The Tsar in Tears
- 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.
Vol. 35 No. 6 · 21 March 2013
From Krystyna Weinstein
Greg Afinogenov makes several references to Tsar Alexander’s actions in relation to ‘Poland’ (LRB, 7 February). This use of the word is somewhat misleading, although the tsar himself used it. Afinogenov mentions that Alexander ‘gave constitutions to Finland, Poland and France’. I don’t know about Finland or France, but Poland didn’t exist as a country when Alexander was tsar. By 1797, Prussia, Russia and Austria had dismembered Poland and signed a protocol to excise its name from all future documents. What Alexander did agree to at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the granting of a constitution to what became known as the Congress Kingdom, a rump of what had been Poland. This rump was the one portion of land that Prussia had annexed and that Napoleon, after defeating Prussia at Jena, named the Duchy of Warsaw. To this duchy were added some other small portions of Polish lands removed at the time of the Partitions. This was not ‘Poland’. The constitution named the tsar ‘king of Poland’, and this tiny liberal Congress Kingdom did indeed have a sejm (a parliament) and a senate and did run some of its own affairs, with Alexander’s brother Constantine as commander in chief. But this honeymoon didn’t last, and by 1820 the sejm and senate had been dissolved. In 1831, under the new tsar, Nicholas I, the Poles began an insurrection and with a new government in place announced they were seceding from Russia.
Lewes, East Sussex