HIS 241
Nicholas I and Official Nationality remarks by Professor Evans


Tsar Nicholas I loved order so much that when he decided to build a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow, he laid out a ruler and had the railroad built in a straight line--see the map to the right here--with the exception of the so-called "Tsar's finger" (the bend in the line near Novgorod).  For a brief history, see the Moscow-St. Petersburg Railway.

Map source, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/commonwealth/russia.94.jpg
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There was no doubt that Nicholas I loved both order and duty, both attributes that he learned in his father's household (Tsar Paul I), which was run along very military lines.  (I can't remember any right now, but there used to be all these colorful anecdotes about the way that Paul's household was run, inspecting the chickens, checking on the precise cutting of the grass, etc.)  Note also that Nicholas did not grow up with his two older brothers, Alexander and Konstantin, who were pretty much raised by Catherine the Great away from the influence of the father.

As tsar, Nicholas felt a profound sense of duty to his country.

Duty!  Yes, this is no empty word for those who since their youth have become accustomed to understand it as I do.  This word has a holy meaning before which every personal consideration retreats.  (Thedor Schiemann, Geschichte Russlands unter Kaiser Nikolaus I, 4 vols. (Berlin, 1904-09), 4:  209.)

The tsar also loved "order."

Here [in the army] there is order, a strict unconditional legality, no one claiming to know all the answers, no contradictions, everything flows logically one from the other; no one commands before he himself has learned to obey; no one steps in front of anybody else without lawful reason; everything is subordinated to one definite goal, everything has its purpose.  That is why I feel so well among these people, and why I shall always hold in honor the calling of a soldier.  I consider all of human life to be merely service.  (Nikolai Shil'der, Imperator Nikolai Pervyi, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1903), 1:  147.)

One thing that you could not say about Nicholas I was that he was lazy.  He did work hard from morning to night, trying to keep abreast of all matters in his realm; yes, he tended to micromanage.  And as Professor Blois has noted, he did try to improve the functioning of the bureaucracy and also to enact some modest reforms.

Another interesting aspect of the reign of Nicholas I was that the government actually subscribed to a definite ideological orientation (and educated society began to develop a different one, which we will cover in the next unit).

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When Sergei Uvarov (1786-1855) became minister of education in 1833, a post that he held until 1849, he derived the tripartite formula that was to serve as the "motto" of the regime and as a guide for the education of Russia:  "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality" or, in other words, "Altar, Throne and Fatherland." (In Russian, the words "pravoslavie, samoderzhavie, narodnost' have slightly different connotations than the English words.)  This formula has come to be known as "Official Nationality."  One could understand these elements as:  Orthodoxy--a source of spiritual strength and unity (plus obedience); Autocracy--the unity of a single patriarchal tsar ruling the giant empire (plus obedience to the father); Nationality--the unity of the Russian community (plus obedience to Russia for all the non-Russians).

Uvarov did work hard to improve the Russian educational system to bring it up to a level equal to that of what existed in Western Europe at the time.  He expanded the secondary school system and upgraded the program of studies there.  He also worked to introduce the study of Russia itself and also to expand more scientific and technical subjects in the university system.  And Russian universities did flourish in the 1840s.  All this laid the foundation for what would later be called the "Marvelous Decade."

It was kind of interesting that the Russian government would come up with a formal ideology to justify its existence and give it purpose, but the idea of "official nationality" did not go much beyond Nicholas himself and some sympathetic intellectuals, and I am not sure how much Nicholas himself ever bought into the ideology since he was not a very theoretical/intellectual person.

If you are interested, you can read the chapter from my Ph.d. dissertation that deals with Nicholas I.

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Some recommended books
  • W. Bruce Lincoln, Nicholas I: Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias (1978)
  • August Freiherr von Haxthausen, Studies on the Interior of Russia (1847-52)
  • Marquis de Custine, Journey for Our Time (1843)
  • Nikolai Gogol, The Inspector General (1836)
  • T. J. Binyon, Pushkin (2002)
Some recommended websites



All materials on this site are copyright © 2005-11, B. Blois & C.T. Evans
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu