(Image credit – Wikipedia)
Napoleon died in exile in 1821 on the small British-held island of St. Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.
The Emperor was dead, but his legend was not, nor were the enormous repercussions of his revolutionary legacy. Napoleon had self-servingly but not entirely wrongly advertised himself as the stabilizer of Europe and its liberator all at the same time. To a considerable degree, he was what he claimed to be while he held power. The “liberation” was heavily tempered by militarism and the constant danger of secret-police arrest for sedition against the Emperor, but European culture and society were in rapid reformation and were, by and large, experiencing a significant advance in the recognition of personal liberties, constitutional rights, uniform and more equitable laws and social conditions, and economic opportunities. The ideals these pointed to were spread all over Europe as the French shakos marched everywhere from Portugal to Poland, and French bureaucrats and judicial officials followed in their wake, rewriting constitutions and legal systems.
Like any great conqueror and dictator, the Emperor sought to institutionalize and legitimize his rule and actions. His self-justifying memoirs were a best-seller in France and Europe when posthumously published, despite the desire of the reactionary Bourbon Kings Louis 18 and Charles 10 to repress them. Louis enjoyed a relatively peaceful, if rather short reign (1815-24). He had the good sense to allow a small minority of well-to-do middle-class and prosperous businessmen to elect a Legislative Assembly, even if it had very limited powers. He allowed a modicum of freedom of the press and assembly. Louis did not abolish all Napoleon’s reforms, for he understood that it was impossible to turn back the clock to pre-revolutionary days and hand back all the old aristocratic estates, prerogatives, and privileges, or to restore all the immense property and influence which the Roman Catholic Church had enjoyed until 1791.
Besides, Louis had intelligent advisers reminding him that the Napoleonic system had really unified France and given the central government, which was now the Royal Government, an efficient professional bureaucracy, effective control of education and finance, a universally applicable legal system not bounded by long-outmoded old feudal boundaries and traditions, and a truly effective centralized police establishment. The national constabulary was still run by Napoleon’s architect, Fouché, who, like Napoleon’s Machiavellian Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, knew which side his bread was buttered on and smoothly switched allegiances at the right time by demonstrating his own indispensability.
Louis even allowed some of the Napoleon-created Imperial nobility to retain their titles, although not respecting all the land-grants the Emperor had made to his aristocracy of merit (or nepotism). He told many of the old nobility seeking redress and revenge that to undo the last thirty years was simply impossible, and, while he would not revoke their old titles if they chose to identify themselves by them, he would not award them compensation either – although he usually gave them a lump-sum or perhaps a stipend to tide them over while they found their way in the new social and economic reality of post-1815 France. Most of the revolutionary and Napoleonic reforms stood.
But his successor and younger brother Charles X (1824-30) was a reactionary fool who had disagreed vehemently with his brother’s policies even while he lived, and declared that he meant to undo most of the Revolution’s and the “Monster’s” [Napoleon] work of modernization, despite the clear historical proof that it had made France a European super-power. He also intended to restore all the glory of the old noblesse and the Roman Catholic Church.
What was the connection to Russia in all this? In December 1825, a group of young, idealistic Russian army officers decided it was time to force the lumbering, backward apparatus of Tsarism into the modern age. While the Great Patriotic War against the Emperor of the French had galvanized the Russian Empire led by the heroic Tsar Alexander 1 in a herculean effort that led to Napoleon’s ultimate downfall, the virus of Revolution had already spread to Russia in four successive waves (shades of COVID!).
The first wave was in the first Russian intervention in the wars of Central and Western Europe at the turn of the 19th Century. Russian troops were sent to help bring down the revolution and restore “legitimate” sovereignty. The new Tsar, Alexander 1, sought to prove himself a worthy successor of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and a serious role-player in greater European (and world) affairs, not a mere regional power in Eastern Europe and northern Asia.
In alliance with Austria, in 1800 a Russian Army had penetrated all the way to Switzerland and was poised to invade France. It was at this critical juncture that “Bonaparte” returned to France from Egypt and saved the Republic and all the gains and reforms won for the French nation and people (especially the politically dominant middle class) since 1789. It was the first time Napoleon’s armies defeated Russian troops, driving them deep back into Austrian territory, although the French Army in Switzerland was commanded by another of France’s best generals. When Napoleon forced Austria into a humiliating peace after his great victory at Marengo, Alexander called his troops home.
This was the first major exposure of young Russian intelligentsia and officers (mostly recruited from Russia’s minor aristocracy and the boyar-class who were similar to the English gentleman-class) to the wide gap in culture and progress between Russia’s enshrined and immovable aristocratic stranglehold on any advance and reform and that of the rest of Europe. The Tsar, seen as a quasi-demigod in his own right, was sacred and untouchable, but he was surrounded by a wall of intransigent, immovable relics bearing high titles, immense wealth, and holding the mass of the Russian population in the almost slavish conditions of serfdom with little to no hope of change.
When Alexander had acceded to power in 1801, the idealists had placed high hopes that he, a young man himself, could be shown and persuaded that things had to change for the sake of the Russian people and the Empire itself. By 1825, the lower-grade officers (ranks below general – Generals and Marshals could only be upper-level nobles) had lost hope in Alexander or any of the established authorities of ever being willing or able to allow even the most modest reforms.
This second Russian intervention in Central Europe came in 1805. Subsidized by British money, a large Russian forced once more joined with Austria (also financed by Britain) to move rapidly into Germany to threaten Napoleon’s rear as he prepared to invade England. (This threat ended with British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s famous utter smashing of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in October 1805.)
While the young Russian officers did their duty and the rank-and-file stolidly did what they were told, in a combined campaign with the Austrians they were completely out-manoeuvred and suffered one of the most crushing defeats in military history at Austerlitz in December 1805. Once more, Austria was defeated and occupied by triumphant French forces. Napoleon wintered his “Grand Armée” in Vienna and the core territory of Austria to drive home his power. Austria was forced into the French orb for the next eight years, while the remnant of the Russian army withdrew to the newly annexed Russian part of Poland with Alexander still refusing to make peace with “the Monster” and “the Usurper”.
However, the moderate Francophile elements in Russia’s middle-class and minor nobility could not avoid being powerfully impressed by the evidence of change and progress they had met and kept meeting in foreign lands to the West of Mother Russia. They could not help thinking that Russia must accept such new ways too if it were not to be left behind. It was evident that the power of these changes and new perspectives had turned France into Europe’s super-power with the whole nation behind its supremacy in the political, social, and cultural realms. Alexander eventually made peace with Napoleon in 1807 after another defeat, and in the wake of Napoleon’s complete crushing and humiliation of Prussia in 1806. Prussia had been the only other major land-power still standing until then. Like Austria, it was completely humiliated and forced to ally with Napoleon, giving up huge tracts of territory and submitting to severe limitations on its army and political independence.
The third “wave” of exposure to the revolutionary virus for the Russian minor nobility and gentry was during the “Great Patriotic War” of 1812-14 when Napoleon sought to invade and coerce Russia to adhere to his “Continental System”, but failed. We have already discussed this, but during that war the virus penetrated to the very heart of Mother Russia. It did not retire with Napoleon’s beaten army as 1812 drew to a close.
The fourth wave was during the Russian occupation of Paris and parts of France following Napoleon’s abdication in 1815. The Russian army and swarms of Russian civilians followed the army into the heart of “revolutiondom”. Despite the Bourbon dynasty’s return to France, all the ferment and undertow of the revolutionary-Napoleonic tsunami were still pulsating and swirling. The example of so much exposure to new ideas and perspectives journeyed home with the last withdrawing Russian contingents in 1818.
In 1818, the Tsar joined with the Emperor of Austria and the King of Prussia to assume the role of arbiters of legitimacy in all of Europe east of France. All revolts and insurrections aiming for greater rights and liberties for the common people were ruthlessly crushed henceforward, and Poland and Italy in particular felt the wrath of “the League of Three Emperors” and “their Most Christian Majesties”, although King Frederick-William of Prussia was technically not an emperor. This was the clincher for the fading hopes of the Russian reformists. It confirmed the hopelessness of Russia’s fossilization symbolized by Alexander’s now ossified “delusion”, in their minds, of being God’s anointed instrument in crushing the godless French Emperor.
In December 1825 the Tsar died unexpectedly of typhus. The desperate wannabe Russian proto-revolutionaries decided to act before the still more reactionary successor, Nicholas I, could consolidate his rule, revolted, and briefly threatened the whole Tsarist system with chaos and overthrow. They failed. The seeds of all this had been long-before sown in and from and through France.
The wind had been sown; the whirlwind would follow.
TO BE CONTINUED