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Nicholas I (July 6, 1796 – March 3, 1855) reigned as Emperor of Russia from 1825 until 1855. He was also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland. He has become best known for having been a reactionary whose controversial reign was marked by geographical expansion, economic growth and massive industrialisation on the one hand, and centralisation of administrative policies and repression of dissent on the other.

Nicholas was born at Gatchina Palace in Gatchina to Grand Duke Paul, and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia (née Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg). Five months after his birth, his grandmother, Empress Catherine II the Great, died and his parents became Emperor and Empress of Russia. He was a younger brother of Emperor Alexander I of Russia, who succeeded to the throne in 1801, and of Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia.

Nicholas had a happy marriage that produced a large family; all of their seven children survived childhood. On July 13, 1817, Nicholas married Princess Charlotte of Prussia (1798–1860), who thereafter went by the name Alexandra Feodorovna when she converted to Orthodoxy. Charlotte’s parents were Friedrich-Wilhelm III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Nicholas and Charlotte were third cousins, as they were both great-great-grandchildren of Friedrich-Wilhelm I of Prussia.

His biographer Nicholas V. Riasanovsky said that Nicholas displayed determination, singleness of purpose, and an iron will, along with a powerful sense of duty and a dedication to very hard work. He saw himself as a soldier—a junior officer totally consumed by spit and polish.

A handsome man, he was highly nervous and aggressive. Trained as an engineer, he was a stickler for minute detail. In his public persona, stated Riasanovsky, “Nicholas I came to represent autocracy personified: infinitely majestic, determined and powerful, hard as stone, and relentless as fate.” He was the younger brother of his predecessor, Alexander I.


With two older brothers, it initially seemed unlikely Nicholas would ever become tsar. However, as Emperor Alexander I and Grand Duke Constantine both failed to produce sons, Nicholas remained likely to rule one day. In 1825, when Alexander I died suddenly of typhus, Nicholas was caught between swearing allegiance to Constantine and accepting the throne for himself.

The interregnum lasted until Constantine, who was in Warsaw at that time, confirmed his refusal of the Russian Imperial Throne.

Additionally, on December 25, Nicholas issued the manifesto proclaiming his accession to the throne. That manifesto retroactively named December 1, the date of Alexander I’s death, as the beginning of his reign. During this confusion, a plot was hatched by some members of the military to overthrow Nicholas and to seize power. This led to the Decembrist Revolt on December 26, 1825, an uprising Nicholas was successful in quickly suppressing.

Nicholas I was instrumental in helping to create an independent Greek state, and resumed the Russian conquest of the Caucasus by seizing Iğdır Province and the remainder of modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan from Qajar Persia during the Russo-Persian War of 1826–1828. He ended the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829 successfully as well. Later on, however, he led Russia into the Crimean War (1853–1856), with disastrous results. Historians emphasize that his micromanagement of the armies hindered his generals, as did his misguided strategy. William C. Fuller notes that historians have frequently concluded that “the reign of Nicholas I was a catastrophic failure in both domestic and foreign policy.” On the eve of his death, the Russian Empire reached its geographical zenith, spanning over 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles), but had a desperate need for reform.