The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon

Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon
Marie -Pierre Rey
Northern Illinois University Press   431pp   £26

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Although he has a starring role in one of the most widely read novels in the literary canon, Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), and has been the subject of many biographies, Alexander I (r.1801-25) remains a shadowy figure. Every aspect of his life, beginning with his ascent to the throne as a consequence of the murder of his father, raises intriguing questions. His ambiguous relationships with women, his tortuous spiritual odyssey, his conflicting liberal and reactionary instincts and, finally, the legends surrounding his death all present the historian with tantalising riddles.

This new biography is a welcome addition to the existing literature. Marie-Pierre Rey has unearthed from the St Petersburg archives a wealth of new material that helps to explain the workings of this complex and unbalanced personality. Even if this does not solve any of the riddles, it provides new insights and deepens understanding of his predicament.

She is illuminating on Alexander’s childhood and strange upbringing at the hands of his grandmother, Catherine the Great. Like her, he was by blood almost entirely German and his principal tutor, the Swiss Laharpe, concentrated on the Classics and western civilisation. As Professor Rey points out, this was perhaps not the best preparation for a Russian tsar. It certainly goes some way to explain his fear and dislike of the Russian nobility.

This strange upbringing turned Alexander into an introspective, tortured soul. An early marriage that went wrong compounded this, while the death of every child he sired, which he saw as divine punishment for his sins, filled him with guilt and self-loathing. His ambivalent attitude to the established Orthodox faith did not allow him to find solace in that quarter. Rey’s intelligent and sensitive treatment succeeds in arousing sympathy for a not altogether attractive character.

Ironically, considering the subtitle, this book is weakest on the contest between Alexander and Napoleon, which began in 1805 and ended with the latter’s downfall in 1814. Rey’s coverage of Alexander’s role in the Third Coalition, which resulted in the defeats of Austerlitz and Friedland, is disappointingly thin. Much the same goes for the ensuing meeting at Tilsit, where the unfortunate tsar had to swallow his wounded pride and become his enemy’s closest associate. Rey’s account of the epic events of 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia and lost his army, is barely adequate considering their importance. It reveals a tenuous grasp of the diplomacy, strategy and tactics involved and appears to be based on outdated sources, with no reference to the recent work of Russian historians.

She is no more sure-footed on the counterpoint of war and diplomacy that followed this disastrous campaign, while her coverage of the Congress of Vienna is disappointing, considering how important it was to Alexander. He was determined to dominate the peace-making process and, as his involvement was as emotional as it was political, it not only affected the shape of Europe but also marked an important stage in his view of the world and his role in it. Yet Rey accords it barely 15 pages, based on dated secondary sources. The spiritual trajectory which gave rise to the Holy Alliance and the significance of that document are passed over in a few sentences.

Rey comes into her own again in the final ten years of Alexander’s reign, where her original research helps her shed light on the sad twilight of his life, when he keenly felt his inadequacy as a ruler and his inability to tackle the serious problems facing his country. He retreated into himself but, while he sought it in various religious and spiritual traditions, he never found the inner peace he craved.

Unfortunately for the English reader, Marie-Pierre Rey has been very poorly served by her translator, whose ungainly, wooden prose and infelicitous style – Catherine the Great refers to her grandson as ‘this kid’ – could be forgiven were it not for graver ineptitude. The bizarre translation of names and titles, producing oddities such as ‘Viscount Lord Castlereagh’ and the rendition of the French Abbé as ‘Abbot’, cry out to heaven. Worse, some quotations are so badly translated as to deform their meaning. Professor Rey deserves better and the publishers bear a heavy burden of responsibility for this.

Adam Zamoyski is the author of Poland: A History (HarperPress, 2009).

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