President Vladimir Putin models his career on the exploits of a historic Russian leader. However, it is not Stalin, Lenin, or Tsar Peter the Great. Instead, Putin’s role model is Tsar Nicholas I who ruled from 1825 to 1855.
Nicholas I was an autocratic ruler who suppressed dissent, centralized the state, and waged several expansionist wars. Notably, the Russian Empire reached its largest size under Nicholas I stretching from Alaska to Poland. Nicholas I’s reign saw the beginning of Russian industrialization and modernization.
“Nicholas I came to represent autocracy personified: infinitely majestic, determined and powerful, hard as stone, and relentless as fate,” biographer Nicholas V. Riasanovsky wrote.
I think Putin sees Nicholas I’s reign as the height of Russian civilization. Moreover, Putin wants to recreate Nicholas I’s Russian Empire in the 21st century.
One way to understand Putin is that he is trying to recreate the empire he thinks the Soviets destroyed. I also wonder if Putin feels guilty about his past Communist Party membership and KGB service and is trying to make up for it by rebuilding the Russian Empire.
Who Was Nicholas I?
Nicholas I was the grandson of Catherine the Great and the younger brother of Emperor Alexander I.
Ironically, Nicholas was not supposed to be Czar because he had two older brothers. However, Alexander I died childless in 1825 and the middle brother Constantine turned down the throne. Hence, Nicholas I was an accidental Czar who had one of the longest reigns in Russian history.
Nicholas was the first Tsar to face organized revolution; the Decembrist Revolt in 1825. In response, Nicholas organized one of the first modern police states by organizing a secret police force (The Third Section) and a national police force. Under Nicholas I, secret police began intercepting and reading mail and employing informants to catch dissidents.
Some innovations Nicholas I introduced were censorship of all media and the teaching of nationalist propaganda as fact in the public schools. The new education glorified the Tsar, the Orthodox Church, and Holy Mother Russia. To stifle dissent, the government closely monitored universities and barred the teaching of what Nicholas I saw as dangerous ideas – such as democracy.
During Nicholas I’s reign, the Russian state began promoting racist Slavophile beliefs that portrayed Russians and other Slavs as superior to other races. Hypocritically, Nicholas himself, who was of German heritage, was not a Slav.
Nicholas I institutionalized antisemitism by requiring all Jewish men to serve in the Russian military for 25 years. The idea was to Russify Jews by taking them away from their families. Predictably, many Jews converted to Christianity or fled the country to escape conscription.
Another aspect of Nicholas I’s rule was to abolish autonomy for regions inside Russia, including Bessarabia. Nicholas I centralized all authority in the Czar and his bureaucracy in St. Petersburg.
An Iron Hand at Home and Abroad
Like Putin, Nicholas I, ruled with an iron hand at home and practiced aggressive military expansion abroad.
Nicholas’s foreign policy was strange. The Tsar supported one revolution in Greece, but wanted to use his armies to crush revolts in Belgium and France in 1830. Only Prussian opposition kept Nicholas I’s armies from crossing Europe to kill revolutionaries in Paris and Brussels.
In 1831, the Polish parliament tried to reestablish independence by removing Nicholas I as Poland’s King. Nicholas sent in the Russian Army, which brutally crushed the parliament. The Czar then declared Poland Vistula Land, a Russian Province, in an action reminiscent of Putin’s Ukraine War.
In 1848, Nicholas sent Russian troops to crush a revolution in Hungary, much as Putin sent troops to keep Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad in power in 2016. Nicholas fought wars of conquest against his neighbors, including Persia (Iran) and the Ottoman Empire. Notably, Nicholas’s army conquered the Caucasus from Iran in the Russo-Persian War of 1828.
Catastrophe in the Crimea
Ironically, Putin is repeating Nicholas I’s greatest mistake of turning almost every other nation against him. Moreover, Putin is fighting a war in the same area where Nicholas I led Russian forces to disaster.
In the 1840s, Nicholas I wanted to exert Russian power in Greece and Middle East but found his efforts blocked by the Turks. To explain, to control the area, Nicholas needed to send his fleet into the Mediterranean from the Black Sea.
The only way to sail from the Black to Mediterranean seas is through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles Straights, which the Turks controlled. In 1853, Nicholas tried to seize control of the straights by having his fleet sink the Turkish Navy.
Nicholas’s action scared both the British and French, who had important economic interests in the Middle East. In 1854, the British, Ottoman, and French empires, and the Kingdom of Sardinia (Italy) formed a military coalition to contain Russia. Similarly, Austria and Prussia signed a “defensive pact” an alliance against Russia.
Consequently, Nicholas found himself in conflict with every great power in Europe. That resembles Putin, who is now in conflict with many of the world’s great powers, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Similarly, two other great powers, India and China, are trying to declare neutrality.
The result was the catastrophic Crimean War. Ironically, they fought the major battles of that war in the Crimea, now part of Ukraine. To explain British, Turkish, Italian and French troops landed in the Crimea to seize the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. The invaders soon became bogged down in trench warfare.
By late 1855, the Allies had conquered Sevastopol, and Austria was threatening to enter the war. Nicholas I did not live to see defeat, he died in March 1855. In March 1856, Nicholas’s son and successor Alexander II signed the humiliating Treaty of Paris in which abandoned all Russian claims to the Middle East and the Dardanelles.
Nicholas I’s aggressive foreign policy led to disaster and all out war. Hopefully, Putin will not repeat that history.
Russia and the world would be far better off if Putin made a better choice of role models. Perhaps somebody should remind Putin how Nicholas I’s reign ended.