Archive | January, 2013

Nicholas I – #6 Worst Russian Ruler

Nicholas Pavlovich Romanov

Tsar Nicholas I of Russia

Nicholas Pavlovich Romanov (Episodes 56 and 57) was born on July 6, 1796 to Empress Maria Feodorovna and Tsar Paul I in Gatchina. His reign, which lasted for thirty years from 1825 to 1855 was marked numerous crises and a nation changing revolt. While the revolt, by the Decembrists, was ultimately a failure, it lit the torch of dissent that would eventual lead to the overthrow of Nicholas II in 1917.

The younger brother of Alexander I, the Tsar Liberator, Nicholas became the most autocratic and oppressive of the Tsar’s. His ascension to the throne and his death in 1855 were framed by two events, the Decembrist Revolt and the Crimean War. Both were disasters with the former showing the dissatisfaction with the monarchy and the latter causing unbelievable misery to the Russian troops.

As the third son of Paul I, he was not considered Tsar material. His older brothers, Alexander and Constantine were the two who were groomed to lead. Nicholas was given a strict Prussian style military education per the instructions of his father. This led Nicholas to view everything during his rule as a military exercise.

In 1819, his father, Alexander I made a surprise visit on Nicholas at his Anichkov Palace home. He was there to announce that he, rather than Constantine would be the next Tsar as his older brother renounced his succession. The problem was, this decision was to be kept private which would cause problems when Alexander passed away in 1825.

When his father died in November of 1825, Nicholas initially pledged allegiance to Constantine but after his brother again denounced his claim, Nicholas announced that he would take the throne. This did not please many in the military and with the gentry as they knew that the new Tsar would be a overly conservative one. This led to a number of officers to rebel. The Decembrist Uprising was quickly and brutally crushed with five conspirators executed. The rest were exiled to Siberia.

From here, Nicholas’s rule was marked by his mistrust of the gentry and his belief that only through autocracy and the Romanov’s in particular, could Russia be ruled effectively. He turned Russia into a police state, setting up a spy network that would continue on until 1917 and then get transformed into the secret police of the Soviet Union.

The condition of the millions of serfs were discussed and a recommendation of freedom for them was made, but Nicholas could not agree to this. He believed that while serfdom was evil, freeing them would be even worse. This fact alone would have put him on this list but what he did next cemented his legacy as one of the worst rulers.

When he took over in 1825, Nicholas continued trying to expand the Russian Empire, especially southward towards the Ottoman Empire. In 1853, the Tsar provoked a war with the Ottoman’s over the control of the Holy Land. What Nicholas did not comprehend was French and British concerns over Russian aggression. They joined with the Ottoman’s, much to the surprise of the Tsar. The coming Crimean War, was a total disaster for the Russians. Thousands of brave soldiers died for naught. Nicholas would not see the end of the war as he died on February 18th, 1855. The Russian Empire was at its largest but, because of the outcome of the war, it would be greatly reduced.

His legacy is one of an autocratic, unbending and uncaring militarist who was more concerned with his status that the well being of his people. This is what puts him on this list.

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Elizabeth I – #7 Best Russian Ruler


Elizabeth I of Russia

Portrait of Elizabeth I of Russia

Elizabeth I (Episodes 40 & 41), daughter of Peter the Great and his wife Catherine I, was one of the most liked of the Russian Tsar’s because of her refusal to execute anyone during her reign. She also led Russia through two of Europe’s most important conflicts, the War of Austrian Succession (1740–8) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Elizabeth spent huge sums of money on  The Winter Palace and the Smolny Cathedral which are some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

She was born on December 29, 1709 to Peter the Great and his wife Catherine but their marriage was not announced until 1712. This caused Elizabeth’s enemies to later use this issue to claim that she was illegitimate. Her father’s intention was to have her marry young Louis XV of France but they declined as they felt that her mother’s low birth status was below them. Her eventual betrothal was to one Prince Karl Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp, son of Christian Augustus, Prince of Eutin. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Prince Karl died a few days after the betrothal.

When Peter II came to power in 1727, Elizabeth was banished from the court. Peter, the grandson of Peter the Great was controlled by the old boyar family the Dolgorukii’s who despise Peter the Great’s reforms. When Tsarina Anna took control, she was still not allowed to take part in the court. Her anger stewed in her but there was little she could do. If she married below her status, she would lose everything. But, much to her chagrin, no noble family would approach her as she had no standing at the Russian court. Because of this, she was said to have had numerous affairs with commoners over the years.

When she finally deposed Ivan VI in 1742 and had him locked up, with the help of the  Preobrazhensky Regiment, she asked them, “”Who do you want to serve? Me, the natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?” Elizabeth decided right away to clean up the corruption and get rid of the German advisers that many in the Russian hierarchy despised.

She then began to rule her country by starting with the signing the Treaty of Åbo, which arch enemy Sweden which ceded much of Finland to the Russian empire. Elizabeth was smart to surround herself with brilliant advisers, none more so than Aleksey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin. His deftness in foreign negotiations were important factors in helping Russia expand its borders.

Her handling of the major European conflict, the Seven Years War helped elevate Russia in the eyes of Europe. The main reason for Elizabeth’s intervention in the war was her deep dislike for the Prussian ruler, Frederick the Great. She would have succeeded in crushing him except that she died before she was able to complete the job.

During her reign she had to come up with an heir to her throne as she was childless. Her selection was Peter of Holstein-Gottorp her nephew. Next up was the choice of a bride which was settled on when Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst was selected and given the Russian name of Catherine in honor of Elizabeth’s mother. The child the two supposedly had would be known as Paul and will come up in the future as one of the worst rulers of Russia.

When Elizabeth died in December of 1761 (Old Calender), Russia had expanded greatly and had taken center stage in European politics. Her refusal to execute anyone led her to be loved by the people. While extravagant in her personal life, she did expand support for the arts and was one of the most prolific of the rulers in the building of churches.


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Brezhnev – #7 On The Worst Rulers List


Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982 (Episodes 102 and 103). His 18 year reign was second to only Joseph Stalin during the years of the USSR. Brezhnev’s time was marked by an economic stagnant time that has been blamed in part for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Born in 1906 in the city of Dniprodzerzhynsk (aka  Kamenskoe) in the Ukraine to a Russian working family, Brezhnev joined the Komsomol in 1923. He became a member of the Communist Party six years later. His education, like many of his colleagues was not an intellectual one but a technical one. Over the years he moved up the ladder, especially after the Great Purges of 1937-39 on the orders of Joseph Stalin.

During World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, Brezhnev helped evacuate industry from the Ukraine east, ahead of the German advance. During those years he met his mentor, Nikita Khrushchev the man he eventually was to oust in 1964. At the end of his military service, he left as a Major General but had never really served in a fighting unit.

Quickly, Brezhnev began to move up the ladder once again serving as a First Secretary of his home region and later as a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. When Stalin had died in 1953 his career looked quite bright as Khrushchev had begun to assume power. He was then made First Party Secretary of the Communist Party of theKazakh SSR. In 1957 he helped his mentor defeat the “Anti-Party Group” which helped him gain a place on the Politburo. Within a few years in became apparent that he was being groomed to take over from Khrushchev as he was made Second Secretary.

Starting in 1962, Khrushchev was becoming more and more erratic in his behavior and he plunged his country into the Cuban Missile Crisis (Episode 99). By 1964, Brezhnev and his fellow Politburo members had had enough so they orchestrated a coup that took out his mentor peacefully (Episode 101),  a first in Soviet history.

Whereas Khrushchev was a reformer, Brezhnev was the opposite. He quickly reversed many of the more recent reforms put in place by the former leader and began to retrench and place his own cronies into positions of power. At the beginning of his reign, he shared power with Alexei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny. Over the years he played each against the other with him eventually taking sole control of the Soviet Union.

Brezhnev turned to the United States to discuss détente. The two nations were in the midst of the Cold War and an unsustainable arms race. The toll on the Soviet economy was staggering. The USSR was focused on military buildup at the expense of their people. Food and consumer product shortages began to show up with greater frequency. This led to more dissatisfaction but it was becoming increasingly difficult to speak out as Brezhnev began a policy of repression led by his eventual successor Yuri Andropov.

During his time as head of the USSR, he sent in troops to crush the Czechoslovakian uprising (the Prague Spring) and started the war in Afghanistan. This war was to produce a cooling between the two super powers, the US and the USSR. The Americans boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics and further damaged the Soviet economy by stopping all grain exports to them.

More and more, Brezhnev’s cronies dug their hands deeper into the pockets of the people with a level of corruption not seen since the late-Tsarist times. Not only did Leonid Illyich not do anything about the corruption, he seemingly encouraged it. It is this position that makes me place the man on the list of worst Russian/Soviet leaders.

When he died in 1982, the countries economy was in shambles and the corruption so deep that within nine short years, the USSR would be forced to dissolve under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Vladimir I – #8 On The Best List

St. Vladimir

Vladimir the Great

Vladimir I, also known as Vladimir the Great (Norse – Volodmyr) was one of the most influential Russian rulers in history. Born in 958, he was the son of Sviatoslav who died in 972. Vladimir’s brother Yaropolk assumed the throne violently by killing their other brother Oleg. Forced to flee to Novgorod, Vladimir hired a band of Varangian mercenaries to help him overthrow Yaropolk.

In June of 980, Vladimir seized the capital in Kiev with the help of the boyar Blud who turned on Yaropolk who was eventually captured and killed. Once settled in his role as Grand Prince, he began to expand Kievan influence by attacking the Bulgars, pushing towards the Polish border in  Galicia and northwest towards Lithuania. On his way, the Grand Prince attacked the land of Polotsk, whose Prince refused Vladimir’s request for his daughter Rogneda in marriage. Not one to be told no, the Kievan prince took the young woman anyway.

This was not to be the only wife or concubine that the pagan Prince had. Some estimates believe he had over 800 women in his service. While the country had a smattering of Christians throughout the land due to his grandmother Olga’s influence, paganism was still the religion of the land. Vladimir promoted the Perun, who was the god of thunder as the lead diety. Human sacrifice was the norm until the Grand Prince began to see a growing population of Christians. He saw a political opening to expand his power base but he had to act prudently and wisely.

According to the Primary Chronicle, he sent emissaries to the centers of a number of religions to bring back information about each. The reports on the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox religions were brought back. At the time, Constantinople was the seat of the Orthodox religion as well as being the capital of the most powerful civilization in the world, Byzantium.

It is said that Vladimir chose Orthodoxy because of divine inspiration but it is likely because of political benefits of being allied with such a great power. He decided to press the issue by attacking the Byzantine city of Chersonesos and demanded the hand of the Emperor Basil II’s sister, Anna. This was an impossible request as the Grand Prince was still a pagan. To make the deal, Vladimir was baptized in Cherson, taking the name Christian name Basil and Anna was sent to be his wife.

On his return to Kiev, the Grand Prince ordered all pagan statues destroyed and the people mass converted to Orthodox Christianity under threat of death. His conversion of the people was one of the most important events in Russian history. Vladimir’s rule marks the end of the Varangian era and the beginning of the Christian era which was to last until 1917.

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Alexander III – #8 On The Worst List

Alexander III of Russia

Tsar Alexander III of Russia

Alexander III, Tsar of Russia from March 13, 1881 until November 1, 1894 is number eight on my list as worst Russian rulers. His list of mistakes and conservative backlash after the assassination of his father Alexander II, makes his place on this list a solid one.

On March 13th, 1881, assassins killed Alexander III’s father just before he was to make an announcement that he would propose a change to a constitutional monarchy for Russia. This would have been a monumental move that likely would have staved off the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War. Alexander III came to power that same day amidst the horror of his father’s murder and he immediately stopped all talk of reform.

His education was not of one who was about to become a ruler but one of a Grand Duke. His older brother Nicholas was being groomed to succeed his father. Unfortunately for Russia, Nicholas died in 1865 of meningitis during a visit to Nice, France. The education of the new Tsarevich was now given up to one  Konstantin Pobedonostsev who was an arch conservative and fanatical supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. He made it known that he disagreed with many of his father’s reforms so when the radical group Narodnaya Volya killed Alexander II, the die was cast.

His policy was guided by the idea of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. It was developed initially by Sergei Uvarov, a minister under both Alexander I and Nicholas I. The idea was a response to the post-Napoleonic world where monarchies throughout Europe were propped back up and liberal reform was halted. As Uvarov wrote, “It is our common obligation to ensure that the education of the people be conducted, according to Supreme intention of our August Monarch, in the joint spirit of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. I am convinced that every professor and teacher, being permeated by one and the same feeling of devotion to the throne and fatherland, will use all his resources to become a worthy tool for the government and to earn its complete confidence.”

His policies caused the people to be more frustrated and angry with the Tsar and his ministers. Alexander also tried to increase suppression of any one suspected of liberal sentiment which even angered many of the elite members of society. But his lack of preparation of his son Nicholas was to be the undoing of the Romanov’s.

Alexander III was a powerfully built man, standing at around 6 feet. He was considered quite healthy and that his reign would last a lot longer than it did. When he died of nephritis in 1894, Nicholas was totally unprepared to assume the throne. This unpreparedness was to cause a series of errors of judgement that caused the collapse of the dynasty after 300 years of existence.


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