- Masculinity, the Body, and Coming of Age in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Cadet Corps
When Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) took up the reins of power in 1825, he did so in the midst of an insurrection. Although it was small in scope and easily squashed, these events of December symbolically played an important role in the empire's political culture for at least the next quarter century and arguably longer. Particularly poignant for Nicholas, so much himself a "military man," was the fact that these insubordinates—the so-called Decembrists—were officers and deeply part of the military establishment. They were precisely the men who should have remained loyal and supported the autocracy in its hour of need. The story of Nicholas's reaction to these events on December 14, 1825, including his public disappointment with—and harsh punishments for—those involved and his creation of his famous Third Section of surveillance, has become part of the grand narrative of nineteenth-century Russian history. There were, though, other forces, perhaps less overt and transparent, that mark Russian official culture in these early decades of the nineteenth century. The creation of an ideal masculinity and the overseeing of the coming of age of a generation of Russia's most elite male subjects marked these years of heightened autocratic rule as well.
Nicholas and his officials focused on the creation of young men, physically fit and morally impeccable, who would represent the autocracy at home and abroad. Through his institutions, and especially the military training schools, Nicholas insisted on the inculcation of a set of gendered norms meant to train the empire's male youth to be controlled in mind and body. During this era of expanding bureaucracies and the defining of the autocracy's relationship to its young subjects, the tsar and his officials pursued the project of shaping and disciplining future military officers and overseeing their coming of age with a vengeance. To do this he turned to his favorites, pupils in the empire's Cadet [End Page 219] Corps; these boys then young men would embody Russian masculinity and represent Nicholas to himself and to his vast empire. These fit young men could guarantee—in every way that they could—that such an embarrassment would never happen again.
As a military man himself, Nicholas I was naturally close to the Cadet Corps. As one historian notes: the emperor "always wore a uniform, slept on a hard camp bed and surrounded himself with soldiers."1 Nicholas's immersion in military affairs meant not only that he appointed his brother Mikhail Pavlovich to be Director of the Corps, but also that the tsar served as a paternal figure for the boys. The tsar famously invited cadets to royal residences on Sundays and during the summer months.2 On hot days, for instance, the cadets would go for a swim, often encountering the Grand Princes Nicholas and Mikhail. (It is worth noting that such intimacies had their limits: cadets were not permitted to swim until the young royals had finished their session in the water.) Nicholas's paternalistic impulses toward the officers in training were famously overt and were sometimes echoed before official audiences. When the director of the Novgorod Corps fell ill, he gave a very moving speech to the cadets: "My beloved children! My feelings for you and my love make it hard to part from you . . . Forgive me children that I am in no condition to come to you, to thank you, to talk with you . . . I will pray for you, my friends, my darlings . . . always be as good, as honorable, as dedicated as you were to me . . . always be useful to yourselves and the fatherland . . . and both with truth and dignity."3
The Cadet Corps, founded in 1731 as part of Tsar Anna's Enlightenment agenda, was formed in order both to provide a broad, Enlightenment-inspired education to future military officers and to guarantee technical training to the empire's bureaucrats. Moreover, the Cadet Corps was the "prime example" of how education from Peter the Great until the end of the old regime was meant to emphasize "gracious living" as exemplified by the...