The Autocrat’s War

The Emperor Nicholas was alone in his accustomed writing-room in the Palace of Czarskoe Selo, when he came to the resolve. He took no counsel. He rang a bell. Presently an officer of his Staff stood before him. To him he gave his orders for the occupation of [the Danubian] Principalities. Afterwards he told Count Orloff what he had done. Count Orloff became grave, and said, “This is war.”  Alexander William Kinglake The Invasion of the Crimea, 1863  Alexander William Kinglake, the nineteenth-century British travel writer and historian who published a history of the Crimean War in eight volumes, could hardly have known how and in what surroundings Nicholas I made the fateful decision that caused the declaration of war by the Ottomans. In the imagination of nineteenth-century historians and writers, wars were the products of high politics, and the Crimean War, one of the most senseless, ridiculous, and tragic defeats in Russian history, was commonly blamed upon the Russian tsar and his abysmal vanity, arrogance, religious fanaticism, and nationalism. Court historiographers spilled a lot of ink trying to exonerate Nicholas I and shift the blame for launching the bloody war onto Russia’s treacherous allies and insidious rivals. It is therefore even more surprising that Nikolai Chernyshevsky — Russia’s first revolutionary democrat, who apparently read Kinglake’s volume in his prison cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1863 — also thought that the tsar was not the guilty party: “Who shed these rivers of blood? … Who? Oh, if only conscience and facts had allowed us to think ‘the late sovereign,’ how good this would have been! The late tsar is long dead, and we would not have to worry about Russia’s future…. But, my dear reader, neither the dead tsar nor the government is guilty of the Sevastopol

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