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Soviet Union

War and Peace, 1796-1825

Catherine II died in 1796 and was succeeded by her son Paul (1796-1801). Painfully aware that Catherine had planned to bypass him and name his son, Alexander, as tsar, Paul instituted primogeniture in the male line as the basis for succession. It was one of the few lasting reforms of Paul's brief reign. He also chartered a Russian-American company, which led to Russia's acquisition of Alaska. Paul was haughty and unstable, and he frequently reversed his previous decisions, creating administrative chaos and accumulating enemies.

As a major European power, Russia could not escape the wars involving revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Paul became an adamant opponent of France, and Russia joined Britain and Austria in a war against France. Russian troops under one of Russia's most famous generals, Aleksandr Suvorov, performed brilliantly in Italy and Switzerland. Paul, however, reversed himself and abandoned his allies. This reversal, coupled with increasingly arbitrary domestic policies, sparked a coup, and in March 1801 Paul was assassinated.

The new tsar, Alexander I (1801-25), came to the throne as the result of the murder of his father, in which he was implicated. Groomed for the throne by Catherine II and raised in the spirit of enlightenment, Alexander also had an inclination toward romanticism and religious mysticism, particularly in the latter period of his reign. Alexander tinkered with changes in the central government, and he replaced the colleges set up by Peter the Great with ministries, but without a coordinating prime minister. The liberal statesman Mikhail Speranskii proposed a constitutional reform, but it was never implemented.

Alexander's primary focus was not on domestic policy but on foreign affairs, and particularly on Napoleon. Fearing Napoleon's expansionist ambitions and the growth of French power, Alexander joined Britain and Austria against Napoleon. The Russians and Austrians were defeated at Austerlitz in 1805, and the Russians were trounced at Friedland in 1807. Alexander was forced to sue for peace, and by the Treaty of Tilsit, signed in 1807, he became Napoleon's ally. Russia lost little territory under the treaty, and Alexander made use of his alliance with Napoleon for further expansion. He wrested the Grand Duchy of Finland from Sweden in 1809 and acquired Bessarabia from Turkey in 1812.

The Russo-French alliance gradually became strained. Napoleon was concerned about Russia's intentions in the Bosporous and Dardenelles straits. At the same time, Alexander viewed the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the French-controlled reconstituted Polish state, with suspicion. The requirement of maintaining a continental blockade against Britain made trading difficult, and in 1810 Alexander repudiated the obligation. In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 troops--a force that was twice as large as the Russian regular army. Napoleon hoped to inflict a major defeat on the Russians and have Alexander sue for peace. As Napoleon pushed the Russian forces back, he became seriously overextended. Although Napoleon occupied a burning Moscow, the Russians refused to surrender, and Napoleon had to retreat. The harsh wintry weather, combined with continuous harassment by Russian forces, resulted in the destruction of Napoleon's Grand Army. Fewer than 30,000 troops returned from the Russian campaign.

As the French retreated, the Russians pursued them into central and western Europe, to the gates of Paris. After the defeat of Napoleon by the allies, Alexander became known as the "savior of Europe," and he played a prominent role in the redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the same year, under the influence of religious mysticism, Alexander initiated the creation of the Holy Alliance, an agreement pledging the rulers of the nations involved to act according to Christian principles. More pragmatically, in order to prevent the resurgence of an expansionist France, the Quadruple Alliance had been formed by Russia, Britain, Austria, and Prussia in 1814. The allies created an international system to maintain the territorial status quo. This system, confirmed by a number of international conferences, ensured Russia's influence in Europe.

At the same time, Russia continued its expansion. The Congress of Vienna created the Russian Kingdom of Poland (Russian Poland), to which Alexander granted a constitution. Thus Alexander I became the constitutional monarch of Poland while remaining the autocratic tsar of Russia. He was also the limited monarch of Finland, which had been annexed on 1809 awarded autonomous status. In 1813 Russia gained territory in the Baku area of the Caucasus at the expense of Iran. By the early nineteenth century, the empire also was firmly ensconced in Alaska.

Historians have generally agreed that a revolutionary movement was born during the reign of Alexander I. Young officers who had pursued Napoleon into western Europe came back to Russia with revolutionary ideas, including liberalism, representative government, and mass democracy. Whereas in the eighteenth century intellectual Westernization had been fostered by a paternalistic, autocratic state, in the nineteenth century Western ideas included opposition to autocracy, demands for representative government, calls for the abolition of serfdom, and, in some instances, advocacy of a revolutionary overthrow of the government. Officers were particularly incensed that Alexander had granted Poland a constitution while Russia remained without one. Several clandestine organizations were preparing for an uprising when Alexander died unexpectedly in 1825. Following his death, there was confusion as to who would succeed him because his heir, Constantine, had relinquished his right to the throne. A group of officers commanding about 3,000 men refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Nicholas I, and proclaimed their loyalty to "Constantine and Constitution." Because these events occurred in December 1825, the rebels were called Decembrists. Nicholas had them surrounded and, when they refused to disperse, ordered the army to fire on them. The revolt was soon over, and the Decembrists who remained alive were arrested. Many were exiled to Siberia.

To some extent, the Decembrists were in the tradition of a long line of palace revolutionaries who wanted to place their candidate on the throne. But because the Decembrists also wanted to implement a liberal political program, their revolt has been considered the beginning of a revolutionary movement. The "Decembrists' revolt" was the first open breach between the government and liberal elements--a breach that subsequently widened.

Data as of May 1989

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