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Nicholas I - Personality

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Updated: 07.11.2003

Personality

Nicholas I, detail of a watercolour by Christina Robertson, 1840
Collection of Mrs. Merriweather Post, Hillwood, Washington, D.C.

Nicholas I has come down in history as the classic autocrat, in appearance and manner as much as in behaviour and policy. To quote Andrew Dickson White, a United States diplomat:

With his height of more than six feet, his head always held high, a slightly aquiline nose, a firm and well-formed mouth under a light moustache, a square chin, an imposing, domineering, set face, noble rather than tender, monumental rather than human, he had something of Apollo and of Jupiter . . . Nicholas was unquestionably the most handsome man in Europe.

Or to refer to Adolphe, marquis de Custine, whose lasting literary fame rests on his denunciation of the Russia of Nicholas I: "Virgil's Neptune . . .one could not be more emperor than he."

In short, Nicholas I came to represent autocracy personified: infinitely majestic, determined and powerful, hard as stone, and relentless as fate. Yet, on closer acquaintance, the other side of the Emperor emerged. The detachment and the superior calm of an autocrat, which Nicholas I tried so often and so hard to display, were essentially a false front.

The sovereign's insistence on firmness and stern action was based on fear, not on confidence; his determination concealed a state approaching panic, and his courage fed on something akin to despair. Nicholas' violent hatred could concentrate apparently with equal ease on an individual, such as the French king Louis-Philippe; a group, such as the Decembrists; a people, such as the Poles; or a concept, such as revolution. His impulse was always to strike and keep striking until the object of his wrath was destroyed.

Aggressiveness, however, was not the Emperor's only method of coping with the problems of life. He also used regimentation, orderliness, neatness, and precision, an enormous effort to have everything at all times in its proper place. Nicholas I was by nature a drill master and an inspector general; the army remained his love, almost an obsession, from childhood to the end of his life.

But, in every other sphere of activity and existence too, the Emperor insisted on minute and precise regulation, with nothing to be left to chance. Position, circumstances, and his own character placed an almost intolerable burden on his shoulders. Still, he managed to carry it for three decades, sustained by his overwhelming sense of duty and devotion to hard work, by his sincere religious convictions, and by his family. His outlook, however, became ever more pessimistic and fatalistic, until in the disaster of the Crimean War the autocrat declared simply: "I shall carry my cross until all my strength is gone." "Thy will be done."

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