It is hard for minds immersed for years in the tale of the comet called Napoleon to realize that Alexander I (Aleksandr Pavlovich, 1777–1825) was as much beloved in Russia as Bonaparte in France; that, like his friend and enemy, he was brought up on the French Enlightenment, and tempered his autocracy with liberal ideas; that he achieved what the greatest modern general (for we must respect the Czar’s namesake) had tried and failed to accomplish—led his army across the Continent from his own capital to his foe’s, and overcame him; and that in the hour of triumph he behaved with moderation and modesty, and, amid so many generals and geniuses, proved to be the best gentleman of them all. Could this paragon have come from Russia? Yes, but after a long immersion, by a Swiss, in the literature and philosophy of France.
His education deserved another Xenophon to make it into a second Cyro-paedeia about the youth and training of a king. Many conflicting elements confused it. First his solicitous but absent and busy grandmother, the great Catherine herself, who had removed him from his mother, and transmitted to him, before she lost them, the principles of enlightened despotism, mingled with snatches from her then favorite authors—Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot. Probably at her suggestion he was taught from his early childhood to sleep, lightly covered, with the windows wide open, and on a mattress of morocco leather stuffed with hay.14 He became almost immune to weather, and enjoyed “extraordinary health and vitality”; but he died at the age of forty-eight.
In 1784 Catherine brought in from Switzerland, as Alexander’s principal tutor, Frédéric-César de La Harpe (1754–1838), an enthusiastic devotee of the philosophes, and later of the Revolution. Through nine years of dedicated service he initiated Alexander into the history and literature of France. The Prince learned to speak French perfectly, and almost to think like a Frenchman. (Napoleon spoke French imperfectly, and thought like a Renaissance Italian.) A nurse had already taught Alexander English; and now Mikhail Muraviov instructed him in the language and literature of ancient Greece. Count N. J. Saltykov transmitted to him the customs of imperial autocracy. There were special tutors in mathematics, physics, and geography. And Archpriest Somborsky conveyed to him the ethics of Christianity in the principle that each must “find in every human being his neighbor in order to fulfill the law of God.”15 Perhaps we should add, to this roster of Alexander’s teachers, Luise Elisabeth of Baden-Durlach, who in 1793, at Catherine’s request, married him, then sixteen, and—now named Elizaveta Alekseevna—presumably taught him the proper ways of a man with a woman.
It was an education fit to make a scholar and a gentleman, but hardly an “autocrat of all the Russias.” When the progress of the French Revolution frightened Catherine out of Voltaire and Diderot she dismissed La Harpe (1794), who returned to Switzerland to lead the revolution there. Alexander found realities at court and at Gatchina confusingly unlike the disputes of philosophy and the ideals of Rousseau. Dismayed by the complexity of the problems that faced the government, and perhaps missing the optimism of La Harpe, and brooding over his grandmother’s death, he wrote in 1796 to his close friend Count Kochubey:
I am thoroughly disgusted with my situation. It is far too brilliant for my character, which fits much better with a life of peace and quiet. Court life is not for me. I feel miserable in the society of such people. … At the same time they occupy the highest offices in the empire. In one word, my dear friend, I am aware that I was not born for the high position which I now occupy, and even less for that which awaits me in the future, and I have sworn to myself to renounce it in one way or another…. The affairs of state are in complete disorder; graft and embezzlement are everywhere; all departments are badly managed…. Notwithstanding all this, the Empire tends only toward expansion. Is it possible, therefore, for me to administer the state, even more to reform it and to abolish the long existing evils? To my mind it is beyond the power of a genius, not to speak of a man with ordinary capacities like myself. Taking all this into consideration, I have arrived at the aforesaid decision. My plan consists in abdicating (I cannot say when), and in settling with my wife on the shores of the Rhine to live the life of a private citizen, devote my time to the company of my friends and to the study of nature.16
Fortune gave him five years in which to adjust himself to the demands of his situation. He learned to appreciate the constructive elements in Russian life: the idealism and devotion inspired by Christianity, the readiness for mutual aid, the courage and hardihood that had been developed in the wars with the Tatars and the Turks, the power and depth of the Slavic imagination, which was soon to create a literature profound and unique, and the silent pride that rose from consciousness of Russian space and time. When, on March 24, 1801, Alexander, poet and would-be recluse, was suddenly challenged with opportunity, he found in his roots and dreams the understanding and character to summon his people to greatness, and to make Russia the arbiter of Europe.