This younger brother of Alexander I was born in 1796, and became Tsar in 1825 at nearly thirty years old. Any chance that there might have been to make him a reformist monarch was destroyed in the Decembrist Conspiracy. Secret societies had been formed in northern and southern Russia, mostly by army officers who had experienced the West for the first time in their lives during the Napoleonic Wars. One of these, the Prince Volkonsky, wrote: ‘the campaigns of eighteen twelve to fourteen brought Europe nearer to us, made us familiar with its forms of state, its public institutions, the rights of the people. By contrast with our own state of life, the laughably limited rights which our people possessed, the despotism of our regime first became truly present in our hearts and understanding.’
Russia was terribly far behind the rest of Europe economically and educationally. It is no wonder that secret societies flourished, but they had different aims; the North wanted a Constitution like that of the United States, and a Tsar with roughly the same powers as a US President. The South was more serious and radical, wishing to replace monarchy with a republic, and eliminate the royal family and anybody/everybody connected with it. Both North and South wanted to replace serfdom (q.v.), introduce the idea of juries and make everyone equal before the Law. They were called ‘Decembrists’ because they decided to anticipate their uprising, planned for 1826, to December 1825, when Tsar Alexander died, to be replaced by Nicolas I.
The uprising failed for the usual reasons; internal unrest between the secret societies, disorganization, betrayal and unreadiness. Nicolas was convinced that only military discipline could control his country. He himself invariably wore military uniform, and all his advisers and hangers-on were officers. His First Minister Uvarov reiterated to him the words ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality’ and he believed it. It became his motto. He intended to take control of everything, and thus overworked himself. He expanded the Imperial Chancery (notorious for its secret police) and tried to stamp out any spark of resistance, criticism and/or opposition to the regime.
What he was not however was decisive, like Nicolas II much later. He failed constantly to take determined action to back himself up. He was afraid that anarchy would follow abolition, though he always said that serfdom, for example, was like a powder keg beneath the nation’s peace. He said that reform only led to demands for more reform, and must therefore be avoided. He refused to improve education, maintaining that universities were subversive and should be erradicated. He intervened in the 1848 revolutions by aiding the Hapsburgs to put down revolts in Hungary, but showed up Russia’s essential weakness in the Crimean War, in which Russians were defeated on Russian soil by France and Britain. This was ridiculous because their bases were thousands of miles away. Nicolas I died, embittered and exhausted in 1855. He was fifty-nine.