Tsar Nicholas I
Tsar Nicholas I
The choice of my subject demands an explanation. At a time when the people of the Soviet Union, after taking their destiny in their own hands, have proved their maturity by achieving the most dazzling victories, some of my readers may perhaps ask themselves why I wish to draw their attention to a man who was the living symbol of Tsarist autocracy. Did not Chamfort say, long before the present upheavals, that only 'the history of free nations' deserved study, and that the history of people under despotism, 'was only a simple collection of anecdotes'?
May I be allowed to disagree, this once, with the witty author of Maxims and Thoughts? The roots of the present go deep into the past: the U.S.S.R. of to-day is the outcome of the Russia of Nicholas I, just as the France of Hoche and Carnot is born of the France of Louis XIV.
Yet I recognize the difficulties an author runs into in undertaking a biography devoted to a Tsar of the Romanov dynasty. Through living for long months, for years even, with an historic personality, through brooding over his intimate thoughts, his daily occupations, his family life, the author involuntarily ends in sympathizing with that person, in finding excuses, or at least explanations for his most reprehensible acts. How many times, when writing The Life of Nicholas I, have I thought of the satirical words of Pushkin in which he reproaches Karamzine, his contemporary and appointed historian of ancient Russia, for having sullied his reputation by extolling the joys of autocratic power and the pleasure of the knout'!
The case of Nicholas I is particularly difficult. In a chapter, part of which is not published, of Hadji-Mourad, Leon Tolstoi states that the whole life of this sovereign 'from that terrible hour when he gave the order to machine-gun the crowd in the Senate Square was just one long horrifying crime'. 'A narrow-minded soldier, coarse, arrogant and uncultivated, living solely for power, longing only to reinforce this power'--these, according to Tolstoi, were the characteristics of a monarch he marked with the merciless nickname of 'Nicholas the Flogger' (Nicholas Palkine').
But on the other hand, it is from the famous novelist we get the debatable points which permit us to consider Nicholas more impartially and objectively. 'With what do we reproach this sovereign?' he exclaims in War and Peace--speaking of Nicholas's own brother . . .