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The Triumph of Reaction


The reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855) has been described as ‘the apogee of absolutism’. Nicholas’s first important act as tsar was to crush the Decembrist rebellion. Its defeat determined the course of domestic policy for thirty years of his reign. He became an enemy of serious political and social reform. Russian society was put into a deep freeze, while in the foreign arena Nicholas, throughout his reign, used Russian power to combat revolutions in other parts of Europe. 

Nicholas I

The most important  influence on Nicholas’ early years was his service in the army during and after the Napoleonic wars. He came to see military behavior, with its harsh discipline, as an ideal for himself and the rest of society. And he made his priority as the Emperor not the improvement, but the rigid army-like regimentation of the state system and the life of his subjects. The experience of advanced European countries seemed to him unsuitable for the specific conditions of Russia. Having visited in 1817 England whose system of government already at that time was considered by many exemplary, and having looked in on the parliament, Nicholas observed:


If some evil genius, to our misfortune, transferred to us all these clubs and meetings which produce more noise than substance, I would ask God to repeat the miracle of the confusion of languages or, even better, to deny the gift of speech to those who put it to such use.    


To maintain the status quo in Russia, Nicholas relied on the twin pillars of the police and the government bureaucracy. One of his first acts on coming to power was the  establishment in 1826 of  the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery, designed to prevent revolution by controlling the actions, thoughts and behavior of Russians. The Third Section oversaw the most efficient secret police in pre-1917 Russia. The country was covered by a comprehensive network of police spies and informers. Another principal task of the Third Section was the enforcement of Russia’s rigid censorship laws. The oppressive atmosphere of harsh military discipline and all-pervading fear of Nicholas’ reign was later vividly conveyed by the satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin, who in one sentence captured the spirit of  that grim era: ‘A desert landscape, with a jail in the middle; above it, in place of the sky, hung a grey soldier’s greatcoat.’

The police state of Nicholas I leaned on the government bureaucracy to implement its reactionary policies. After its emancipation from compulsory service in 1762, the nobility’s willingness to serve as either civil or military officials of the government had declined. From that time it was possible to distinguish between those nobles who worked as government officials and those who did not. Under Nicholas, the number and importance of the state bureaucracy was growing rapidly. Whether they were of noble rank or not, most officials were dependent on government salaries for a livelihood and were, therefore, more susceptible to discipline. The government relied increasingly on the state bureaucracy as a new ‘service class’ for the routine execution of its decisions. ‘By the middle of the century,’ wrote Vasili Klyuchevsky, ‘Russia was governed by neither aristocracy nor democracy, but  by the bureaucracy, i.e. by a crowd of individuals of heterogeneous origin, acting outside society and lacking any definite social complexion, and joined together only by the table of ranks’.  

Russia was now under complete and undivided rule of the colossal administrative apparatus comprised of hosts of venal and corrupt officials. The Russian government was transformed into a police-bureaucratic dictatorship without deep roots in Russian society at large.

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Nicholas I


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
Catherine the Great
Alexander I
Nicholas I
Alexander II
The Revolutionary Movement
Appearance of Marxism
The Last Romanovs
The Birth of Bolshevism
The Revolution of 1905-7
Between Revolutions
The Revolutions of 1917
Interpretations of 1917
The End of an Empire
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