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  • The Last King of PolandNicholas I's Warsaw Coronation and Russian-Polish Historical Memory
  • Ekaterina Boltunova (bio)

The formal establishment of Russian rule over the Kingdom of Poland together with Emperor Alexander I's decision to grant the Poles their own Constitutional Charter in 1815 are generally recognized as the two critical developments of Russian-Polish history of the early 19th century. Far less recognized, by contrast, is the fact that these great changes were followed just a few years later by the coronation of Alexander I's brother and successor Emperor Nicholas I as king of Poland. Yet Nicholas's coronation, while all but ignored in recent histories of the Russian-Polish question, nonetheless offered a clear signal that the Russian government saw Poland's status within the empire in a special light. During the expansion of the empire over the course of the 18th century, the Russian government marked the incorporation of new territories—from the lands of the Nogai hordes to the Crimean Khanate and the Duchy of Courland—through the issuance of treaties and proclamations that were then affirmed by oaths of allegiance sworn to the Russian monarch by his or her new subjects. No Russian monarch was ever crowned as the ruler of these territories, however.

Yet this is precisely what took place in Warsaw on 12 (24) May 1829, when Nicholas assumed the crown of the king of Poland in accordance with paragraph 45 of the above-mentioned Polish Constitution, which stated: "All of Our Heirs in the Kingdom of Poland shall be crowned as Kings of Poland in the capital city in accordance with the rite which We shall establish."1 This [End Page 229] Polish coronation came three years after Nicholas's coronation as emperor of Russia in the Assumption Cathedral (Uspenskii sobor) of the Moscow Kremlin (22 August 1826). At the same time, the Warsaw event was utterly unique, given that no Russian monarch either before or after was ever crowned king of Poland, and "secondary" coronations of this sort were otherwise not part of traditional Russian practice.

It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that the Warsaw ceremony quickly became the kind of event that everyone involved tries to forget almost as soon as it happens. Later references to the event are hard to find. None of the coronation books of subsequent emperors mention it, including that of Nicholas II, which provides the most detailed and lengthy overview of preceding coronations.2 Historians also gloss over the Warsaw ceremony, either because they see it as a matter of secondary importance or because it seems largely irrelevant to subsequent events.3 As a result, the coronation has emerged as a rare [End Page 230] moment of historical agreement for Russians and Poles: everyone, it seems, would rather forget that it ever happened. In fact, the abiding consensus in the literature as well as in popular historical memory is that the last man to be crowned king of Poland was not Nicholas I but rather Stanisław August Poniatowski. Indeed, anything pro-Polish in Russo-Polish relations in the early 19th century tends to be attributed to Alexander I, while Nicholas is largely seen as relentlessly anti-Polish, a position seemingly epitomized by his defiance of the Constitutional Charter and most notably his suppression of the November uprising of 1830–31.4

In this respect, the Polish coronation runs counter to the conventional image that Nicholas projected of himself both as a monarch and as a person. What could be more dissonant, after all, than the idea of a Russian emperor and Orthodox ruler being crowned king of Poland in a Polish ceremony in Warsaw? This "other" Nicholas is indeed hard to square with the rest of what we know about him, so that it is tempting to dismiss the whole event of the coronation as merely accidental, a curious but ultimately unimportant detour away from who Nicholas really was. Consequently, the question becomes: what is the best way to interpret Nicholas's understanding of and policies toward Poland? Only six months separate the coronation and the beginning of the uprising of 1830–31. The latter is traditionally seen as a reaction...


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