“Censorship and the Third Section: How thinking became dangerous in 19th Century Russia”, an original history research paper by rootsnwingz


When Nicholas I succeeded his older brother Alexander and became the tsar of Russia in late 1825, the attitude of the state towards its subjects changed dramatically. Nicholas’s thirty year long autocratic rule is characterized by oppressive reforms aimed at maintaining the status quo and preventing dissent in a time of socio-political instability and uncertainty. Any kind of unconventional thought or criticism of the state had to be considered a threat to the tsar’s authority and, as a consequence, Nicholas sought complete control over what could be safely published. Strict censorship laws were enacted, while a secret police, which became known as the “Third Section”, was re-established in order to regulate the press. Writers who refused to obey the tsar’s guidelines and wished to be the sole authority over their writings’ style and content were ruthlessly persecuted.

But was Nicholas’s austerity paranoid? In fact, Nicholas had real reasons to be concerned about his position on the throne and to worry about dissent. First of all, when he came to power, he immediately had to deal with the Decembrist Uprising. This uprising is generally understood as the manifestation of the educated elite’s disappointment with Alexander’s liberal, yet ineffective, government. More notably, it “produced the first open confrontation between the autocracy and members of the intelligentsia.” (Shatz, 31)

Despite the fast suppression of the Decembrist Uprising, Nicholas was left convinced that he had to adopt stricter policies. Moreover, keeping in mind that at the same time in the 19th century, revolutionary movements were blooming all over Europe, he must have been terrified by the possibility of the creation of an influential movement of dissent. “The very foundations of autocratic rule were menaced by the changes in social thought brought about by the growth of revolutionary successes abroad and their influence on internal politics at home” (Squire, 48).

As a result, the priority of Nicholas’s reforms was to ensure that public opinion agreed with the government’s views and thus, censorship and persecution on the grounds of crimes of thought reached unprecedented heights in Russian history. The success of the French revolution was also the reason why Nicholas denounced French philosophy and the Enlightenment ideas, which had been propagated in the 18th century by Catherine the Great. In the 19th century, however, such ideologies were considered dangerous. Nevertheless, Nicholas was not afraid of all Western thought. In fact, he was particularly fond of German philosophy, such as Hegel and the other “Idealists”. Therefore, the cultural shift from France to Germany reflects that the tsar had carefully observed the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and had thus witnessed the double risk of overexpansion and fall of autocracy, which were probably his two biggest fears.

The Decembrist Uprising played a vital role in ascertaining the divide between the government’s interests and the interests of the people, especially the educated elite. In this sense, Nicholas’s adversaries were now identifiable; they were the writers, poets and playwrights who dared to challenge –either directly or subliminally- the state’s authority over the people. Therefore, perhaps for the first time, the intelligentsia was recognized as the most influential threat to the existing order in Russia. The fact that Nicholas now regarded the intelligentsia as the state’s visible internal enemy explains the abundance of repression that freethinking intellectuals faced in the second quarter of the 19th century. In other words, the absurdity of the censorship laws and the birth of the secret police affirm Nicholas’s fearfulness of the intelligentsia.

Therefore, the present research paper is an examination of Nicholas’s censorship laws and the “Third Section’s” activity. I primarily aim to demonstrate how the intelligentsia had a real effect on the society they lived in and belonged to, which in turn became a serious cause of concern for the authorities and has led to atrocious and oppressive government responses. In addition, I intend to look into the ways “intelligenty” overcame or eluded national policing, as well as the cases where they were less fortunate and paid a heavy price for their mental freedom. Specifically, illustrative examples from the lives of Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin will be provided to help the reader get a clearer idea of the limitations and sufferings they endured due to Nicholas’s repression. The fact that poets and novelists were exiled or sent off to mental asylums suggests that, historically, Russian authorities have been deeply troubled by the intelligentsia’s activity, especially its capacity to change sociopolitical structures and express dissent from the autocracy. This is why I believe that an inquiry into the censorship laws and the “Third Section” will serve to contextualize the intelligentsia’s experience under the rule of Nicholas I.

The Intelligentsia

Before immersing into the main body of this research project, it is important to be aware of what precisely is meant by the term “intelligentsia”. The intelligentsia is a distinctly Russian phenomenon, which refers to the educated part of the nobility that began questioning the existing order in the 18th century. Nevertheless, although it has existed as a social group since Peter the Great, under Nicholas I the intelligentsia broke its ties to the state. In other words, the disaffected intelligentsia lost faith in the state’s paternalistic role. They no longer believed the tsar could bring about progress and refused to assume the positions Russian society had in store for them, i.e. owning serfs, military or civil service.
“With the help of Western thought, they began to see themselves not as mere servants to be ordered about at the whim of their superiors but as free individuals with certain human rights and an autonomous destiny… The traditional paternalism of the Russian political system was coming into conflict with the new self-image that was developing within the educated elite of the nobility.” (Shatz, 22) Consequently, the only thing left to do for those radical intellectuals was to lead a detached life, entirely dedicated to literature or philosophy, which they viewed as the true agents of change.

What sets the intelligenty apart is that they wanted to get hold of material advantages not for just themselves but, essentially, their goal was the liberation of all oppressed Russians. As Radishchev realized: “the noble’s power over his serfs is viewed as a reflection of the bureaucracy’s power over the nobles, and both are denounced in terms of natural rights and individual moral autonomy.” (Shatz, 29)

In a sense, the intelligentsia’s political passion was driven by the desire for freedom in the interest of everyone who suffered due to the state bureaucracy. According to Shatz, “one of the most striking characteristics of the Russian intelligentsia throughout its history is that it always conceived individual liberation in social terms. The liberation of all men…was the essential condition for self-liberation and the only context in which individual fulfillment was deemed possible.” (Shatz, 33) This is evidently reflected by the group’s commitment to the abolition of serfdom. Moreover, it is intriguing how the intelligenty sought material privileges mainly for the poor serfs, while for themselves they simply wanted spiritual and mental freedom.

Put concisely, the intelligentsia’s ultimate goal was the individual liberation of all men. Heavily influenced by Western ideals and values, the intelligentsia was scrutinized and its activity limited by Nicholas I, who did not share the liberal attitude towards Western civilization embodied by his grandmother’s (Catherine the Great) and his brother’s more lenient censorship and persecution policies. One could say that the intelligentsia’s long history of torment and underground activity began with Nicholas’s realization that public opinion could have serious political implications and with the enforcement of his reforms.

New Censorship Laws

Before Nicholas I, censorship had been imposed in Russia as well as other European countries. In other words, censorship is not a uniquely Russian phenomenon. However, it ought to be noted that censorship under this particular tsar was distinctively harsh and senseless. The first chief censor under Nicholas was Admiral Alexander Semyonovich Shishkov, Russia’s minister of public education. He was: “a long-time critic of linguistic borrowings by modern writers and of foreignisms of any kind” (Ruud, 52). Admiral Shishkov was responsible for the famous all-encompassing statute of 1826, which was nicknamed the “cast-iron statute” (Choldin, 25).

Marianna Tax Choldin, a prominent researcher on Russian censorship laws, argues that the excesses of the 1826 statute were a result of Nicholas’s determination to suppress dissent and of Shishkov’s ultraconservative views. “His (Nicholas’s) reign was marked by reaction, from the abortive Decembrist uprising of 1825, the Polish rebellion of the early 1830s, the events of 1848 in Europe, and finally the Crimean War at the end of his life… It is not surprising, then, that the “cast-iron statute” should be a product of 1826.” (Choldin, 25) Shishkov’s censorship laws put the autocracy first and targeted anyone who dared to be subversive. His aims were: “to ensure that printed works have a useful or at least not dangerous orientation for the welfare of the fatherland and to direct public opinion into agreeing with the present political circumstances and views of the government.” (Ruud, 53) Essentially, he wanted to dictate both style and content to all Russian writers. Evidently, both he and Nicholas must have been aware of literature’s powerful psychological impact amongst the public. As a consequence, they became determined to control it and use it exclusively for their own ends, as a propaganda weapon.

However, the “iron-cast statute” proved to be unworkable (Choldin, 25), so Nicholas and the new chief censor, Prince Karl A. Lieven, had to issue a revised statute in 1828, which was liberal in comparison to the 1826 one. The statute even approved Russia’s first copyright law, which brought about significant profits to the publishing industry under Nicholas’s rule (Ruud, 55-56). But, did this mean Nicholas had overcome his fear of dissent? Had he gotten over his wish to seize control of the press and literature? No, in fact, the promises made by the 1828 statute and the measures actually taken were worlds apart. “In his memoirs, the conservative writer and editor S.N. Glinka observed that ‘from the beginning of the existing censorship never had there been such a free, such a favourable statute for human thought as the 1828 Statute seemed,’ but then concluded, ‘With sorrow, I repeat the word “seemed.”’” (Ruud, 56)

In retrospect, the 1828 statute may have brought about certain short-term and minimal privileges and benefits to writers, but it did not grant them any sort of real freedom. In fact, as Ruud points out, censorship after 1828 gradually acquired all of Shishkov’s statute’s austerities. (Ruud, 56) Furthermore, this reform or “liberalization” of censorship laws was hypocritical and can be interpreted as merely a pretentious scheme to distract the public from what the emperor was really planning. That is because after the 1828 statute was written, but before it was published, Nicholas established a secret police force, which he authorized to deal with disloyal authors. The decision by Nicholas to create the Third Section reflects his view “that the new law was insufficient in itself.” (Ruud, 57) Indeed, considering the brutal and oppressive activity of the secret police, we must deduce that it had a more visible and destructive effect on the intelligentsia than the new censorship laws. One could argue, nonetheless, that Shishkov’s “cast-iron statute” prepared the grounds for what was to ensue or that, in general, the new censorship laws under Nicholas I justified the existence and power of the Third Section.

The Third Section

As mentioned above, the Third Section was a feared and respected secret police force, formed by tsar Nicholas I in order to spy on and arrest any potential dissidents. The Third Section’s Chief Commander was Alexander Benckendorff, who was on very good terms with the tsar due to his involvement in the suppression of the Decembrist Uprising. Besides being undoubtedly loyal to Nicholas, Benckendorff was the ideal candidate for chief of the Third Section because he had proposed the creation of a secret police in a memo to tsar Alexander in 1821. (Squire, 50) On the 25th of June 1826, Benckendorff became Chief of Gendarmes and Commandant of the Imperial Headquarters, while on the 3rd of July, the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery was founded by an Ukaz and Benckendorff was appointed its chief. (Squire, 55) The gendarmerie and the Third Section were to be commanded by the same officer. The ‘higher police’, as the gendarmerie and Third Section became known, was distinct from the overt ‘lower police’, which was administrated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. (Squire, 53)

“The Third Section became, almost overnight, the senior office of the state, outranking in effect all other governmental institutions.” (Hingley, 32) Benckendorff thus became the second most powerful, and perhaps most resented, man in Russia after Nicholas. The Third Section was notably a smaller organization than the gendarmerie, even though the gendarmerie often operated under orders issued by the Third Section. “By the end of the reign the Corps numbered up to eight or nine thousand men, whereas the Third Section comprised only some forty officials, mainly civilians.” (Hingley, 32)

Although the real nature of its activity was often masked, the Third Section was quickly recognized for what it truly was: a political inquisition, randomly and forcibly interrogating or arresting potential dissenters. Very few writers of this period managed to elude an encounter with a Third Section agent. In general, its operation can be described as arbitrary, unfair and ruthless. It is important to understand that the secret police did not completely inhibit the growth of the intelligentsia. Neither did it succeed in eliminating all sentiments of dissent in the Russian Empire. But it did effectively spread fear among the population and provided the state with a system that neutralized controversial writers by sending them to Siberia, or silencing them by other, often violent, means. Consequently, the Third Section survived until 1880 and political police forces have played a characteristically prominent role in Russian administration ever since.

Finally, regardless of its partial success in suppressing dissent, the Third Section really crippled the country and had a very negative influence on Russian society. But as we know, the intelligentsia survived the blow delivered by the Third Section under Nicholas I. In spite of the random surveillance, violent interrogation, unfair sentencing and against all odds, certain writers held on to their radical, anti-authoritarian viewpoints and continued publishing. However, those who escaped the clutch of the Third Section had to write and publish abroad if they wished to remain free from all the limitations back in Russia. Such written accounts by exiled intelligenty are very instructive as to the Third Section’s activity and influence.

Specifically, the distinct experiences of Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin and their interactions with the Third Section are extremely revealing both in terms of the secret police’s operation and the intelligentsia’s reaction. Both are discussed below in order to shed some light onto the effects of everything discussed so far (censorship & Third Section) on the intelligentsia.

Alexander Herzen

Alexander Ivanovich Herzen was one of the best anti-establishment Russian writers and thinkers. At the age of 22, while he was still a student at the Moscow University, he was “arrested, in July 1834, for not having attended a party, to which he had not been invited at which some other students with whom he was barely acquainted had sung a scurrilous song combining criticism of the deity with abuse of the Emperor Nicholas.” (Hingley, 42) He did not find out the charges against him until two weeks after his arrest. (Monas, 126)

Shockingly, according to his memoirs, Herzen was arrested around two in the morning in front of his family by a politsmeyster, named Miller, and taken to the Prechistensky police station. (Herzen, 132) After days in prison, Herzen was interrogated. “The questions were put to me in writing: the naiveté of some of them was striking: ‘Do you not know of the existence of some secret society? Do you not belong to any society, literary or other? Who are its members? Where do they meet?’” To all this it was extremely easy to answer by the sinfle word: ‘No.’” (Herzen, 140)

Despite the unfairness of Herzen’s imprisonment, he noted that conditions in Russian prison were slightly better for political prisoners than the serfs and lower class. “Political prisoners, who for the most part belong to the upper class, are kept in close custody and punished savagely, but their fate bears no comparison with the fate of the poor.” (Herzen, 142) People were more afraid of the process of the law than the actual legal punishment. After six months of constant examinations and tortures, Herzen was found guilty and “put under reformatory treatment, which consisted in being sent to civilian duty for an indefinite period in remote provinces, to live under the superintendence of local authorities.” (Herzen, 163)

Thus, Herzen ended up banished in Perm and Vyatka, the North Eastern provinces, for six years, i.e. until 1840, when he was allowed to reside in St. Petersburg. “Herzen was exiled to Perm, not for anything he had done, but for what the committee feared he might do.” (Monas, 127) He began working in St. Petersburg for the Ministry of the Interior. However, by this time, the Third Section was increasingly active and as a result, Herzen didn’t stay clear from trouble for long. This time Herzen got arrested for writing a letter to his father in which he wrote about an incident that was already known, the murder of a civilian by a police office. (Monas, 127-128; Hingley, 43)

Count Stroganov, the Minister of the Interior, exiled Herzen to Novgorod, where he worked as a supervisor for two years. Because of his wife’s illness,, however, he was permitted to eventually return to Moscow in 1842. To his discontent, he remained under surveillance. “I cannot say it was very oppressive, but the unpleasant feeling of a Damocles’ sword wielded by the local police constable was very distasteful.” (Monas 128-129) With a lot of effort and persistence, he managed to be relieved of surveillance and even got the right to a foreign passport. Therefore, in 1847 he left Russia, never to return.

Generally, Herzen looked down on the Third Section and its officers. He recognized the absurdity and injustice of Nicholas’s system. Therefore, his memoirs are full of sentiments of disdain for the secret police. He remarks that he was surely more intelligent than all three section of His Majesty’s Own Chancellery put together. Interviewed finally by Benckendorff in person, Herzen records the police chief’s expression as tired, kind and listless. He felt that Benckendorff had probably done less harm than might have been feared from the head of this terrible police standing outside and above the law.” (Hingley, 43)

Herzen spent his remaining years in Italy, Switzerland, England and France. Interestingly, his refusal to return put him back on the Third Section’s list of suspects. In Europe, he continued to print his true opinions concerning Nicholas and the Third Section, which infuriated the authorities back in Russia. Finally, it is significant to note the role played by Russian foreign-based intellectuals in the development of political opposition. Almost until his death in 1870, Herzen expressed himself with a secret journal, which was smuggled to Russia. This drove the Third Section nuts: “It sent spies to penetrate his London household and raged against the Russian customs officials for their laxity in permitting pamphlet after pamphlet to slip through. Whenever Herzen’s name was mentioned in his presence, Dubelt would fly into a rage.” (Monas, 129)

Considering the impact of intelligentsia abroad, one cannot validly claim that Nicholas’s and the Third Section’s suppression was entirely successful. Anti-autocratic writers, such as Herzen, did not tend to give up easily, which is why they became the Third Section’s nightmare. Free expression and individuality did not fade away because of the secret police, rather they were kept alive in the souls of those courageous and self-sacrificing people who remained dedicated to the truth, disseminating it from Europe. Another dissident who played a vital role as an “intelligent” abroad was Bakunin. Although similarities may be observed in comparison to Herzen’s experience, the differences are particularly intriguing.

Mikhail Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin’s arrest and exile was pretty much as unjust as Herzen’s, but what distinguishes the two from each other is that Bakunin, at the time of his arrest was not primarily outraged over Russia’s sociopolitical conditions. That is not to say that the supported the ruling regime. But, he was more concerned with philosophical issues, such as the meaning and purpose of life. Although Herzen was innocent too in the sense that he was not part of an underground movement of dissent, Bakunin was even more obviously innocent because, in essence, he was not an antiauthoritarian activist, but a philosopher. Even so, he did not elude the Third Section’s arbitrary persecution. Interestingly, Bakunin’s interactions with the secret police and the hardships he overcame had a massive impact on his ideology and orientation against the government.

So keeping in mind that Bakunin was not involved in or concerned with Russian politics, why did he get arrested by the Third Section? The truth of the matter was that Bakunin was not entirely apolitical. In the 1840s, he became involved in the revolution in the Czech Republic, Saxony and Austria. During his absence from Russia, he was tried and sentenced to exile in Siberia. However, when he was delivered to the Russian authorities in 1851, he was sent to the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, where he remained in solitary confinement until 1857. According to Carr, Bakunin was imprisoned for six years before being exiled to Siberia intentionally. “There was, however, no immediate intention of dispatching Bakunin to Siberia. The will of the tsar was above all law; and Nicholas I frequently preferred to regard important offences against the State as a personal issue between himself and the criminal.” (Carr, 210)

After being imprisoned for six years, Bakunin was finally sent off to Siberia in 1857. Now, what makes Bakunin’s Gulag experience so special is that through his connections in Siberia, he managed to escape! He fled to Japan, crossed the Pacific to reach America, then hitchhiked across the United States from West coast to East and finally made his way to London. (Carr, 232-235)

Upon his arrival in London in late 1861, Bakunin’s first stop was Herzen’s residence. The self-exiled Herzen was Bakunin’s close friend and correspondent. It is hard to imagine what must have gone through Herzen’s mind when he saw Bakunin at his doorstep when everyone in the past couple years had considered him dear. “On the evening of December 27th 1861, Michael Bakunin burst into Orsett House, Westbourne Terrace, Herzen’s residence for the past twelve months, just as Herzen and Ogarev were sitting down to supper.” (Carr, 239)

Carr validly notes that Bakunin by this point had adopted the political beliefs that had gotten Herzen in so much trouble with the Third Section. He had become a passionate adversary of the state and truly wanted to express his dissent. On the other hand, Herzen was a lot less fervent as he was in the 30s and early 40s. In comparison to Bakunin, his attitude seems to be demoralized and disillusioned. In this light, the hardships endured by the two intellectuals discussed in the present paper due to the Third Section and censorship laws, had almost opposite effects on each. Bakunin became one of the first to put forth a theoretical framework for anarchy and is remembered today for his radical, antiestablishment and anti-conformist views. In contrast, Herzen had become a lot more disaffected and not as dedicated to revolution as he once was. Carr attributes this to the failure of revolutionary movements in Europe, which Bakunin had not witnessed first hand due to his exile. “Bakunin had not, like Herzen, watched the collapse of the revolution and the final ignominious extinction of political liberty all over the continent of Europe; and he enquired helplessly for news of a struggle which had ceased ten years ago.” (Carr, 240) The following extract is characteristic of Herzen’s more conservative mentality and Bakunin’s naïve passion.

“’Only in Poland there are some demonstrations,’ said Herzen: ‘but perhaps the Poles will come to their senses and understand that a rising is out of the question when the tsar has just freed the serfs. Clouds are gathering, but we must hope that they will disperse.’
‘And in Italy?’
‘All quiet.’
‘And in Austria?’
‘All quiet.’
‘And in Turkey?’
‘All quiet everywhere, and nothing in prospect.’
‘Then what are we to do?’ said Bakunin in amazement. ‘Must we go to Persia or India to stir things up? It’s enough to drive one mad; I cannot sit and do nothing.’” (Carr, 239)

Finally, it is worth mentioning that in the early 1850s, when Bakunin was imprisoned in St. Petersburg he wrote an infamous “Confession” letter to Nicholas I, in which he apologized for his sins and requested the tsar’s forgiveness and mercy. It is a controversial issue because it is hard to determine what motivated him to apologize. His plea for forgiveness seems genuine and the letter is very lengthy. He describes in detail what he did before getting arrested and apologizes for acting against the will of the tsar. The issue becomes even more controversial when one keeps in mind that Bakunin later admitted his regret in writing the “confession”.

In my view, it is evident that Bakunin wrote to Nicholas I for purely selfish reasons. He must have wanted to get on the tsar’s good side. For instance, Carr notes that the “subtlest and most insistent leitmotiv of the “Confession” is Bakunin’s detestation of the German and devotion to the Slav. Here at any rate was a theme well calculated to find favour in the eyes of the Russian Tsar.” (Carr, 212) Moreover, he consistently admits that he deserves the harshest punishment of Russian law and repeatedly expresses his repentance. Personally, I believe Bakunin wrote this because he was desperately trying to get out of solitary confinement. Keeping in mind the date of the confession, Bakunin must have been already seriously demoralized and disillusioned due to his imprisonment. The closing passage of the “confession” testifies as to that:

“If the most harsh penal servitude be my lot, I shall accept it with gratitude as a kindness; the heavier the labor, the more easily I will lose myself in it! But in solitary confinement you remember everything and remember it to no avail; and your thought and your memory become an inexpressible torment, and you live long, you live against your will, and, never dying, you die every day in inactivity and anguish of loneliness… The repentant sinner, Mikhail Bakunin.” (Bakunin, 150)


The main project of this paper was to shed some light upon the intelligentsia’s experience under the oppressive rule of Nicholas I. By investigating the workings of censorship and the Third Section and discussing the real life examples of Herzen and Bakunin, I hope to have provided a more accurate picture of the impact this time period had on some of Russia’s greatest thinkers. Furthermore, I hope that the reader is left with a better sense of the diverse ways in which intelligenty handled the pressure from the state. Finally, it should be clear- considering that both Herzen and Bakunin survived- that no matter how harsh the state’s repression was in the 19th century, the intelligentsia survived. Repression and dissent seem to operate in a sort of cycle, whereby repression generates dissent and vice versa. This is particularly evident in Bakunin’s case and it helps explain how and why dissent survived and persisted in the following generations. To sum up, the torment undergone by these two “intelligents” combined with the quality of their oeuvre, renders them heroes of Russian literature and dissent. They paved the road for future generations of dissent by putting their ideals first and personal wellbeing second. In other words, they became the living evidence that the Third Section was not invincible.

Works Cited

• Fighting Words: Imperial Censorship and the Russian Press, Ruud Charles. 2009
• A fence around the empire: Russian censorship of western ideas under the tsars, Choldin Marianna Tax. 1985
• Third Section; police and society in Russia under Nicholas I, Monas Sidney. 1961
• The Third Department: the establishment and practices of the political police in the Russia of Nicholas I, Squire Peter. 1968
• The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin, Bakunin M., translated by Howes R. 1977
• Michael Bakunin, E.H. Carr. 1975
• My Past and Thoughts, Alexander Herzen. 1973
• The Russian Secret Police, Ronald Hingley. 1970
• Soviet Dissent in Historical Perspective, Marshall Shatz. 1980


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