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Nicholas I (July 6, 1796 – March 2, 1855) reigned as Emperor of Russia, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland from 1825 until his death in 1855.

Nicholas was born at Gatchina Palace in Gatchina to Grand Duke Paul Petróvich and Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia (née Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg). Sophie Dorothea was Daughter of Duke Friedrich Eugene of Württemberg and Princess Friederike of Brandenburg-Schwedt.

Five months after his birth, his grandmother, Empress Catherine II the Great of Russia died and his parents became Emperor Paul and Empress Maria Feodorovna 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. Riasanovsky says he was, “the most handsome man in Europe, but also a charmer who enjoyed feminine company and was often at his best with the men.”

In 1800, at the age of four years, Nicholas was named Grand Prior of Russia and entitled to wear the Maltese cross.

February 1814, Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich and his brother Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, visited Berlin. Arrangements were made between the two dynasties for Nicholas to marry Charlotte, then fifteen years old, to strengthen the alliance between Russia and Prussia.

Charlotte’s parents were Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Nicholas was only second in line to the throne, as the heir was his brother Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich who, like Emperor Alexander I, was childless. On a second visit the following year, Nicholas fell in love with the then-seventeen-year-old Princess Charlotte.

Nicholas was tall and handsome with classical features. The feeling was mutual, “I like him and am sure of being happy with him.” She wrote to her brother, “What we have in common is our inner life; let the world do as it pleases, in our hearts we have a world of our own.”

Hand-in-hand, they wandered over the Potsdam countryside, and attended the Berlin Court Opera. By the end of his visit, in October 1816, Nicholas and Charlotte were engaged.

On June 8, 1817 Princess Charlotte came to Russia with her brother Wilhelm. After arriving in St. Petersburg she converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and took the Russian name “Alexandra Feodorovna”.

Charlotte of Prussia, Grand Duke Alexandra Feodorovna

On her nineteenth birthday, July 13, 1817, she and Nicholas were married in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace. “I felt myself very, very happy when our hands joined,” she would later write about her wedding. “With complete confidence and trust, I gave my life into the hands of my Nicholas, and he never once betrayed it.”

Nicholas and Charlotte were third cousins, as they were both great-great-grandchildren of Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.

With two older brothers, it initially seemed unlikely Nicholas would ever become tsar. However, as Alexander and Constantine both failed to produce legitimate sons, Nicholas remained likely to rule one day.

In 1825, when Alexander I died suddenly of typhus, Nicholas was caught between swearing allegiance to his brother as the new Emperor Constantine and accepting the throne for himself.

Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich was the heir-presumptive for most of his elder brother Alexander I’s reign.

However, he had secretly renounced his claim to the throne in 1823 although this information was not widely known, it was especially unknown to the court. Therefore, for 25 days after the death of Alexander I, from December 1, 1825 to December 26, 1825 he was known as His Imperial Majesty Constantine I, Emperor and Sovereign of Russia, although he never reigned and never actually acceded to the throne.

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

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 seize power.

While some of the army had sworn loyalty to Nicholas, a force of about 3,000 troops tried to mount a military coup in favour of Constantine. The rebels, although weakened by dissension between their leaders, confronted the loyalists outside the Senate building in the presence of a large crowd.

In the confusion, the Emperor’s envoy, Mikhail Miloradovich, was assassinated. Eventually, the loyalists opened fire with heavy artillery, which scattered the rebels. Many were sentenced to hanging, prison, or exile to Siberia. The conspirators became known as the Decembrists.

Having experienced the trauma of the Decembrist Revolt on the very first day of his reign, Nicholas I was determined to restrain Russian society. The Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery ran a huge network of spies and informers with the help of Gendarmes. The government exercised censorship and other forms of control over education, publishing, and all manifestations of public life.

He appointed Alexander Benckendorff to head this Chancellery. Benckendorff employed 300 gendarmes and 16 staff in his office. He began collecting informers and intercepting mail at a high rate. Soon, because of Benckendorff, the saying that it was impossible to sneeze in one’s house before it is reported to the emperor, became Benckendorff’s creed.