Czar Alexander I (1801-1825)

The culmination of the reign of Alexander I: Marshal Marmont hands over the keys of Paris to the Russian Emperor

After the despotic reign of Paul I came to an end, Alexander I was hailed as a savior. He had liberal tendencies that evoked the enlightenment of Catherine the Great, though like Catherine he preserved the privilege of autocracy. He is remembered chiefly for defeating Napoleon in 1812, but Alexander’s relationship with Napoleon was complicated. During his rule, Russia would form and forsake numerous alliances with the French. When he died without children after a reign of twenty-four years, he left Russia in a state of confusion and revolt until he was succeeded by his younger brother, Nicholas.

By the time Alexander came to the throne, Russia was no longer at war with France, and Napoleon had conquered Switzerland and much of Italy. Once Napoleon switched his focus to the German states, however, Russia could no longer afford to remain neutral. In the spring of 1805, Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France and king of Italy; Russia, Britain, and Austria formed a coalition to fight him. Alexander went in person to invite the Prussian king to join the coalition, and afterwards traveled to Austria to meet the Russian army. Napoleon sent an envoy to Austria to negotiate terms with Alexander’s general, Kutuzov, said to be the greatest military commander then living. Alexander demanded that Napoleon renounce his conquests in Italy. Confident in the superiority of his army, despite the fact that the Russian-Austrian forces outnumbered his, Napoleon refused and prepared for battle. The fight resulted in a loss of over 28,000 Russian soldiers, as Napoleon circumnavigated an attempted flank maneuver and took the high ground. The Russian defeat was due principally to the fact that Alexander countermanded Katuzov’s decisions on the advice of his Austrian allies. The Russian emperor was forced to retreat to the countryside as the French emperor gloated over his victory. Alexander continued to prosecute the war against Napoleon until he suffered an even more overwhelming defeat at Eylau in January of 1807, at which point he requested a personal meeting with Napoleon to negotiate peace.

The twenty-nine-year-old Alexander and the thirty-eight-year-old Napoleon met in June of 1807 at a rafted pavilion constructed by French and Russian engineers in the middle of the Nieman River. There, in a private conversation that lasted over two hours, Alexander promised to support Napoleon against his bitterest enemies, the British, if Napoleon would cease to hound Prussia. To Napoleon, Alexander expressed sentiments that might have come from the lips of his grandmother, Catherine the Great; as Sebag-Montefiore writes, he “praised elective republics and criticized hereditary monarchy which he regarded as irrational—except in Russia, where local conditions made it essential.” The two rulers got along very well, adjourning to nearby Tilsit where they dined with the Prussian king Frederick William in the evenings, then went behind his back to have further long private conversations by night. “Had he been a woman,” said Napoleon afterwards, speaking of Alexander, “I would have made him my mistress.” The negotiations concluded without a significant loss of Russian territory. Napoleon’s minister, Talleyrand, even approached Alexander about a possible marriage between Napoleon and Alexander’s beloved younger sister Catherine. Napoleon was still married to Josephine, but as she was childless, he was considering divorcing her. Catherine, however, had her matrimonial sights set on the Holy Roman Emperor, and resolved to avoid marrying Napoleon if she could.

After they had returned to their own countries, Napoleon sent envoys to Alexander’s court; the emperor welcomed them, but his courtiers seethed at the French presence. In 1808, Napoleon invited Alexander to a second meeting, along with other European kings and princes. They continued to find one another excellent company, but privately, Napoleon was becoming frustrated. The French blockade of Britain was doing the Russians no favors, and Alexander used this to negotiate the return of Wallachia and Moldavia. Alexander understood and shared the simmering resentment the Russian people harbored against the French, but having survived at the courts of Catherine the Great and Paul I, he knew how to keep his own counsel and make people believe he liked them when it suited his purposes. His friendship with Napoleon would not last indefinitely.

During the 1808 summit, Napoleon suggested that Alexander seize Finland from Sweden; when Alexander returned to Russia, he did so, making Finland a Russian duchy. But when Napoleon went to war against Francis, emperor of Austria, Alexander did not observe his treaty agreement to back the French, and Napoleon became disillusioned with the Russian alliance. Napoleon had divorced Josephine by this time, and he once again proposed a marriage to one of Alexander’s sisters—this time, his youngest sister Anne, who was only fourteen. When Alexander said that he would not permit her to marry until she was sixteen, Napoleon unceremoniously broke off negotiations and married Marie-Louise, sister of Francis of Austria. The Russians were insulted; the French were furious at what they considered to be Alexander’s duplicity. It was only a matter of time before war broke out between the two countries. Then, in 1810, the queen-consort of Prussia died. Queen Louise was famous throughout Europe for her beauty; early in his reign, when Alexander visited the court of her husband, Frederick William, he had admired her in person, and it was said that he had fallen in love with her. Her fatal illness had supposedly been brought on by Napoleon’s ceaseless attacks against her country. Now, Alexander swore to avenge her death. His friendship with Napoleon cooled, and Napoleon began to plan his invasion of Russia.

“I will not be the first to draw the sword,” said Alexander in 1811, speaking to one of Napoleon’s envoys, “but I will be the last to put it back in its sheath.” Unlike his grandfather, Peter III, Alexander thought exhaustively through every possible outcome of the looming war before making decisions. He wrote to his sister Catherine that he believed it possible that Moscow and St. Petersburg might both be taken by Napoleon’s forces. In April of 1812, Napoleon began to assemble the largest army the world had ever seen, compromised of 615,000 soldiers from Poland, Spain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Austria, and Egypt, in preparation for his invasion of Russia. In June, they crossed the Niemen River. Alexander had two choices for engaging the enemy: either march out to meet them, or pretend to retreat so that Napoleon’s forces would follow them deep into the heart of Russia, where the French army would be at significant disadvantage. Napoleon, in fact, had no intention of penetrating so far into the Russian interior; he merely wanted to fight until the Russian army was so weak that Alexander would be forced to agree to any terms Napoleon named. But Alexander’s war minister, Barclay, would succeed in drawing them in.

Alexander faced a private humiliation at the war’s outset: his generals and ministers signed a petition begging him not to present himself on the field of battle. As emperor, his word was law, and he could countermand the order of any of his commanders in a single breath. But unlike Napoleon, Alexander was a better politician than a military tactician, and when he overruled his generals, the results were never good. Alexander was crestfallen, but he complied with the wishes of his generals in good grace, thus showing himself to be wiser than than some of his successors would prove to be. He returned home to be greeted by huge crowds of cheering people. All of Russia had reached a fever pitch of nationalistic pride over the French invasion.

Russian and French forces clashed at Smolensk. Here, Napoleon expected to meet and defeat the full strength of the Russian army, but they merely engaged him until the city was destroyed, then retreated. Winter was approaching; Napoleon had expected to spend the cold season in Smolensk, but now it was uninhabitable. Though the Russian retreat was planned, it was unpopular with the people, who did not understand the larger strategy. Alexander was forced to appoint Kutuzov, who had been Potemkin’s understudy, to take charge of the war effort and defend Moscow. Napoleon was only a ten-day march away from the city.

Kutuzov and Napoleon met in battle on August 26, 1812, at the village of Borodino, less than a hundred miles from Moscow. The Russians fortified their position with redoubts—enclosed forts surrounding a large entrenched fortress, where the army could hold their ground and fire from under cover. Russian and French forces were almost equally matched, with 125,000 men on the Russian side and 130,000 on the French. The strategy was simple; Napoleon was famous for his flanking maneuvers, but the strength of the redoubts were that they were made to be flanked. His only option was repeated frontal assaults, pitching Russian and French soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. The result was what has been called “the bloodiest single day in the history of warfare”, a record it held until the twentieth century. Neither side had won. Kutuzov made the strategic decision to march his army to the far side of Moscow and evacuate the civilian population. Napoleon would follow, but he declared that “Moscow is the sponge that will soak him up.” The population, bearing their possession in carts, or on their backs, marched east. Jails were opened and prisoners allowed to join the exodus. The decision was made to burn Moscow to the ground, rather than allow the French to occupy it. When a dismayed Napoleon took up residence in the Kremlin, where he expected to receive notice of surrender from Alexander, the city had been burning for six days. Alexander read reports of these events from safety in St. Petersburg. He was horrified, but he steeled his resolve, declaring that he would rather be a potato-eating peasant than ever negotiate peace with Napoleon.

As winter approached, Napoleon began to realize that no offer of surrender was coming; he began to organize a retreat from Moscow, but to his surprise, the Russians followed. At first, they only harassed the French in sporadic engagements; then two more divisions of the Russian army attacked from the north and the south, forcing the French to a standstill in the dead of the Russian winter and making further retreat impossible. Napoleon, sensing the inevitable, abandoned his men and fled to Paris.

Napoleon was humiliated, but Russian revenge was not yet spent. As the new year of 1813 approached, Alexander, now more confident than he had been at the war’s beginning, took personal charge of the army once more and pursued Napoleon into Europe. He was joined by Prussia, and the cost of the enterprise was fielded by Britain. Napoleon was swiftly rebuilding his army. After a number of engagements, Napoleon attended armistice negotiations, but the nations of Europe wanted to see France punished for Napoleon’s audacity; Napoleon agreed only to a return to the borders that existed before his invasion of Russia. Austria declared war, and Alexander’s forces joined them. The Russian emperor desired nothing less than to avenge Moscow by marching his soldiers through the streets of Paris.

Luck was on his side. Napoleon was avoiding Paris, and the city had few defenses. In March of 1813, Alexander and his allies attacked. Paris surrendered on Match 18, after a week of fighting. Some of Alexander’s advisors urged him to burn the city in revenge, but Alexander preferred to be seen as Europe’s savior rather than France’s destroyer. Under Alexander’s watchful eye, the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte was ended, and the royal family of Bourbon was restored to the French throne. Napoleon was given the island of Elba to be his domain in exile. Alexander’s triumph was complete. He returned to Russia by way of Britain, where he met the prince regent, ruling on behalf of the mad George III. Back in St. Petersburg, the emperor was offered a title by the senate, Alexander the Blessed—perhaps out of respect for his piousness, or because it would have been confusing to call him Alexander the Great. In any case, he refused.

In 1820, Alexander visited his beloved brother Nicholas and informed him that he wished to abdicate. He was now forty-three; insurrections and failed government reforms had followed the Napoleonic wars, and he felt that he had already accomplished the mission God had given him as emperor. Alexander had no sons, and his brother Constantine was next in line in the succession, but Constantine did not wish to be emperor either; he had an Orthodox wife whom he wanted to divorce so that he could marry his Polish mistress, an act which would bar him from the throne. Nicholas, nineteen years younger than Alexander, had never expected to be emperor, and the abdication announcement made him cling to his beloved wife Mouffy, daughter of the king of Prussia, and burst into tears. The altered plan of succession was signed by Alexander and Constantine in 1821, but no notice of it was given to the public. In October of 1825, Alexander became ill with chills and a fever, symptoms of typhoid, for which he refused medical treatment. By November 17th, he was dead.