Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, 1777-1825 (r.1801-1825)

Alexander I, Tsar of Russia (1777-1825) was one of the most important figures in the eventual defeat of Napoleon. His refusal to negotiation with Napoleon after the fall of Moscow eventually forced the French to begin the disastrous retreat that destroyed the Grand Army and helped encourage Germany to revolt against Napoleon.

Alexander was seen as a hard-to-understand contradiction by his contemporaries, and to a certain extent that is still the case. He had a liberal education and professed to hold liberal views, but he also has a strong mystical streak and Russia at his death was just as autocratic as it had been when he came to the throne. Alexander had also extended Russia's borders more than either Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, and helped turn Russian into a first rate European power.

Alexander was the son of Tsar Paul I and Maria Fedorovna, the daughter of Frederick Eugene of Wurttemberg. He was educated by the Swiss liberal Frederic Cesar de La Harpe, and disagreed with his father's erratic and often oppressive policies. Alexander began involved in the plot that led to the overthrow of his father, but he was surprised and shocked when his fellow conspirators murdered Tsar Paul on the night of 23 March 1801 - the plan had been to depose but not kill the Tsar.

Paul I had been part of the Second Coalition against the French, but in 1799 he reversed his policies, left the coalition and began to pursue anti-British policies (including a fanciful attempt to send a Cossack army to invade British India). Amongst his motives was Napoleon's seizure of Malta and destruction of the Order of St John in 1798 - Russia had also been interested in the future of the island, and Alexander would later be made Grand Master of the Order.

At first the new Tsar wanted to use Russia's influence to restore the peace of Europe, staying on good terms with both France and Britain. He offered to mediate between the two powers in 1803 and in 1804 was probably behind a proposal to turn Europe into a peaceful league of constitutional states, protected by Britain and Russia. The unrealistic scheme was rejected in London, where Alexander's interests in expanding Russian influence in the Mediterranean was a cause for concern.

Alexander's early attempts to stay on good terms with the French soon began to fade in the face of a series of Napoleon's decisions. The kidnapping and execution of the duc d'Enghien from Baden, the neutral homeland of Alexander's wife, angered many across Europe. Napoleon's decision to have himself crowned Emperor also worried Alexander, and he began to create a series of alliances with the other European powers. In the summer of 1804 he broke off diplomatic relations with France. In November 1804 he signed a defensive alliance with Austria. This was flowed by a full Anglo-Russian alliance in April 1805, with Austrian joining in August. This completed the Third Coalition. Alexander also attempted to convince King Frederick William III of Prussia to join the coalition, but the Prussians didn't move until the Third Coalition had been dismantled.

This powerful coalition was ended by crushing military defeat. Alexander was one of the three emperors present at Austerlitz (2 December 1805) when his army suffered a shattering defeat (at least partly helped by Alexander's belief that the French had over-extended themselves). Alexander was nearly captured in the retreat, and soon suffered the loss of his Austrian ally. At first Napoleon believed that Alexander would make peace after this defeat, but it soon became clear that the Russians intended to fight on.

Prussia now entered the war, but Napoleon moved quickly and the Prussians were defeated at Jena and Auerstadt before Alexander's men could reach the front. The Russians fought on (despite Napoleon's efforts to begin peace negotiations), but after the costly battles of Eylau and Friedland Alexander was forced to open peace negotiations. Four days after the battle of Friedland he began armistice negotiations.

Napoleon and Alexander met on a raft in the Niemen River at Tilsit, on the border between Prussia's Polish lands and the Russian Empire (although most of the negotiations actually took place in the town itself). Alexander seems to have been won over by Napoleon's flattery and charm, and the Treaty of Tilsit is normally said to have marked the high point of Napoleon's power. Russia gave up the Ionian Islands, Cattaro on the Dalmatian coast, agreed to withdraw from the Adriatic, join the Continental System and accept the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw (using land taken from Prussia). In return Napoleon supported the Russian conquest of Finland in 1808-1809 and encouraged Russian expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire.  

The accord reached at Tilsit wouldn't last long. The agreement was unpopular in Russia, and a series of strains were soon imposed on it. Even as early as the Congress of Erfurt in September 1808 the balance of power had begun to shift. Napoleon had to agree to the Russian occupation of Moldavia and Wallachia and reduce the Prussia war indemnity. In return Alexander agreed to support (or at least not oppose Napoleon's intervention in Spain, and to 'make common cause' with France if Austria declared war. When war with Austria did break out in the following year the Russians made very little effort to live up to even this vague promise, and the Austrians were able to concentrate most of their armies against Napoleon, although the war still ended with a French victory at Wagram.

A number of factors drove the allies of Tilsit apart. The Continental System harmed the Russian economy. Napoleon seized the lands Alexander's brother in law the Duke of Oldenburg as part of his rearrangement of Germany. French domination of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw also angered Alexander, who wanted to recreate an independent Poland under Russian influence. Napoleon's decision to allow Marshal Bernadotte to become Crown Prince of Sweden helped convince the Russians that they were being surrounded by a web of hostile powers, although they were unaware that Napoleon didn't trust Bernadotte, and Alexander would soon come to terms with him. Alexander withdrew from the Continental System by imposing tariffs on French imports, and both sides began to prepare for war. In 1809-10 Napoleon decided to divorce Josephine and find himself a bride capable of producing an heir. He opened negotiations with Russia, but then announced his engagement to the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. Alexander may have been secretly pleased to have avoided a family alliance with Napoleon, but in public he was outraged. Alexander does not appear to have wanted war with France, just a more equal relationship, but that wasn't acceptable to Napoleon, who was determined to dominate. Nevertheless in the summer of 1812 Napoleon crossed the Niemen, marking the outbreak of the disastrous invasion of Russia.

At the start of the French invasion of Russia in 1812 the Russians had two main armies in the western theatre. The First Western Army was commanded by Barclay de Tolly, who was also Minister of War. His authority was undermined by the presence of the Tsar with the army, and by his German ancestry. The Second Western Army was further south and was commanded by Prince Bagration.

As well as the official army hierarchy Alexander was greatly influenced by his own favourites. Key amongst them were General Alexei Andreevich Arakcheyev, a former War Minister who had reformed the Russian artillery and Colonel Ernst von Phull, a former member of the Prussian General Staff. Phull came up with the initial Russian plan. Whichever army was attacked first would retreat back towards a line of fortified camps, with the other army harassing Napoleon's flanks. The two main flaws with this plan were that it assumed Napoleon wouldn't simply turn on the flanking army, and that the fortified camps were either incomplete or badly designed.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

When Napoleon crossed the border he focused his initial efforts against Barclay's First Army. The Russian withdrew as planned, and reached the fortified camp at Drissa on 10-11 July. It quickly became clear that the camp was an indefensible trap, and the decision was made to continue the retreat. At the same time Barclay de Tolly managed to convince Alexander that he would be more valuable away from the army. On 19 July Alexander left his field HQ. On 24 July he was at Moscow where he made a public appeal for assistance and was offered 80,000 militia.

The retreat continued, and as it did Alexander came under increasing pressure to replace Barclay as commander-in-chief. Eventually he was almost forced to appoint Kutuzov, despite having fallen out with the capable commander several years earlier. The appointment was confirmed on 20 August.

Alexander's most important contribution to the Russian victory in 1812 was his refusal to negotiate with Napoleon after the battle of Borodino and the fall of Moscow. Napoleon sent his first messengers to the Tsar on 20 September, but he never received an answer. This forced Napoleon to begin the disastrous retreat from Moscow, after which only a tiny fragment of the Grand Army survived to reach relative safety in Poland and Germany.

War of Liberation 1813 - Spring Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Spring Campaign

The French invasion had a major impact on Alexander, who became very religious during the campaign. After 1812 his foreign policy was often influenced by his religious views, including the 'Holy Alliance' (see below).

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Autumn Campaign

Alexander was the leader of the Sixth Coalition during victorious campaigns in Germany in 1813 and France in 1814. He was nearly hit by a cannonball at Dresden, a near-miss that played a part in the Allied decision to end the battle. He stayed away from the decisive battle of Leipzig in October 1813 (perhaps in order to avoid the humiliation of Austerlitz or perhaps because some of his earlier interventions in the campaign hadn't been very successful), although did play a part in the pre-battle planning. He did lead the Russian troops as they entered Paris on 31 March 1814 after Napoleon's first abdication.

In 1814 Alexander took a magnanimous attitude to the French, resisting the temptation to punish the Parisians for the invasion of Russia. After the entry to Paris he visited Britain, where he received a hero's welcome from the people (although failed to impress the government). When Napoleon returned from Elba in 1815 the Russian mobilised, but the war was over before Alexander's armies could reach the borders of France.

He was one of the main figures at the Congress of Vienna. His main aim was to make sure that any revived Poland would be dominated by Russian, and he succeeded in that aim. Most of the former Prussian areas that had formed the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (originally seized during the partitions of Poland) now became the Congress Kingdom of Poland. This was meant to be a semi-independent kingdom with its own institutions, but Alexander was made king of Poland, tying the new kingdom to Russia.

Alexander also created the 'Holy Alliance', an agreement between most of the rulers of Europe that they would act in union, guided by Christian principles. The agreement was signed in September 1815. Only the Pope and the Prince Regent refused to sign, while the Ottoman Sultan wasn't invited to join. The 'Holy Alliance' resulted in a series of congresses between Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 and Verona in 1822.

Alexander had a fairly unhappy private life. He was married at 18 to Princess Maria Louisa of Baden, in what became an unhappy marriage. His only legitimate child died in 1808 and a much loved illegitimate daughter died a few years later. Alexander later claimed to be oppressed by the burdens of state, and died in 1825 at Taganrog.

Despite his early liberal views Russia at Alexander's death was still just as absolutist as when he claim to the throne, and serfdom was still intact. Russian had gained Finland, Bessarabia and Poland during his reign, and had become a major European power.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 May 2014), Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, 1777-1825 (r.1801-1825) ,

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