Upon the death (or departure?) of Russia’s Alexander I in 1825, an unusual power struggle developed between his two surviving brothers. The eldest, Constantine, declined the opportunity to take power, leaving Nicholas, the youngest son of Paul I, the only legitimate candidate.
The delay, and apparent passing over of the next in line, prompted an uprising called the Decembrist Revolt, and while Nicholas successfully put it down, the rebellion likely heightened his more autocratic impulses, including the creation of an extensive secret police force whose job was to blot out any and all who might plot against his authority.
His efforts to control all facets of his subjects’ lives led to horrifying outcomes. Russian Jews, in particular, were forced into military conscription, and Jewish children were often sent by the state to schools far away from their families and communities, where they could be indoctrinated in an effort at Russification. Strongly opposed to civil liberties and popular revolution, he engaged with Europe largely to back monarchs against their people. After Russia’s military incompetence was revealed in the Crimean War, Nicholas died after a 30 year reign when he refused medical treatment for pneumonia. Contemporaries described it as “passive suicide,” and a close aid wrote soon after, “The main failing of the reign of Nicholas Pavlovich was that it was all a mistake.”