Reactionary and autocratic, literal-minded and devoted to military engineering, Nicholas I worked hard at the business of the state. Although he despised all constitutions, he honored the liberal constitution that his elder brother Alexander had granted to the Poles until the Poles themselves revolted in 1831.
He believed that his autocratic power had been ordained by God; he was prepared to make improvements but not to touch the fundamental institution of the autocracy. Though he was uneasy over the dangers inherent in serfdom, he was afraid to reform it in any significant way, because he feared that concessions would stimulate revolution among his peasants.
Nicholas’s secretariat became the most important organ of Russian government. He enlarged it by creating several sections, often under close personal friends. This enormous expansion of the czar’s secretariat did not result in the abolition of any of the older organs of government; consequently, bureaucratic confusion became great, paperwork was multiplied, and much injustice was done through sheer incompetence.
Nicholas was deeply worried about the possibility that subversive foreign ideas might penetrate into the universities. After the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, his reactionary minister of education abolished the study of philosophy at the University of St. Petersburg because, as he said, the usefulness of the subject had not been proved. Formulated under the three heads of Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality—unlimited power of the monarch, sanctity of the Russian church, and conformity with the “Russian national character”—Nicholas’s policies resulted in a police state.
Like other Russian rulers before him, Nicholas confidently expected the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Russia wished to protect the Orthodox subjects of the sultan and also had important economic interests at stake. The great wheat-producing areas in the south were being developed intensively, and Odessa on the Black Sea had become the major commercial port for the grain trade.
Nicholas hoped to establish a Russian sphere of influence in the Balkans and even to take possession of Istanbul itself. Thus he intervened in the Greek War of the late 1820s, and when the governor of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, revolted against the Ottoman sultan in 1832 and threatened Istanbul, he landed a Russian army and got credit for saving the sultan’s capital.
In 1833 the Turks paid the bill for these services. Instead of wishing to annex large sections of the Ottoman Empire, the czar, under the influence of a well-argued memorandum from his foreign minister, Count Karl Nesselrode (1780-1862), now preferred to maintain a weak and friendly Ottoman Empire that would serve as a buffer between Russia and the Habsburg Empire. In the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi Nicholas took the Ottoman Empire under his protection, and the Turks agreed to close the Bosporus and Dardanelles to the warships of any nation.
Alarmed at the control the treaty gave to Russia in an area of the world vital to British imperial and commercial interests, British diplomacy was geared to undoing it. The next time Mehmet Ali revolted (in 1839), the British were able to put him down with their fleet before he came near a Russian land force. In 1841 all the other important powers joined Russia in guaranteeing the integrity of Turkey, thus ending the exclusive position obtained by Russia at Unkiar Skelessi.
For twelve years (1841-1853) Nicholas tried to reach an agreement with Britain on what should be done with Ottoman territory if Turkey collapsed. The British did not believe that such collapse was imminent, and they hoped to prevent Russia from doing anything to hasten it. By 1853 the czar mistakenly believed that Britain was not opposed to Russian domination of Turkey, and Britain mistakenly believed that the czar would not act in Turkey without consultation.
Russian relations with the Ottoman Turks were further complicated by religion. The Turks were Muslim; the czar saw himself as the protector of the Orthodox Christians; the Russian Empire in the Caucasus region was filled with diverse nationalities, several of them followers of Islam. While the Georgians and Armenians had been Christians for centuries, the Muslim subjects of the empire had been under pressure throughout the eighteenth century to accept conversion.
The Tatars, centered in Kazan, had risen in the Pugachev rebellion in 1773-1775; Nicholas again focused attention on the Tatars when he broke up the University of Kazan, where Western and Eastern culture had met effectively in a center of high repute, and began urging conversions to Orthodoxy. The Tatars of the Crimea and the Turks of Azerbaijan, who viewed themselves as culturally different from the people of Kazan, were strongly influenced by developments in Turkey. Thus the czar had religious as well as political reasons to assert his authority over the sultan’s Christian population.
A dispute arose over whether the Roman Catholics, backed by Napoleon III, or the Orthodox clergy, backed by the czar, should have the right to perform certain functions in the Christian Holy Places in Palestine, which was still part of the Ottoman dominions. This dispute was the immediate cause of the Crimean War, since the sultan ruled in favor of the Roman Catholics. But the underlying cause was the czar’s wish to reestablish Russian dominance.
Nicholas coupled his demand for Russia’s exclusive position with the demand that the Turks settle the dispute over the Holy Places amicably, and he occupied the Danubian principalities to enforce his demands. Despite many months of elaborate diplomatic negotiations, Turkey declared war on Russia and lost its fleet. Britain, France, and eventually the Italian kingdom of Sardinia then fought the Russians, ostensibly to protect the Turks though in fact to preserve the balance of power.
Famous in myth and legend as the occasion of the charge of the Light Brigade and of pioneer efforts by Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) to save the lives of sick and wounded soldiers, the Crimean War consisted mostly of a joint French and British seige of the great Russian naval base at Sevastopol in the Crimea. Military operations on both sides were conducted inefficiently, but eventually the Russians were compelled to surrender.
In the Treaty of Paris of 1856, Russia was forbidden to fortify the Black Sea coast or to maintain a fleet there. Because this made it impossible for the Russians to defend their own shores or to conduct their shipping in security, it became the paramount object of Russian foreign policy to alter the Black Sea clauses of the treaty.