Soviet Union Table of Contents
Having experienced the trauma of the Decembrists' revolt, Nicholas I was determined to restrain Russian society. A secret police, the so-called Third Section, ran a huge network of spies and informers. Government censorship and controls were exercised over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life. The minister of education, Sergei Uvarov, devised a program of "autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality" as the guiding principle of the regime. The people were asked to show loyalty to the unlimited authority of the tsar, the traditions of the Orthodox Church, and, in a vague way, to the Russian nation. These principles did not gain the support of the population but instead led to repression in general and to suppression of non-Russian nationalities and religions other than Russian Orthodoxy in particular. For example, the Uniate Church in Ukraine and Belorussia was suppressed in 1839.
The official emphasis on Russian nationalism to some extent contributed to a debate on Russia's place in the world, the meaning of Russian history, and the future of Russia. One group, the Westernizers, believed that Russia remained backward and primitive and could progress only through more thorough Europeanization. Another group, the Slavophiles, idealized the Russia that had existed before Peter the Great. The Slavophiles viewed old Russia as a source of wholeness and looked askance at Western rationalism and materialism. Some of them believed that the Russian peasant commune offered an attractive alternative to Western capitalism and could make Russia a potential social and moral savior of mankind. The Slavophiles, therefore, represented a form of Russian messianism.
Despite the repressions of this period, Russia experienced a flowering of literature and the arts. Through the works of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and numerous others, Russian literature gained international stature and recognition. After its importation from France, ballet took root in Russia, and classical music became firmly established with the compositions of Mikhail Glinka.
In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and as the guardian against revolution. His offers to suppress revolution on the European continent, accepted in some instances, earned him the label of "gendarme of Europe." In 1830, after an uprising in France, the Poles in Russia revolted. Nicholas crushed the rebellion, abrogated the Polish constitution, and reduced Russian Poland to the status of a province. In 1848, when a series of revolutions convulsed Europe, Nicholas was in the forefront of reaction. In 1849 he intervened on behalf of the Habsburgs and helped suppress an uprising in Hungary, and he also urged Prussia not to accept a liberal constitution. Having helped conservative forces repel the specter of revolution, Nicholas I seemed to dominate Europe.
Russian dominance proved illusory, however. While Nicholas I was attempting to maintain the status quo in Europe, he adopted an aggressive policy toward the Ottoman Empire. Nicholas I was following the traditional Russian policy of resolving the "Eastern Question" by seeking to partition the Ottoman Empire and establish a protectorate over the Orthodox population of the Balkans. Russia fought a successful war with the Ottomans in 1828 and 1829. In 1833 Russia negotiated the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi with the Ottoman Empire. Western statesmen believed mistakenly that the treaty contained a secret clause granting Russia the right to send warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. As a result, the major European powers intervened and by the London Straits Convention of 1841 affirmed Ottoman control over the straits and forbade any power, including Russia, to send warships through the straits. Based on his role in suppressing the revolutions of 1848 and his mistaken belief that he had British diplomatic support, Nicholas moved against the Ottomans, who declared war in 1853. Thus the Crimean War began. But the European powers were frightened of Russia, and in 1854 Britain, France, and Sardinia joined the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Austria offered the Ottomans diplomatic support, while Prussia remained neutral. The European allies landed in Crimea and laid siege to a well-fortified base at Sevastopol'. After a year's siege the base fell, exposing Russia's inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil. Nicholas I died before the fall of Sevastopol', but even before then he had recognized the failure of his regime. Russia now had to initiate major reforms or else cease to be a competitive major power.
Data as of May 1989
Soviet Union Table of Contents