Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How St. George Fought with the Dragon

(The Revoluton of 1848)

The Emperor's death raised a strange contest of rivalry between his two brothers. Each hastened to take the oath of allegiance to the other and each refused to mount the throne. Constantine, the elder, was the legal heir, but in order to marry a Polish lady he had put away his wife and secretly promised Alexander to give up his right of succession in favor of Nicholas. It was not until he sent a final and formal renunciation of his birthright that Nicholas yielded.

The secret societies took advantage of the crisis. The "Society of the North" was composed of soldiers who had brought back from the West the new ideas, and of young men with generous and impulsive hearts, who keenly felt the yoke of slavery. Many of its members were in government employ and kept informed of all that took place in the palace. When it was known that the senators were going to swear to Nicholas the leaders vowed that he should never wear the crown. The fatal morning came. The conspirators spread among the soldiers the rumor that Constantine was a prisoner at Warsaw and that Nicholas was about to usurp the throne. The Moscow regiments rallied around the statue of Peter the Great, crying, "Long live the Emperor Constantine!" Some one shouted "Hurrah for the constitution!" and the ignorant mob joined in the cry, supposing that to be the name of Constantine's wife.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


When Nicholas learned that the Place of the Senate was full of armed conspirators, and that already blood had been shed, he went with some of the Finland Life-Guard to the great gate of the Winter Palace and calmly read to the crowd there assembled the announcement of his accession. It had great effect. The citizens began slowly to disperse.

Meanwhile many new companies of grenadiers and marines joined the rebels; the governor-general of the city who tried to bring them back to duty was shot down in cold blood; the Metropolitan who came out to them in robe and mitre narrowly escaped with his life. Nicholas gave them one more offer of mercy; then, just as the short winter's day was drawing to a close, he ordered the cannon to clear the square. In a few moments the rude barricades lay flat and the rebels were fleeing in every direction. Five hundred prisoners were taken. That night thirteen members of the Circle of the South "were also arrested, and a few days afterward "The United Slavs," who came to their rescue with several companies, were completely defeated as they were marching on Kief. The revolution was crushed. One hundred and twenty-one of the ringleaders, the elite  of all that was civilized and truly noble in Russia," were tried and found guilty; five suffered on the scaffold. "I knew before hand," said their poet-leader, Rileef, that this enterprise would be my ruin, but I could no longer bear to see my country under the yoke of despotism. The seed which I have sown will spring up ere long and bring forth fruit."

Nicholas knew well that in the night no seed could bear fruit. This modern Joshua, who called himself the guardian of the moral order established by God, wished to stay the rising of the sun, and for thirty years his arms were held up by the censorship and the Secret Police. For thirty years the "Crowned Sergeant," the "Jailor of Russia," set his iron will against the growth of liberty, the spread of knowledge, the progress of the race. The universities were the hotbeds of revolution: they must be cut down and replaced by military schools. Philosophy was the mother of radicalism: the professors must teach only the Scriptures. Europe was the home of liberal ideas: the doors of the Empire were closed to travellers. It was declared that every writer was a bear and ought to be kept in chains: the press was therefore gagged; few books could come from abroad, all originality was quenched. It was indeed "a regime of silence, isolation, and ignorance." Corruption was rampant; Nicholas declared that he was the only honest man in Russia. It was impossible to get justice; two million eight hundred and fifty thousand lawsuits were waiting trial; the fifteen thousand folio pages of the Code were made so much waste-paper by the first statement that the Emperor was above all law. It was wittily said that the only article in the Russian constitution was the whip. "Life was very painful at this time," says Turgenief; "the young people of to-day have to go through no such experience."

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The first military exploit under the new Emperor was against Persia. The Shah declared war and sent his son to take Tiflis. Paskievitch, with only ten thousand men, defeated Abbas Mirza, who had forty-four thousand. He then crossed the Araxes, took Erivan by assault, entered Tauris, and began to march against the capital. The Shah, in alarm, ceded the province of Erivan as far as the Araxes and paid a tribute of twenty million rubles.

The Greek war of independence broke out. Nicholas united with England and France to bring about peace. The three allied squadrons destroyed the Turkish fleet in the harbor of Navarino. The French expelled the Turks from the Morea. The Russians, who had the grievances of the Greek Church to avenge, crossed the Danube and took Varna and Brailof. In Asia Paskievitch carried the ancient town of Kars. England and Austria became uneasy, but as Russia had the support of France Nicholas was free for further conquest. In the next campaign Paskievitch captured Erzerum, capital of Turkish Armenia. The Russians, under General Dibitch, crossed the Balkans and entered Adrianople. The Sultan was obliged to yield. Greece was declared independent; Russia took the islands of the Danube delta and several important districts in Asia and a tribute of twenty-four million dollars. Russian commerce was given free access to the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The enemy of liberty gave liberty to Greece; he was none the less shocked by the "July revolution" in Paris which caused the fall of Charles X., and by the Belgian and Italian revolutions which followed in quick succession. The young patriots of Poland were greatly excited by these momentous changes. The secret societies, the Templars and the Patriotic Club, resolved to act. Constantine in Warsaw was informed of the plot, but he affected to believe that it was merely an agitation among "lawyers without clients, physicians without patients, and young officers unwilling to hold lower positions."

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


Suddenly the explosion came. An admirable plan of attack was drawn up. One band of conspirators was to assemble in Lazienski Park and capture the Grand Duke. The eight thousand Russian soldiers scattered through Warsaw were to be surrounded and disarmed, the arsenal and bridges seized, the provinces raised. Owing to haste and misunderstanding none of the details were carried out. Had not Constantine been entirely confused by the outbreak he might have nipped it in the bud. On the contrary he escaped from the city and trusted to the faithfulness of his beloved Polish army. His trust was deceived. Without exception all the officers and men joined the insurgents. No efforts were made by the Poles to prevent the Grand Duke leaving the country. That was their first great error. Their second was lack of unity in plan. The younger men thought that their only hope of restoring the independence of Poland and recovering the lost provinces was in united action in a national war. As long as Constantine was alive the aristocratic party had no desire to follow the hot-headed young radicals into a war with Russia. They would have been satisfied with such reforms as the Grand Duke was ready to give them. They saw no safety for Poland except in a prompt reconciliation with Nicholas. A deputation was sent to confer with the Emperor, but he refused to have any dealings with rebellious subjects before they had laid down their arms unconditionally. He declared that if the nation arose against his authority it would be Polish cannon which would put an end to Poland.

In spite of all the efforts of the aristocratic party, in spite of Klopitski, who made himself dictator and used the weight of his popularity with the army to prevent an outbreak, the war party got the upper hand. At the January Diet the independence of Poland was proclaimed; the motion was carried to depose the house of Romanof and free the provinces from the Russian allegiance. The patriots were filled with enthusiasm by French promises and English sympathy. At last the conflict came. Count Dibitch, the hero of the Balkans, crossed the borders with one hundred and twenty thousand Russians and four hundred cannon. The Poles had at the most only ninety thousand men and about one hundred cannon, and were under command of the weak and inefficient General Radzivil. The whole country was open to the approach of the Russians.

At first, however, the advantage was with the Poles, but the tide turned. General Dibitch and the Grand Duke Constantine died of the cholera which was raging in both armies. Paskievitch succeeded Dibitch and began the siege of Warsaw. Again discord broke out among the insurgents; the Western Powers which had expressed the most sympathy kept aloof; Prussia lent its friendly aid to the Russians. Paskievitch was able to write to Nicholas: "Sire, Warsaw is at your feet. The submission is general and complete." Nicholas made a terrible example of the rebels; besides the punishment inflicted on the leaders of the revolt, five thousand Polish families were sent to the Caucasus. More than sixty-seven million dollars worth of property was confiscated; the constitution granted by Alexander was taken away; the public offices were all filled with Russians; the Polish army was absorbed into the Russian army; the Russian system of taxes, coinage, and law was introduced; the metric system of weights and measures was replaced by the Russian; finally the Polish language was forbidden to be taught in schools, and the University of Warsaw was suppressed.

Similar punishments were visited upon Lithuania. The following year, when Constantinople was threatened by the victorious Khedive of Egypt, Nicholas, whose policy was "to combat the enemies of public order wherever they were found," came to the aid of Turkey.: The Russian fleet entered the Bosphorus; twenty-four thousand men crossed the Pruth. England and France, however, brought about a reconciliation, and the Russian forces were withdrawn. Russia had its reward; a treaty was signed by which the Sultan and the Emperor were to give each other all needful aid to preserve peace and security. By a secret article the Sultan agreed to close the straits to ships hostile to Russia. Six years later Sultan Mahmud died, and again the Khedive revolted. For a second time Nicholas acted as protector of Turkey.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The revolution of 1848 gave Nicholas his last great chance to fulfil his "holy mission "and play his part of St. George slaying the dragon. He had already united with Prussia and Austria to suppress the free republic of Krakof, which was giving refuge to Polish fugitives. Now Europe was shaken to its very foundations. France was proclaimed a republic; the Austrian provinces of Italy threw off their allegiance; the Emperor Ferdinand fled from Vienna and abdicated in favor of his nephew, Francis Joseph. The spirit of liberty moved over the face of the continent; the Germans declared that "Germany exists wherever German is spoken;" the Slavs met at Prague and proposed to form a Slav republic. The Danubian principalities dethroned their rulers and prepared for the formation of Rumanian unity. Hungary arose at the call of Louis Kossuth, defeated the Austrians, took Buda, and declared itself free and independent. Poland and Russia felt the impulse from afar, and "quivered with excitement." Now arose St. George in his might! He kept King Frederick William IV. from accepting the imperial throne of Germany; his armies crossed over into Valakhia and Moldavia, and thus for the third time he protected Turkish integrity. With the most generous zeal and in the most liberal manner "he assisted Francis Joseph in Hungary, "where," as he said, "the Polish traitors of 1831, together with refugees and exiles from other nations, were usurping the power." Paskievitch, the conqueror of Poland, with one hundred and ninety thousand Russians, crushed the armies of the patriot Kossuth.

Thanks to the interference of Nicholas, the flag of Austria waved above the tricolor of liberty. Francis Joseph punished Hungary more cruelly than Nicholas had punished Poland. During all these years Russia was stealthily and steadily encroaching on Asia. The whole southern slope of the Caucasus was now Russian soil; forts and outposts defended the valleys on the northern side. On the far-off Amur Russia and China stood face to face. This silent advance was not wholly peaceful, however, nor free from disagreeable consequences. The brave mountaineers in their lofty citadels offered constant resistance. Shamyl, the soldier-priest of Circassia, for twenty-five years held the best Russian generals in check. The Kan of Khiva in his desert realm dared all the strength of the Empire, and still each year two hundred Russians were sold in the markets of his capital.