13 May 1811

15 August 1811


Franco-Russian Diplomacy, 1810-1812

Chapter 2: "This state of affairs cannot endure…" Alexander I

In 1811, Alexander I and most of the Russian nobility were less afraid of Napoleon than he would have liked them to be. But Napoleon, who had so often and so successfully cut Gordian knots with his sword, refused to understand why he should forego this method at a moment when his sword was stronger and sharper than ever before. All of his efforts were concentrated on two problems: first, to complete his preparations for war, leaving as little as possible to chance; and, second, to arrange matters so that Alexander, and not he, would be blamed for the war.

13 May 1811: Napoleon Meets with General-Count Shuvalov

On 13 May 1811, General-Count Shuvalov, Alexander's aide-de-camp, was received by Napoleon at St. Cloud. "I do not want war with Russia," Napoleon began,

"War would be a crime, because there would be no purpose in it. And I, thank God, have not yet lost my mind, or my wits.... Surely no one can think that I would sacrifice perhaps two hundred thousand Frenchmen, to restore Poland? In any case, I am not in a position to fight. I have three hundred thousand men in Spain. I am fighting there to obtain control of the coastline. I have taken Holland because her king could not prevent the import of English goods. I have annexed the Hanseatic towns for the same reason. But I have no intention of touching the Duchy of Darmstadt, or other states that have no coastline. I shall not make war on Russia, unless she violates the terms of the Tilsit agreement."

Napoleon went on in the same vein, pretending that he did not trust in Alexander's desire for peace, and alternating complaints with threats: "The Russian troops are brave, but I am quicker in collecting my forces. As you pass, you will see an army twice as numerous as yours. I know the military trade. I have been at it a long time. I know how battles are won, and lost. I cannot be intimidated, threats can have no effect on me."

And in the same breath he pointed out to Shuvalov the advantages of friendship with him, the advantages of the Tilsit policy: "Compare the war that was fought in Emperor Paul's reign with those that followed. The Tsar, whose armies had been victorious in Italy acquired only debts by war. While Alexander, having lost two wars against me, acquired Finland, Moldavia, Walachia, and several districts in Poland."

Shuvalov left convinced that Alexander must promptly decide whether he wanted peace or war with Napoleon. Despite everything, Alexander feared this war, although he tried to banish his fears and avidly sought grounds for reassurance. In the summer of 1811 he thought war probable, but his mood was by no means triumphant. Writing to Ekaterina Pavlovna about the same Oldenburg affair, in which his sister was directly interested, Alexander remarked that he regarded the matter as hopeless: "Is it possible to expect anything reasonable from Napoleon? Is he a human being who may be expected to renounce any acquisition, unless compelled by the force of arms? And have we the force of arms to compel him with?"

Alexander, however, had the hope, a sort of instinctive certainty, that Napoleon's world rule could not endure: "It seems to me more reasonable to look to time for assistance, and even to the very vastness of this evil. I cannot banish my conviction that this state of affairs cannot endure, that the suffering among all classes in Germany as in France is so great that patience itself must inevitably become exhausted." It is true that Alexander also put his trust in the help of God, help which might reveal itself in special instances in the form of regicide (not in St. Petersburg, of course, but in Paris), and he devoted a few warm words to a young man, who, according to rumor, had lately fired a shot at Napoleon and then shot himself. The Tsar expressed the hope that "the young man would find imitators." "In one way or another, this state of affairs must come to an end," he repeated.

15 August 1811: Open Hostility

Finally, Napoleon made an open demonstration of his hostility. On 15 August 1811, Napoleon's birthday, was being celebrated with the usual pomp. One of the features of this celebration was the grand reception for all diplomatic representatives in the large throne room at the court of the Tuileries. The Emperor sat on the throne. The ambassadors and ministers, in gilded costumes, with stars and orders, appeared before him with low bows. Prince Kurakin, the Russian ambassador, was in the first row.

Napoleon descended from the throne, and, walking up to Kurakin, began a conversation with him. Kurakin, an old man, an aristocrat of Catherine's days, past master of all the secrets of the courtier's art, did not enjoy the full confidence of Alexander but had been sent to Paris largely because of his portly bearing. The Tsar's real representatives in Paris were rather Nesselrode, Councilor of the Embassy, and Colonel Chernishev. But at this solemn reception, Kurakin, of course, was the chief figure. Amid the incredible opulence of Napoleon's Court and all the courtly and worldly luxury of Paris, the old Catherinian courtier did his utmost to maintain his dignity and to deck himself out with magnificence second to none.

The conversation of the Emperor with the Ambassador soon became strained. Napoleon began to accuse the Tsar of making military preparations, and of harboring warlike intentions. He declared that he set no stock in the Tsar's indignation over his annexation of Oldenburg. The real cause lay in Poland.

"I do not intend to restore Poland. The interests of my peoples do not require this. But if you force me to go to war, I shall certainly use Poland against you. I declare to you that I do not want war, and that I will not fight with you this year, if you do not attack me. I do not like the idea of a war in the north, but if the crisis does not end by November I shall call for a hundred and twenty thousand extra men; I shall continue to do this for two or three years, and if I find such a system more wearisome than war, then I shall declare war on you... and you will lose all your Polish provinces."

Apparently, he said, Russia wanted to suffer defeats similar to those suffered by Prussia and Austria. "Whether because of my luck, or the courage of my armies - or perhaps I know a thing or two about the military trade - the fact remains that I have always been successful, and I hope that I will again be successful, if you force me into a war."

Realizing the hopes his enemies put on Spain, Napoleon hastened to assure Kurakin that in time he would have seven hundred thousand men, "a number sufficient to continue the war in Spain and wage war against you." And Russia would be without allies. At this point Napoleon frankly revealed why, after Tilsit, he had thrust Prussian Bialystok upon Alexander, and, after 1809, Austrian Tarnopol.

"You count on allies, but where are they? Surely not Austria, from whom you seized three hundred thousand souls in Galicia. Nor Prussia, which will surely remember Alexander's seizure of the Bialystok district. Nor Sweden, which will recall that you have reduced her to half her size, by seizing Finland. All these injuries will be remembered, all these humiliations avenged the entire continent will be against you."

For about forty minutes Kurakin was unable to get in a word. He did finally manage to murmur that Alexander remained a true friend and ally of Napoleon. "Words!" protested Napoleon and renewed his complaints against the machinations of England, suggesting that she was trying to start a quarrel between Russia and France. Napoleon finally suggested that a new agreement be worked out. Kurakin replied that he did not have powers for this. "No powers? Then write to the Tsar to give them to you at once."

The ambassadors of rest of European states listened tensely to these prolonged accusations flung publicly in Kurakin's face. The reception came to an end. To all corners of Europe flew the news that an assault on Russia by Napoleon was inevitable.

By November 1811 Alexander no longer dared to leave St. Petersburg even to visit his sister:

"We are on constant guard: everything is so on edge, so tense, that military operations may begin at any minute. I cannot leave the centre of my administration and my activity. I must wait for a more opportune moment, and the war the may hinder me altogether."

Towards the end of November, Ambassador Prince Kurakin had no doubt of the inevitability of Napoleon's attack on Russia, and informed Chancellor Rumyantsev that Napoleon had issued a whole series of his military and administrative orders, which directly indicated the close approach of military operations. All in hope of preserving peace must be put aside:

"The time has passed when we could delude ourselves with vain hopes. The time is indeed approaching when, with courage and unyielding firmness, we must preserve our national inheritance and the integrity of our present"



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