Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

An Eventful Period

Alexander's will came as a surprise upon Nicholas, but Constantine was loyal to his promise and after a brief but generous contest, Nicholas was crowned at Moscow. Twenty-three days had elapsed since Alexander's death, long enough to show that the spirit of unrest had penetrated into Russia. On the 26th of December there were some disturbances at Moscow, but they were suppressed without great trouble. The secret police hunted down the leaders, many of whom were known in art or literature, but they suffered death. Nicholas, a man of colossal stature, commanding appearance, iron will, passion for a military life, of simple and correct habits, was a true champion of the right divine of kings. He had neither sympathy nor patience with any movement tending toward greater liberty for the people. Nevertheless Nicholas was much more popular than Alexander had been, because he was the type of the Russian czars, who had increased Russia's power and territory.

Not many days after his coronation, Nicholas became involved in a quarrel with the Shah of Persia. In vain did the shah call upon Great Britain for help; the Persians were twice defeated in 1826, and the Russians were on the road to Teheran when the shah preferred to save his capital by ceding two provinces, and paying a heavy indemnity in 1828. The following year, the Russian Minister at Teheran was murdered, but Persia escaped with a humble apology.

Turkey, too, was made to feel Nicholas' heavy hand; urged by other powers the sultan submitted to the loss of territory in Asia, which had been in dispute, and permitted the free passage of Russian vessels between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. (Convention of Akkerman, Oct. 8, 1826.) The czar, after this, took up the Greek question, and entered into an agreement with England and France. In vain did the sultan offer the plea which had been successful with Alexander, that the Greeks "violated the passive obedience owed by subjects to their legitimate sovereigns." Nicholas wanted Turkey for himself, and proposed to leave no stone unturned to secure possession of Constantinople.

After the battle of Navarino, on the l0th of October, 1827, where the allied forces destroyed the Turkish fleet. England withdrew, suspicious of Nicholas' schemes; but France and Russia continued the war until by the Peace of Adrianople, the sultan recognized the independence of Greece, and ceded to Russia four fortresses in Asia and the islands in the delta of the Danube. Russia was thus in possession of the whole southern slope of the Caucasus, besides holding part of its northern front. The czar began war upon the tribes dwelling in the mountains, but found that he had engaged in a very difficult enterprise. A soldier-priest named Schamyl defied the power of Russia for a quarter of a century. It cost Nicholas more in men and money to subdue the liberty-loving mountaineer, than all the wars he waged in Asia.

The year 1830, was one of great unrest in Europe. Nicholas was deeply angered when his friend Charles X of France was expelled. The revolution in Paris was the signal for a similar movement in the capital of Poland. Owing to the independent expression of opinion in the Diet, Alexander had adjourned that body indefinitely in 1822. At the same time the liberty of the press was revoked and the police assumed a power in defiance of the law. The Grand Duke Constantine was really a friend of Poland, but he was eccentric and impetuous and often unconsciously gave offense. In 1830, Nicholas came to Warsaw to open the Diet, when its members made demands which he could not grant. Both sides were angry when Nicholas returned to St. Petersburg.

As soon as the French tricolor was raised above the consulate at Warsaw, the trouble commenced. Taken unprepared, Constantine withdrew with his troops. Again the Poles were divided; the patriots advised reconciliation with Russia, while hotheads demanded the abdication of the Romanofs. The first party sent a deputation to St. Petersburg and another to Paris and London, to secure mediation. The czar's answer was decisive; he absolutely refused to "make concessions (to the revolutionists), as the price of their crimes." Again, too, there was discord among the leaders as they entered upon a life or death struggle. Poland appealed to Europe. The people were sympathetic, but the governments, rejoicing at seeing a revolutionary movement suppressed, refused to interfere.

In February, 1831, a Russian army of 130,000 men invaded Poland. The Poles showed a heroism which appealed to the people of Europe, but more than sympathy was needed to arrest the irresistible Russian advance upon Warsaw. Constantine and the Russian commander-in-chief fell the victims of cholera, but an epidemic of discord struck Poland and sealed its fate. On the 6th of September, Warsaw was invested. The capital was forced to surrender. "Warsaw is at your feet," wrote the commander-in-chief to the czar, who lost no time in trampling upon the conquered. The constitution was abrogated, the Diet, a thing of the past. Poland was no more. Where it had stood, was a Russian province. Russian officials introduced Russian taxes, Russian coinage, and Russian justice such as it was. The Poles saw samples of it when thousands were arrested without process of law, and were sent to prison or to Siberia, while other thousands lost their property by confiscation. In White Russia and Lithuania the use of the Polish language was prohibited and the Catholic Clergy were forced to "ask" admittance to the bosom of the Greek Church. It must be admitted that the Polish peasants benefited by the change. With a view of reducing the influence of the nobles, the government issued regulations protecting the laborer against the landowner.

The Polish revolution caused the reorganization of European policies. Austria and Prussia, each in possession of territory that formerly belonged to Poland, entered into friendly relations with Russia, whereas England and France, where public opinion could not be ignored, drew more closely together. Nicholas was posing as the arbiter of Europe and the champion of kings. He assumed the right to command, but would soon find his will contested.

This was brought home to him in 1832, when trouble broke out between Turkey and Egypt. The Egyptian army was victorious and threatened Constantinople, when the sultan appealed to the powers. Russia responded at once by sending two armies, but a strong protest from England and France caused the withdrawal of the troops of Russia as well as those of Egypt. Baffled, Nicholas on June 3, 1833, entered into an offensive-defensive alliance with the sultan, which really placed Turkey and with it Constantinople in Russia's power. Another sharp protest from England and France prevented the consummation of the alliance.

In 1839 the trouble between Turkey and Egypt recommenced when Great Britain, anxious to preserve Turkey's integrity, entered into an agreement with Russia, Austria and Prussia, which was signed at London in July, 1840. There was some danger of a war with France but England, fearing Russia's designs, returned to her former ally. By the Convention of July 13, 1841, Russia's designs upon old Czargrad were postponed until a more favorable opportunity. In 1844, Nicholas visited England, but his reception in London was cool. He, however; entered into an agreement whereby the Khanates of Central Asia should remain neutral ground between Russia and India.

In 1846, trouble broke out in Gallicia, where the Poles rose against Austria; but as the nobles had to subdue a revolt of their own peasants, order was quickly restored. The free city Cracow was the resort of the Poles. Russia. Austria, and Prussia sent troops against it, and Cracow was annexed be Austria notwithstanding a protest from England and France.

The year 1848 will long be remembered for the blows bestowed upon the divine right of kings, and the privileges which the sovereigns were compelled to concede to the people. The Emperor Ferdinand of Austria was expelled from his capital, and the King of Prussia was subjected to humiliation by his own people. France proclaimed the republic, and Nicholas proclaimed himself the champion of the right divine. He dispatched an army into Hungary, which was soon "at the feet of your Majesty," and felt the wrath of the frightened Ferdinand.

Notwithstanding this cooperation, the understanding among the three powers, Russia, Austria and Prussia, was giving way before individual interests. When, in 1852, Prussia attempted to seize the German provinces of Denmark, it was Nicholas who compelled her to withdraw. On the 8th of May of that year, the independence and integrity of Denmark were recognized by the Treaty of London.

In the same year Louis Napoleon made an end to the French Republic by the notorious Coup d' Etat. This gave great satisfaction to the czar who was heard to remark: "France has set an evil example; she will now set a good one. I have faith in the conduct of Louis Napoleon." The new emperor of France did not seem to appreciate this condescension, or else he showed gross ingratitude when France and Austria, without even consulting Nicholas, settled some troubles in Turkey. The czar sent Menzikoff as special envoy to Constantinople to demand a new treaty whereby Russia's rights as Protector of the Greek Christians should be recognized. Supported as he was by France, the sultan refused. Nicholas then had a plain talk with Sir Hamilton Seymour, the British Minister at St. Petersburg, wherein he revealed his designs upon Turkey. As to Constantinople, he said, he might establish himself there as a trustee, but not as a proprietor. Sir Hamilton, as in duty bound, notified his government, and England hastened to join France in opposing Russia.

Pretending that all he wanted was a recognition of his rights, Nicholas, on the 3rd of July, 1853, sent an army under Gortchakof across the Pruth. At this an allied British-French fleet took up a position near the threatened point, but did not cross the Straits, which would have been a violation of the treaty. Nicholas stormed; he declared that "This was a threat" and would lead to complications. Austria proposed a conference at which Russia, Great Britain, France, Austria and Prussia assisted. It seemed as if peace would be secured, when the sultan demanded that the Russian forces should withdraw, whereupon Admiral Nakhimof, on the 30th of November, 1853, destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinopé. The British-French fleet then sailed into the Black Sea, and the Russian ships sought shelter in the ports.

In January, 1854, Napoleon III made a last attempt at maintaining peace, but Nicholas was thoroughly angry at the publication of Seymour's dispatches, claiming that the conversation with the British Minister was entitled to secrecy as between "a friend and a gentleman." Austria and Prussia resented the contempt which the czar had expressed for them, and on the 10th of April England and France entered into an offensive-defensive alliance. Ten days later Austria and Prussia arrived at a written agreement providing for the possibility that the Russians should attack Austria or cross the Balkans. Nicholas had aroused all Europe against him.

The Russian fleet was unable to cope with that of the allies, and thus condemned to inactivity in the ports. After heroic efforts, the Russians were compelled to raise the siege of Silistria, and to retire from the Danube, while Austria occupied the evacuated territory. But Nicholas was dismayed when, after a conference on July 21, 1854, the allied commanders resolved to attack the Crimea. Russia was unprepared. It was the assault upon Russia's vaunted "holy soil," which gave a severe blow to the arbiter of Europe, at home as well as abroad. Still with dogged energy the Russians worked to construct defenses. On the 14th of September 500 troop-ships landed the allied armies, and on the l0th, the Battle of the Alma opened the road to Sebastopol. The port of Balaclava was captured by the allies, and three bloody battles were fought, at Balaclava on the 25th of October, at Inkermann on the 5th of November, and at Eupatoria on the 17th of February, 1855.

It seemed as if the knowledge that an enemy was in Russia, aroused the Russians from a torpor. Pamphlets and other publications denouncing the government in withering terms, seemed to spring up from the pavement. "Arise, Oh Russia!" says one unknown writer, "Devoured by enemies, ruined by slavery, shamefully oppressed by the stupidity of tchinovnik and spies, awaken from the long sleep of ignorance and apathy! We have been kept in bondage long enough by the successors of the Tartar khans. Arise! and stand erect and calm before the throne of the despot; demand of him a reckoning for the national misfortunes. Tell him boldly that his throne is not the altar of God, and that God has not condemned us to be slaves forever."

The feeling among his people was not unknown to Nicholas. Whatever may be said of him, he was not weakling, fool, or hypocrite, and it was no disgrace that he felt as if the ground were giving way under his feet. He was upright and sincere, and had lived up to his convictions. There is no doubt that when these convictions grew dim, his strength vanished. He was heard to exclaim "My successor may do what he will: I cannot change." The sincerity of this man of iron showed in his losing his courage when doubts arose. Life ceased to have any value for him. One day, in February, 1855, while suffering from a severe cold, he went out without his overcoat. To the physician who tried to restrain him, he said: "You have done your duty; now let me do mine!" A serious illness followed, and he sent for his successor to whom he gave some instructions. As a message to his people, and a last cry for sympathy, he dictated the dispatch "The emperor is dying," which was sent to all the large towns of Russia. On the 19th of March, 1855, Nicholas I was dead.

Under his directions wealthy merchants were classified as "chief citizens," which procured for them exemption from poll-tax, conscription, and corporal punishment. They might take part in the assessment of real estate, and were eligible to the offices to which members of the first class were entitled. The same privilege was extended to all who were entitled to the degree of Master of Arts, and free-born and qualified artists. It was he who built the first railway in Russia, by drawing a straight line between Moscow and St. Petersburg. He also joined the Volga and the Don by a canal. His reign is also noted for the progress of Russian literature. The works of Ivan Tourguénief are known throughout the, civilized world.