Topic: Nicholas I
A group of St. Petersburg historians and forensic experts have carried out research to prove or refute a popularly held theory that Emperor Nicholas I had committed suicide in 1855.
The Russian monarchs’ last moments of life were always safely guarded against the crowd’s excessive curiosity. The death of a Russian emperor sometimes became a state secret, and both contemporaries and historians were tempted to penetrate into it. The same kind of mystery surrounds the last days of Nicholas I.
Legends of the emperor’s unnatural death sprang up straight after his demise on the February 18th, 1855. His galloping disease and sudden death looked especially suspicious due to Nicholas I’ reputation of a man of iron constitution and robust health. The emperor’s will containing a ban on the postmortem examination of his body added to the mystery.
A lot of works have been written about the circumstances of Nicholas I’s death but none of them has shed light on this issue. As a rule, two main versions are considered. The first, official version is that the emperor died of a cold which caused paralysis of the lungs. The second, public version is that the emperor could not survive the disgrace of the Crimean War and committed suicide by drinking poison. Historians who studied this subject tended to support the suicide version, though they avoided making any final conclusions.
According to the evidence of people who were close to Nicholas I, it is true that the war seriously affected his emotional condition. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the important circumstance that the czar was very religious, which absolutely ruled out any suicidal ideas. However, it was impossible to prove this without historical documents.
A thick folder collected dust on the shelves of the State History Archive for many years. No one could even imagine that it contained the secret of Nicholas I’s death. Only an experienced doctor could read that pile of medical documents illegibly written in a mixture of Old German and Latin.
The diagnosis and the medical report got into the hands of well-known St. Petersburg forensic expert Yuri Molin. His professional eye noticed a lot of curious details in them. First of all, the emperor had been ill for a long time and did not die suddenly, as the newspapers reported. Secondly, there were no traces of violence on his body. Thirdly, the emperor’s body was embalmed twice.
“We can state with due responsibility that the emperor died of influenze which had not been properly treated and was complicated by double pneumonia,” Yuri Molin said.
Today’s doctors did not even have to exhume the body to identify the cause of death.
“A forensic expert can find a lot of interesting details in the report of the examination of the body. During the examination, no signs of poisoning, funny smells or traces of injections were found,” Yuri Molin said.
The rumour about poisoning sprang up because death spots appeared on the emperor’s body. They were actually caused by the embalmers’ negligence, rather than poisoning. The embalming was carried out at room temperature and without extracting the viscera. It was urgent to correct the medical error. A brigade of doctors went to the Fortress of Sts. Peter and Paul incognito for several nights. The experts removed the effects of putrefaction and lightened the skin giving it a natural tinge.
Forensic experts do not believe that Nicholas I had robust health. Just the opposite, he was afflicted with a number of diseases that affected his heart, kidneys and liver. He also suffered from gout, the Romanovs’ hereditary pathology. Pneumonia progressed against this background. However, to finally restore the historical truth it is necessary to exhume the body.
In his time, historian and literary critic Natan Eidelman said that the cause of Nicholas I’s death was directly linked with the political and ideological struggle of that period and reflected the mentality of certain social groups. The version of unnatural death was in the interests of political opponents of the imperial family. With time, the rumours became part of history, so medical investigation could finally remove the stigma of suicide from the emperor.
© Voice of Russia and Paul Gilbert. 30 August, 2012