The Tsar in Tears

Greg Afinogenov

  • Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon by Marie-Pierre Rey, translated by Susan Emanuel
    Northern Illinois, 439 pp, £26.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 87580 466 8

‘I am satisfied with Alexander and he ought to be satisfied with me,’ Napoleon wrote to the Empress Josephine in 1807. ‘If he were a woman, I think I would make him my mistress.’ Within five years, the tsar would repay Napoleon’s condescension by rolling back his conquests all across Europe, driving him to Paris and then St Helena, and finally building the Concert of Europe on the remains of his empire. Two decades later, in a chapter of Eugene Onegin he left enciphered for fear of discovery, Pushkin delivered a much more scathing indictment. Alexander I was

A ruler devious and weak
A balding dandy, foe to work
By mere chance in glory sheltered.
… France once again in Bourbon hands,
In Albion’s, the seas. The Pole
Has freedom now. And we?
Applause from country dames,
Didactic odes, no more.
Perhaps some future day we, too,
Will, like the rest, come in
To freedom’s charming halls,
At last, enlightenment’s bright crown
They’ll pull down on our heads.

Between these two judgments – from the emperor he would destroy and the poet he had sent into exile – lay the whole mess of contradictions that was the life and reign of Alexander I.

Marie-Pierre Rey acknowledges the tsar’s contradictions, but manages to extract from them a remarkably coherent image of a principled man who embraced constitutionalism when it still smelled of the guillotine, who gave constitutions to Finland, Poland and France, and who sought to ensure the survival of constitutional systems all over post-Napoleonic Europe – but who ultimately failed his country as well as his ideals. The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon leaves no doubt about the imprint its subject has left on the liberal and, however uneasily, united Europe of today.

Still, Alexander’s absurdity is hard to avoid, no matter how assiduously one goes searching for his devotion to liberal principle. His most lasting foreign policy achievement, the Holy Alliance, was cooked up under the influence of German mystics who had persuaded him that he was directly inspired by the Almighty. When more practical statesmen turned it into the tool of armed conservatism all over Europe, he was as helpless as he was unprepared. He had few domestic successes to speak of, but the unerring accuracy with which he picked the wrong man for the job meant that his most daring project – a system of military col0nies he hoped would provide a path out of serfdom through communitarian discipline – became his most embarrassing legacy. Alexander’s great strength was the same as his fatal flaw: unbound by filial piety or consistent ideological conviction, he considered himself to be elect, the beneficiary of inspiration denied to other men. It is a truism that hubris of this kind leads reliably to disaster. What makes Rey’s book so poignant and vital is the way she shows what else it can produce.

At Tilsit, Napoleon, the former first consul of revolutionary France, found himself defending the moral legitimacy of hereditary monarchy against the hereditary emperor of the most patrimonial state in Europe. This was yet another of Alexander’s incongruities – but the tsar had good reason to be sceptical of the institution. His grandfather Peter III ruled Russia for only six months before his wife, Catherine the Great, overthrew him in a palace coup in 1762 and shipped him off to prison, where he was quietly murdered. Nominally, Catherine ruled as regent for her son Paul, but once he reached majority in 1772 she made no effort to transfer power to him. In her memoirs she claimed he was a bastard – a poorly concealed secret that must have been disquieting to Alexander, since it meant none of Paul’s progeny, himself included, had any Romanov blood at all. But Catherine’s death and her son’s accession in 1796 did no favours for the reputation of the rightful ruler. After doing all he could to turn Russia into a Prussian-style barracks state, Paul became obsessed with the idea that he would come to share his father’s fate. He built the preposterous moated St Michael’s Castle in St Petersburg – which still remains, its four architecturally distinct façades looking out on Catherine’s elegant gardens – and locked himself up in it. There it was that the conspirators who brought Alexander to power found and strangled him in 1801. Aristocrats and officers to a man, the plotters were hardly liberal revolutionaries: they had simply become, or feared becoming, victims of Paul’s caprice – or insanity, as more and more people were willing to call it.

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[*] Russia against Napoleon was reviewed by Geoffrey Hosking in the LRB of 3 December 2009.