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Of the Czar Nicholas it would have seemed almost hypocrisy in an English writer, a year or two ago, to affect to speak with impartiality. The polemic clamour of manifestoes and parliamentary harangues, the eloquent mutual incrimination of princes and statesmen, and the popular and patriotic enthusiasm of the respective countries, had not then subsided into the calmness essential to any just discrimination of conduct and motives. Crops of Crimean heroes still sprouted forth with undiminished vigour at agricultural gatherings; and metropolitan lion-shows kept alive the remembrance of national animosities, though the belligerent cabinets had smoothed their brows again into the habitual courtesies of diplomatic intercourse. To affect to say any good of the Czar might then be not unreasonably looked upon as a symptom of lukewarm loyalty to our national cause; and to speak ill of him, was merely to follow in the wake of the countless scribes whom the din of actual war had suddenly aroused to a perception of his sins. Now, however, a new crisis of more absorbing interest has arisen to divert the overflow of our feelings from this channel; and the Russian war seems already to have passed into the domain of history as much as the prince himself by whose genius it was provoked and supported. With animosities softened and subdued by the deeper shadows of our Indian disasters, and with the advantage of a complete retrospect of the policy of the late Czar defined in its limits by the dissimilar character of his successor, we may perhaps approach the subject with better chances of arriving at truth.
The policy of the house of Romanoff would seem to have been dictated far more by natural causes of race and geographical position than by the peculiar character of its princes. To Peter the Great the glory may be given of having clearly perceived the exact position in which Russia stood relatively to the East and the West, her past and her prospective history, and of having carried out with unwavering decision and striking success the policy which he conceived to be the best solution of the problem. To his successors the praise is also to be allotted that, while never losing sight of the general direction in which his sagacious mind had predetermined that the national life of Russia should move, they showed themselves fully alive to the necessity of accommodating this march to the shifting contingencies of each particular epoch, and superadded their own contributions of experience and reflection to the management and development of the movement. All more or less sensual, they were none of them the mere slaves of their sensuality, but used it as an instrument of personal ambition and national aggrandisement. The favourites of Catherine II. were not mere parasites of the palace, but generals, statesmen, and even wise legislators, whose benefits to the nation are still
gratefully remembered, while their allegiance to the sovereign was of a nature which necessarily identified them with her interests. The very madness of some of the Romanoffs had its political and social meaning, and was something very different from the purposeless frenzy of Asiatic despots. Thus, although the crimes and excesses which political refugees have laid at the door of this great house can few of them be denied or excused, we experience a very different feeling in reading the records of their strange and eventful reigns from that inspired by the monotonous chronicles of murder and lust which are all that some nations can give us as a substitute for national history. Of the successors of Peter the Great, including his own wife, four have been women, and a royal tragedy has ushered in and closed the reign of a large proportion; yet the helm of state has never any where been held consecutively by firmer or more masculine hands, nor has the course of the vessel ever deviated less materially from the points observed at the commencement of the voyage. We have something to consider, therefore, not only in the nature of the problem which the founder of the greatness of the empire had originally to solve, and the manner in which he set about its solution, but also in the peculiar genius of the family which enabled them to deal so successfully with the task bequeathed to them. In doing this, we shall not experience any great difficulty in arriving at the elements of the distinctive character of the Czar Nicholas, or in estimating his share in the results attained.
A glance at the map of Europe will explain in a moment the geographical difficulties with which the Czar Peter and his successors had to contend. On all sides Russia was landlocked; and at the close of the seventeenth century she was literally imprisoned within closely guarded barriers. On the north, the keys were held by Sweden; a nation flushed with the remembrance of a European reputation, gained under the auspices of the sovereigns of the House of Vasa, and guided and urged onward by one of the most gifted of that royal race, little likely to relax its hold in any quarter without a determined contest. On the south, the outlet of the Black Sea, and the road to Constantinople, were held by the powerful Khans of the Crimea,-princes yielding a nominal superiority of only one horse-tail to the Sultan of Turkey himself, and treating with the Sublime Porte on a virtual footing of equality. On the west, all access to the cultivated plains of Central Europe was barred by the still unbroken and hostile power of Poland; while the remaining frontier, spreading away into the boundless wastes of Asia, seemed to invite a return to the nomad habits of the first stage of national life. Within the boundaries thus circumscribed, Sclaves, Mongols, and Tahtars had long struggled for supremacy; and the eventual supe
riority of the first-named race had been secured at the price of protracted and bloody contests, which had postponed the formation of a Russian nation until the civilisation of Western Europe had passed through some of its most important stages. For a time, indeed, Russia had a chance of emerging into the system of European nationalities as a feudatory of the Polish monarchy; but her patriotic assertion of independence broke the chain of communication with the West before its effects had been at all materially felt. The Warangian princes, the descendants of Rurik, isolated in their petty military principalities, had ceased to cherish any traditional memory of their Norse origin long before they were reduced by the policy of Ivan to the rank of a local nobility. Every thing stagnated or tended eastward in this shapeless empire of forestland and prairie, when the energy of one man ventured to dispute the destiny seemingly allotted by nature, and determined that Russia should join on equal terms the confederation of European nations, and share in the material fruits of their more advanced civilisation. A fierce and desperate struggle with her Scandinavian rival gained for Russia not merely a footing on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, but the prestige of great and startling success among the nations which bordered on those waters. St. Petersburg arose on ground conquered as much from nature as from the Swede, and maintained with far more difficulty against the insidious assaults of river and primitive morass than against any merely human enemy. Through this new gateway of his empire, Peter had resolved to introduce among an Asiatic population the arts and social habits of Western Europe. He had, however, to contend with an obstacle even more formidable than the physical one which he had already overcome, in the peculiarities and prejudices of the Sclavonic Pliant and easily moulded into an outward conformity to prescribed patterns, the Sclavonic type is essentially unyielding and unalterable in its intrinsic characteristics. The Czar Peter dressed it after the European fashion, taught it to speak in more than one European language, introduced it to European fashions of vice and European canons of morality. He drilled its army after the most approved European authorities, and called into existence the germs of a European navy. He transplanted its population into a city which in its externals rivalled the magnificence and luxury of the Western capitals; and he reproduced within its palaces and streets the semblance of an advanced state of European civilisation. But he was as little able to force European feelings and habits below the surface of the national character, as he was to keep the stucco palaces from crumbling under the influence of an arctic climate, and the timbers of his infant navy from rotting during their periodical im
prisonment within their icy dockyards. Upon this stubborn substratum of Sclavonic nationality, neither the varnish of French conventionalities spread over the face of society by Catherine II., nor the German bureaucracy of subsequent sovereigns, have produced any sensible effects; and to this day the main characteristics of Sclavism remain unchanged among the peasantry of the interior, and peep forth from beneath the foreign mask of the capital itself. It has become more and more apparent with each successive century, that while the territorial aggrandisement of Russia has been achieved through the medium and at the expense of Western civilisation, the national life can be developed into a corresponding degree of greatness only through the recognition and on the basis of Sclavism.
Peter the Great, therefore, was more successful in securing a wider field of action for the national life than in forcing it forward into a royal road of progress. His policy, and that of his successors, secured a southern gateway in the Crimea, and established a standing "menace" to the rest of Europe in the acquisition of the Polish outpost. But, on the other hand, the internal policy of the empire in later years has been a retrograde one from many of his favourite ideas, and Russia is still far from having realised his dream of becoming bond-fide European. He succeeded in making it a power in Europe, but not a European power. The premature and superficial civilisation which he superinduced upon Russian society, while it has procured the admission of the court and cabinet of St. Petersburg into the fraternity of European princes and statesmen, has bequeathed a great and increasing difficulty to successive rulers, and has proved no small obstacle to the growth of the native and home-spun character of the people.
It would be no uninteresting task to follow in detail the attempts of the successive sovereigns of Russia since the time of Peter the Great to carry out both branches of his scheme; but our present object is a more limited one, and we have perhaps said enough to render more intelligible the position of the Czar Nicholas with respect to his own people and the other nations of Europe. The third in birth of the four sons of Paul, he can scarcely be said to have been born to the purple. Considerably younger than his next brother Constantine, he could not, under any circumstances, have made his appearance in public life before the character and calibre of his elder brothers had already been tolerably well ascertained; and the remoteness of his chance of succession, joined to the natural subordination of his position, must have given him time to mature his views and develop his character before he was forced into the ordeal of public criticism. It is not surprising, then, that the earliest
accounts which we gather of his personal appearance and mental powers far from correspond to the impression created by him when he emerged into the character of a crowned Czar. Physically, the tall, slender, unformed figure fell far short of the stately beauty which struck every one when it supported the weight of imperial dignity; nor did the thin sharp features of the young man suggest any anticipation of the same when expanded under the consciousness of autocratic power. Those who knew him in his private station (we are told) could scarcely recognise him afterwards; and it is not unlikely that the change in their mutual relations had no inconsiderable effect in producing this result. Such at least was certainly the case with the estimate formed of his intellectual capacity. No one has imputed to the countenance of the Czar Nicholas the expression of want of mind, nor have even his ordinary actions raised in observers the suspicion of merely ordinary mental powers. Yet so late as the strange interregnum which succeeded the death of Alexander, and while speculation was rife as to the comparative chances of happiness for Russia under Constantine and Nicholas, an intelligent German present on the spot, and a close observer of men and manners, speaks thus disparagingly of the future emperor. After stating his opinion that the reign of Constantine, notwithstanding his eccentricities, might prove salutary to Russia by the energy, though irregular, with which he would probably probe the diseased body-politic, M. Schnitzler proceeds:
"This might not perhaps be the case, should Nicholas ascend the throne. Still young and inexperienced, he would probably hardly have courage to enter upon a career of reform; he would perhaps be content to tread in the steps of his brother and predecessor, whom he has been accustomed to regard as a model of perfection. He has been accustomed to swear by his brother; he knows no other system than his; he has learned to love that which he loved, to esteem that which he esteemed, and to disregard all that did not merit his approbation. No great talents are recognisable in Nicholas; his studies have not been of the most serious kind, though conducted under the direction of his mother, a woman of strong sense and firm will. It was said at Gotchina, that Nicholas and his brother Michael showed so little disposition to profit by the instructions of their tutors, or to yield obedience to them, that it sometimes needed all the authority of the mother to uphold that of the master."
It is not a little creditable to the writer of the above, that he should have had the good sense to publish in later years an account which reflects so little credit on his foresight and discrimination, but which probably conveys the opinion of almost every one, except a few who were brought into closer and more