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Russia in 1848 and 1849

The year 1848 did not bring revolution to Russia which, like Great Britain, was not seriously affected by the disturbances which occurred in almost every other European country. However, it was a year in which Russia was to suffer from a bad harvest, a major cholera epidemic and an increase in the number of fires in provincial towns which were caused by the unusually dry weather.

The cumulative effect of these three disasters on Russia's economy was serious, since the majority of the population was engaged in agriculture. As the result, there was a sharp fall in the export of grain which had begun to increase after the repeal of the Corn Laws in Great Britain in 1846.

During the week-end of March 4-5, 1848 the news of the overthrow of King Louis Philippe and the proclamation of a republic in France reached Saint Petersburg. Nicholas I, who had ascended the Russian throne in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Decembrist revolt of 1825, was not surprised by what happened in France. He had always believed that the recognition of Louis Philippe by the Great Powers as the lawful ruler of France after the fall of Charles X in 1830 had been a fundamental error which had inevitably led to the secession of Belgium from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the revolt in Russian Poland which was crushed in 1831. The aims of Russia's subsequent foreign policy had been to check the spread of revolutionary ideas from France, foster an alliance with the absolutist monarchies of Austria and Prussia, prevent the re-establishment of an independent Poland and maintain Russia's preponderance over Great Britain in the struggle for influence in the Ottoman Empire which had begun its long and slow process of decline.

Nicholas' first concern was with military preparations and despite the reservations of some of his advisers about adding to Russia's financial burdens, he authorized the calling up of army and navy reserves, as well as an increase in military expenditure of seven million silver rubles. It was anticipated that within three months Russia would have an army of 450 000 men in the field. Meanwhile he announced that, although he did not intend to recognize the new French government, he would not interfere in French affairs, as long as the treaties of 1815 were respected.

The tsar had long cherished the idea of building a wall around Russia, but realized that this was a physical impossibility. However, in order to counter the spread of revolutionary ideas from abroad, he agreed, on the advice of Count A.F. Orlov, the head of the third department (political police) and other advisers, to the establishment of a secret committee which was to exercise a stricter control of the existing censorship of the press and all publications. The committee, which was set up on March 10 and reconstituted on April 14 (April 2 o.s.), was to continue its repressive activities in Russian literature and journalism for the remainder of Nicholas reign. At the same time a number of restrictive measures were introduced in university and secondary education with aim of limiting the number of students and ensuring that instruction in such potentially dangerous subjects as philosophy was subjected to suitable safeguards. In addition, Nicholas abandoned his embryonic plans to alleviate the lot of the serfs and on April 2 addressed the nobility in Saint Petersburg, urging them to lend him their full support in return for his promise not to do anything to undermine their position as serf-owners.

The tsar's fears about the spread of revolution to Russia were increased as a result of the outbreak of disturbances on Germany and the Habsburg Monarchy, especially Italy and Hungary. He was especially alarmed by the decision of Frederick William IV, King in Prussia to grant a constitution and reorganize the Grant Duchy of Posen. On March 26 Nicholas issued a manifesto in which he stated unequivocally that Russia would resist any attempt at aggression by the forces of revolution. The manifesto, which had been drafted by Nicholas personally, caused alarm throughout Europe because of its bellicose tone, but, in fact, the tsar had no intention of abandoning his defensive position vis à vis western Europe.

During the next few weeks the tsar took further measures to ensure that the disturbances in the Duchy of Posen and any possible outbreak of trouble in the Austrian province of Galicia, which had absorbed the independent Republic of Cracow after the suppression of the revolt in 1846, did not spread to Russian Poland and Russia's Western provinces where emissaries from the Polish emigration were active. By the middle of May Prussia had restored order in Posen, but by this time it was involved in a war with Denmark about the future relationship of the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein with the German Confederation. Nicholas was prepared to honor his treaty obligations by offering limited naval support to the Danes and their Swedish allies, but was content to allow Great Britain to mediate in the dispute. He was glad that a temporary end to the fighting was brought about by the signature of a seven-month armistice at Malmö in Sweden on 26 August.

General Louis Cavaignac's successful defeat of the French workers after several days of street fighting in Paris at the end of June marked the beginning of a reconciliation between France and Russia which finally led to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in May 1849. However, the tsar decided to scrap his plans to stand down part of the Russian army during the winter months because of his fears that his brother-in-law, King Frederick William IV, would not be able to re-assert his control in Prussia. At the beginning of December his anxieties were allayed when the Prussian parliament was dissolved and a new constitution was promulgated which restored the ultimate authority of the king.

During the second half of 1848 Nicholas' attention was also absorbed by events in the Habsburg monarchy which appeared to be about to disintegrate into a number of independent states, as a result of the concessions made earlier in the year to Hungary and Austria's difficulties in retaining control of its possessions in Italy. An Austrian request for a loan made to Russia at the beginning of 1848 had at first been granted and then refused after the fall of Prince Clemens Metternich in March. Austria's successful suppression of an insurrection in Cracow at the end of April was followed by Prince Alfred Windischgraetz's equally swift crushing of an attempted rising in Prague at the conclusion of the Slavonic Congress held there in June, at which Russia was not represented officially. Nor did the tsar give any encouragement to the separatist aspirations of the Serbs and Croats in the Habsburg monarchy who were enjoined to remain loyal to the emperor. Nicholas had declined to give military support to Austria in Italy and was concerned about the government's ability to deal with the situation in Vienna following the flight of the Emperor Ferdinand I to Innsbruck on May 17, but Count Joseph Radetzky's decisive victory over the Piedmontese army at Custozza on July 23, followed by the re-instatement of Count Josip Jelacic as Ban of Croatia at the end of August and the invasion of Hungary in mid-September gave the tsar renewed hope that Austria would succeed in solving its problems without Russian aid. However, there were still lingering doubts about the situation in Galicia. The decision of the Austrian government to give Windischgraetz a free hand in restoring order in Vienna after the outbreak of a revolt on October 6 and the consequent flight of the emperor from the capital to Olomouc, was warmly welcomed, as was Ferdinand's abdication on December 2 in favor of his nephew, the eighteen-year old Francis Joseph I. When Windischgraetz began his invasion of Hungary towards the end of December after the formation of a new government led by Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, the tsar was confident that the Hungarians would be defeated as easily as the Piedmontese had been. Despite the tsar's preoccupation with events in western Europe, he had not forgotten the likely repercussions of these disturbances on the Christian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, especially the Danubian Principalities and Serbia, where Russia enjoyed a special position as a result of the treaties concluded after its wars with Turkey earlier in the nineteenth century. In April there were disturbances in Moldavia which were soon suppressed, but in Wallachia a revolutionary government forced the hospodar to abdicate and assumed power on June 26. In early July the tsar reluctantly acquiesced in an occupation of Moldavia by a small Russian intervention force assembled in Bessarabia which had been initiated by his special envoy, General A.O. Duhamel. However, it remained the tsar's aim to persuade the Turks to use their troops to restore order and in a circular issued on 31 July the Russians assured the great powers that their occupation would only be temporary.By the end of July the Turks, who had continued to negotiate with the Wallachian revolutionaries about the future form of government, decided to send in their troops, while the Wallachians made every effort to seek support for their cause from Great Britain and France. In the face of pressure from the Russians, the Turks occupied Bucharest on September 25 which the Russians, who had growing increasingly impatient, also occupied on October 14. Despite his earlier assurance that the Russian occupation would only be temporary, the tsar had decided to remain in the Danubian Principalities which could be a useful base for military operations against Transylvania, if Russia were required to come to the aid of the Habsburg mona rchy. At the end of December 1848 the Russians therefore began negotiations with the Turks in order to regularize the new situation in which they found themselves in the Danubian Principalities. By the Act of Balta Liman of May 1, 1849 various changes were made to the form of government in Moldavia and Wallachia and it was agreed that both Russia and Turkey would maintain an occupation force in the principalities until order had been restored.

The tsar's belief that Russia might be compelled to intervene in Transylvania proved to be justified. In January 1849 Jozef Bem, the Polish emigré general whom Kossuth had appointed to command the Hungarian forces in Transylvania, began to gain victories over the Austrians. In desperation, General Anton Puchner, the Austrian commander, and a joint Saxon and Romanian delegation from the towns of Sibiu and Brasov in southern Transylvania, appealed to General A.N. Lüders, the commander of the Russian forces in the Danubian Principalities, for military assistance. With the tsar's agreement two small relief columns, commanded by Colonel G. Ya. Skaryatin and Major-General N.F. Engelhardt, were despatched across the border in early February. But this intervention was too small a scale to influence the unfavorable military situation and towards the end of March the two columns were forced to withdraw into Wallachia together with remnants of the defeated Austrian army. In the short space of three months Bem had made himself the master of Transylvania.

Bem's success in Transylvania was to be matched by that of General Artur Görgey in Hungary who succeeded in reversing the earlier victories gained by Windischgraetz during the first few weeks of 1849. At the beginning of the year the Tsar was again forced to reject a second Austrian appeal for financial assistance. Despite another victory by Radetzky at Novara on March 23 over Piedmont which had denounced the armistice signed in August 1848, an unwilling Austrian government had no alternative but to appeal to the tsar to honor his alliance and assist his ally to bring the war with Hungary to a successful conclusion. On 19 April the tsar, who was on a visit to Moscow over Easter, took a decision in principle to respond to the Austrian appeal, which was formally made by the emperor on May 1, by intervening in Hungary on a massive scale. He was anxious, like Palmerston, that the Habsburg monarchy should not disintegrate and should retain its preponderant position in Germany which he did not wish to see united under the aegis of the liberally-minded Frederick William IV. The tsar's reluctant decision to intervene was influenced to a large extent by the involvement of the Poles in the Hungarian revolt, a fact which was exploited to the full by the Austrians. Ever since the revolutions had begun the tsar worried about their repercussions in Russia and on May 5, 1849 the members of the Petrashevsky group in Saint Petersburg (who included the young Dostoevsky) were finally arrested after a year's investigation of their allegedly subversive activities. The prospects of the Hungarian forces and their Polish generals Bem and Dombinski threatening Russian Poland and Russia's western provinces from Galicia and Bukovina had transformed a threat to the stability of the Habsburg monarchy into a threat to Russia itself.

Assured of the neutrality of Great Britain and France engaged in the restoration of order in the Papal States, the tsar issued a manifesto on May 8 announcing the Russian intervention in Hungary which began with the occupation of Cracow and Galicia in May. At the same time Paskevich in Warsaw agreed to an urgent request from the Austrians to send a Russian division under General F.S. Panyutin to Moravia to assist in the defence of Vienna against a possible Hungarian attack.

On May 21 the tsar and Francis Joseph met in Warsaw to discuss the details of the intervention and the situation in Germany. Fighting had again broken out between Prussia and Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein and in the face of a warning from the tsar that a Prussian attack on Russian naval units assisting the Danes in the Baltic would be treated as a casus belli the Prussian king eventually acquiesced in the signing of a second armistice on July 10.

On June 17 the huge Russian intervention force of 190 000 men began its operation. While the main army under Field-Marshal I. F. Paskevich entered northern Hungary (Slovakia) through the Dukla pass in the Carpathians, other units under General M.M. Grotenhjelm and General A.N. Lüders entered northern and southern Transylvania. At the same time an Austrian army under General Julius Haynau, reinforced by the division of General Panyutin, entered western Hungary, while a small force under General P.Kh. Grabbe protected western Galicia. The campaign, which was to last eight weeks, was soon over. It ended with the defeat of the Hungarian forces in the south at Timisoara on August 8, followed by the surrender of Görgey's army to Paskevich at Siria (Vilagos) on August 13. In Transylvania Lüder's forces defeated the Hungarians under Bem at Sibiu on August 6. Despite Paskevich's overwhelming superiority in numbers, he was unable to inflict a decisive defeat on Görgey who constantly eluded him in a skillfully conducted withdrawal from northern Hungary to the south. Throughout the campaign the Russian army suffered severely from disease, especially cholera, and out of a total number of 11 871 Russian deaths only one in twelve was caused by enemy action. After the campaign was over the tsar attempted, on the basis of existing treaties, to obtain the extradition from Turkey of the leading Poles who had sought refuge there, while Austria also attempted to secure the extradition of many of the Hungarians. On this occasion Palmerston, together with the French government, now headed by Louis Napoleon, decided to support the Turks in their refusal of the demands of the Austrians and Russians, who had broken off diplomatic relations, by sending naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean. In the face of this action and after certain concessions had been made by the Turks, both governments moderated their demands and a possible European war was averted, even although the British ships actually entered the Dardanelles because of bad weather contrary to the provisions of the Treaty of London of 1841.

As 1849 drew to a close, it seemed to many contemporary observers that the tsar was the arbiter of the destinies of Europe, a view which was reinforced when his support for Austria against Prussia at the end of 1850 led to the reassertion of Austrian supremacy in the struggle for the leadership of Germany. But the reign of Nicholas I was to end on a very different note in the middle of the Crimean War during which Austria was not to repay the debt it owed to the Tsar for his intervention in Hungary, a matter which was to have profound consequences for the future history of Europe.

I. W. Roberts


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E. Andics, Das Bündnis Habsburg-Romanow,(Budapest 1963).

R. Averbukh, "Avstriyskaya Revolyutsiya 1848g. i Nikolay I," Krasny Arkhiv, 89/90 (1938), 155-207.

R. Averbukh, "Nikolay I i Evropeyskaya Reaktsiya 1848/49 gg.," Krasny Arkhiv, 47/48 (1930) 3-49.

R. Averbukh, Tsarskaya Interventsiya v Bor'be s Vengerskoy Revolyutsiey, (Moscow 1935).

I. Berlin, "Russia and 1848" in Russian Thinkers, (London 1978).

A. I. Lebedev, "Uchastie Russkago Flota v Datskoy Kampanii 1848/50 gg.," in Istoriya Russkoy Armii o Flota, (Moscow 1913), X.

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