps, near Moscow, was a reserve formation that could reinforce either the Polish or the southern forces, while the Corps of Guards and Grenadiers, billeted in Petersburg and Novgorod, watched over the Baltic and the Swedish frontier.

Nicholas’s army did have its serious defects, which cannot be ignored in any attempt to make an assessment of it. Yet it would be equally inaccurate to picture the army of Nicholas as strictly a matter of appearances, outward forms, and spit-and-polish. In the first place, the army retained its traditional strengths. One of these was the platoon artel. Writing in 1833, the ex-patriot Polish officer Joseph Cánski had noted that the “the interior of the regiment is the true fatherland for a Russian soldier.” As we have previously suggested, this was so because the literal impossibility of rejoining civil life caused the soldiers to adjust to their new environment by accepting the artel as a substitute family. The soldiers’ artel, with its unique arrangements for the sharing of work, food, and property, had helped to account for the reliability and superior combat performance of the Russian army since the middle of the eighteenth century. Baron August von Haxthausen, who traveled extensively in Russia in the 1830s and 1840s, describing the military artel in his famous volumes on the Russian Empire, hailed the contributions it made to esprit de corps. Russian soldiers continued on many occasions to fight with conspicuous gallantry throughout the reign of Nicholas I. The heroism of the troops in battle received the plaudits of foreign observers during every war in which the Russian army took part, from the conflict with Persia in 1826 to the defense of Sevastopol in 1854. Insofar as such praise was valid, it testified to the ongoing efficacy of the artel in building small-group loyalty and morale.

Second, in certain small but important ways, the regime also sponsored military reforms that led to notable improvements in army efficiency. Some of them concerned military administration. In 1831 General Chernyshev drafted a note advocating the subordination of the Main Staff (Glavnyi Shtab) to the Ministry of War. Up to that time the Staff had served, in effect, as a quasi-independent component of the Imperial suite, a sort of relic of the decentralized and personalized military decision-making of the eighteenth century. Chernyshev’s proposal resulted eventually in the issuance in 1836 of a new statute for the Ministry of War, which provided that ministry with a modern bureaucratic organization. Another important reform, this time affecting military education, was the foundation of the Military Academy (Voennaia Akademiia) in 1831. That higher military school, created partly on the advice of General Jomini, was the first approximation of a general staff academy in Russian history. Many of the most distinguished military reformers and intellectuals during the reign of Alexander II received their first serious exposure to military science within its walls.

In a move designed to ameliorate the lot of the common soldiers while providing Russia with a pool of trained reservists, Nicholas also instituted procedures for leaves without term in 1834. Soldiers who had completed fifteen years of “flawless” service were eligible for furlough from the army’s ranks. Although those men could be recalled to the colors in the event of emergency, they were for all intents and purposes released back into civilian life. Between 1834 and 1850 more than 17,000 men on average were put on such indefinite leaves each year; by the outbreak of the Crimean War there were more than 200,000 of these reservists.

A final and often overlooked improvement for which Nicholas’s government deserves full credit lay in the area of horse breeding. Extensive state investment and management of stud farming literally revolutionized the Russian cavalry. The runty horses—ponies, really—that Russian troops had ridden in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were replaced by highbred beasts, fully as large and strong as those in West European cavalry formations.

The army of Nicholas I, then, was large in size and formidable in appearance—just as it was meant to be. One other feature of Nicholas’s military policy deserves attention: its parsimony. Nicholas was interested in maintaining the largest army possible at the lowest possible cost. Of course, soldiers’ pay in Russia remained both sporadic and negligible. But when multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of men in the ranks, the total military wage bill amounted to a formidable sum. Much more expensive was the cost of equipping the troops—supplying them with uniforms, firearms, and munitions. And the most costly item in the debit column of the military ledger was foodstuffs and forage. In the effort to establish control over those costs, Nicholas had a preexisting instrument ready to hand: the notorious system of military colonies.

Although the practice of settling peasant smallholders along defensive lines had been standard in Russian history for centuries, the formal military colony system originated with a proposal made by Count A. A. Arakcheev to Tsar Alexander I in 1814. Arakcheev’s idea was to station certain military units permanently in specific regions and provinces. Those territories, and all of the peasants already residing there, would come under direct military administration. The soldiers who entered the colonies were to occupy themselves with drill and with agriculture, so that they might grow the food for their own support. They would be encouraged to marry, and their children, known as cantonists, would be predestined for military service themselves. The colonies therefore had several purposes simultaneously. First, as has often been remarked of them, they represented an attempt at social engineering, an effort to bring discipline, order, and hygiene to the Russian countryside. Second, by creating a hereditary class of potential recruits in the cantonists, the system might alleviate the burden of conscription on the villages of the rest of the empire. Finally, the farm labor of the soldiers themselves (and the additional taxes levied on the peasants who lived in their midst) could be used to reduce the amount that the state had to pay for the army’s maintenance.

The first settlements were created for infantry units in Novgorod Province in 1816. In the following year the state established colonies for cavalry regiments in the Ukraine. By 1826 more than forty regiments, half each of infantry and cavalry, had been settled in the colonies, which then had 160,000 soldiers, 54,000 children, and 374,000 peasants on their rolls. Initially at least, the system of colonies resulted in significant economies for the tsarist treasury. For example, the savings on food alone in 1822 was calculated to have been in excess of 3.5 million rubles. Nicholas I continued the system of the colonies, which are said to have contained a full third of the Russian army in the early years of his reign.

Nicholas’s concepts of statecraft, strategy, and military policy were thus almost too neatly intertwined. Revolution had to be averted both at home and abroad, because revolution was the source of calamity and war. To prevent revolution (and consequently general war), Russia needed a strong military deterrent. That meant military forces that could pose a plausible threat to Russia’s neighbors while representing the least possible burden to the treasury.

Yet, as has frequently been observed, the reign of Nicholas I was a catastrophic failure in both domestic and foreign policy. The Tsar’s foreign policy goals were both unrealized and unrealizable. His strategic ideas were impoverished. And his army was inadequate for the purposes he set for it, as it was at once too weak to wage a war successfully with Europeans and too frightening not to antagonize them. The responsibility for all of this must rest mainly with Nicholas himself. Unfortunately, the premises that informed both his diplomatic and his military policies were false.

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