By John Tarttelin, MA (History)


Dedicated to the memory
of Ben Weider





“They were Russians…entirely set upon the single goal of expanding their empire by whatever means might be necessary…” (*)



When Napoleon came to power in France, the diplomatic and military cards had already been dealt. He came late to the table, for the four houses of England, Austria, Prussia and Russia were used to dividing the spoils of the continent amongst themselves. To these empire builders, Napoleon was an upstart, the joker in the pack, intruding into their private game. The monarchs were the dealers and they bitterly resented the arrival of someone who could not only play their game, but beat them at it.

To help understand Napoleon’s position we can go back to his future. For what the German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg said in 1914 was just as apposite in 1814: “The future belongs to Russia, which grows and grows, looming above us as an increasingly terrifying nightmare.” (1) Centuries before that remark, the Russian bear had been pawing at the territory of others. Ever since the failure of the Ottomans to take Vienna in 1683, the door to the west lay open for Russian expansionism.

In the Great Northern War of 1700-1721, Tsar Peter defeated Sweden and Poland-Lithuania. He grabbed Livonia and Ingria from the Swedes and founded Saint Petersburg in 1703. (2) Later that century, Russia was more than happy to keep her share of Poland during the infamous partitions by bribing the Austrians and the Prussians with other portions of that unfortunate country. In Napoleon’s own time, Tsar Alexander had the ambition to seize the whole of Poland for himself. Although he was a dumb blond in appearance, the Russian leader was as greedy for territory as his illustrious forebear and not averse to treachery, scheming and the abandonment of diplomatic niceties to get his way. After all, he allowed his own father Tsar Paul to be murdered and he had been an ally of Napoleon.

When the Ottoman Turks were forced to leave Vienna in 1683, it was the Russians who gained most: “For the moment it was Russia’s territorial expansion which stunned the rest of Europe: it absorbed the whole of the Ottomans’ provinces on the north coast of the Black Sea and the Crimea before moving into the Caucasus and central Asia.” (3) Ukraine was annexed and soon Russian explorers were sweeping through Siberia on their way to the Pacific Ocean. In the 1740s, long before Sarah Palin cast a wary eye across the Bering Straits, the Russians were in Alaska.

When it comes to territorial acquisitions, the Russians have form. Catherine the Great, whom Elting calls an ‘imperial bitch,’ (4) could not understand how England gave up its former colonies in America. She said: “Rather than have granted America her Independence, as my brother-monarch, King George has done, I would have fired a pistol at my own head.” (5)

Napoleon’s attack on Russia in 1812 is often portrayed as if it were some sort of violation of a retiring Snow White. The invasion was actually a consequence of the Emperor being driven to distraction by Alexander’s machinations and treacherous duplicity. Alexander had professed eternal friendship at the treaty of Tilsit in 1807. Despite having crushed the Russian army at Friedland, which left Russian provinces his for the taking, Napoleon was generous to the young Tsar. The main thing he wanted was for Russia to make common cause against the most treacherous power of the day - England. Alexander promised to blockade his ports against British shipping and Napoleon was satisfied. He also happened to like the jejeune Alexander personally. To him, personal friendship and one-to-one relationships mattered; to the Romanovs, they didn’t mean a damn. Tsar Paul’s brutal strangulation certainly proves this point.

Napoleon has often been portrayed as a monster and called a Corsican ogre, unjustifiably so. However, Alexander was a lot like Frankenstein’s original creature. Although beautiful on the outside, behind those blue eyes there lurked a feverish dichotomy of enlightenment and repression. The young Tsar’s views on kingship and the right way to rule were given impulse not just by the spark of ‘divine right’, but by an abruptly terminated liberal education and the clandestine murder of his father.

Alexander was a haunted, troubled soul, a guilty man fearful that he would share the same fate as Tsar Paul. Indolent, deceitful and devious, he was yet sensitive and impressionable. He yearned for political guidance and a suitable mentor, for he was only twenty-three years old when he came to the throne. Later he was to harbour a secret bitterness because his one-time hero had shown himself to have feet of clay when he declared himself Consul for life. No wonder then that his love-hate relationship with Napoleon was to poison the agreements between them.

It is interesting that Alexander, born on December 24 th, was eventually to see himself as a divinely inspired saviour whose task was to free Europe from the scourge of Napoleon. But he began his life under the influence of his grandmother, Catherine the Great. In the Age of Enlightenment, Catherine had toyed with the idea of emancipating the serfs. She had chosen a Swiss tutor for Alexander, Frederic-Cesar La Harpe, who taught him about the virtues of the ancient republics.

Things changed in 1793 when Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette received the kiss of death at the guillotine. Liberal and enlightened ideas were no longer the order of the day. La Harpe was sent packing, leaving a sixteen-year-old Alexander unsure of the ways of the world. He had no wish to emulate his father, Tsar Paul, who, after his accession to the throne in 1796 began “by declaring war on all forms of “modernism”.’ (6)

Paul ruled like a petty tyrant and his murder by strangulation rocked Alexander to the core. Inspired by angry nobles, the deed traumatised his tender, young heir and as Curtis Cate remarks: “This was greatly to affect his dealings with Napoleon.” (7) It was not the first palace revolt with which he was familiar. Catherine had had Emperor Peter III murdered. Alexander quickly realized that, if he wanted to stay alive, he would have to pander to the whims of mighty nobles, most of which were great Anglophiles and no friends of France.

When Napoleon first appeared on the European stage, Alexander felt that it was the dawn of a new age of enlightenment. He saw him as a virtual demi-god: “had Alexander himself not once said to the French ambassador in Petersburg that that extraordinary man Napoleon could accomplish in one year what it would take another individual twenty years of even a lifetime to complete?” (8)

It was a time when Napoleon was receiving praise from unexpected quarters. Madame de Stael wrote in 1797 of “that intrepid warrior, the most profound thinker, the most extraordinary genius in history.” (9) Later, when Napoleon had repeatedly shown her that he was not interested in her physical charms, she adopted the role of the ‘woman scorned’. In a strange parallel, Alexander also fell out of love with his hero.

Despite Napoleon’s sweeping victory in the plebiscite of 1802, endorsing his decision to become Consul for life, Alexander took it as an act of betrayal. He wrote in a letter to la Harpe: “…the veil is now fallen. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse…Now he is one of the most egregious tyrants History has produced.” (10)

As for Napoleon, “he regarded Russia as a natural ally rather than as an enemy of France.” (11) After all, Paris and Saint Petersburg were 1,400 miles apart and with Russian’s traditional focus being to the east, he saw no need for territorial disputes between the two countries. Had Alexander been confident enough to decide his own foreign policy then, despite his earlier disillusionment, he and Napoleon might have maintained their friendship after Tilsit in 1807. However, there was already a ‘history’ of conflict between the Russian colossus and the nascent French Republic.

It was Alexander’s grandmother, Catherine the Great, who promoted the First Coalition by “encouraging Austria and Prussia to strangle the revolutionary “bastard” in its cradle by attacking the young French Republic…” (12) She was wily enough not to commit any Russian troops to the conflict. Similarly, Tsar Paul, Alexander’s father, promoted the Second Coalition allying himself with Austria, Portugal, Britain and the Turks.

By April 1799 Suvorov’s Austrians and Russians were in Milan and “Not only was there a threat of an invasion of southern France but an Anglo-Russian force had landed in Holland.” (13) Massena defeated the Russians at Zurich on September 26 th of that year and therefore prevented them from invading France by the ‘back door’. It is worth asking at this stage, what threat were the French to Russia at a time when France was assailed from all sides?

So, when the Grand Army crossed the Niemen in 1812, just who had fired the first shot?

Despite that, Napoleon was prepared to make a friendly gesture. He returned Russian prisoners of war unconditionally, even decking them out in brand new uniforms. Knowing that Tsar Paul felt badly let down by his erstwhile allies, especially the English, Napoleon further suggested that the newly elected Grand Master of the Order of Saint John, Paul himself, should have Malta. When the English took Malta, the Tsar became incensed: “The Tsar turned right round and revived the Armed Neutrality of the Northern Powers against England.” (14)

Like Alexander after him, Paul could turn his allegiance around on a sixpence, as his former allies the English might say. Both father and son had a Jekyll and Hyde personality, certainly dualistic, probably even bordering upon the schizophrenic. Surprisingly, considering his earlier attitude to Napoleon, Paul sent an envoy to Paris and broached the topic of a joint Russo-French expedition to India to teach perfidious Albion a lesson. The same idea was, of course, later suggested to Alexander by Napoleon himself.

Napoleon wrote to his brother Joseph in 1801: “The Russian attitude is very hostile towards England…peace with the Emperor (of Austria) is nothing compared with an alliance that would master England and keep Egypt for us.” (15) He was well aware of the value of a Franco-Russian alliance.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, all this came to nothing when a silk scarf tightened around Tsar Paul’s neck. However, despite his disappointment, he was to repeat his lenient policy. After the battle of Friedland in 1807, when he destroyed the Russian army, “as he had done in 1800 with Tsar Paul, Napoleon offered a gesture of friendship to Tsar Alexander by sending back several thousand Russian prisoners newly uniformed and armed.” (16)

There was a backlash from Napoleon’s own army this time, when his cold and hungry troops saw ragged, sick Frenchmen returning from Russian imprisonment. Some French prisoners were reviewed by the Tsar and given a ducat apiece, but others were withheld after various lame excuses. Napoleon was forced to get rougher with other Russian prisoners in order to achieve their release.

Even worse was to follow in 1812 when Russian soldiers, especially Cossacks, marched naked French prisoners through the snow in temperatures way below zero, or sold them to vengeful peasants so that their brains could be dashed out against logs. Partly because of this, Napoleon made strenuous efforts to evacuate the French sick from Moscow before the disastrous retreat began. Comparing the two rulers over a period of years, it can clearly be seen that Napoleon’s treatment of prisoners was the more humane.

Other problems developed between the two countries. As Felix Markham states: “Napoleon never succeeded in gaining moral acceptance by the European powers as a legitimate ruler.” (17) Even worse, cowardly terrorist attacks upon his life, promoted by the Comte d’Artois and secretly paid for by the English Cabinet, killed many innocent civilians and were obviously a great shock to the First Consul. Markham adds: “In the minds of his opponents a code of conduct prevailed which they would never have presumed to apply to a legitimate monarch.” (18)

When Napoleon had the duc d’Enghien arrested for his alleged part in another plot on his life and to show that he was not powerless in the face of these criminal attacks, the Courts of Europe were in uproar, especially when d’Enghien was summarily shot by an overzealous subordinate. Alexander was especially shocked by this turn of events.

Furthermore, although d’Enghien had served with Suvorov in Italy, and was undoubtedly a traitor, he had been a friend of Princess Amelie, the mother of Princess Elizabeth of Russia. Baden, where d’Enghien was arrested, was also linked to Alexander by marriage. Shortly after this, the Tsar’s Foreign Minister, Czartoryski played a major role in the formation of the Third Coalition.

Then, there was Austerlitz, Napoleon’s crowning triumph against the old reactionary monarchs of Europe. In tears, Alexander fled the battlefield crying: “We are infants, in the hands of a giant!” (19)

Before the battle, Napoleon had sent his ADC Savary to the Russian camp to suggest a personal meeting between the two Emperors. Scorned by the dandies surrounding Alexander, who could have come straight from the pages of Pushkin or Turgenev, this idea was rejected. It is often said that Napoleon, with his proffered olive branch, was only trying to lull the Allies into a false sense of security prior to his coup de main.

Yet, after his greatest ever victory, he sent a Russian prisoner, Colonel Repnin with a personal message to the Tsar: “Tell him that if he had heeded my proposals and accepted an interview between our outposts, I would have submitted myself to his lovely soul. He would have declared to me his intentions to give Europe a respite, and I would have agreed to them.” (20)

Unfortunately, after the battle, the Russian elite had been like a ‘duck hit on the head’ as Abraham Lincoln might have put it – they did not know what else to do but vanish in a cloud of dust. Only Czartoryski remained long enough to receive the message, and he saw to it that Alexander never heard about the offer. Years later, after his return from Elba, and before Waterloo, Napoleon sent a letter to George, the Prince Regent, requesting peace. This too, never got to its intended recipient. Yet it is always Napoleon who is blamed for ‘causing’ these wars.

The Tsar took no part in the subsequent peace negotiations and later, he allowed himself to be dragged into the conflict caused by Prussia’s unilateral declaration of war against France in 1806. Lovely, his soul might have been, but sensible it was not.

Alexander also lost the considerable backing of the British taxpayer. For every 100,000 troops Russia had put into the field, he had been getting £1,250,000 – a huge sum in those days. (21) In 1805, as well as his catastrophic intervention into Austrian territory, he had sent armies into Naples and Hanover. His support for the Prussian claim to Hanover was not popular with his paymaster and this had serious repercussions: “Prussia, Austria, and Russia were more or less impoverished nations; only English subsidies enabled them to raise and pay vast armies for year after year of hard campaigning.” (22) And now the gold stopped flowing.

It is worth stressing that, without all this money from the British Treasury, there could have been no 1805 campaign and Alexander would have been forced to agree to some accommodation with France, perhaps the very alliance Napoleon had always hoped for. There would also have been no need for the French invasion of 1812. Alexander’s love of money to buy himself the influence in Europe that his ego craved, the pecuniary appetites of the other monarchs, and the propensity of the English to dispense their largesse, was what really plunged Europe into a series of debilitating wars. Napoleon’s greatest enemy had no troops - it was the Bank of England.

Like all weak rulers, Alexander was flattered by the attention and the affected adoration of others. Even though Napoleon took a genuine liking to him at Tilsit in 1807, once Alexander left the ‘love-in’ on the raft in the middle of the river Niemen, he was soon flirting with the other powers: “Within a year he was dickering with England and had reached a tacit understanding with Austria. He had interfered with the Polish military operations in 1809 and was now attempting to persuade Poland to make him its king, while massing troops along his western frontier.” (23)

At Erfurt in 1808, all the Tsar was prepared to offer Napoleon in the case of renewed hostility with Austria was Russian neutrality. Alexander had offered Austria exactly the same thing. Yet, despite not a single Russian soldier coming to the aid of the French at Wagram in 1809, after his victory, Napoleon gave parts of Galicia to both Russia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

Alexander cynically explained his attitude to his mother, the Dowager Empress. He wanted: “to gain a breathing-space, and, during that precious interval, build up our resources…must we spoil all our work and raise suspicion of our true intentions, just because Napoleon is temporarily embarrassed?” (24) And, if Alexander’s attitude was not bad enough, Talleyrand and Caulaincourt were going to him behind Napoleon’s back. (25)

Once again, Napoleon had been the victim of an Austrian attack. He had not wanted war and was right to assume that his alliance with Russia ought to have prevented it – but for Alexander’s double-dealing. Wagram had been a tough and costly battle and Marshal Lannes, Napoleon’s friend, had been one of the casualties. This time it was Napoleon’s turn to weep after an epic confrontation. Meanwhile, the war in Spain was going badly and was a constant drain on French manpower and resources. Far from being the war-monger of legend, he was deeply realistic: “Battle should only be offered when there is no other turn of fortune to be hoped for, as from its nature the fate of a battle is always dubious.” (26)

At Erfurt, aware of his own precarious position as ruler and his need for an heir, Napoleon raised the idea of his marrying the Grand Duchess Catherine, the Tsar’s sister. But the Dowager Empress, who had already berated Alexander for having anything at all to do with the French Emperor, was not impressed. She regarded Napoleon as the Antichrist and the treaty of Tilsit as nothing less than a ‘pact with the devil’. (27) Curtis Cate suggests that Napoleon’s “highly personal feud with his imperial “brother,” Alexander of Russia was influenced by his jilted hope of being able to marry into the Romanov dynasty.” (28) Perhaps that is going too far, but Alexander’s prevarications and lack of enthusiasm for the idea did not bode well. As late as February 1810, Napoleon was being denied a final answer in regard to a younger Russian princess, as Catherine had already been married off to someone else. Hence, he married Marie–Louise of Austria.

The full extent of Napoleon’s problem with Russia was revealed by Savary, who replaced Caulaincourt as French Ambassador to Saint Petersburg in December 1807. He said: “The Emperor and Count Roumiantsov are the only friends of France in Russia.” (29) And he was only half-right there. It is no surprise to learn that Savary would never get as close to Alexander as Caulaincourt had done. In fact, Napoleon faced the implacable hostility of most of the Russian Court.

Also, by now, Alexander was no doubt looking over his own shoulder and recalling what had happened to his father, Tsar Paul, because Napoleon’s Continental System, curtailing trade with the English, was having a devastating effect upon the incomes of Russian nobles. There was not enough gold flowing into their troughs and the pigs were squealing. Alexander simply did not have enough courage to stand up to them.

When it came to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Napoleon and Alexander were poles apart. To the latter, it was not so much an encroachment upon Russia’s back yard as a take-over of its front garden. It was the territory Alexander coveted most. He was jealous of Napoleon’s acquisitions and he wanted some of his own: he saw it as little less than his birthright. Alexander had no one to blame but himself. He had entered into a Coalition against France willingly – after all, someone else was paying for it, but Russia had gambled and lost.

Yet, it was as a direct consequence of his clumsy interference in European affairs that Napoleon decided to set up the Grand Duchy as a buffer state. What really stuck in Alexander’s craw was the fact that “Nowhere in Europe were the inhabitants more rabidly pro-French and – as Tsar Alexander was chagrined to realize – so disturbingly anti-Russia.” (30) The former Polish provinces that had ‘belonged’ to Austria and Prussia, a land of four million people, stretching from the Oder river to the border of Russia at the Niemen, had been restored to the Polish people by Napoleon, thus correcting part of the misdeeds performed by Austria, Prussia and Russia all those years before.

Despite the further clamourings of Polish patriots, Napoleon resisted the pressure to reconstitute Poland itself as a nation state, primarily in deference to Alexander. He did not want to strain relations between them further, even when his 1812 campaign was underway. Had he given in to the tremendous wave of Polish nationalism, it might well have tipped the balance in the early stages of the invasion, particularly if he had accompanied it with the emancipation of the serfs.

In 1811, Alexander had planned an attack of his own and had massed a considerable force on his western border. The Polish Prince Poniatowski warned Napoleon that: “Alexander was planning a surprise attack on the relatively weak French forces left beyond the Elbe.” (31) However, his possible allies, Austria and Prussia, the usual suspects, had no stomach for it, so he backed down.

The idea that the 1812 campaign was simply a result of Napoleonic megalomania must be put to rest, despite Alexander’s all-innocent line to John Quincy Adams, the American minister at Saint Petersburg, in March of that year: “And so it is, after all, that war is coming which I have done so much to avoid.” (32)

Considering all the above, one must agree with colonel Elting when he states that: “All of this Russian military adventuring occurred before one armed French soldier stepped onto Russian soil.” (33)

That Napoleon’s final decision to invade Russia was a mistake there can be no doubt, but we have the benefit of hindsight. After years of frustration as a consequence of the slippery policies of his former protégé , and the never-ending enmity of England, Napoleon prepared for the campaign of 1812. He hoped that one decisive battle would sweep Alexander back into the fold, close Russian ports to British vessels, and so precipitate a lasting peace. Sadly for him, what followed was not the equivalent of a second Cannae but another Zama. (34) Like Hannibal, he was doomed to die in exile.

On the eve of the invasion, with the French Grand Army preparing to cross the river, Napoleon made a last reconnaissance along the banks of the Niemen. His horse stumbled and threw him. It was nothing but a slight fall, he reassured his superstitious staff. He had long since fallen from the pedestal in Alexander’s eyes and consequently, Napoleon’s hopes for a gentlemanly war with his ‘brother’ Alexander were misplaced.

To Alexander, friendship and enmity were two sides of the same coin. He had come out from behind the shadow of Tsar Paul a long time ago and now he was bent on a little political assassination of his own. What Alexander wanted was Napoleon’s complete and utter downfall, and he was prepared to go to the gates of Paris if need be in order to achieve it.


© John Tarttelin FINS


(*) JOHN R. ELTING Swords Around A Throne (1988) p.526

(1) HYWEL WILLIAMS Fifty Days That Changed The World (2008) p.211

(2) Ibid., p.113

(3) Ibid., p.114

(4) John R. Elting op.cit., p.521

(5) JOHN CLARKE The Life And Times Of George III (1972) p.110

(6) CURTIS CATE The War Of The Two Emperors (1985) pp.14-15

(7) Ibid., p.15

(8) Ibid., pp.8-9

(9) FELIX MARKHAM Napoleon (1963) p.133

(10) Curtis Cate op.cit., p.16

(11) Ibid., Preface x

(12) Ibid., p.6

(13) Felix Markham op.cit., p.70

(14) Ibid., p.89

(15) Ibid., pp.89-90

(16) John Elting op.cit., p.618

(17) Felix Markham op.cit., p.113

(18) Ibid., p.113

(19) Curtis Cate op.cit., p.19

(20) Ibid., p.19

(21) Ibid., p.7 He adds that there were “four thousand English bankers and merchants who had once inhabited the port of Kronstadt, at the mouth of the Petersburg isthmus…”

(22) John Elting op.cit., p.505

(23) Ibid., p.63

(24) Felix Markham op.cit., p.187

(25) Ibid., p.187

(26) Ibid., p.183

(27) Ibid., p.186

(28) Curtis Cate op.cit., Preface x

(29) Felix Markham op.cit., p.186

(30) Curtis Cate op.cit., p.8

(31) Felix Markham op.cit., p.188

(32) Curtis Cate op.cit., p.5

(33) John Elting op.cit., p.521

(34) See DEXTER HOYOS Hannibal’s Dynasty (2003)
Hannibal’s greatest victory occurred at the Battle of Cannae when he destroyed a Roman army of nearly 80,000. More men were killed that day than on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in the First World War. At Zama, Hannibal was defeated by Scipio Africanus. Hannibal was later hounded by the Romans and after a period as a naval commander, he committed suicide to avoid capture by taking poison. Napoleon as a youth applied to join the British navy! He was later poisoned by the Comte de Montholon on Saint Helena.