History of Russia (1796–1855)

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In the Russian history, period from year 1796 to 1855 (reigns of Paul I, Alexander I and Nicholas I) was time of Napoleonic wars, Government reform, political reorganization and economic growth.

War and peace in Russia, 1796-1825[edit]

Catherine II died in 1796, and her son Emperor Paul I (r. 1796-1801) succeeded her. Painfully aware that Catherine had considered bypassing him to name his son, Alexander, as tsar, Paul instituted primogeniture in the male line as the basis for succession. It was one of the lasting reforms of Paul's brief reign. He also chartered a Russian-American Company, which eventually led to Russia's acquisition of Alaska. Paul limited landowner's right to serf labour to three days in a week, alleviating the condition of the serfs.

As a major European power, Russia could not escape the wars involving revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Paul became an adamant opponent of France, and Russia joined Britain and Austria in a war against France. In 1798-1799 Russian troops under one of the country's most famous generals, Aleksandr Suvorov, performed brilliantly, driving the French from Italy. On December 18, 1800, Paul unilaterally declared the neighboring kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti annexed to the Russian Empire.[1] Paul's support for the ideals of the Knights Hospitaller (and his acceptance of the position of Grand Master) alienated many members of his court. He made peace with France in 1800 and established Second League of Armed Neutrality. This alienated powerful anti-French faction, and in March 1801, Paul was deposed and assassinated.

The new Tsar, Alexander I of Russia (r. 1801-1825), came to the throne as the result of his father's murder, in which he was rumored to be implicated. Groomed for the throne by Catherine II and raised in the spirit of enlightenment, Alexander also had an inclination toward romanticism and religious mysticism, particularly in the latter period of his reign. Alexander reorganized the central government, replacing the colleges that Peter the Great had set up with ministries, but without a coordinating prime minister.

Alexander I (1812)

Alexander was, perhaps, the most brilliant diplomat of his time, and his primary focus was not on domestic policy but on foreign affairs, and particularly on Napoleon. Fearing Napoleon's expansionist ambitions and the growth of French power, Alexander joined Britain and Austria against Napoleon. Napoleon defeated the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805 and defeated the Russians at Friedland in 1807. Alexander was forced to sue for peace, and by the Treaty of Tilsit, signed in 1807, he became Napoleon's ally. Russia lost little territory under the treaty, and Alexander made use of his alliance with Napoleon for further expansion. By the Finnish War he wrested the Grand Duchy of Finland from Sweden in 1809, and acquired Bessarabia from Turkey as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, 1806-1812.

The Russo-French alliance gradually became strained. Napoleon was concerned about Russia's intentions in the strategically vital Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. At the same time, Alexander viewed the Duchy of Warsaw, the French-controlled reconstituted Polish state, with suspicion. The requirement of joining France's Continental Blockade against Britain was a serious disruption of Russian commerce, and in 1810 Alexander repudiated the obligation. In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 troops — a force twice as large as the Russian regular army. Napoleon hoped to inflict a major defeat on the Russians and force Alexander to sue for peace. As Napoleon pushed the Russian forces back, however, he became seriously overextended. Obstinate Russian resistance, members of which declared the Patriotic War, brought Napoleon a disastrous defeat: Less than 30,000 of his troops returned to their homeland.

As the French retreated, the Russians pursued them into Central and Western Europe and to the gates of Paris. After the allies defeated Napoleon, Alexander became known as the savior of Europe, and he played a prominent role in the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the same year, Alexander initiated the creation of the Holy Alliance, a loose agreement pledging the rulers of the nations involved—including most of Europe—to act according to Christian principles. More pragmatically, in 1814 Russia, Britain, Austria, and Prussia had formed the Quadruple Alliance. The allies created an international system to maintain the territorial status quo and prevent the resurgence of an expansionist France. The Quadruple Alliance, confirmed by a number of international conferences, ensured Russia's influence in Europe.

At the same time, Russia continued its expansion. The Congress of Vienna created the Congress Poland, to which Alexander granted a constitution. Thus, Alexander I became the constitutional monarch of Poland while remaining the autocratic tsar of Russia. He was also the monarch of Finland, which had been annexed in 1809 and awarded autonomous status. In 1813 Russia gained territory in the Baky area of the Caucasus at the expense of Persia. By the early 19th century, the empire also was firmly ensconced in Alaska.

Some historians have argued that a revolutionary movement was born during the reign of Alexander I. The Decembrist plot was an aristocratic movement, whose chief actors were army officers and members of the nobility. The reasons for Decembrist Uprising were manifold: opposition on part of the nobility to the regime that successfully limited their privileges through its peasant policy, spread among a section of young officers of liberal and even radical ideas, fears among nationalist section of society, inspired by Alexander perceived Polonofile policy (officers were particularly incensed that Alexander had granted Poland a constitution while Russia remained without one). Several clandestine organizations were preparing for an uprising when Alexander died unexpectedly in 1825. Following his death, there was confusion about who would succeed him because the next in line, his brother Constantine Pavlovich, had relinquished his right to the throne. A group of officers commanding about 3,000 men refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Alexander's brother Nicholas, proclaiming instead their loyalty to the idea of a Russian constitution. Because these events occurred in December 1825, the rebels were called Decembrists. Nicholas easily overcame the revolt, and the Decembrists who remained alive were arrested. Many were exiled to Siberia.

Russia under Nicholas I[edit]

Decembrist Revolt

Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855) was the Tsar of Russia from 1825 until his death in 1855. Nicholas lacked his brother's spiritual and intellectual breadth. He was a rigid disciplinarian, a lover of formality and of meticulous regularity, a firm believer in the Divinity of Sovereign's power. He had, however, a great sense of duty, sincerety in his opinions and a love of justice. He was also an untiring worker. He believed in bureaucratic reforms by the government and was not seeking cooperation of public opinion.[citation needed]

Nicholas appointed the veteran statesman count Speransky to preside over commission for legal reform. This published in 1832 the Russian Code of Law.[vague] Another of the measures was reorganization of the State Bank and a general reform of financial matters. This was carried out by finance minister Yegor Kankrin. A secret police, the so-called Third Section, ran a network of spies and informers. The government exercised censorship and other controls over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life.

In 1833 the minister of education, Sergey Uvarov, devised a program of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality" as the guiding principle of the national education. The official emphasis on Russian nationalism contributed to a debate on Russia's place in the world, the meaning of Russian history, and the future of Russia. One group, the Modernizers, believed that Russia remained backward and primitive and could progress only through more Europeanization. Another group, the Slavophiles, enthusiastically favored the Slavs and their culture and customs, and had a distaste for Modernizers and their culture and customs. The Slavophiles viewed Slavic philosophy as a source of wholeness in Russia and looked askance at rationalism and materialism in the west part of Europe. Some of them believed that the Russian peasant commune, or mir, offered an attractive alternative to modern capitalism and could make Russia a potential social and moral savior. The Slavophiles could therefore be said to represent a form of Russian messianism.

Russia experienced a flowering of literature and the arts. Through the works of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and numerous others, Russian literature gained international stature and recognition. Ballet took root in Russia after its importation from France, and classical music became firmly established with the compositions of Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857).

Saint Petersburg - Tsarskoe Selo Railway and Moscow – Saint Petersburg Railway were constructed.

Nicholas I made some efforts to improve the lot of the state peasants with the help of the minister Pavel Kiselev and set up committee to prepare a law liberating serfs, but did not abolish serfdom during his reign.

In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and guardian against revolution. In 1830, after a popular uprising had occurred in France, the Poles in Russian Poland revolted. This rebellion can not be attributed to Nicholas policy. Although a declared enemy of representative government, he rigidly adhered to the letter of existing Polish Constitution. Poles resented limitation of the privileges of the Polish minority in the lands, annexed by Russia in 18th century and sought to reestablish the 1772 borders of Poland. Nicholas crushed the rebellion, abrogated the Polish constitution, and reduced Congress Poland to the status of a Russian province, Privislinsky Krai.

In 1848, when a series of revolutions convulsed Europe, Nicholas intervened on behalf of the Habsburgs and helped suppress an uprising in Hungary, and he also urged Prussia not to accept a liberal constitution. Having helped conservative forces repel the specter of revolution, Nicholas I seemed to dominate Europe.

While Nicholas was attempting to maintain the status quo in Europe, he adopted an aggressive policy toward the Ottoman Empire. Nicholas I was following the traditional Russian policy of resolving the so-called Eastern Question by seeking to partition the Ottoman Empire and establish a protectorate over the Orthodox population of the Balkans, still largely under Ottoman control in the 1820s. Russia fought a successful war with the Ottomans in 1828 and 1829. Russia attempted to expand at the expense of the Ottoman Empire by using Georgia at its base for the Caucasus and Anatolian front. In the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish War Russia invaded northeastern Anatolia and occupied the strategic Ottoman towns of Erzurum and Gumushane and, posing as protector and saviour of the Greek Orthodox population, received extensive support from the region's Pontic Greeks. Following a brief occupation, the Russian imperial army withdrew back into Georgia. In 1833 Russia negotiated the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi with the Ottoman Empire. The major European parties mistakenly believed that the treaty contained a secret clause granting Russia the right to send warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. By the London Straits Convention of 1841, they affirmed Ottoman control over the straits and forbade any power, including Russia, to send warships through the straits. Based on his role in suppressing the revolutions of 1848 and his mistaken belief that he had British diplomatic support, Nicholas moved against the Ottomans, who declared war on Russia in 1853. Fearing the results of an Ottoman defeat by Russia, in 1854 Britain and France joined what became known as the Crimean War on the Ottoman side. Austria offered the Ottomans diplomatic support, and Prussia remained neutral, leaving Russia without allies on the continent. The European allies landed in Crimea and laid siege to the well-fortified Russian base at Sevastopol. After a year's siege the base fell. Nicholas I died before the fall of Sevastopol', but he already had recognized the failure of his regime. Russia now faced the choice of initiating major reforms or losing its status as a major European power.


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  1. ^ Eur, Imogen Bell (2002). Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia 2003. Taylor & Francis. p. 170. ISBN 1-85743-137-5. 

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