Professor Richard Hellie, Advisor
Department of Russian Civilization
1 May 1997
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Instead of redoubling my efforts to profit by the years of study which remain to me, I become every day more careless, inattentive, and incapable. The older I grow, the more I approach zero. What shall I become? Nothing, according to all appearances.
- The future Emperor Alexander I
At the age of twelve I know nothing, not even to read. To be rude, coarse, impertinent, this is to what I aspire. My knowledge and ambition were worthy of any army drummer. In a word, I will never amount to anything.
- Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich
Emperor Alexander...[said to us that] the emperor looked upon [Nicholas] as his own heir...Seeing that we were on the point of bursting into tears, he tried to console us, and he told us soothingly that this would not happen right away...You can imagine what a state we were in...It hit us like a thunderbolt; the future seemed foreboding to us and not conducive to happiness.
- Grand Duchess Aleksandra Fedorovna, wife of Nicholas I
He was at best little more than a regimental staff officer.
- Historian Bruce Lincoln on Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich
Looking more deeply into the lives and personalities of individual monarchs in order to achieve a greater understanding of the way they treated their subjects has been a surprisingly rare approach to the study of monarchies. Those studies that have treated monarchs as human beings with individual psychologies have often neglected to also make the link back to the monarch as ruler, as more than individual. In his book, The Fabulous Ego: Absolute Power in History, Milton Klonsky treats monarchs as individuals, but views them from the perspective of the outsider, looking in; his emphasis is on how both modern readers and contemporaries viewed these monarchs, rather than on how the monarchs chose to view themselves and on how this affected their reigns. He presents a series of portraits of absolute monarchs, from Sardanapalus to Napoleon, based exclusively on first-hand accounts. His aim is to sweep away the dust of centuries of historiography grounded on over-arching theories, and to leave a closer, more psychologically-oriented picture of individuals who played extraordinary roles on the world's stage. The rulers he chooses, however, are deliberately products of the times when monarchs were superhuman, gods on earth (he includes Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible):
The immortal soul of the divine king Osiris becomes the immortal soul of each and every Egyptian, even as Christ the Savior becomes the Christ-soul of every Christian, the self within us. In the same way the function of the chief, which is to will and decide, becomes the model for all subsequent acts of free will in the ego of the individual; and the law-making function, originally attributed to God...has in modern man become the inner court of conscience.
In contrast to Klonsky's rulers, the final century of the 300-year-old Romanov Dynasty saw an unrelenting series of ineffective reigns. Incompetence has not been a rare quality in monarchs throughout history; indeed, by definition, they come to office by right of birth rather than merit, and the deleterious effects of intermarriage alone have resulted in more than one intolerable idiot or tyrant. Nevertheless, the last four Russian tsars were unique, as much for their remarkable similarity to each other as for any of their individual qualities: all were incompetent rulers, but none was markedly unintelligent or unbalanced; each one expressed a degree of unwillingness to hold the throne; and in the end each one came to rely on and value his personal and family ties more strongly than his duty toward his people. These last two qualities, in particular, are unusual traits both in Russian monarchs and in absolute rulers world-wide, in almost any period of history. Despite individual exceptions to the rule, monarchs generally have treated their throne more as a birthright and an honor than as an onerous duty, and, having identified themselves as god-like humans with no earthly superior, they naturally come to regard all others, including family, as more or less their subjects.
In The Royal Facts of Life: Biology and Politics in Sixteenth-Century Europe Mark Hansen, too, has approached absolute monarchy in a way that proves fruitful for the study of individual monarchs, whether they be exceptions to the rule or not. Hansen looks at five already well-studied European royal houses in the sixteenth-century, but he details an aspect of their lives not previously examined or compared: their biological trials and tribulations. That is, Hansen brings together the unique and rather neglected royal issues of marriage alliance, the physical danger of medieval childbirth as well as the political pressure involved in royal procreation, the effects of inbreeding and rampant hereditary disease, and the rather odd misfortune of being able to afford medieval medical treatment -- treatment that was likely to exacerbate as much as it healed. These issues have seemed trivial to biographers and historians, serving mainly as the colorful anecdotal backdrop to the "central" political story, until very recent times. But, as Hansen points out, such mundane problems as these have the potential to become monumental in an absolute monarchy, where the whims of a single human being may affect the lives of millions of people. And indeed, Hansen's findings involving these five royal houses of Europe are revealing enough to warrant similar studies of other monarchies.
Historian Richard Wortman has, in fact, taken a similarly tight-focused look at some of Russia's tsars, but from a psychological perspective rather than a biological one. In Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, he examines the evolution of the legitimizing myths Russian monarchs used to present themselves to the world. These myths served -- as legitimizing myths do for any government -- to consolidate the monarchs' personal power, but Wortman claims that they also became internalized to some extent and helped to define how the monarch behaved. In "The Russian Empress as Mother" and "Power and Responsibility in the Upbringing of the Nineteenth Century Russian Tsars," Wortman's focus is narrower still, as he examines how Russian heirs related to their immediate surroundings. Traditionally, most biographers have placed their royal subjects in the context of the nation as a whole, framing a narrative around the power-holder simply in opposition to his subjects, who are in turn portrayed as a mass, generalized object. Instead, Wortman seeks to understand the environment a ruler lived in on a day-to-day basis -- the family, tutors, nurses, and courtiers that he saw and interacted with regularly. This environment is something vitally separate from the nation: smaller, more concrete, and more personally influential to a child's and young adult's psyche. Wortman seeks to understand how this environment shaped the way a young heir formed his perceptions of the world and himself, and consequently how it influenced his behavior as ruler.
Thus, Wortman has traced some of the peculiar qualities of the nineteenth-century tsars to an innovative approach to child-rearing. This new approach, explained below, was initiated by Nicholas I (1825-55) in response to the revolutionary trends that swept across Europe beginning at the turn of the nineteenth century and threatened the legitimacy of monarchy. This new way of looking at family and child-rearing was largely defensive and, as the century went on, reinforced by a Victorian or bourgeois Zeitgeist. It led, according to Wortman, to a stunning succession of inept monarchs and, he implies, ultimately helped to permit the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy in 1917.
Wortman's analysis is insightful and immensely tantalizing. However, his study does not extend to the fascinating case of Alexander I (1801-1825). Raised by Catherine the Great during the Enlightenment and conqueror of Napoleon, Alexander I does not fit the same profile as his successors in many ways. Though it was Alexander II (1855-1881) who eventually freed the serfs, Alexander I was the first and only tsar who wanted to free them on principle rather than because the system had become too cumbersome. Alexander I also brought a circle of young, liberal intellectuals into power with the hope that they would help him build an empire based on law rather than absolute power. Yet, it was also Alexander I who ultimately failed to reform anything and retreated into cruel, reactionary policies in his later years on the throne. It was he who so thoroughly dashed the hopes of the intellectual elite that they staged a coup against the throne upon his death in 1825.
So, while Alexander differed in many fundamental ways from his successors, it was his reign that introduced the problems of retreat, reaction, and the chasm between the regime and the educated elite that would later come to define the nineteenth-century monarchy. And it was his younger brother and immediate successor, Nicholas I, who was motivated to transform the way heirs were brought up and the role of the Imperial family, all as a means to address the threat of revolution underlying these problems. Indeed, all four of Catherine the Great's grandsons straddle the dividing line between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Alexander I, Grand Duke Constantine, Nicholas I, and Grand Duke Michael were all brought up in ways that reflect the uncertainty and rapid change of this period in the Russian monarchy. Yet, they are some of the most under-studied of the Romanovs. At the same time, no scholar other than Wortman has directly addressed the issues of upbringing and family in the Romanov Dynasty and their political ramifications. Thus, in taking a close look at the upbringings of these four men, I seek to draw broader conclusions based on how the upbringings of Catherine the Great's four grandsons affected the Imperial family, the reigns of the nineteenth-century tsars, and Imperial Russia as a whole.
For example, Wortman's work does not address whatever factors might have led Nicholas I and his successors to choose "family values" and a rationalistic, bourgeois emphasis in the education of the heir to address external political threats to the institution of monarchy (i.e., would another monarch have reacted differently in his place?). Also, Wortman attributes much of the popularity and effectiveness of the nineteenth-century style of upbringing to the Victorian Zeitgeist, leaving one to wonder how much these monarchs were simply products of their times, and how much they helped to create the times. Finally, Wortman's work suggests that the Russian monarchy, in a sense, self-destructed through "natural" processes. That is, it was the "ritualization" or calcification effect brought on by this pattern of upbringing (see below) that helped to leave the monarchy extremely weak by 1917. Does this, then, imply that by that time the monarchy was incapable of reforming itself enough to avert the revolution? How far back can this process be traced, and could one say that the characteristics of absolute monarchy itself contribute significantly to its own demise?
One other issue must be addressed: though Wortman's work is highly successful, because he approaches his subjects psycho-historically, it is necessarily difficult to know how much of an individual's behavior can be attributed to environmental factors, and how much is simply the result of individual temperament. Naturally, this task can only be more difficult given a subject who has been dead for more than a century, about whom we have only a limited set of data. In addition, Wortman studied only one member of each generation of the royal family, and therefore each subject was the only individual to experience his particular environment, leaving little room for comparison.
While we can never entirely overcome the inherent difficulties of psycho-history, they can be mitigated to some extent if we select our subjects carefully. This is why I propose to address the lack of adequate comparison Wortman faced by focusing on all four grandsons of Catherine the Great. As mentioned above, these four members of the royal house represent the turning point between the nineteenth-century mode of upbringing that Wortman describes and the eighteenth-century mode that preceded it. Alexander was born in 1777 and succeeded to the throne in 1801. Nicholas I succeeded his brother in 1825, and is considered by Wortman the initiator of the nineteenth-century "mode." In addition, these four provide remarkably fertile ground for comparison. Alexander and Constantine (b. 1779), the two oldest brothers, were raised by the Catherine the Great and educated according to her eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals. The younger brothers, Nicholas (b. 1796) and Michael (b. 1798), were raised by their mother in a palace cut off from the center of court life. Their mother was a product of the close-knit and almost bourgeois court of Prussia, and raised her younger sons accordingly. As children, Alexander and Constantine were both considered heirs to the throne while Nicholas and Michael were not. Yet, as fortune would have it, Constantine never inherited the throne but Nicholas did. Finally, with the possible exception of the youngest, Michael, an adequate amount of biographical information is available on all the brothers.
In summary, the work of Klonsky, Hansen and Wortman has raised a great many questions in what has formerly been considered a well-understood phenomenon -- that is, absolute monarchy. This sort of up-close biographical study is particularly important in the case of the Russian monarchy. One of the most absolute monarchies in history, the Russian autocracy lasted as such far longer than most, and indeed, some historians claim that the Soviet rulers represent essentially the same pattern of absolute rule. Since Ivan the Terrible's reign in the sixteenth century, the Russian monarch has defined himself as an autocrat ( samoderzhets ): all power rests in his hands alone. Furthermore, Russian autocrats ruled over tens of millions of people and as much as one-sixth the world's landmass. Their whims and follies could have far-reaching consequences, and often did. Thus, we cannot fully understand those consequences or the autocratic form of government without more fully understanding the personal motivations of the individuals behind them.
Summary of Eighteenth-Century Imperial Upbringing
Before explaining Wortman's theory of how Imperial child-rearing changed in the nineteenth century, it is important to elucidate the chief characteristics of Imperial child-rearing in the eighteenth century. This was a century inaugurated by Peter I, the Great (1689-1725) and dominated by Catherine II, the Great (1762-1796). It was Peter the Great who promulgated the first Romanov succession law, which would last until 1796 and help to define the way heirs were treated throughout the century. This succession law simply stated that the monarch could name his own successor. Thus, Peter was free to ignore the traditional line of succession by primogeniture, and at any time name the heir of his choosing. In part, the law represented Peter's lifelong desire to make the Russian service state meritocratic -- to ensure that servitors rose to power by virtue rather than by birth. However, the law served personal motives as well. Peter hated his first-born son; he knew that this heir opposed everything he valued and, more dangerously, served as a rallying point for his enemies. Indeed, the existence of a named heir was an interminable problem for monarchs, since anyone who opposed the status quo would traditionally make his case to the heir, in the hope of inciting a coup d'etat or, at the very least, finding favor when the sovereign died and power changed hands.
For these and other reasons, Peter's law suited the purposes of his successors, too, for most of the next century. (Indeed, most of his successors reached the throne by means of a coup -- a method made possible by the ambiguity of the succession law.) All the monarchs of the eighteenth century had reason to fear their own offspring, as Peter had. In addition, royal children of this period were taken away from their parents to be raised by teams of tutors and nannies, as was the common practice in almost all royal families of the time. Often, the royal children saw their parents only once or twice a year. Thus, physical and emotional separation served further to alienate the children from their parents, making them all the more susceptible to the influence of opposition groups.
This pattern of alienation and threat is strikingly evident in Catherine the Great's relationship with her son, Paul. Catherine seized power from her husband by coup d'etat, and grew to despise Paul, who nearly matched Peter III in stupidity, cruelty, and incompetence. When Paul's first sons were born, Catherine took them to her own palace, to be raised by tutors under her personal supervision. In the later years of her life, she expressed the desire that Paul's son Alexander would succeed directly to the throne, bypassing Paul. However, Paul managed to seize the throne after Catherine's death despite her wishes and, in the course of his short reign, overturned Peter's succession law with one of his own.
Summary of 19th-Century Imperial Upbringing
Thus, with the succession law of 1796, Paul I took the first major step toward upsetting the traditional way heirs were raised. This law stated that inheritance should follow strictly the laws of primogeniture -- i.e., the heir to the throne should be the eldest son of the reigning monarch or, if the monarch lacked sons, his most senior male relative. For, in Paul's eyes, the threat posed by a son was far less daunting than that posed by his "scheming" mother. Paul and his successors were able to reconcile themselves to the dangers of the son and heir by looking on the son as a malleable object. One could simply teach the heir to be loyal, to follow faithfully in his father's footsteps. Thus, with careful and attentive upbringing, the heir need not necessarily pose a threat to the reigning monarch. This view, which radically altered the rules by which the monarchy had functioned since at least Peter the Great's succession law, would come to define the monarchy's final century.
But it was Paul's younger son, Nicholas I, who dispensed entirely with tradition and instituted a whole new pattern of Imperial upbringing. As Wortman explains, Nicholas faced existential threats that his father and other predecessors had not: revolutionary upheavals were overtaking Europe and the concept of monarchy itself was being questioned. Indeed, Nicholas' reign began, prophetically enough, on the day of the Decembrist Revolt, in which army officers gathered on Senate Square to demand a Constitution and Constantine's accession. The Decembrist Revolt was the first in Russia to be carried out by the educated elite, and to be aimed more at attaining civil rights than material concessions. Nicholas was ruthless in putting down the revolt, and his stance for the remainder of his thirty-year reign was largely defensive.
Thus, it was in this context that, for Nicholas, "upbringing was a means to ensure continuity at a time when traditional values were embattled and traditional authority was unsure of its grasp." Nicholas' sons and descendants would be raised within a tightly-knit family circle. The family appeared publicly as a loving unit, presenting a cohesive front to the nation in order to defend themselves from external challenges to their authority. Nicholas' children were raised at home. They spent a minimum of two mealtimes each day with their parents (and these were small, intimate affairs, consisting of the family and occasionally a few guests.) At these meals, Nicholas drilled the children on their day, and their progress in the schoolroom. From the beginning, his children were taught to respect father, dynasty, tradition and the autocracy. At the same time, Victorian cultural values and ideas foregrounded father-son and mother-son emotional bonds in the minds of Russian royalty and elites. Nicholas I was a third son, raised by his mother (herself a Prussian, Maria Fedorovna was accustomed to a much smaller and more tightly knit royal court). When he happened to come to the throne, he made these ideas the standard for what the Russian family should be. Starting with Nicholas, the Imperial family represented itself as a model of familial relations. In private, royal children's tutors were instructed to imbue their charges with these ideas. The children found themselves accompanying their Imperial parent in his duties, and encouraged to imitate him in every way.
Wortman concludes that, as Victorian or bourgeois family values gained primacy in the Western world, in Russia, too, the close, loving Imperial family came to symbolize the ideal family, just as the tsar's person had always symbolized an ideal in human form. But, by rejecting the suspicion and infighting that characterized the earlier Romanovs, Nicholas and his descendants also overturned the pattern of renewal that resulted when each new monarch, upon attaining the throne, attempted partly to refute the past, but also partly to find his own path to the future. In the nineteenth-century, the tsar's most cherished imperative became preserving the traditions left him by his father. This situation was not without difficulties for the heir. Rather than being a mere figurehead for opposition groups, heirs were now expected to live up to the impossibly high standards presented by their royal fathers. The father, as tsar, had to embody all that was good, just, and magnificent, and the heir had to strive to attain these lofty heights. In the attempt to achieve perfection they were bound to meet with failure. Thus, the heir's education became painfully paradoxical: he had to obey "the family line" and perpetuate what had been handed down to him, and yet he was expected to learn the strength of will and authority appropriate to an autocrat. "In the end," Wortman states, "[the heir] would become the passive recipient of his father's office, and perform a role he felt apart from." According to Wortman, this resulted in the "ritualization" or calcification of the monarchy, making it unable to meet changing circumstances or maintain the loyalty of elites, and leaving it thus utterly unequipped to deal with the challenges of revolution in 1917.
Catherine and the Enlightenment: An Elaboration on Eighteenth-Century Child-Rearing
Catherine the Great (1762-1796) elaborated considerably on the time-honored methods of child-rearing she inherited, meshing them with her Enlightenment ideals. This was to have a profound effect on Alexander I and Constantine, who were raised under her supervision. As we have seen, until Catherine's education of Alexander heirs were raised more or less haphazardly by tutors and nannies, kept outside the court circle, and treated with deep suspicion. Catherine was enough a product of her era to refrain from legally naming Alexander her heir, which resulted in the accession of the hated Paul in 1796. But she also added a new element to the tradition of Imperial upbringing: the careful, liberal education of the heir, according to rationalistic Western Enlightenment values. It was this seed of an idea that would irrevocably influence her grandsons and eventually grow into Nicholas' innovative re-ordering of the Imperial family in the nineteenth century.
Since the sixteenth century, the monarch had been considered a divine being, infallible by definition. By the era of Enlightenment, the ruler had become human, but a human with higher calling: he had to learn to make his sole interest the well-being of his people and to work toward that goal, rather than to simply assume his every action was automatically correct and legitimate by right of his royal birth. This new monarch must induce his people to love him out of duty, but he still does not depend on their approval for his position. And in Russia, he must also represent the "highest ideals of Western monarchy." (Since before Peter the Great's time, the West was the model of excellence and modernity. Thus, in some sense, Catherine's innovations can be seen as yet another effort to "catch up.") Excellence was sought, not bequeathed: "monarchical distinction is not inbred, natural, or an attribute of future office, but the product of their own character and efforts." These ideals were interpreted largely from the writings of Catherine's favorite authors: Leibniz, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Baccaria, and Diderot -- the French philosophes, with a touch of Stoicism.
Though Catherine failed to realize in Russia the goals of egalitarianism and civil liberty she so loved to flaunt in writing, one of her more real achievements was her public exaltation of these ideas, and her commitment to education. Throughout her reign, she was passionate about reforming the system of primary and secondary schooling in her still primarily illiterate empire. She was convinced that she could "remodel human nature" through education. Thus, it was in a much smaller, but similarly meaningful, way that Catherine was unique in her approach to the education of Alexander and Constantine. The values she tried to instill, though largely superficial in her own mind and coopted from the West, included: "strength, wisdom, and an ability to submit personal impulses to the voice of reason." Catherine's ideal monarch was one who acts on behalf of her subjects, and is herself ruled by duty, rationality, and moral and civic virtue. However, Catherine's concept of leadership was not one that required popular approval, as would begin to be the case under Nicholas I (though her coronation was the first at which the crowd is recorded as responding with hoorahs). Under Catherine, the monarch's right was still divine, but the monarch now had a moral duty to her subjects as well. Moral subjects would respect and love a moral, just monarch, but this approval was the result, not the cause of power. Catherine's reign was as marked by arbitrary and irrational rule as that of any autocrat, perhaps more so; yet, though she herself could never act on her own adopted values, she did manage to instill them in another generation. A generation that would, with varying degrees of success, both internalize and act on these values.
It is important to emphasize again, however, that Catherine borrowed much of her philosophical thought from Western writers; her ideas on the importance of the heir's education were not entirely unique. Leibniz's eighteenth-century tract, "On the Education of a Prince," and others like it reflect the popularity of improving monarchy by means of the heir's education, an idea which motivated European tutors from the middle of the eighteenth century through the 1860s. Indeed, the influence of foreign ideas is a regular theme in this story. The Russian Imperial family married into German princely lines with extraordinary regularity, especially during the nineteenth century, and these German women had enormous influence. Catherine can be considered the first of these, and it was her Western background that gave direction to her intellectual pursuits. Similarly, the German wives and mothers of the nineteenth century would bring with them to Russia the values of the Victorian-influenced families in which they were raised.
But while the nineteenth-century Russian Imperial mother would be mother of the family, Catherine was "mother of the fatherland." Indeed, Catherine was the ultimate example of anti-family: she overthrew her husband and tried her best to disinherit her son (she even fired Alexander's Swiss-philosophe republican tutor, Frederic-Cesar La Harpe, when he refused to help Alexander participate in the plot against his father). In Catherine's eyes, family could only distract the heir from his duty, and she did not hesitate to take him as far from his parents and younger siblings as practicality would allow. Thus, as was typical of the eighteenth-century concept of Imperial child-rearing, she subordinated the private self to public duty. These eighteenth- and nineteenth-century principles of upbringing are similar in that they both emphasize strength and self-control and, in adhering to the concept that "the ruler [stands] above his subjects, who [are] driven by self interest, and with a firm hand [guides] the nation to an objective general good," both overturn the pre-Enlightenment ideas of power. That is, both the (late) eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ways of thinking emphasize that the monarch has an obligation toward his subjects to work for their collective good, regardless of his personal interests.
Yet, the transition between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a turning point in the history of childhood in Russia as well as the West. Industrialization, with all its corollaries, including the manners and culture of the Victorian Era, were beginning to take hold and redefine the rules of life as they had been understood during the Enlightenment. As we have seen, this change was reflected starkly within the Russian Imperial family. Russian tsars of the eighteenth century and those of the nineteenth had two very different world-views and, correspondingly, different methods of Imperial child-rearing. Catherine II, reigning over the last four decades of the eighteenth century, brought the Enlightenment to the Romanovs, while combining its ideals with older traditions of meritocracy and rivalry within the Imperial family. But in the nineteenth century, the notion of family as entity and as symbol came to play an unprecedented role in Russian monarchy and in the myth of autocratic government.
Alexander I has been represented in the annals of history as an enigmatic and contradictory figure. Historians have explained the incongruities of his highly paradoxical reign by portraying Alexander as everything from scheming and insincere to idiotic to schizophrenic. As more recent scholarship has shown, however, Alexander's reign can also be seen as a consistent series of failed efforts to reach his life-long goal: an orderly state ruled by law, within a peaceful Europe. I regard Alexander as essentially sincere and ideologically consistent. Alexander was a failure as a tsar not because of idiocy or mental illness, but because he was weak-willed and indecisive, incapable of living up to the impossible expectations of the world that Catherine had given him when she trained him to be an enlightened gentleman and then gave him the power and responsibilities of an autocrat.
As discussed above, Catherine raised Alexander and Constantine separately from their parents and under her direct supervision. While she certainly put more thought into their upbringing than Russian Emperors had ever done for an heir previously, her direction was still, so to speak, autocratic: Catherine simply dictated elaborate orders and strategies to the children's governors, in addition to writing several didactic children's tales for their benefit. In addition, though Catherine wanted to name Alexander and Constantine first and second in line for the throne, she hesitated to put it in writing and the ambiguity of Peter the Great's succession law worked against her. When Paul seized the throne after her death in 1796, it was with negligible resistance from a young and unsure Alexander. Nevertheless, Alexander I succeeded his father five years later, and proceeded to reign for twenty-four eventful years.
At least in part, Alexander's reign can be seen as the product of Catherine's carefully-extolled intellectual values. These values, imposed on the broader, eighteenth-century framework of suspicion and lack of family ties, made Alexander I's upbringing unlike that of any who had gone before him. And as tsar, Alexander's goals would be radically different from those of his predecessors. However, it cannot be said that Alexander absorbed his grandmother's lessons uncritically. While she more than successfully instilled in him the intellectual and moral values of the Enlightenment, she also repelled him with her personal excesses. It appears that he had internalized Catherine's values to such an extent that he grew to hate her for what he perceived as her moral hypocrisy. Thus, he was more sincere and more faithful to the rationalistic values Catherine had taught him than she was herself. He grew up convinced that arbitrary power led to cruelty, and that government based on law was the only solution. Upon his accession as a young adult, he took the next logical step. It was clear that hereditary monarchy itself ("an unjust and absurd institution") was the roadblock to orderly rule by law, and therefore absolute power must give way to institutional restraints. Yet, even in the early years of his reign Alexander consistently resisted dilution of his powers, becoming angry and impatient when his advisors or ministers showed any initiative in reform, or attempted to suggest any transfer of his autocratic power to representative or administrative bodies. As Alexander quickly came to realize, the structure of his enormous and under-administered state required an autocratic leader. Time and again, in his early years of reform, he would be frustrated by the incompetence and hopelessly cumbersome bureaucracy of his government. This is hardly surprising, given the characteristic "backwardness" of his empire and his lack of practical experience as heir. As the years passed, his disappointment and feeling of helplessness increased. In response, he retreated into religion, saying that only God could accomplish the colossal project of bringing democracy and civil rights to Russia. He also escaped by turning his attention from domestic reform to foreign affairs, defeating Napoleon with the help of Russia's famous "General Mud and General Winter" and forming the Holy Alliance. The latter was meant to bring, with God's help, everlasting peace to Europe. Once again, reality failed to match up to his dreams. He died, in 1825, in the midst of preparations for war with Turkey.
Though historians often divide Alexander's life into an initial period of reform and a diametrically opposed period of reaction toward the latter part of his life, certain characteristics always remained constant. As mentioned above, Alexander was never actually willing, even in his first years on the throne, to give any of his autocratic powers away. Like all the tsars who reigned after him, he could not bring himself to trust that reform could be executed successfully "from below." In some sense, these tsars were justified: the bureaucracy was inept and the elite scarcely more educated than the peasantry. Though Alexander was willing to give both Poland and Finland a constitution, he felt that Russia was not yet ready:
I love constitutional institutions and think that every decent man should love them, but can they be introduced indiscriminately for all peoples? Not all peoples are ready to the same degree for their acceptance. Of course, freedom and law which can be enjoyed by an enlightened nation such as [France] does not suit other ignorant peoples....He was sometimes even more harsh, saying he "could not mention [such liberal ideas] to any Russian, as none were yet capable even of understanding them." But even the members of his "Unofficial Committee" were hesitant to relinquish authority to other institutions, warning Alexander that it would "bind your hands and would make it impossible to do all that had been planned for the general good and would mean coming up against the ignorance of these people [the Senate]." Even the Swiss republican tutor, LaHarpe, on his return to St. Petersburg shortly after Alexander's accession and perhaps partially in reaction to Paul's recent violent overthrow, instructed Alexander "to retain absolute power intact....Do not allow yourself to get carried away with the aversion that absolute power engenders in you; preserve it whole and undivided," and in general, he told Alexander to approach reform with the utmost caution and awareness of the rights of the nobility. Thus, Alexander made it a habit consistently to express his support for far-ranging liberal reforms, but almost never to act on them.
On a more personal level, Alexander also continually demonstrated an almost desperate need for friendship. He was very close to his "young friends" of the Unofficial Committee and, in later years, Speranskii, Arakcheev and Czartoryski. That the Tsar of all the Russias was referring to his subordinates as friends is truly extraordinary. Even before he reached the throne, Alexander was preoccupied with pleasing people at court. On the occasion of his accession, future Decembrist A. M. Murav'ev wrote that he "breathed with the desire to be loved." One biographer, McConnell, attributes this very un-sovereign-like need to please to his youthful fear of incurring the wrath of either his father Paul on the one hand or his grandmother Catherine on the other. (For McConnell, this produced "a condition akin to schizophrenia.") In my opinion, Alexander's preoccupation with friendship and approval also reflects the fact that the monarchy was becoming less divine, more human. (Derzhavin's Ode on Alexander's birth entreated him to "be a human being (chelovek) on the throne"). This humanization of the throne was related to Catherine's Stoic/Enlightenment influence, but it also foreshadows the role the tsar would come to play under Nicholas. For when the Imperial family acts as a role model for the people, the individuals of which it is constituted can necessarily be only human.
Lastly, Alexander found solace in an obsession with order, manifested in his almost maniacal interest in the superficiality of military parades and dress. His infamous military colonies were grounded on the idea that a perfectly ordered, hierarchical society, as only the military could produce, was a sort of utopia. Indeed, Alexander's concept of "constitutionalism" was vague and, in his mind, revolved more around the rule of law and order than around the establishment of rights. The obsession with the military was common to all four brothers and, indeed, it was the chief characteristic of their father, Paul I, and their grandfather, Peter III, as well. In fact, Alexander's interest in military matters dates to his early visits to his father's palace, where he had to enlist Arakcheev's tutoring in military manners in order to avoid Paul's ire. Being "shortsighted and a little deaf," Alexander often incurred his father's wrath on the parade ground: Paul even called him "an imbecile" and "an animal." Thus, Alexander's passion for order at least in part stemmed from a response to his father's arbitrariness. Also, as Wortman has suggested in reference to the nineteenth-century tsars, superficial military matters represented a sphere where the heirs could successfully exert some control over their lives.
In the end, when Catherine made rule a duty, she also made it a burden, something to be undertaken with dread. Throughout his reign, Alexander often complained that he did not wish to rule. In a letter to La Harpe, Alexander once wrote, "[to correct abuses within the state] is beyond the strength not only of someone endowed with ordinary abilities like myself, but even of a genius; and I have always held to the rule that it is better not to attempt something than to do it badly." To his brother Constantine, not even the moral imperative of fulfilling one's duty could entice him to endure the throne. He abdicated on the grounds of his morganatic marriage, preferring to live relatively quietly as an administrator in Poland. And Nicholas, despite Alexander's secret decree declaring him successor, initially renounced the throne in favor of Constantine. He feared that his claim to the throne would seem less than legitimate, thus prioritizing his duty to Paul's succession law and the rights of his elder brother over whatever will he may have had to be in power. It is hard to imagine any eighteenth-century tsar passing up such an opportunity for the throne. Much had changed since the "era of palace revolutions."
As we have seen from the example of Alexander and Catherine, one important product of upbringing, aside from the simple passing on of cultural norms (the principle function of child-rearing), is the translation of the parents' ideals into the child's reality or expectation. Catherine's ideals were utterly unsuitable to Russian reality. She knew this, but she did not pass the crucial fact on to Alexander. She was so intent on teaching him the ideal that she failed to give him any exposure to current reality. As Constantine's biographer, Angela Pienkos, put it;
In the process of [Catherine's educational "instruction"]...she did not seem to consider whether all of her proposals could be applicable to normal human beings, much less future rulers. Worse still, she failed to consider whether those individuals chosen to apply her [educational] system had sufficient knowledge and abilities to realize in their charges the more realistic and desirable aspects of her educational program."And, aside from his instruction in philosophy, history, and other theoretical or military subjects, he was never given any administrative experience or any real position in government until his accession (because, of course, he was still a threat to her throne). Alexander took his grandmother Catherine's lessons far closer to heart than she did herself and thus failed, in his own estimation, to live up to his ideals. He failed, in other words, to be both autocrat and republican. Upon his accession, Alexander did learn for himself that his country needed more than cosmetic reforms if it was ever really to be ruled by law. But, he had internalized Catherine's Enlightenment values to such an extent that his failure to realize them crippled him. He died miserable, lonely, and steeped in the mysticism into which he had retreated in his later years. Alexander failed because his education and upbringing prepared him for something entirely different from the job with which he was actually entrusted. The office of autocrat and rule by law are by definition incompatible concepts. Thus, Alexander's lifelong struggle to reconcile them was, inevitably, futile. (Already in 1812, having become "convinced" that his friend Speranskii was "intriguing and intriguing against the autocracy," he declared, "I cannot and I do not have the right to abandon [it] to the disservice of my heirs.")
Thus, the case of Alexander I illustrates a phenomenon of the power of children's education: the culture and the ideals of a given society influence methods of child rearing, which in turn reinforce those ideals, often turning them into expectations, as the children grow up steeped in the imagined realities presented to them in their childhood. That is, it was the Enlightenment that inspired how Catherine chose to instruct Alexander and Constantine. It was what possessed her to place their educations under the instruction of republicans like La Harpe, and to expose them almost exclusively to Western, rationalist, republican traditions. In the end, Catherine gave Alexander the values and goals that would define his reign as one of both unprecedented hope and deep disappointment and disillusionment in the concept of "reform from above" -- on the part of both him and his subjects. More generally, the most enduring result of Catherine's efforts in upbringing (and of those of her Western counterparts) was perhaps the growing awareness of the power of child-rearing -- that is, the idea that you can change the world by taking a closer look at what is happening in the nursery. This is, of course, particularly true if the occupant of the nursery will grow up to be sole ruler of 60 million people and, indeed, "the collective 'I' of a whole people."
When Alexander brought the goal of constitutionalism to Russia, he gave a whole generation of elites the same kind of expectations of the world that Catherine had given him. He also gave his people deep disappointment in his failure and disillusionment in the ability of government to reform itself. Thus it is no coincidence that Alexander's death was greeted by the Decembrist Rebellion. This rebellion and its brutal aftermath set the tone for Nicholas I's reign and gave birth to the Russian radical movement. Deeply loyal to a myth of family he had invented himself and unapologetically autocratic, Nicholas, too, was the product of his own demanding, militaristic and largely defensive upbringing. Radically different as they were, the upbringings of both men were instrumental in forming their images of themselves and of the way the world should work in a time of cultural transition and a place where they exercised great personal influence.
Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich
Constantine Pavlovich (1779-1831) was also raised under Catherine's supervision, with most of the same tutors and same general, Enlightenment-inspired lesson plan as Alexander. However, as second in line for the throne after his older, more handsome, and more charming brother, Constantine's upbringing nevertheless differed in some important ways. In addition, his personality was from the beginning very different from Alexander's and as they grew, the differences became more marked. Though Constantine's political views as an adult sometimes rested on some of the same basic Enlightenment values that had shaped Alexander's world-view, he came to some very different conclusions.
Perhaps the most important factor in Constantine's childhood was that, while Catherine doted on Alexander, she was always a little disappointed in Constantine. She found him less beautiful as an infant, and as he grew, she found fault, too, with his rough manners, his quick temper, and his poor academic performance relative to his older brother. At the same time, Constantine was Paul's favorite of the two older sons. Constantine had a natural inclination for the military from his earliest years, and he quickly proved himself capable of obeying orders accurately and well, whereas Alexander initially had trouble on the parade ground, and began truly to love military pursuits only in adolescence. Thus, in May 1797 Constantine accompanied his father on a tour of the empire and received a number of military honors from him (later, he would even receive the title "Tsesarevich," usually reserved for the heir to the throne, prompting some to speculate that Paul intended to have Constantine succeed him). In 1799, Paul allowed him to travel to the front, where he gained some measure of respect through his military skill, but also managed to make enemies with his frequent "temperamental outbursts." In childhood, the Swiss republican tutor, LaHarpe, who had been such a mentor for Alexander, had much less influence over Constantine. Though Constantine certainly imbibed the more Stoic aspects of Catherine's philosophy, he was impatient with academics and came to reject her more liberal political concepts -- though this seems to have been more a result of indifference and a personal aversion to Catherine than any political conviction.
Even as an adult, serving as viceroy of the Polish Congress Kingdom, Constantine remained vague about politics. He valued stability and peace above all. To him, this meant loyalty to his sovereign and maintenance of the status quo were the highest virtues. He was soft-hearted toward Polish soldiers and peasants, but had "no sympathy for liberalism" -- indeed, he displayed a "nervous fear" of it -- for by his personal definition, "liberalism" was simply a lack of order and the threat of violence. Thus, on the most basic level, Constantine loathed liberalism for its messiness, and was devoted to the concepts of personal loyalty, legitimism and autocracy because, for him, they implied a clean, well-ordered society. For all his passion for the Polish Army, Constantine balked at using it. In fact, he claimed he was against war because it "ruined a soldier, impaired discipline and dirtied uniforms."(!) As his chief biographer put it, "with Constantine order and cleanliness were almost a fetish." Like both Alexander and -- most dramatically -- Nicholas, Constantine was fanatic about controlling the details of his environment (often to the exclusion of wider considerations). He also practiced the habit Nicholas would later take to an absurd extreme, taking a personal role in the most minor aspects of his rule and thereby reducing his servitors' roles to that of mindless functionaries. Furthermore, Constantine was even less forgiving of Catherine's excesses and personal vulgarity than Alexander, and seems to have associated the republicanism with which his education was imbued entirely with her, and thus dismissed it.
Despite their differences in temperament and outlook, their conflicting loyalties to parent and grandparent, Alexander and Constantine were very close throughout their lives. Alexander accepted early on that Constantine was "far superior" in military matters and for this reason always held him in high esteem. In addition, by 1801 Paul had turned his paranoid suspicions toward both sons. Whatever love he may have had for Constantine as a child and adolescent, there was little evidence of it in this last year of his life. Thus, both Alexander and Constantine lived in almost constant fear of their father's wrath at this time and must have greeted his death with some measure of relief (there is no evidence that Constantine knew anything of the plot against Paul, though there is reasonable suspicion that Alexander took part to some degree). Upon his succession, Alexander granted Constantine considerably more independence than he had ever enjoyed under Paul or Catherine. And, though Constantine took no interest in Alexander's Unofficial Committee and reform agenda, Alexander would put him in charge of the Polish Congress Kingdom, a position he would hold until the revolt of 1830-31, and which granted him considerable autonomy and freedom. Giving a constitution to Poland was an act in which Alexander took great pride, and a project on which he placed great hopes, so it seems extraordinary that he put a man like Constantine, indifferent to political theory but in general conservative and certainly authoritarian, in charge rather than someone like his close friend, Adam Czartoryski, a Pole and one of the chief proponents of constitutionalism. While Constantine's appointment was no doubt an effort to avoid rocking the boat too much all at once, as well as a logical way to bring about the badly needed reorganization of the Polish Army, it certainly also speaks to Alexander's trust in and affection for his brother.
Constantine's reputation among contemporaries and historians alike has been that of a tyrant, obsessed with military minutiae and cruelly authoritarian; in person he was considered rude and boorish. Yet, a small circle of family and very close friends, as well as his second wife, Joanna Grudzinska (for whom he demonstrated considerable devotion after half a lifetime of disastrous relationships with women) had a very different image of Constantine Pavlovich. Among them, he was known as a cultured and sensitive, if occasionally childish or weak-willed individual. Indeed, this is the image that most clearly emerges from his extant letters (all of Paul's children were remarkably close, and regularly exchanged letters throughout their lives. Anna Pavlovna, in particular, was a frequent correspondent of all her brothers, and Alexander and his sister Elizaveta Pavlovna carried on a long personal correspondence). Moreover, Constantine was the only Romanov ever to learn to rule successfully under a constitution. He worked with the Poles as their Constitutional leader for a full fifteen years, and in the process became nearly completely Polonized. By the last years of his life, he found himself the unlikely (and hesitant) champion of Polish independence, and actually defended the 1830-31 uprisings to his brother Nicholas, pleading for the tsar's mercy on the Poles. Thus, on closer inspection, Constantine was more than a simple martinet, and in fact came to reflect much of the moderation and culture that one might expect from a product of Catherine's educational regime. These were qualities to which Nicholas or Michael would never aspire.
Even more dramatically than Alexander and Nicholas, Constantine abhorred the idea of taking the throne of the Russian empire. In 1823, Alexander issued the "secret manifesto" which named Nicholas as his heir, and bypassed Constantine on the grounds of his morganatic marriage. The manifesto was never made public, however, and thus led to considerable confusion on Alexander's death in 1825, when Nicholas, aware of Alexander's intentions, initially swore his oath of allegiance to Constantine (always conscious of appearances and devoted to legitimacy, Nicholas was afraid that, since Alexander's wishes were not public, his own accession would appear to be a usurpation of Constantine's right to the throne). Alexander had additional reasons to pass the throne to Nicholas besides Constantine's morganatic marriage -- most notably, that Nicholas had already produced a healthy son, while Constantine had no heirs. But Constantine had also never expressed any desire to hold the throne and, in fact, claimed he was incompetent to hold it, stating in the packet of secret documents which included Alexander's manifesto: "[I do] not find in myself the genius, the talents, nor the force necessary to be elevated to the sovereign dignity to which I would have the right by my birth...." When Constantine failed to take an interest in or rejected many of Catherine's teachings that Alexander had enthusiastically adopted, he also failed to adopt many of the expectations and aspirations that would so disappoint his brother. He never aspired to change the world, in fact never saw any reason to do so, and yet he nevertheless had the strength of character and openness of mind to be truly sympathetic to his Polish subjects and those nearest to him, unlike his youngest brothers, Nicholas and Michael. Yet, Constantine also grew up without the confidence and mastery of his environment that characterized the handsome, popular Alexander. He would feel uncomfortable in social and ceremonial situations throughout his life, and constantly alienated his court and colleagues with his rude, temperamental behavior. One reasonable assessment of this behavior was offered by Bruce Lincoln:
Certainly his deep sense of inferiority in relation to his elder and younger brothers, all of whom he regarded as more educated and better prepared to rule, was [a factor in his behavior]. 'I must say,' he once remarked to some friends, 'that, turning all of her attention to my brother Alexander, the Empress Catherine did not devote herself to me at all during my childhood.' Lincoln goes further, and asserts that the well-known softening influence of Constantine's morganatic wife, Grudzinska, was the result of the "emotional security" and sense of family life she provided, which he had hitherto lacked.
Ultimately, like all his brothers, Constantine died with a sense of failure in himself. He had hoped to find independence and autonomy, but also to be a good ruler in Poland. Certainly, as time passed and he became (by 1819) increasingly immersed in first the Polish Army and then the culture of Poland itself, he had its interests always in mind: "in my heart I am a Pole, completely a Pole!" Thus, he interpreted the rebellion of 1830-31 as a personal affront, a hurtful rejection of his leadership. After fifteen years in Poland, he spoke Polish better than his native language, but was ousted as a foreign tyrant. He fled Warsaw in the midst of the rebellion and, physically and emotionally exhausted, died of cholera shortly thereafter. In sum, he "died as he himself anticipated, no differently than 'a small official in retirement.' The loss was perhaps not so much in his humble death; rather, in the fact that his aspirations and work had ended in total frustration."
Nicholas and Michael never knew their illustrious grandmother -- Nicholas was an infant when she died, Michael was born two years later -- and they lost their father early, at the ages of five and three, respectively. (Nicholas had vague memories of Paul and regarded his sudden death at the hands of his own courtiers as the most traumatic moment in his life until his accession and the Decembrist revolt.) Thus, for both children, their mother was the primary force behind their upbringing, while the adults they were closest to were tutors and nannies. Their mother, Prussian princess Maria Fedorovna, did, however, devote considerable energies to their educations. This was partly a response to Catherine; the domineering Empress had taken Maria Fedorovna's eldest sons away in their infanthood, on the grounds that she could raise better princes than the children's own mother. In raising Nicholas and Michael, Maria Fedorovna set out in part to prove that she could do as well or better than her predecessor.
Still, Maria Fedorovna's educational program was considerably less focused and less controlled than Catherine's. While she took interest in and monitored their progress, most of the substantive direction for their educations was provided by the nannies and tutors. Nicholas and Michael's earliest nannies were German and English, and one of them, Miss Lyon, would regale the children with stories of her captivity under the "villainous" Poles. Nicholas maintained a soft spot in his heart for this beloved nanny throughout his life, and his excessive hatred for the Poles in later years appears to have stemmed in considerable measure from Miss Lyon's influence. The other nannies were wives of German military men, and introduced an atmosphere of stereotypical, stolid German militarism to the nursery. Bruce Lincoln, in summing up this early period of the Grand Dukes' upbringing, states that,
The first moral precepts to which Nicholas and Mikhail thus were exposed were ones which stressed the virtues of duty to the Emperor...and military heroism, combined with an emphasis upon correct behaviour, dignity and the control of emotion which they perceived in the actions of their mother -- a type of rigid self-control that would later lead a number of observers to comment on Nicholas' inner coldness.
Perhaps the most famous characteristic of both Nicholas and Michael, one which was indeed becoming de rigueur in the house of Romanov, was military "paradomania." On one level, Maria Fedorovna recognized this excess and wanted to prevent her sons from becoming as entirely consumed with military pursuits as her husband had been. As they grew and began to exhibit all the love of drill that was becoming so characteristic of Romanov men, she continually remonstrated with them for what she saw as excessive devotion to military duty, and a lack of sufficient interest in other matters befitting a Grand Duke. However, the Dowager Empress was herself accustomed to the militarism of the Prussian court, and the environment of Gatchina always remained more that of a miniature military base than a proper court.
The tutor in charge of Nicholas and Michael's formal education was Count M. I. Lamsdorf, a general with no pedagogical experience or accomplishments whatsoever, appointed by Paul I. Lamsdorf would dominate Nicholas's child- and young-adulthood, instilling in him a passionate hatred for all subjects but military engineering, and providing an environment in which the student lived in constant terror of his tutor's disapproval:
Count Lamsdorf knew how to inspire in us just one feeling -- fear, so much fear and so much certainty of his omnipotence that our mother's face came to have secondary importance. This state of affairs deprived us completely of the happiness of filial trust in our mother, whom we were allowed to see only rarely; even then it was like being sentenced. From early childhood, the incessant shifting of persons around us inculcated in us the habit of looking for their weak points so as to take advantage of them in order to obtain what we needed and desired, and I must confess, not without success. Count Lamsdorf and others who emulated him utilized strictness, and his hot temper absolved us even of the feeling of our own guilt, leaving us with only resentment of the harsh treatment that was frequently undeserved. In short, my mind was chiefly occupied with fear and the search for ways to escape punishment.
In spite of, or in direct response to, this oppressive atmosphere, Paul's younger children (Nicholas, Michael and Anna Pavlovna) became very close. They were often left more or less to themselves at Gatchina, and formed a club they called the Triopathy, complete with special membership rings. All three remembered the times spent outside the schoolroom as essentially very happy ones, and they remained extraordinarily close throughout their lives. As S. W. Jackman points out in his collection of Anna Pavlovna's correspondence with her siblings, the Romanov family had, up until the turn of the nineteenth century, remained quite small, especially relative to other European dynasties. This changed dramatically with Paul's nine children, however. The chronological distance between the older and younger children, combined with the fact that the older group was brought up under Catherine's supervision and the younger children at Gatchina, divided the family into two distinct camps, each very tightly-knit. But, as the children all reached adulthood under Alexander's reign, they kept in regular contact and forged a family unity that had not existed when they were children, living in separate residences and under the dueling influences of Catherine and Paul. Nicholas, Michael and Anna seem to have appreciated this closeness most, and they were the ones who most successfully passed family values on to the next generation. (Nicholas' substantial contribution to -- or rather, formation of -- Romanov family values was identified and described by Richard Wortman in his 'Power and Responsibility in the Upbringing of the Nineteenth Century Russian Tsars,' and has already been summarized above.)
As an adult, Nicholas' defining characteristics consisted of devotion to duty and family values, obsession with order and, unlike Alexander, a fundamental conservatism in his interpretation of "duty." As tsar and as private individual, he was often cruel, though he was apparently motivated by a sort of pedagogical impulse rather than any kind of sadism. To him, Russia's autocrat was "under the obligation of inculcating the principles of Christian morality in his subjects with divine assistance." His view of his people was that of a rather pessimistic paternalist -- weak and ill-willed if left to their own devices, they needed "to be driven by a benevolent supreme authority in order to achieve desirable social ends." His conception of political theory, though slightly more developed than Constantine's, amounted to something very similar. In his view, a republic was "only a system founded on the negation of all the principles of morality and on the triumph of the basest human passions." Yet, a constitutional monarchy was for him even more vile, being "as false as it was hypocritical," in the words of one historian. He was bothered by none of the moral uncertainties which had plagued his predecessors:
Quite unlike Catherine II, who searched for theoretical justifications for this power, or his brother Alexander I, who sought to harmonize it with contemporary political ideas and necessities, Nicholas held it to be a self-sufficient value which required neither justification nor explanation. Autocracy was, for him, an unshakable dogma.But he also faced greater external challenges to his authority than they had, in the form of a revolutionary and rapidly industrializing Europe. As tsar, he addressed these challenges by developing the infamous "Nicholas System," otherwise known as the "apogee of autocracy" and one of the most oppressive reigns in Russia's long history. His system was marked by extraordinary centralization, the all-pervasive Third Section secret police and paranoid censorship. Nicholas made regular and thorough inspections of all sectors of his empire, took personal control of its administration to a degree rivaled only by Peter the Great, and in general tried to put his empire in order with his own two hands, "trusting neither the nobility nor public opinion, he sought to deal with all of Russia's problems himself." Yet, he saw his assumption of the throne as nothing but a duty he was obliged to fulfill. In his memoirs, he even complained that this fate was perhaps worse than he deserved:
Which of the two [himself and Constantine] made the greater sacrifice -- he who repudiated the heritage from his father, his pretext being incapacity...and retained a position according to his own desires -- or the one who, with no preparation for a dignity to which he had no right in the nature of things, the one who had always been kept ignorant of his brother's will, and then suddenly, under the most terrible conditions, had to sacrifice all that was dear to him, in order to submit to another's will? Even today, after ten years, I venture to think that my sacrifice was much the greater.Though always intrusive and particularly oppressive for intellectuals, Nicholas' regime became insufferable after 1848. Always mindful of the circumstances of his accession (a copy of the Decembrists' complaints was kept by his bedside throughout his reign), Nicholas' attitude toward Europe and his own people was always defensive:
In fact, throughout his reign the emperor feared, at the same time, two different revolutions. There was the danger that the gentry might bid to obtain a constitution if the government decided to deprive the landlords of their serfs. On the other hand, an elemental popular uprising might also be unleashed by such a major shock to the established order as the coveted emancipation.Thus, the events of 1830-31 and 1848 in Europe brought to the fore all his deepest fears. In addition, by this time Nicholas was nearing the end of his reign and was entirely surrounded by elderly officials who owed their careers entirely to his person. These were men who might have said, as the khan's flatterers did in Catherine's didactic children's tale, "Skazka o Tsareviche Khlore," "thus, lord Khan, our hope, it could not be other than as you wish it to be." And so, with his "judgment impaired by the absolute nature of his power," and exhausted by almost thirty years of intense, sustained activity, Nicholas was facing the two greatest challenges of his career since the Decembrist uprising: the revolutions of 1848 and the Crimean War. His reaction was to attempt to cut off all contact between Russia and the diseased West, fearing contamination: "young people return from there with a spirit of criticism which, perhaps with good reason, makes them find the institutions of their own country inadequate." Most importantly, he wanted all news of events in Europe kept out of the hands of the peasantry.
Nicholas' response was paternalistic and reactionary, and excessive even in those terms. But, in his introduction to Presniakov's biography of Nicholas I, Nicholas Riasanovsky argues that the Europe Nicholas inherited was so different from the one Alexander knew that the man Nicholas was (a product of his "milieu and the historical circumstances" of his upbringing) "hardly had a choice" but to react the way he did to revolutionary threats:
When Alexander was a boy the thought of the late Enlightenment held hegemony in the Western world, when Nicholas was growing up Europe was split by a titanic struggle between Napoleonic France and the old order. One could choose with the Decembrists the French Revolution, or one could defend the establishment. A young Russian grand duke was much more likely to be found in the second camp; in fact, because of the milieu and the historical circumstances he hardly had a choice.
The increased political, economic and social complexity of early industrial Europe went well beyond Nicholas' simple, patriarchal view of the world. His failure to address these challenges from the West became clear first in 1848 and, more embarrassingly, with Russia's abysmal performance in the Crimean War. While Europe was discovering the military advantages of heavy industrial production in the 1830s and 40s, Russia's military had hardly changed since it marched invincible across Europe and saved the world from Napoleon. The awe-inspiring army Nicholas had inherited was a laughing stock by the time of his death.
By 1855, one year into the Crimean War, "a sense of frustration at what had not been accomplished, tinged with vague feelings of defeat and a certain fatalism, set in," just as it had for his elder brothers. Nicholas I would go down in history as one of the cruelest of many cruel tsars, an antecedent of Joseph Stalin, yet "he could never understand why the world did not see him as he saw himself -- 'a slave to duty' and 'the friend of all the world.' He was mystified by the lack of appreciation the world showed towards him...." The "snake that strangled Russia for thirty years" had "always felt that he was working for the welfare and interests of all civilised people..." When he died, he wanted to leave his heir a peaceful kingdom, where no innovation would ever be necessary. On his deathbed, his words to his eldest son were those of a devoted parent as much as that of a failed tsar: "I wanted to take everything difficult, everything serious, upon my shoulders and to leave you a peaceful, well-ordered, and happy realm. Providence decreed otherwise." Historians, too, have summed up his reign as yet another tragic failure: "his death was symbolic. Nicholas' whole being was imbued with the governmental system of which his reign was the embodiment, and he could not endure the death of his ideals, the humiliation of Russia, and the treachery of his allies." This hitherto energetic and extraordinarily healthy man died on 18 February 1855 of complications from a common cold.
Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich
Comparatively little is known about Michael Pavlovich, the youngest son of Paul I. In his summary of the correspondence between Paul's children, S. W. Jackman provides the most complete portrait:
As the baby of the family he was always treated with considerable indulgence and was referred to as 'cadet.' In a family noted for its interest in military affairs, Michael was outstanding in his mastery of military drill but, despite his abilities, he was not popular in the army because of his pedantry and severity, for he too had a violent temper. Greatly attached to his brother Constantine, he emulated him in every way, even to his clothes, and often visited Warsaw and stayed with the viceroy. A gay charmer and somewhat indolent, he was rather feckless and certainly selfish.
Thus, a sketchy picture emerges of the youngest in this family of nine. Low in the line of succession, Michael never expected to inherit the throne (by the time of Alexander's 1823 secret manifesto, which declared Nicholas his heir, Nicholas already had one healthy son, Alexander Nicholaevich, born in 1818. Two more would follow, Constantine Nicholaevich in 1827 and Nicholas Nicholaevich in 1831). He involved himself in petty military pursuits and never aspired to or gained a position of real responsibility. Indeed, he was "at best little more than a regimental staff officer." His marriage was a failure, and he was known to torment his wife's salons with his "boorish" behavior. In the words of Bruce Lincoln, Michael had all of Nicholas' militarism and cruelty without his brother's "broader view of state affairs." Yet, Lincoln also notes a certain amount of paradoxical behavior in Michael, as well. "Affable and likable" when visiting Western Europe, he became again "harsh and rigid" upon return to Russia. It is as though putting on the mantle of his Imperial duties (meager though they may have been in his case), was an onerous, irritating business that required a certain rigidity of attitude. Michael was spoiled by his siblings and aimless; a rather typical scapegrace, in fact, but "despite his failings, he was always regarded affectionately [by his siblings] and was often the object of concern."
In an autocracy, a single individual carries in his hands all the power of, in Russia's case, a vast state. But what powers make the man? If this individual is not a divine gift, given whole to his people, he is born as any human is into a certain time and place and he is raised under certain assumptions and values, which will help to determine the way he views the world as sovereign. For this reason, we have explored the assumptions and values that formed the personalities of Catherine's four grandsons: uniquely placed on the world's stage, the Russia they were born into was stable, prosperous and powerful, but also backward, corrupt, and divided into increasingly rigid social castes. When Nicholas died in 1855, Russia was experiencing its most humiliating defeat at the hands of foreign powers since the Mongol Horde and the Time of Troubles. With its finances and legal system in near chaos, Nicholas' successor was forced to grant limited reforms. Meanwhile, much of the nation's elite had radicalized, many of them seeking nothing short of an overthrow of the monarchy. With all their vacillation and inadequacy, the Pavlovichi form the bridge between the Russia of Catherine and the Russia of revolution. It was Alexander who brought his people to Paris and talked of constitutions. It was Nicholas' Russia that prompted Alexander Herzen, lamenting of the miserable course of life in his country, to ask, "Who is to Blame?" And it was the Russia built under the Nicholas System that prompted Chernyshevsky and legions of other radicals to ask, not of the throne, but of themselves, "What Is to Be Done?"
Catherine's grandsons had much in common. All four Pavlovichi shared a sometimes debilitating and certainly not balanced fixation for order and military trivia. For each brother, the details of drill and uniform served as a refuge from the real world, where they felt inadequate for the position to which they had been born. Yet, none of the brothers could or would entirely renounce this position, perhaps partly out of weakness, but also because the most fundamental moral to which each subscribed was the importance of duty (a product, certainly, of Catherine's Stoic-Enlightenment value system). This conviction was most dramatic in Nicholas, and thus it is fitting that he is most eloquent in describing its unavoidable summons, and also the pain it inflicted on a personality unprepared for the job:
Duty! Yes, that is not a meaningless word for one who from childhood was taught to understand it as I was. This word has a sacred meaning before which every personal impulse must give way. All must fall silent in the face of this feeling and must yield to it until one vanishes into the grave. Such is my watchword. It is harsh, I tell you truly. Beneath its weight, it is more agonizing than I can possibly tell you. But, then, I was born to suffer.
Each of the brothers suffered under his duty, and each ultimately failed to carry it out as he perceived it. Indeed, nothing can attest better to the heaviness of the Imperial burden than the abhorrence with which each of three oldest brothers regarded the task of playing autocrat. As Anna Pavlovna wrote in a letter to Constantine, "It will perhaps be a unique example to see two brothers fighting over who will not have the crown! It is true that one would have to be very presumptuous or very blind to want it!"
Yet, the four brothers also reflected differences of personality and upbringing. Alexander and Constantine were both sincere in a desire for some kind of progress (though they defined progress very differently), and both found themselves incapable of facilitating it. Indeed, it is deeply ironic that it was the reactionary Nicholas who may have actually accomplished more in terms of political reform with his codification of the laws in 1828-33 alone, than Alexander ever did. In addition, while both Constantine and Alexander felt the lack of filial love in their childhoods (in contrast to monarchs before the age of Catherine, who never consciously expected such a thing), Alexander never successfully found a replacement as an adult and, though Constantine finally settled down to marital harmony with Joanna Grudzinska, the marriage never resulted in children.
In contrast, Nicholas and Michael were afraid of progress, equating it with the chaos and violence of Western revolutionary movements, rather than with the Enlightened rationalism and moral virtue with which Alexander associated constitutionalism. Constantine seems to have taken an -- admittedly vague and incipient -- position between the two: his view of revolutionary liberalism was certainly in line with that of Nicholas and Michael, yet he seems to have managed to separate this concept from the idea of moral and social progress. The younger Pavlovichi sought only to maintain the status quo, to preserve for their heirs a well-ordered (and therefore by definition deeply hierarchical) realm resting on the conservative principles of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. As individuals, Nicholas and Michael were devoted to tradition and family above all else. In part, this conservatism was a response to the fear of the world they harbored from their early days in the schoolroom to their adulthoods as defenders of an old order in the face of powerful new threats. In addition, Count Lamsdorf's arbitrary cruelty in the schoolroom was one of the principle forces in teaching Nicholas and Michael how to behave. They both grew up to be cold, harsh men with everyone but their closest friends and family. The arbitrary treatment endured by Alexander on the parade ground at the hands of his father and the notorious Arakcheev had taught him to behave in with equal barbarity in the military sphere, and allowed him years later to be blind to the extraordinary cruelty of his own military colonies. But off the parade ground, Alexander was taught an entirely different sort of behavior, by men like La Harpe and Czartoryski, as well as by Catherine herself.
But Nicholas and Michael also enjoyed a family life at Gatchina that Alexander and Constantine had not experienced. Their father had doted on them in the short years before he died, and their mother -- though rather cold and formal by nature -- created a small, secure environment for them at the "small court" of Gatchina. They and their sister Anna grew up together with very little of the pomp and intrigue of Catherine's court, but rather a great deal of the bourgeois militarism of the Prussian Court in which their mother was raised.
A number of questions were asked in the introduction, to which some partial answers may now be proposed. First, why did Nicholas choose "family values" and a rationalistic, bourgeois emphasis in the education of the heir to address external political threats to the institution of monarchy? In part, certainly, bourgeois values were changing definitions of family in all spheres of the Western world, and Nicholas' method of child rearing can be seen as an adoption of that conventional wisdom. In this sense, it is consistent with and a culmination of the general increase in interest in how heirs were educated that began in Catherine's era. On the other hand, it also follows logically from the personality and needs of Nicholas himself. Catherine's grandsons not only lacked a loving family life, as had countless royal predecessors before them, but they were also to some degree conscious of this lack. And, in the case of Nicholas and Michael, they had some sense of what family life could be by means of their Prussian mother's example and the closeness they established themselves with their sister Anna Pavlovna. Thus, while the bourgeois evolution of the family was certainly becoming an important force, Nicholas' upbringing and personality made him especially amenable to the myth of the ideal Imperial Family.
Second, one may ask how much these men were simply products of the times in which they were born. As autocrats, at least two of them were in a position, however, to help define the Zeitgeist. Certainly Alexander, though driven by the energy of late Enlightenment ideas, played a major role in raising revolutionary hopes in Russia and abroad. He, the tsar of Russia, gave constitutions to France, Poland, and Finland, and forged the Holy Alliance of European great powers. And in Russia, his failure to give a constitution to his own people and his misguided, often cruel mistakes like the military colonies dashed their hopes and forced them to turn elsewhere for change. Yet, Nicholas seems more a victim of his times. As consummate military gentleman of the old school, he was out of place in industrial Europe, and had constantly to defend his position in what was to him an increasingly hostile environment.
Finally, there is the question of where to trace the roots of the Revolution -- when and how did the Russian monarchy become so weak as to bring on the events of 1917? Wortman traces the ritualization and calcification that weakened the autocracy to the pattern of upbringing established by Nicholas I. But it seems clear that the roots of Nicholas' behavior and, certainly, the roots of elite dissatisfaction with the Romanovs can be traced even further, to Catherine and all four of her grandsons. While it would be ridiculous to argue that the collapse of the House of Romanov was in any sense inevitable, it is clear that no Romanov could have restored his authority and addressed the dire circumstances of a backward Russia without subverting, to some extent, his own power. Karamzin's "twin pillars" of the Russian state -- autocracy and serfdom -- had become the greatest obstacles to vital social and economic reforms. One might speculate that a monarch of stronger character could, having recognized this reality, have brought about a gradual reform of the autocracy. But such a monarch would be rare in history, to say the least. Indeed, monarchy is an institution that tends to breed weak-willed individuals: even if a monarch emerges from the scanty genetic pool unscathed, a lifetime of unquestioned authority is hardly character-building.
One might be tempted to suggest, and many have, that if someone other than brutal, unbending Nicholas had taken the throne during that fateful December day in 1825, constitutionalism might have had a chance in Russia (or, at least, the educated elite might not have become completely alienated from the regime). But, as we have seen, Constantine was even less capable of solving Russia's myriad problems than Nicholas. And Michael, the youngest Pavlovich, was merely the embodiment of some of Nicholas' worst characteristics -- excessive militarism, paternalistic authoritarianism and xenophobia. Thus, it appears that of all Catherine's grandsons, Alexander was perhaps the best post-Enlightenment hope Russia had for real reform from above. In the end, he possessed the inclination but not the ability to alter the institutions of his realm, or to limit his own power. And, though Nicholas' son and successor, Alexander II, was prompted by the disastrous and humiliating Crimean War to grant some administrative reforms and a chaotic, unsatisfying emancipation, ultimately the "Great Reformer's" own treatment of the intelligentsia served only to radicalize them further. The result was that his reforms remained "too little too late" and he himself was assassinated by terrorists. His successors, both likewise taught to revere their past and predecessors, both adamantly loyal to Nicholas' maxim of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality," struggled desperately to accomplish their one goal -- to pass on their patrimony to their sons in a condition as much as possible like that in which they inherited it. Thus, by 1917 the house of Romanov could boast little significant innovation since the time of Catherine. In fact, her successors represent a long line of gradual retreat and conservatism. All the many strains of reformism in Russian society became for the Romanovs the one common enemy, an enemy that ultimately defeated them, as the autocracy lost all ability to reform itself.
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