They came to power almost at the same time, and both by violence: Napoleon on November 9, 1799, Alexander on March 24, 1801. Their nearness in time overcame their separation in space: like two opposed forces in a cell, they expanded in power till they tore Europe apart, first at Austerlitz with war, then at Tilsit with peace. They were rivals for Turkey, because each thought of mastering the Continent, with Constantinople as its key; each took turns in courting Poland because it was a strategic bridge between East and West; the war of 1812–13 was fought to decide which of the two was to master Europe and perhaps conquer India.

Alexander, a youth of twenty-four, facing in 1801 a bedlam of Powers old in chicanery, wavered in his foreign policy but repeatedly extended his rule. He alternated between war and peace with Turkey, annexed Georgia in 1801 and Alaska in 1803, allied Russia with Prussia in 1802, with Austria in 1804, with England in 1805. In 1804 his Minister for Foreign Affairs drew up for him a plan for partitioning the Ottoman Empire.39 He admired Napoleon’s work as consul, denounced him for the summary execution of the Due d’Enghien, joined Austria and Prussia in a disastrous war against the usurper (1805–06), met and kissed him at Tilsit (1807), and agreed with him that half of Europe was enough for each of them until further notice.

Each left Tilsit confident that he had won a great diplomatic victory. Napoleon had persuaded the Czar to drop England and take France as his ally, and to enforce the Continental Blockade against British goods. Alexander, left defenseless by the shattering of his main army at Friedland, had saved his realm from a ruinous invasion by abandoning one ally for a stronger one, and securing a free hand with Sweden and Turkey. Napoleon’s army and capital applauded his military and diplomatic triumphs. Alexander, on returning to St. Petersburg, found nearly everyone—family, court, nobility, clergy, merchants, and populace—shocked that he had signed a humiliating peace with an upstart bandit atheist. Some writers—like F. N. Glinka and Count Feodor Rostopchin (the future governor of Moscow)—published articles explaining that the Peace of Tilsit was only a truce, and promising that the war against Napoleon would be resumed at a suitable opportunity, and would be carried on to his final destruction.40

The business class joined in condemning the peace, since it meant, for them, Russia’s enforcement of the Continental Blockade. The sale of Russian products to Britain, and the import of British goods into Russia, had been vital elements in their prosperity; the prohibition of such trade would ruin many of them, and would disrupt the national economy. And indeed the Russian government neared bankruptcy in 1810.

Alexander lost confidence, and hardened his rule. He restored censorship of speech and press, and abandoned his plans of reform. His liberal ministers —Kochubey, Czartoryski, Novosiltsov—resigned, and two of them left Russia. Then, in 1809, in a final attempt to free himself from the currents of conservatism that were rising around him, he took as his favorite adviser an almost reckless reformer who proposed that the Czar submit to a constitutional government.

Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky had begun life in 1772 as the son of a village priest. He developed a fondness for science, and had risen to be professor of mathematics and physics in a St. Petersburg seminary when his work drew the attention of Czarevich Alexander. In 1802 he was assigned to the Ministry of the Interior, then under the reformer Kochubey. There he showed such capacity for hard work and intelligible reports that the Czar assigned him to direct the codification of Russian laws. When Alexander set out for his second meeting with Napoleon in 1808 he took Speranksy with him as “the only clear head in Russia.”41 An uncertain story relates that when Alexander asked him what he thought of the states then under Napoleon’s control, Speranksy made the perceptive reply “We have better men, but they have better institutions.”42 Returning to St. Petersburg, the Czar gave his new favorite more and more power, until they found themselves contemplating a general reconstruction of the Russian government.

Speranksy wanted to end serfdom, but confessed that it could not be done in 1809. However, perhaps remembering a similar move by Stein in Prussia, he proposed a preparatory decree permitting all classes to buy land. The next step, he suggested, would be the election, by all property owners in each volost (township), of a local duma (council), which would control town finances, appoint local officials, and elect delegates—and submit recommendations—to a district duma; this would appoint district officials, propose district policies, and send delegates and recommendations to a provincial duma, which would send delegates and recommendations to a national duma in St. Petersburg. Only the czar would have the authority to determine laws, but the national duma would have the right to suggest laws for his consideration. Between the duma and the ruler an advisory council appointed by him would aid him in administration and legislation.

Alexander gave the plan a general approval, but he was hampered by other powers in the state. The nobility felt itself endangered; it distrusted Speranksy as a commoner, accused him of partiality for the Jews43 and admiration for Napoleon, and insinuated to Alexander that his ambitious Minister was aiming to be the power behind the throne. The bureaucracy joined in the attack, largely because Speranksy had persuaded the Czar to issue a decree (August 6, 1809) requiring a university degree, or the passing of a strict examination, for eligibility to the higher administrative offices. Alexander was sufficiently influenced to allow that the international situation did not allow of substantial experiments in the government.

His relations with France had been soured by Napoleon’s marriage with an Austrian Archduchess, and his seizure (January 22, 1811) of the duchy of Oldenburg, whose Duke was father-in-law to the Czar’s sister. Napoleon explained that the Duke had refused to close his ports to British goods, and that compensation had been offered him.44 Alexander did not like Napoleon’s establishment of a grand duchy of Warsaw so close to formerly Polish territory appropriated by Russia; he feared that at any time Napoleon would revive a kingdom of Poland hostile to Russia. He decided that to secure the unity of his country behind him he must make concessions to the nobility and the merchants.

He knew that British goods—or goods from British colonies—were being admitted into Russia under papers forged by Russian traders or officials, certifying that the material was American and therefore admissible; Alexander allowed it; and part of it passed through Russia into Prussia and other countries.45 Napoleon, through the Russian minister in Paris, sent an angry protest to the Czar. Alexander, by a decree of December 31, 1810, sanctioned the entry of British colonial goods, lowered the tariff on them, and raised the tariff on goods from France. In February, 1811, Napoleon sent him a plaintive letter: “Your Majesty no longer has any friendship for me; in the eyes of England and Europe our alliance no longer exists.”46 Alexander made no answer, but mobilized 240,000 troops at various points on his western front.47 According to Caulaincourt he had, as early as May, 1811, resigned himself to war: “It is possible, and even probable, that Napoleon will defeat us, but that will not bring him peace…. We have vast spaces into which to retreat…. We shall leave it to our climate, to our winter, to wage our war. … I shall withdraw to Kamchatka rather than cede any of my possessions.”48

He agreed now with the English diplomats in St. Petersburg, and with Stein and other Prussian refugees at his court, who had long since been telling him that Napoleon’s purpose was to subdue all Europe to his rule. To unify the nation Alexander abandoned the reforms, and proposals for reform, that were alienating from him the most influential families; even the common people, he felt, were not ready for them. On March 29, 1812, he dismissed Speranksy not only from office, but from the court, from St. Petersburg, and gave ear more and more to the conservative Count Aleksei Arakcheev. In April he signed a treaty with Sweden, agreeing to favor the Swedish claim to Norway. He sent secret orders to his representatives in the south to make peace with Turkey, even at the cost of surrendering all Russian claims to Moldavia and Wallachia; all Russian armies must be available for defense against Napoleon. Turkey signed peace on May 28.

Alexander knew that he was risking everything, but he had been turning more and more to religion as a support in these days of strain and decision. He prayed, and daily read the Bible. He found comfort and strength in feeling that his cause was just, and would receive divine aid. He saw Napoleon now as the principle and embodiment of evil, as a power-mad anarch marching insatiably from power to more power. Only he, Alexander, backed by a God-intoxicated people and a God-given immensity of space, could stop this ravaging devil, save the independence and ancient order of Europe, and bring the nations back from Voltaire to Christ.

On April 21, 1812, he left St. Petersburg, accompanied by the leaders of his government and escorted by the prayers of his people, and traveled south to Vilna, capital of Russian Lithuania. He arrived there on April 26; and there, with one of his armies, he waited for Napoleon.

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