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.