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.

The 23-year-old Alexander’s arrival on the throne he never asked for seemed to de-monstrate two fundamental truths about the Russian monarchy. First, legitimacy was hard to find; second, even if found, it was not always to the good. Yet Catherine had equipped her grandson with a whole other system of political understanding. Even in her supposed reactionary phase, which is said to have set in as the French Revolution shaded into Terror, she found time to read the Declaration of the Rights of Man to him and explain it. More consequentially, she assigned him as a tutor the Swiss republican La Harpe, who did what he could to make his charge an ‘enlightened citizen’. The prince was devoted to him, and his lessons seem to have had their intended effect.

As soon as he became tsar, Alexander put his learning to use by gathering his closest and most enlightened aristocratic friends in a council that set far-reaching liberal reforms as its central objective. It seemed to Alexander that there was no reason Russia could not be given a constitution or serfdom extirpated in a few years; after all, who was better placed to implement such things than an absolute monarch? He was not bound to the gradualist precedent of Catherine, still less to the disciplinarian milit-arism of Paul and Peter. Russia under his watch would finally become a country of free men.

Alexander soon learned just what the problem was. V.S. Popov, who had served as secretary to Catherine’s favourite Potemkin, described a conversation he had once had with the empress:

The subject was the unlimited power with which the great Catherine not only ruled her own empire but ordered things in other countries. I spoke of the surprise I felt at the blind obedience with which her will was fulfilled everywhere, of the eagerness and zeal with which all tried to please her. ‘It is not as easy as you think,’ she condescended to reply. ‘In the first place, my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out … And when I am already convinced in advance of general approval, then I issue my orders, and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. And that is the foundation of unlimited power. But believe me, they will not obey blindly when orders are not adapted to the customs, to the opinion of the people.

The ‘people’ to whom she referred, it went without saying, did not wear beards and bast shoes – and their opinion of serfdom placed any reform decidedly outside the bounds of the possible. The question was shelved. Alexander contented himself with a decree allowing landowners to free their serfs and give them land if they happened to be so inclined. The enlightened citizen dared go no further.

Napoleon provided the perfect distraction. In 1804, he ordered the kidnapping and execution of Louis Antoine, duc d’Enghien, on trumped-up charges of conspiracy. Alexander seized the opportunity to shift his focus to the international stage, where he became the voice of Europeans outraged by Napoleon’s disregard for due process – or simply because of the victim’s noble blood. By the end of the year, Napoleon had been crowned emperor by the Pope, and the two monarchs confronted each other as belligerents. Rey insists that Alexander had already begun to draw up an alternative to the Napoleonic imperial model: a ‘peace league of European nations in which recourse to mediation and negotiation would be systematic, where each would respect a certain number of common political values.’ Bold as this vision was, Alexander’s fantasies did not stop at statesmanlike proposals. When hostilities finally started, he thought he would make a great general as well. Galloping at the head of the Russian cavalry, he led his forces into a catastrophic defeat at Austerlitz, where thousands of men and horses drowned in an icy pond. The day ended with the tsar in tears, having escaped the slaughter by the skin of his teeth. Catherine had said she never wanted him to be another Alexander the Great, and in this, as in so many other things, she seemed to have been right: the Russians and their allies went from defeat to defeat, and in 1807 Alexander met Napoleon at Tilsit to sign a treaty of alliance.

Against all expectation, the tsar wrung a victory out of Tilsit. Russia was not humiliated; Prussia, thanks to his untiring efforts, was spared complete dismemberment; and within a few years, Alexander defeated Sweden under the auspices of the new alliance, adding Finland to the Russian Empire. Meanwhile, he gave Napoleon almost no help in his pursuit of the wars in Europe, although this cost him his claims over Poland. It did not worry him much that, taken together, these policies seemed to go against everything he had stood for before Tilsit, and pleased neither La Harpe nor the gossiping nobility back home. In his own mind, the emperor always knew best.

When war finally returned with the French invasion in 1812, the tsar began to metamorphose into a radically different figure. The new Alexander was a towering Orthodox sovereign, the righteous and divinely anointed autocrat of a people at arms. To embrace nationalism and appeal to the popular will in a country where half of the population was chattel was a risky strategy, especially against an opponent whose armies carried the slogans of liberty, fraternity and equality wherever they went. Yet the gamble paid off. The French forces were constantly harassed by peasant partisans; fearing large-scale revolt, Napoleon refused to proclaim the abolition of serfdom, and the result was a war that drew in all levels of Russian society against the invaders. When the Grande Armée entered Moscow and, supposedly, set it ablaze (Rey shows convincingly that the fire was set by Russians), the conflict took on apocalyptic dimensions, which persisted even when the enemy was worn down by attrition and the pitiful remnants were being chased back to Paris in 1814. Alexander had vanquished the Antichrist.

Rey’s account of the Russian campaign makes one thing clear. The mythology of ‘General Winter’, and the implication that the outcome had more to do with Russia’s size and climate than anything its armies might have done, was a French fabrication that served as a winning excuse for the defeated side. Though her account sidesteps the military aspects, Dominic Lieven’s Russia against Napoleon, among other books, spells out the truth in concrete terms.[*] The Russian strategy of avoiding pitched battles at all costs, despite its blows to morale, was a uniquely potent counter to a general who had made his reputation on the battlefield. Even as he took charge of Moscow, the emperor was already desperate. ‘My cavalry is in tatters, a lot of horses are dying,’ he wrote in a coded letter on 20 October, less than four months after he entered Russia. On the 22nd, he promised: ‘I am going to blow up the Kremlin.’ It was too late; his forces were already in retreat. Russia’s superior system of staffing and logistics made the difference in a struggle which at the same time left the western part of the empire in ruins.

Rey argues that Alexander’s religious fervour after the surrender of Moscow was ‘vibrant and sincere’. It was also eccentric, unfocused and self-serving. Rather than embracing the officious and ceremonial Orthodox tradition in whose name he claimed to speak, Alexander succumbed to a sequence of enthusiasms: table-shaking spiritualism, Pietist mysticism, pan-Christian ecumenism and eventually, at the very end of his life, reactionary ultra-Orthodoxy. In each case, he surrounded himself with people who pitched their vision of the divine to him in the most flattering terms, though he was occasionally lucid enough to reject them when their grasping became too blatant.

Still, when Napoleon was finally defeated, Alexander’s was the most enlightened voice at the table. Against the objections of his allies, barely hiding his contempt for Louis XVIII, he insisted that the restored Bourbons rule under a constitution. His proposal for a Holy Alliance, even though it was unquestionably composed under the influence of one or another of his mystical hangers-on, looks more modern than anything his fellow Europeans produced – so it is unsurprising that they ensured that, little by little, the utopian document would be whittled down. The original demanded that all the subjects of the contracting states regard each other as brethren; this was considered scandalous, and the final version speaks only for the sovereigns.

The Congress of Vienna suggests a clear historical parallel: Yalta and Potsdam. But the contrast between Stalin and Alexander could hardly be more stark. In theory the representative of a utopian ideology that called for world revolution, the hardnosed Stalin took the pragmatic route and extracted as much from his victory as he could. The result was four decades of bitter con-tinental division. Alexander, for his part, was supposed to be the Oriental despot of a backward, inward-looking state, a man who led slavering Tartars through the streets of Paris. Yet his fascination with the notion of a Christian commonwealth in Europe left Russia few gains from its victory; aside from the personal union with a revivified Kingdom of Poland, its most tangible gain was a scheming liberal intelligentsia radicalised by its time in Paris. Alexander’s refusal to be practical – in short, the hubris that had made him a figure of fun – gave Europe its 19th century.

Alexander’s embrace of the old-time religion may not have injured his commitment to constitutions, but it did provide him with a convenient alibi when the alliance he built began to be used as a bludgeon. His fear of revolutionary secret societies like the Carbonari, long encouraged by the aristocratic émigrés who had fled to Russia after 1789, helped cement the Holy Alliance’s new role as a conservative weapon against any perceived threat to continental stability. In the decades after 1815, Metternich met with little opposition when he called on the alliance to authorise Austria’s seizures of territory, and Alexander made increasingly few objections when his once liberal project was turned against liberals in Spain and Piedmont. The threat of sedition emanating from organised groups was enough to persuade the tsar to defend his sovereign fraternity with violence.

Domestically, Alexander’s behaviour was more complicated – and it is here that Rey brings out his contradictory constitutionalism most deftly. The tsar expelled the Jesuits, tightened the screws on the education system, and began everywhere to promote the ecumenical Christian conservatism of the Russian Bible Society. In 1817, he also initiated his disastrous experiment with military colonies, presided over by the authoritarian Aleksei Arakcheev. By providing rank-and-file soldiers – peasant conscripts whose tours of duty lasted 25 gruelling years – with homesteads and land of their own, Alexander hoped not only to make standing reserves cheaper to maintain but also to improve their lives. The savings, he thought, could even be used to subsidise the manumission of serfs. Arakcheev’s role ensured the reality would be less rosy. At its height, 400,000 farmer-soldiers were enrolled in rigidly controlled settlements where regulations covered everything from clothing to the daily routine. The new system was reviled by its supposed beneficiaries, but even a wave of desertions and rebellions did not soften the emperor’s heart; only when Alexander II came to the throne, forty years later, were the settlements finally abolished.

These policies paint a picture of a tsar made intolerant and cruel by his victories, but there was more to it than that. Alexander, as he promised, gave Poland its own constitution – even if he was resentful when the Poles tried to exercise their rights. He promised Russia one as well, only to step away from the project when it seemed on the verge of completion. What the last decade of his life really suggests is that Alexander was unwilling to accept the total defeat of his reformist, liberal hopes, especially the dream of an end to serfdom. Pushed by his religious supporters, he turned to conservatism in the hope of redeeming a society that was not ready for liberalism. The result, either way, was the same: as the tsar lost his driving sense of personal mission, he grew more and more isolated and depressed, while the responsibilities of government fell increasingly to its most reactionary servants.

When he was suddenly taken ill in the southern city of Taganrog on 8 November 1825, the 47-year-old tsar had been considering giving up the throne and living out the rest of his days in the Crimea; by 1 December he was dead. Rumours of conspiracy swirled around the body. The remains had become blackened and unrecognisable, making the traditional open-casket ceremony impossible. It was said that the casket in fact contained somebody else’s corpse, or perhaps no corpse at all. Had Alexander, brought to power by a plot in 1801, now resorted to one in order to abdicate it? These specul-ations seemed to be confirmed when an Orthodox mystic called Feodor Kuzmich emerged in the Urals 11 years later, speaking suspiciously fluent French and demonstrating uncanny knowledge of Napoleonic warfare and decade-old court gossip. Rumours of his imperial past had begun to pursue him, to his chagrin, even while he was still alive; after his death in 1864, members of the Romanov family were said to have visited the grave. Since then, a cottage industry in Kuzmich studies has emerged in Russia – and it was given further credence when another layer of rumours claimed that the Soviet government had found Alexander’s tomb empty when it was opened in 1921. Western biographers generally treat the story as absurd. Rey, surprisingly, is an exception: resigned agnosticism is, in her view, the most reasonable stance to take given the tangled facts of the case. In the end, only DNA analysis could resolve the question conclusively, and such a task would require exhuming not only Kuzmich, who has been canonised as St Feodor of Tomsk, but also his fellow imperial dynasts – and then there would be the difficulty of obtaining permission from Romanov descendants abroad.

There is another story about Alexander’s last days – and this one Rey is prepared to defend as true. In August 1825, she claims, a high-ranking aide-de-camp visited Alexander in St Petersburg and was entrusted with a covert mission: to travel to the Vatican and propose a union between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Such a project would be even more astonishing than it seems at first glance, for the Russian monarchy itself was founded on the rejection of religious union (specifically, the Union of Florence in 1439). The tsar was ex officio the defender of worldwide Orthodoxy, the sovereign of the only state where it was the official religion. Even Catherine, cynical and free-thinking though she may have been, had ordered the forcible conversion of Uniate Greek Catholics in the Polish territories she annexed; plausible rumours that Paul was pursuing a union and secretly practising Catholicism contributed to the general sense that he had gone insane. Alexander’s policies had much in common with his father’s on this issue, but in the years before his death he had become much more dogmatic and traditional in his Orthodoxy. This about-face makes his conspiracy to unite the churches even more puzzling – and it was not unlikely that for an emperor who had wielded the cross against a Western conqueror to surrender Orthodoxy without a blow would mean civil war.

Yet everything we know about Alexander’s character tells us that he was entirely capable of taking that step. At the root of Russia’s backwardness, as Alexander saw it, was its separation from Western Europe and its constitutional traditions; this, not simply the naked desire for land, was behind his desperate attempts to keep Poland – a crucial link to Europe – in the Russian fold. His enthusiasm for crackpot religions reveals an underlying unwillingness to acknowledge the fissures in Christian tradition. More important, perhaps, it demonstrates his obsession with his own messianic destiny, manifested everywhere as a preoccupation with Christian fraternity. Nap-oleon broke the unity of Europe, and Alexander would raise it to an exalted level. This was his dream even before Tilsit.

Kuzmich, the Orthodox saint, and Alexander, the Uniate apostate: these two opposing visions show us both sides of the tsar’s brand of hubris. Whichever one is true – if either is – the results are the same. When news of his death reached the capital, the secret societies he had feared, made up of the intelligentsia he had studiously alienated, staged the abortive Decembrist coup and were summarily crushed. ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality’ was the new reign’s motto. It left little to the imagination.

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