Tsar Nikolai I was born on June 25, 1796 and was the son of Tsarevich Paul and Maria; Princess Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg. Paul and Maria had a total of ten children; Nicholas was the third son. Nicholas was raised by his grandmother, Catherine the Great, for the first five months of his life. Upon Catherine's death (November 6, 1796), Paul became Tsar, at age 42, and the infant was returned to his mother. Maria took little interest in the raising of her children.
This could have had something to do with the fact that she gave birth ten times in 22 years! Nicholas and his younger brother, Mikhail, were raised by Lamsdorff, an aging army general.
Since Nicholai was the third son of Paul and Maria, Alexander and Konstantin being the two elder brothers, there was little pressure placed on the boy regarding being the future tsar. He was not provided with the same amount of education as his elder brothers but he found the current events surrounding the French Revolution very intriguing. A handsome and much sought after suitor, Nicholas married the fragile Princess Charlotte of Prussia on July 1, 1817.
On March 12, 1801, Paul I was murdered in his chambers. There is much speculation surrounding his demise, some suggest it was suicide. Paul and Maria's eldest son, Alexander I, was crowned emperor. In his later years, Alexander I was a spiritually troubled man. It is rumored that he faked his death, in November of 1825, and actually ran away to become a monk and wander about Siberia.
Nicholai I was 29 when Alexander I disappeared leaving Russia without an heir. Konstantin, Nicholas' remaining elder brother, was not interested in the throne. Catherine II had given Alexander Palace to Alexander I, who, in turn, loaned it to Nicholas I. Alexander had made secret arrangements that Nicholas should succeed him. Needless to say, there was a considerable amount of confusion and controversy following Alexander I's sudden and mysterious demise. Several officers, who would later be known as Decembrists, rebelled against Alexander's wishes and attempted to place Konstantin on the throne (Dec. 14, 1825). Nicholas put down this uprising and became the Emperor of All Russia on August 22, 1826. By this time, Nicholas and Charlotte had four children: Alexander II, Maria, Olga and Alexandra.
Nicholai ruled with an iron fist. He truly believed that he was anointed by God as the ultimate, single ruler of Russia; the same way that God was the only divine sovereign. As such, it was his personal and exclusive responsibility to look after and determine the well being of each and everyone of his subjects. Nicholai considered himself to have unlimited control and power - a recipe for disaster, as we've seen many times throughout history. However, Nicholas I believed that he was accountable directly and only to God for all of his actions and answered to no man. It was his opinion that this was the attitude all persons should have. This has become known as the Nicholas System.
Nicholai believed in one God, one Tsar and, thus, One Nation. As a result, anything or anyone non-Russian, existing within the empire, was subject to oppression and the effort to Russify them. Obviously, this was met with a great deal of resistance. Non-Russians were not willing to give up their languages, cultures or non-Russian Orthodox religious traditions. Any submission to this policy was gained by force.
On the other hand, because of Nicholai' stern policy, Russia saw its first real cultural growth since Catherine the Great. The Nicholai I era produced great literature and poets such as Pushkin and Lermontov. The first literary notable to come from the peasant class appeared during this period in the form of Nickolai Gogol. The Russian intelligentsia evolved and, subsequently, grew to hate Nicholai. The tsar personally and through force, when necessary, regulated their activities and works. One of Nicholai' deepest fears was peasant revolt, making it necessary for him to regulate and censor everything that they might read or see.