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11th - 15th century
16th - 17th century
18th century
19th century
     Paul I and Alexander I
     Tilsit and beyond
     Russian campaign
     Quadruple and Holy Alliances
     December revolution
     Nicholas I
     Russian gains in Asia
     Emancipation of the serfs
     Slavophils and Narodniki
     Autocracy and mother Russia
     Radicals in and out of Russia

To be completed

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Paul I and Alexander I: 1796-1807

Catherine the Great dies in 1796 after a reign of thirty-four years. She is succeeded by Paul I, a son whom she has consistently undermined and who has lived his life, from the age of eight, in the conviction that his mother organized the murder of his father, Peter III, in 1762. He makes an unstable and tyrannical emperor until he is himself murdered, in 1801, by a faction of disaffected army officers. Paul's son, Alexander I, connives at the assassination, being warned of the event in advance.

Eager to dissociate himself from his father's despotism, Alexander begins his reign by attempting to introduce liberal measures. But broader European issues soon dominate his policy, as they have done that of his father.


The revolution in France, and the wide-ranging adventures of French armies, demand the attention of all European rulers from the 1790s. Many of Paul I's repressive measures have been an attempt to ensure that revolutionary ideas do not take hold in autocratic Russia. But his foreign policy has been more ambiguous. Russia joins the Second Coalition against France in 1798, but changes sides two years later and forms the League of Armed Neutrality against Britain.

Alexander I similarly veers from side to side in foreign policy, from his accession in 1801 until the decisive events of 1812. His first firm commitment comes in 1805.


To Tilsit and beyond: 1805-1810

In 1805 Alexander joins the Third Coalition against Napoleon. During the autumn and early winter of that year Russian and Austrian armies attempt to confront Napoleon in central Europe but they are comprehensively outmanoeuvred. The Austrians lose on their own at Ulm, and a joint Austrian and Russian army is heavily defeated at Austerlitz. The Austrians sign a treaty with the French, but the Russians agree only a truce.

The next year the Russians have new allies in the coalition. The Prussians join the fray. But as with the Austrians at Ulm, Napoleon tackles them before they can join up with the Russians. In October 1806 he confronts the Prussians alone in twin battles at Auerstadt and Jena.


At both sites the French are victorious. Within six weeks, before Russian assistance arrives, Napoleon overruns the whole of Prussia.

The Russians prove, at first, rather tougher opponents. A two-day engagement at Eylau (7-8 February 1807) brings heavy casualties but no advantage to either side. But at Friedland, on June 14, Napoleon wins a decisive victory over the Russian army. The result is the extraordinary meeting between Napoleon and the Russian tsar, Alexander I, on 25 June 1807 near Tilsit. Neither will set foot on territory held by the other, so it is agreed that they will meet in the middle of the river, the Neman, which forms the border between them.


An elegant room is built on a raft with a door on either side, each showing the appropriate imperial eagle. The two emperors cast off from their respective river banks at the same moment, but the French oarsmen outrow the Russians. Napoleon is far enough ahead to be able to open the Russian door from the inside and greet the tsar.

The two men get on well. Together they set about carving up Europe. After two weeks of conference Russia's ally Prussia has been gravely weakened, by mutual agreement between the emperors. Russia could easily have fought on after Friedland. But Prussia is occupied by the French and is helpless.


Prussia's share of Poland is taken to provide a grand duchy of Warsaw, to be ruled by the king of Saxony (a newly acquired ally of Napoleon). Prussian territory is severely reduced in similar fashion in the west to make room for a kingdom of Westphalia. French troops will remain in Prussia until an indemnity of 120 million francs has been paid. And Prussia is to close her ports to Britain as part of Napoleon's new Continental System.

Russia also agrees to join the Continental System in certain circumstances and according to a clear timetable, laid down in one of the secret clauses in the Tilsit agreement.


Russia and France will together demand of Britain that she allows freedom of the seas to ships of all nations and that she returns any territories seized since 1805. If this is not agreed by November 1807, the two emperors will insist that Sweden, Denmark and Portugal (the only nations still neutral or allied to Britain) close their ports to British ships and join France and Russia in declaring war.

If an invasion of Sweden proves necessary, France will have no objection to the Russian annexation of Swedish Finland. Moreover France will give diplomatic support to Russia against Turkey in the Balkans. The two emperors are in satisfactory agreement.


Napoleon's advantage from the agreement at Tilsit is clear. The removal of Russia from Europe's battlefields leaves him free to tighten his hold elsewhere. Three months after Tilsit, in October 1807, he sends an army south to occupy Portugal. In 1809, when Austria re-enters the war in a lone initiative, he concludes a quick summer campaign with victory at Wagram - and then clinches his dominance of Austria by marrying the archduchess Marie Louise.

By now the rosy glow of Tilsit has faded. It has served Napoleon's purposes and Alexander has derived little benefit. In 1810 Napoleon annexes Oldenburg, a state with strong Russian links. Alexander imposes trade restrictions on French goods. War seems increasingly likely.


The Russian campaign: 1812

With Austria an ally by conquest and marriage, Prussia crushed into submission, and nearly the whole of western Europe as his empire, Napoleon perhaps understandably feels justified in taking a strong line with Russia.

In spite of the congenial mood of Tilsit in 1807, and an attempt by Napoleon to revive it in another grand meeting at Erfurt in 1808, Alexander I fails to give any practical support to his ally in the 1809 campaign against Austria. There are various reasons. The Continental System is doing harm to Russia's Baltic trade. The introduction of French republican principles in the grand duchy of Warsaw alarms St Petersburg. And the terms agreed by the tsar at Tilsit have been unpopular in Russia from the start.


With war between the two empires increasingly probable, Napoleon moves first in what he intends to be a massive and rapid strike. From February 1812 armies begin to march from many different regions to converge on the river Neman (the border famous already for the raft at Tilsit).

The assembled force is vastly impressive, with 500,000 infantry, 100,000 cavalry and 80,000 in the baggage trains. About 200,000 of these troops are the French Grand Army. There are other contingents from all over Napoleon's world, including even some rather half-hearted regiments from Prussia and Austria. The crossing of the Neman into Russia begins on June 24.


The confronting Russian armies are heavily outnumbered, so they withdraw - dragging the French ever deeper into an environment where it is hard to find food for such large numbers of men and horses. There are occasional engagements, but the first major battle takes place on September 7 at Borodino - at a distance, by then, of only seventy miles from Moscow.

The result is a narrow victory for Napoleon over a Russian army commanded by the veteran Kutuzov. The Russians withdraw once again, leaving Moscow open to Napoleon. A week later he enters the city, only to find much of it burning - set on fire by the Russians.


Napoleon waits in Moscow for a month, vainly hoping that envoys will arrive to make terms. Nobody comes. He sends ambassadors to the Russian camp to suggest negotation. A sign of weakness. Winter is approaching. On October 18 Napoleon gives the order to withdraw.

The retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow in 1812 has become one of the classic images of an invading force suffering disaster and devastation. Harried by regular Russian troops, by guerrillas and by hostile villagers, amid falling snow and plunging temperatures, often finding the bridges ahead of them destroyed, the columns and squadrons of Napoleon's greatest army seem to face an impossible task in getting home. Most fail to do so.


It is calculated that of more than 600,000 who entered Russia that summer, only about 112,000 come out again. The effect on Napoleon's ability to raise another army of this calibre is devastating, but not as great as the damage to his reputation. All over Europe that winter, as the news spreads, people chafing under French domination begin to imagine a different future.

Napoleon, desperate to arrive in Paris before the bad news, hands the command over to Murat and hurries on ahead. He reaches the city on December 18 and sets about recovering the situation. The astonishing fact, typical of the man and his energy, is the extent to which he is able to do so - at any rate for another eighteen months.


But he now has an implacable enemy in his erstwhile friend from Tilsit. Russian armies are the constant element in the mounting assault upon France in 1813-14. They are reinforced by the return to the cause of first Prussia then Austria.

When the allies enter Paris with pomp and ceremony on 31 March 1814, tsar Alexander I rides in the cavalcade with the king of Prussia, Frederick William III. In the Champs Elysées they dismount to take the salute. Both men, together with Francis I of Austria, are now well placed to supervise the return of Europe to a reactionary and pre-revolutionary status quo. They do so through their leading roles in the Congress of Vienna and in the Holy Alliance.


Quadruple and Holy Alliances: 1814-1822

At the treaty of Chaumont in 1814, during the advance on Paris, Napoleon's four main enemies (Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain) have pledged themselves not to make peace with France individually.

This Quadruple Alliance is renewed in a different form at the congress of Vienna, when the same nations agree to hold regular congresses in order to safeguard the newly re-established peace in Europe. This so-called congress system lasts for four international gatherings, from Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle) in 1818 to Verona in 1822.


Meanwhile there is another group, professing a similar purpose, which derives from an initiative of the Russian emperor Alexander I. Russia's sufferings at Napoleon's hands in 1812 have inspired him with what he believes to be a God-given mission.

In Paris in the autumn of 1815, negotiating for the second time a peace treaty with France, Alexander persuades two other autocratic rulers among the victorious nations - the king of Prussia and the emperor of Austria - to join him in a Holy Alliance to promote a peaceful community of Christian nations.


The intention is for all the European powers to join this Holy Alliance. Eventually there are just three notable absentees - Great Britain, papal Rome and the Ottoman empire.

The main issue confronting both alliances is whether the powers should intervene when legitimate rulers are threatened by internal revolution. The members of the Holy Alliance tend to say yes. Austria wins approval when intervening to protect the crowned heads of Naples and Piedmont in 1821. But in 1822, at the congress of Verona, Britain opposes plans for intervention in Spain and Latin America - and subsequently withdraws from the Quadruple Alliance. (Regardless of this a French army marches into Spain in 1823 to restore Ferdinand VII to his throne.)


This brings to an end the congress system, but the principle of regular cooperation between nations on such issues has been established and will not be forgotten.

Meanwhile members gradually defect from the Holy Alliance, until it consists only of its three founders, Russia, Prussia, Austria. As such it seems merely a club of the more reactionary crowned heads of Europe attempting to hold back the tide of progress in an age of revolution. With intervention across frontiers now generally discouraged, each ruler is likely to be on his own in confronting unrest. But the contagion of rebellion knows no boundaries. Radical notions prove hard to quarantine, in spite of the best efforts of Europe's secret police.


The December revolution: 1825

Russia's first revolution follows immediately on the death of Alexander I in 1825. Since the second half of the 18th century there has been a movement within Russia for constitutional reform (representative government in some form and an end to serfdom). After the Napoleonic wars it becomes associated with secret societies within the army. They see an opportunity to press their demands in 1825, as a direct result of incompetence within the imperial family.

Alexander I has no children. The eldest of his brothers, Constantine (who prefers to live in Poland with his Polish wife), has renounced his claim to the throne. But this is considered a state secret. Nobody has even told Nicholas, the next brother in line of succession.


Alexander I dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Nicholas, in ignorance and in St Petersburg, pledges allegiance to his elder brother as the new tsar. So, naturally, does the army. But Constantine, in Warsaw, does nothing. The interregnum lasts three weeks. When the imperial family has finally sorted out the muddle, the army is instructed to make a new pledge of allegiance to tsar Nicholas I. They are given orders to do so on December 26.

A group of officers make a calculated bid to impose their constitutional demands upon the new tsar (whichever brother he may be). They persuade the soldiers that the new pledge is part of a coup. Armed platoons take to the streets with banners demanding 'Constantine and a constitution'.


For some hours Nicholas in person confronts and argues with the rebels on a square in St Petersburg. The confrontation ends when he gives the order for rounds of grapeshot from his artillery. About eighty lie dead when the rebel soldiers and the crowd have dispersed in panic.

The leaders of the plot are easily found and arrested. Five are eventually hanged. Their uprising achieves nothing, being the prelude to a long and increasingly oppressive reign by Nicholas I. But under the name of Decembrists (or in its more Russian form Dekabrists), they are later revered as the first martyrs in Russia's long revolutionary tradition.


Nicholas I: 1825-1855

Nicholas is by nature a martinet. He much enjoys the certainties of drill on the parade ground. In the larger context of his imperial responsibilities he sees his duty as keeping order in Christian Europe, in the continuing spirit of the Holy Alliance formed by his brother Alexander I.

Within Russia, and in partnership with other crowned heads in western Europe, this policy means constant vigiliance against the threat of revolution (the revolutionary years of 1830 and 1848 both fall within his reign). In eastern Europe and the Balkans it means asserting his authority, as the leader of Orthodox Christianity, on behalf of Christians in the Ottoman empire.


For much of his reign he achieves a sensible diplomatic accomodation with the Turkish sultan in the affairs of the Balkans, and with other European nations over sensitive issues such as access to the Black Sea.

It is therefore the crowning disappointment of his life, and probably a contributory cause of his death, that diplomatic miscalculations escalate to the point where Russia finds herself at war in the Crimea, from March 1854, with France and Britain as well as Turkey. When Nicholas dies, in March 1855, the Russian naval base of Sebastopol has endured about half its eleven-month siege. But setbacks in the Crimea prove trivial compared to the gains being achieved elsewhere.


Russian gains in Asia: 19th century

During the 17th century the Russian empire expanded rapidly eastwards through Siberia to the Pacific coast. Now, in the 19th century, important consolidations are made to the south of this vast region.

Russian control is gradually exerted over the fierce Turkish tribes living to the east of the Caspian Sea. By mid-century the region north of the Aral Sea is securely incorporated, bringing the Kazakhs within the empire. During the reign of Alexander II the pressure continues southwards on the territory of the Uzbeks. By 1885 the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand are in Russian hands. The emperor's writ reaches now to the frontiers of Persia and Afghanistan.


Meanwhile, in the far east, Russia has exacted valuable concessions from the weakened Qing dynasty in China. Under the treaty of Aigun (one of the 'unequal treaties' resulting from the Opium Wars) Russia is granted in 1858 the Pacific coast from its Siberian border southwards to the frontier with Korea. At the southern end of this coastline, as far as possible from the ice of the Arctic Circle, Russia is now able to develop the naval base of Vladivostok.

With her extensive territory on the Baltic and the Black Sea (gained in the wars of the 18th century), Russia has now assembled the mighty empire which will survive as a single state until the 1990s.


Alexander II and emancipation of the serfs: 1855-1861

When Alexander II succeeds his father, in 1855, the Crimean war has lasted a year and there are already the first tentative discussions of peace between the belligerent powers. They result eventually in the treaty of Paris, in March 1856, by which Russia loses some territory on the shores of the Black Sea and the right to keep a navy in those waters.

This conclusion is a blow to Russia's pride, particularly since Nicholas has been much concerned with building up the empire's military strength. Reform is clearly required. The new tsar devotes himself to a radical change of policy. He focuses first on the most striking and harmful anachronism in Russia - the survival of serfdom.


Serfdom, familiar in various forms throughout medieval Europe, has been given a rigid legal status in Russia by Boris Godunov in the 16th century - at a period when serfs elsewhere have already become free peasants and labourers. By the 18th century serfdom is widely recognized by many in Russia as an injustice and an obstacle to economic progress. Catherine the Great tries to introduce reform early in her reign, but her plans are thwarted by the reactionary nobles who own the serfs.

Even Nicholas I, in other ways repressive in his home policy, forms committees to consider the problem of serfdom - a matter of increasing urgency in view of the frequent rural uprisings during his reign.


On his accession in 1855, Alexander II moves quickly and effectively. Between 1857 and 1861 proposals for emancipation are widely and thoroughly discussed. As many as forty-six provincial committees, each representing the local owners of serfs, make recommendations to a drafting commission.

The result is a law of March 1861 which frees all serfs and obliges landlords to provide each family with a plot of land for a fixed rent. The peasants also have the right to purchase their plots, in which case the government pays the landowner the full price in 5% bonds. The peasant, instead of paying rent, redeems the government loan over a period of forty-nine years.


The peasants are organized in communes, under a village council with strong powers. The members of the council are elected elders. In practice these bodies are much influenced by government and police pressure. But the village communes inspire Russia's increasingly excitable revolutionaries with the vision of a different type of society on the far side of political upheaval.

Alexander II follows the emancipation of the serfs with other important reforms - in local government, the law and the army. But as so often, reform feeds an appetite for more of the same and faster. The second half of the reign is characterized by revolutionary ferment and, in response, increasing government repression.


Slavophils and Narodniki: 1855-1881

The two main groups proposing radical change in the reign of Alexander II are the Slavophils and the Narodniki. They are at opposite ends of the conventional political spectrum, representing the right and the left respectively, but they share a romantic notion of Russia - whose real identity they find in the villages and peasant communes.

The Slavophils believe that Russia has an identity, deriving from her Slav origins, which is intrinsically different from the rational and materialistic nations of western Europe. Their villain is Peter the Great, whose efforts brought about the westernization of holy Russia.


The Russian soul is seen, by the Slavophils, in the piety and warmth of a peasant community living around a Russian Orthodox church. This is a way of life isolated from the harsh realities of politics. Protection from these realities is provided by the rule, necessarily autocratic, of the Russian tsar, appointed by God for this purpose. The political philoshophy of the Slavophils is summed up in the phrase Revolutionary Conservatism, the title of a pamphlet by one of their leading writers, Yuri Samarin.

The Narodniki similarly revere the peasant commune, but for an opposite reason. They see it, in keeping with its name, as the seed bed of communism - a life of shared ownerhip, which they believe must prevail throughout the wider society.


The Narodniki derive their name from the Russian narod (people) and are therefore usually translated as Populists. Partly inspired by the broader European movement of communism, they adapt Marx's theories to what they believe to be a model more appropriate to Russia. Elsewhere it may be necessary to go through a stage of bourgeois capitalism, and to rely on the industrial proletariat to achieve revolution, but in rural Russia they foresee an unbroken development from the peasant communes to the final achievement of socialism.

But first the message needs to be taken to the peasants. From the late 1860s there develops the movement known as khozhdenie v narod - 'going to the people'.


In this campaign young intellectuals and students dress in peasant clothes and disperse in the countryside to begin the work of indoctrination and subversion. The peasants are bewildered and the intruders are easily identified; arrests and trials follow.

The more extreme groups within the Narodniki respond with acts of terrorism, orchestrated by Zemlya y Volya (Land and Freedom), a secret society formed in 1876. This is soon followed by a more radical cell, Narodnaya Volya (People's Freedom). Their most distinguished victim is the tsar himself, Alexander II, killed in 1881 when a bomb is thrown at him at close quarters in St Petersburg. Russia's great era of reform ends with an act of violent extremism.


Autocracy and mother Russia: 1881-1905

The Russian tradition of autocracy continues uninterrupted during the last two reigns of the Romanov dynasty. It is even reinforced in its malign effects by an increasing emphasis on 'russification' - a conservative version of the programme of the Slavophils.

In accordance with this policy, supported by both Alexander III (on the throne from 1881 to 1894) and his son Nicholas II, there is discrimination against non-Slav minorities (in Finland, in the Baltic states, in Armenia, as also against Muslims in central Asia and Jews in any part of the empire). There are attempts everywhere to impose Russian as the language of government and education.


These policies add many localized resentments to the mounting frustration felt by others agitating for more general aims, ranging from constitutional government to full-scale revolution.

The last two decades of the 19th century are years of intense political activity in Russia, carried on in universities and in secret societies. One group in particular proves of lasting significance. Russian intellectuals are much involved in the international socialist movement associated with Karl Marx - though Russia's autocratic system ensures that the activists among them tend to live abroad.


Radicals in and out of Russia: 1835-1902

The careers of Russian revolutionaries, under close observation by the tsar's secret police, follow a predictable pattern. In early life there are spells of enforced exile in central Asia or Siberia. Later, prudence suggests the need for voluntary exile abroad. In some foreign land, more liberal in its laws, the influential rebel writes inflammatory material to be smuggled back into Russia.

An early example is Alexander Herzen. Arrested soon after leaving Moscow university, he is exiled in 1835 to the Urals.


From 1847 Herzen lives abroad, in Paris until the collapse of the second French republic in 1852, then in London and from 1868 in Geneva. For eight years, from 1857, he writes and prints a newspaper (Kolokol, The Bell) which is widely but secretly read in radical circles in Russia.

Geneva is also the base for a group of Russian exiles who in 1883 establish Liberation of Labour, a movement with principles more specifically Marxist than Herzen's. Their aim is to educate Russian revolutionaries in the principles of Marxism. In 1895 they are visited in Geneva by a young enthusiast, Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov - known to history as Lenin.


Lenin has a family link with revolution. Eight years earlier his brother Alexander, while still a student, was involved in a Narodnaya Volya plot to assassinate Alexander III and was executed. Now Lenin, more practical a politician than his brother, returns from Geneva to become one of the founders in St Petersburg of the Union for the Struggle of the Liberation of the Working Class.

He is soon arrested, imprisoned for a little more than a year, and then exiled to Siberia from 1897 to 1900. Trotsky, Lenin's junior by nine years, is also separately in exile in Siberia from 1898 to 1900.


Both Lenin and Trotsky are absent, therefore, when radical groups from several cities gather in Minsk in 1898 to form the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party. This is later seen as the founding event of the Russian Communist party, but it has little immediate effect. All its leading members are soon tracked down by the police and arrested.

In July 1900 Lenin leaves Russia with the intention of publishing a newspaper abroad for circulation in Russian cities. Under the title Iskra (The Spark), it becomes the organ through which Lenin makes himself the centre of an influential party. Trotsky joins him on the staff of Iskra in 1902.


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