20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this new essay, the author explains how the 1848 revolution brought Nicholas I to developing a new state paradigm—Pan-Slavism.



Czar Nicholas I of Russia, as we’ve discussed, regarded revolution ambiguously. On the one hand, it frightened him, as any normal person is afraid of mass insanity, which, for some reason unknown to Nicholas, possessed realistic people. On the other hand, he could not wait for it—indeed he dreamed of it. Especially after the poet Fyodor Tyutchev put into words, even obscurely, Nicholas’s long-standing desire. Yes, the victory of the revolution in Europe was to become Nicholas’s finest hour. Not to mention the fact that it would confirm Russia’s status as a superpower: finally, following Russia’s victory over Napoleon, it would have its first real opportunity to demonstrate who the master of the continent was.



Revolution came at the end of February 1848. It began, as always, in France. The king was overthrown, and a republic was declared. In spite of the fact that the revolution was long awaited, it happened unexpectedly. “We were all as if thunderstruck,” Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich wrote in his diary. “Nesselrode dropped the papers [he held] in his hands in excitement. What will happen now, God knows, but for us only blood is visible on the horizon.” There is no doubt that Nicholas’s first impulse was to fight; the evidence is more than sufficient.

On February 22, without delay, General Baron Nikolai Korf recorded: “The Emperor breathes with the most enthusiastic and heroic spirit, and with the war only. By spring, he said, we will be able to place 370,000 troops; with this we will come and crush the whole of Europe.” Russian Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich confirmed this: “Our preparations for war proceed with incredible activity. Everything boils.” On February 24, Nicholas wrote King Frederick William IV of Prussia, urging him to confront revolutionary France: “You and your (troops) in the north, Hanover, Saxony, Hess, and the King of Württemberg with the rest and Bavaria in the south. After three months, I, with 300,000 soldiers, will be ready for your call to join the whole formation between you and the King of Württemberg.”

Nicholas, as we can see, was getting ready to fight the bygone war with the French Revolution. At that moment, at the end of the eighteenth century, France stood alone against the whole of monarchist Europe, and the outcome depended entirely on Russia’s ability to organize an anti-French coalition—with English money. That’s why Britain’s position bothered Nicholas so much. “I am anxiously waiting for England’s decision,” he wrote to Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich in Vienna on February 24. “Its absence among us would be unfortunate.” In this, however, the Czar would be disappointed. England not only refused to intervene in French affairs, but advised Nicholas I against it. It told Russia, in other words, “Don’t wait for money.”

A week later, something quite unpleasant transpired: the French Revolution rapidly grew into a pan-European one (or, given the Eurocentricity of the times, a World Revolution). One after another, the small German states, followed by the Czar’s former allies—Prussia and the Austrian Empire—called for a liberal government, promising a constitution to their people (!). The irony of history is that half a century later, Vladimir Lenin repeated the Czar’s mistake (with the opposite sign, of course), being quite sure that the revolution of 1917 would unfold into a world revolution. It was modeled after the previous revolution, the “Spring of Nations,” as what transpired in front of a stunned Nicholas was called in 1848. And just as Lenin would be later, Nicholas was discouraged and confused. The whole picture had changed dramatically, defying his expectations. In late February, the Czar had planned to isolate revolutionary France, but by early March, autocratic Russia was tightly insulated (just as revolutionary Russia was isolated in 1917, if we’re to continue the analogy; the Bolshevik leader’s error changed Russia’s fate in the twentieth century, just as the Czar’s error did in the nineteenth century). But let’s take things one step at a time.


Breakthrough of the Revolution

On March 2, Grand Duke Constantine wrote in his diary: “Foul news from Germany; the unrest is everywhere, but princes sit back and do nothing.” I do not know what events he had in mind, but I know that on March 1, liberal governments came to power in Baden and in Nassau, Germany, and on March 2 in Hesse-Darmstadt. On March 6, street fighting began in Munich, ending with the abdication of power by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in favor of his son Maximilian II—who sympathized with the constitution—two weeks later. This also earned an entry in Constantine’s diary: “What a darling! That’s my boy! In other words, he ought to be shot!”

On March 6, the Württemberg king also called for a liberal government. On March 7, Constantine wrote: “Bad news from Germany; the revolutionary contagion is everywhere!” On March 13, clashes with rebel forces began in Berlin (five days later, they resulted in victory for the rebels). The king agreed to all their demands, even to the point—in Constantine’s words, perturbed at such a disgrace—that he  “Granted freedom of publishing books.” Metternich fled Vienna on the same day as the riots. The day before, we find in his diary, “Telegraphic news came from Vienna, there are also disturbances there, and therefore the entire Austrian Empire will get the constitution! So, we now stand alone in the world and the only hope is in God.” And, on March 13: “It is all over in Europe, and we’re all alone.”

In early March, the Russian Czar was still bragging. “If the King of Prussia will act strongly,” he wrote to his commander-in-chief, Prince Paskevich, on March 2, “it’s still possible to save everything; otherwise we will have to intervene.” And, on March 10: “Under the new Austrian rule, they will indulge the revolution; they will be against us in Galicia. In that case, I’ll occupy the rim and stifle their plans.” By the end of March, however, even Nicholas realized that he was powerless to “stifle their plans,” let alone “crush the whole of Europe” as he had planned on doing the month before. On March 30, he wrote to Paskevich again, already in utter despair: “Only God alone can save us from total destruction!”



Only this can explain the desperation of Czar Nicholas’s famous March 14 Manifesto. American historian Bruce Lincoln called it “a shrill cry in the archaic language, summoning Russians to a holy war in a situation where no one was going to attack them.” Here is an excerpt: “Based on the treasured example of our Orthodox ancestors, calling for the help of the Almighty God, we are ready to meet our enemies, wherever they will appear. We make sure that our ancient cry ‘For Faith, Czar and Fatherland!’ will now also lead us down the way to victory. God is with us! People, understand and conquer! God is with us!”

The Muscovite language of fundamentalism had nothing to do with the sensationalist wording of this publication. It was hysterics—in an official government document! What unknown people was Nicholas going to conquer? What enemies were there to meet when nobody had declared war on Russia, or even proclaimed war at all? Is it surprising that the Europe manifesto produced, according the poet Vladimir Panaev, “the most unpleasant and hostile experience”? This was connected with another strange and not fully understandable story: Exactly one week later, something unheard of was published on behalf of Russian Vice-Chancellor Count von Nesselrode, as if he were apologizing for his lord’s lack of restraint. This is usually interpreted as follows: the Czar’s subjects needed a week to explain to him the impropriety, so to speak, of his archaic militant tendencies.

For Nicholas the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 was the cruelest disappointment. Yes, the European revolution had been defeated, but not by him. He was not called. It was a disaster for “Tyutchev’s” paradigm that inspired his entire foreign policy over a quarter century.

Knowing, however, the author’s character, it is hard to believe that he would allow anyone to debase his own manifesto for such an insignificant (in his view) reason. There had to be a much more serious reason. It suffices to compare dates. Immediately after the publication of the manifesto, Nicholas ordered Paskevich to “ready the border’s fortress immediately; to fence off Brest.” He went on, “[It’s] too late to think about this, when the enemy is close at hand.” What enemy? How could he be “close at hand” three weeks after the emperor (according to legend, in the midst of the court ball) commanded “officers to saddle [their] horses” and ride on the Rhine to teach the French rebels a lesson?

A letter that was uncovered by the modern historian A.S. Nifontov sheds some light on all this. It makes clear what Nicholas was afraid of: “There are so many troubles in Germany that it’s not understandable how they could have enough forces for any campaign against us.” Who were they? It seems that he is referring to the liberal Prussia and Austria, which could attack an unprepared Russia. Nifontov even suggests that the Czar “Nikolai Pavlovich was really afraid of attack by Prussia, Austria, and even France.” Now imagine what a state of confusion and disorientation the autocrat had to reach to be afraid of such a phantom. Roughly speaking, the Czar was terrified that he had done something irreparable by his manifesto, and he panicked; he got scared.

However, here is the text of the refutation, and the reader can judge for himself which hypothesis is more plausible: “Russia does not intend to interfere in the government transformation that already happened or could still follow, neither in Germany nor in France. Russia is not thinking about attacking; it wants peace to deal calmly with the internal development of its welfare.” It was, as they say in the criminal world, a “cop-out.”



Europe, meanwhile, was simply not ready for a constitution in 1848, much like Russia in 1825. By June, reactionary forces counterattacked. And the revolution rollback occurred as quickly as its spring broke. Only Nicholas, it seems, could still not come to his senses after experiencing the horror of that March. Even in June, when the revolution had already receded, he was still telling Paskevich, “In a defensive war, in all likelihood our significant rebuff will be on the banks of the Vistula.” It turns out he expected the enemy to come from within his own empire. Meanwhile, European generals took action: on June 12, Austria’s Marshal Windisch-Grätz stormed rebellious Prague; on June 23, Prussian troops drove back the liberals of Baden and Vyurtemburg; and on June 26, General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac shot rebelling workers in Paris.

On and on it went. Milan fell on August 5. Croatian Count Josip Jelačić took Vienna, forcing the National Assembly to run in provincial Kremnica on November 1. Prussian Prime Minister Otto Theodor von Manteuffel dissolved the liberal parliament in Berlin on December 5. By the beginning of 1849, the revolution was essentially finished, except for the Republic of Venice, the half-dead Austrian Assembly in Kremnica, and the impotent Frankfurt Parliament. Only Hungary stood firm. But it was isolated and its defeat was only a matter of time.


Downfall of Dreams

For Nicholas, however, all of this was the cruelest disappointment. Yes, the European revolution had been defeated, but not by him. He was not called. Even in May, when he offered Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I  assistance in Hungary, he was haughtily rejected. It was a disaster, relatively speaking, for “Tyutchev’s” paradigm that inspired his entire foreign policy over a quarter century. What were the “two true powers” opposing each other in Europe? What was the “rotting” Europe? What was to be the finest hour for Nicholas—and for Russia? All this, as it turned out, was nonsense, a chimera. “Before my eyes disappeared,” he wrote Metternich, who was living in exile, “a whole system of mutual relationships, thoughts, interests, and actions.”

The monarch was allowed only to “clean up” what European generals had left unfinished—in the far periphery of Europe. He “stifled plans” in the Danubian principalities, which did not have their own army, and in Hungary (where Paskevich fussed for six months) when the Austrian throne was taken by young Franz Joseph. It is an understatement to say that after all that, Nicholas felt like a Generalissimo who had suddenly been demoted to the rank and file. His dream collapsed. He could not measure up in glory to his deceased brother, Agamemnon of Europe. And he had to say goodbye to Russia’s superpower status, too.

Could it be still revived? In this moment of despair the autocrat repented his motto, invented after the dismissal of Count Uvarov, a former president of the Academy of Sciences and the author of the famous triad Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality. How did he say it? “I do not need smart scientists; I need loyalists.” Alas, the loyalists could not help him after the debacle of 1848. Luckily for him—or unluckily—one risky “smart scientist” was found, and he offered the Czar a way out of the seemingly hopeless situation, and decent—more than decent, in Nicholas’ mind—way out. This required, however, forgetting about the revolution, about the fear of it and about the fight with it, and about the entire old “Tyutchev’s” paradigm.

The revolution, as it turned out, would not be in Europe, and it would not be in Russia, as the historian Mikhail Pogodin explained to Nicholas: “We were afraid of it groundlessly... Mirabeau is not a threat to us, but Emelka Pugachev is. Ledru Rollin with his communists will not find adherents among us, but Nikita Pustosvyat will be listened to in wide-mouthed astonishment in any village. Nobody will turn to Mazzini’s side, but Razin need only spread the word! That’s where lies our revolution.” But a completely different strategy followed from such a premise. It was possible, as it turned out, to put puffed-up Europe in its place, and at the same time—without any revolution—quench the wounded vanity of the autocrat. And Pogodin unfolded this new strategy to him in detail.

But more about that in the following essays.