Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain. — Friedrich Schiller

Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole




The Russian Hamlet

Alexander mounted the throne and vowed to "govern according to the principles and after the heart of Catherine." He was full of illusions and hope; his "Triumvirate" of young friends, liberal and progressive in their ideas, incited him to reform. Paul's tyrannical measures were repealed; Western books and theories came once more into vogue; the emancipation of the serfs was the topic of the time; once more the wandering sheep of the church" were protected; a set of dancing dissenters were allowed to perform their rites in the Mikhail Palace.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole
THE MIKHAIL PALACE.


The rule of the liberal triumvirate lasted six years; they worshipped the English constitution, and it was not strange that the alliance with France was given up for that of Great Britain. England and Russia agreed together to drive the newly crowned Emperor Napoleon from Northern Germany, and to declare Holland and Switzerland independent. Sweden and Naples joined the coalition. Alexander had the famous interview with the King and Queen of Prussia near the tomb of Frederick the Great, and Prussia agreed to furnish eighty thousand men. Austria had already begun the war. The Russian army was endangered by the defeat of the latter near Ulm and by the capture of Vienna, but the Russians and Austrians joined forces at Olmutz. Then came the epic battle of "the three emperors" at Austerlitz, when Alexander himself was obliged to flee almost unattended, and the loss of the Russians was twenty-one thousand men, two hundred cannon, and thirty flags. Napoleon reached the summit of his power; the Confederation of the Rhine brought him one hundred and fifty thousand men; his brothers sat on the thrones of Naples and Holland.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole
ALEXANDER I.


A new war arose; again England, Sweden, Prussia, and Russia united against the Corsican; again Russia's chief ally was too hasty; the battles of Jena and Auerstadt endangered the Prussian monarchy. The French entered Berlin and Prussian Poland. Alexander proclaimed that the war was made "not for vainglory but for the salvation of the fatherland." Nevertheless his General-in-chief; Bennigsen, was driven out of Poland with a loss of ten thousand men and eighty cannon. A winter campaign ended disastrously with the battle of Eylau, which was one of the bloodiest on record. Whole regiments were swept away in a breath; the Russians lost twenty-six thousand men. The French remained masters of the field; but as the Russians withdrew safely under cover of the darkness the Te Deum  of victory was sung. Napoleon stayed a week at Eylau and tried to dictate terms to Prussia. But Frederick William still clung to the Russian alliance, and the war went on. In the spring Bennigsen, with one hundred and ten thousand men, fought several bloody battles with Marshal Ney, and being obliged to retreat, took up a most dangerous position in the ravine of the Alle, near Friedland. Napoleon saw that his opponent had left himself no chance of retreat. No," said he, it is not every day that an enemy is caught in such a blunder." The event proved as the great general foresaw; Ney led an irresistible charge; the three bridges behind the Russians were cannonaded; the Russian army was almost annihilated. Alexander was obliged to treat, and the two Emperors had their famous meeting on the raft in the midst of the Niemen. The King of Prussia waited on the shore, impatiently urging his horse into the water and gazing on the raft where his fate was being decided. The result of the interview finished the fall of Prussia.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole
MARSHALL NEV.


Alexander the Weak, to his shame, suddenly turned his back upon England, allowed "the two wings of the Prussian eagle to be broken," and as a reward took all Finland from his brother-in-law, the King of Sweden, and allowed Napoleon to form the Grand Duchy of Warsaw upon his borders.

Alexander had already freed himself from the liberal friends of his youth who favored England, and was under the influence of Speranski, who was devoted to the French. Speranski was the son of a poor priest who by sheer ability had risen to distinction during the two preceding reigns. In proportion as he won the Emperor's favor he drew upon himself the hatred of his associates.

The alliance with Napoleon was extremely distasteful. Alexander, as usual given to illusions, found his illusions again disappointed. Sweden was able to thwart the proposed annexation of Finland; the naval war with England was ruining commerce; the hope which Napoleon had held out of a partition of Turkey was a bubble. At the "interview at Erfurt" between the two Emperors, Russian pride was pained to see the conscious superiority of the French. Nevertheless the alliance was renewed: Alexander agreed to keep Europe quiet while Napoleon seized the throne of Spain. Napoleon engaged to further the Russian occupation of Finland and the States of the Danube. It was proposed that Napoleon should put away Josephine and marry Alexander's sister. Alexander now had his hands full of war; with England, Sweden, Austria, Turkey, with Persia, and the tribes of the Caucasus. The Russian fleet of the Archipelago was captured by the English in the Tagus, but the second war with Sweden was more successful. Sixty thousand Russians entered Finland, took all the great fortresses, and banished the Swedish fleet from the gulfs. The war with Austria, in which Napoleon involved Alexander, was half-hearted; the Russians and Austrians met only twice; and the loss was three killed and four wounded! Napoleon rewarded his "lukewarm "ally with Eastern Gallicia, with a population of four hundred thousand souls.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole
ON THE RAFT, TILSIT.


But the French alliance was not to last. The establishment of the Polish Grand Duchy, the failure of the projected marriage, the annexation to France of Oldenburg and the three Hanse towns, the enforcement of the Continental blockade which ruined commerce, and Napoleon's insolence, brought Alexander's anger to the highest pitch. He began to make preparations for war. He suddenly disgraced Speranski, the friend of France, and the great struggle began. Napoleon and "the army of the Twenty Nations" crossed the Niemen. Alexander summoned patriotic Russia: "Oh, that the foe may find in each noble a Pozharski, in each priest a Palitsin, in each citizen a Minin. Rise, all! With cross on breast and arms in hand no human force can prevail against us."