Agamemnon Sidelined: Why the Victory in 1812-1815 Was Less Rewarding for Russia Than for the Rest of Europe

Summarizing the foreign policy consequences of Napoleon’s defeat by the coalition of European powers led by Russia, one can conclude that they were much less benign for Russia than for the rest of Europe. The Western powers did not start viewing Russia as “one of their own.” The anti-Russian coalition that they formed in 1853 revealed that neither Austria nor Britain ever intended to show any gratitude for the “legitimist” exploits of Russia, as Nicholas I expected.

Russia’s role in the events of 1812-1815 which ultimately led to the defeat of Napoleonic France and established the first system of “collective security” in Europe at the Viennese Congress, was a monumental, but unjustly underestimated achievement. Why was it monumental? The mere fact that the Congress of Vienna terminated a 25 years long period of European history, which had been marred by constant wars and instability, speaks for itself. A period of relative inter-state peace in European history followed until the Crimean war of 1853-1856; some historians extend this period until the start of World War I in 1914, since the periodic conflicts that erupted during those 100 years, were certainly less acute than the “volcanic activity” that followed the French Revolution of 1789. The European order created in Vienna in 1815 saw Europe produce some of the greatest technical and artistic achievements in the history of mankind. This relatively benign turn of events was by no means guaranteed: in 1812 Russia was outnumbered and outgunned by the combined forces of the rest of Europe headed by Napoleon; Paris’s fall in 1814 was the first such event in 400 years (last time the French capital fell in 1415); in 1813-1814 Napoleon several times “reproduced” smaller versions of “la Grande Armée” which he had led to Russia in 1812. 

Why was the victory forgotten?

Why was Russia’s role underestimated? Inside Russia itself, the reason was the seizure of power in 1917 by Bolsheviks, a special kind of extremists which justly found in themselves lots of similarities with the French revolutionaries of 1790s. The early Bolsheviks found in themselves even more sympathy for Napoleon, who was both an offspring and a destroyer of the French Revolution, than for the hated czar and the Russian state that he symbolized. Russia’s communist rulers viewed the European settlement of 1814-1815 as a success of their mortal enemy – the Tsarist regime – and willingly supported the version about this settlement’s “reactionary” character. Stalin, having “rehabilitated” the defensive war of 1812, did not go as far as recognizing Russia’s role in the greatest European stabilization in the nineteenth century. So, Russia had to wait until 1990s for an alternative, more benign view of these events to become possible on its own territory.

Inside the countries of Western and Central Europe, as well as the United States, the reasons for lessening Russia’s role in the 1812-1815 ordeal were, obviously, different from the ones dominating in Russia. They were connected with the raison d’état and a wish to “forget about Russia,” still very strong in the West. The anti-Napoleonic coalition that ultimately toppled Bonaparte in 1813-1815 was in fact a “coalition of the unwilling,” just like the anti-Hitler coalition in 1941-1945. The Western powers in both cases refused to see Russia as a real long-term ally. Forced to ally themselves to Russia for some time by sudden outbursts of the dark, destructive, anti-Christian forces, hidden in the very nature of the godless “pragmatic” vision of European destiny and embodied in the figures of Napoleon and Hitler, the Western powers parted ways with Russia as soon as the coalition’s immediate aims were achieved, both in 1815 and in 1945.

Treacherous allies

In 1814-1815 it was the case with Britain, which abandoned the Russian ally as soon as the immediate danger (domination of Europe by one continental European power with a strongman at its head) subsided. The other European nations, whose representatives joined both Napoleon’s and (less willingly) Hitler’s “anti-crusades” against Russia, quickly tried to forget Russia’s role in the defeat of their erstwhile leaders and oppressors. Both in the nineteenth and the twentieth century a version about “double oppression” from Russian and the homegrown West European dictators was developed in such countries as Poland or Hungary. This version, sometimes in a travestied and simplified form, is now supported by the “heavy artillery” of the West- and Central European media. The historical science, which finds itself under heavy political influence in Europe and especially the US, is not much more objective than the media. As for Russia’s success in fighting the unexpectedly barbarous Europeans on its territory, it was usually ascribed to cold weather and a chain of coincidences – something that not only the Soviet marshals, but even Denis Davydov, a hero of the 1812 campaign, complained about. (Davydov even titled his memoirs “Was it Cold Weather that Destroyed the French Army in 1812?”)

In what ways did this duplicitous character of the anti-Napoleonian alliance translate itself into the works of the Congress of Vienna? On January 1, 1815, when a peace treaty between the USA and Britain was signed, the head of British diplomacy, viscount Robert Castlereagh, immediately started looking for ways to limit Russia’s influence in Europe. A secret treaty was signed by the representatives of Britain, Austria and France, which was directed against Russia and which obliged all three parties to provide armies of 150 thousand men each in case of an attack against any of them. This was the early precursor of the policy of Western powers in 1940s, when London, Washington and Paris started plotting against their formal ally even before Hitler was totally defeated. In 1815, Napoleon cracked up not to be yet utterly defeated neither. When Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and approached Paris in March 1815, the French king Louis XVIII escaped from Paris in such a haste that he left a copy of the secret treaty in his palace. Napoleon, eager to inform Russia on the true nature of its allies, transferred the treaty to the Russian side. An unpleasant conversation between Alexander I and Charles-Maurice Talleyrand (the French foreign minister who represented Louis XVIII at the Congress of Vienna) followed. When Alexander produced the original of the treaty to his French interlocutor, it was the first situation in the career of Talleyrand, when he did not find words to respond. And this counts for something in the case of Talleyrand, a defrocked priest who had served all the French regimes since 1789, a symbol of pragmatic immorality of “progressive” Europe.

Alexander I played down the situation. According to the version of events published in the academic series “Russia’s Foreign Policy” (Moscow, 1960) he threw the document into the fire and said: “We have other problems before us. Napoleon is back. Our alliance has to be stronger than ever now.” In this way, a sudden return of Napoleon in 1815 nipped in the bud a nineteenth century variant of the “cold war” between Russia and a coalition of Western powers. Alexander I, who was not an angel from Alexander’s Column in St. Petersburg, but still a much better person than vindictive Joseph Stalin, chose to avoid confrontation with the West, despite ample evidence of the latter’s treachery. The result was indisputably positive: peace in Europe held out until the Crimean war of 1853-1856, a period equal to the period of the cold war, but without the damaging confrontation and limitations on travel, characteristic of the twentieth century.

“Progress” versus honor

In the twentieth century, the dominant view of the epoch that followed the Congress of Vienna was a “progressist” one, with Russia playing the role of “the gendarme of Europe,” while the Hungarian and Polish rebellions, with all their contradictions, were depicted in a positive light. Obviously, this was not the way most of the contemporaries viewed this situation. If 20th century historians viewed it in terms of “progress versus reaction,” the Russian emperors viewed it in terms of “Christianity against godlessness” or “honor against treachery” (a view most characteristic of Nicholas I). Alexander I viewed himself as a new Agamemnon, who led a present day coalition of modern likes of Achilles and Odysseus against the new impious Troy. Nicholas in his writings resented the fact that “memories of good deeds are forgotten much faster than memories of insults.”

Who were the insulted ones? Of course, Poles, Hungarians and Italians, the underprivileged parties inside the system that formed itself after the Congress of Vienna, deserve historians’ respect and sympathy. But some of the methods used by the insurgents from these nations, as well as by Decembrists in Russia, deserve condemnation from a modern point of view. Even some of the Polish generals called the officers who started the rebellion in 1830 “murderers.” As for the Decembrists, modern Russian historiography pays more and more attention to the violent component of that movement. Some of their methods would be called terrorist now. And the same can be said about a lot of the nineteenth century European revolutionary movements, so stubbornly opposed by Alexander I and Nicholas I.

Europe without Russia: self-defeating policy

Summarizing the foreign policy consequences of Napoleon’s defeat by the coalition of European powers led by Russia, one can conclude that they were much less benign for Russia than for the rest of Europe. The Western powers did not start viewing Russia as “one of their own.” The anti-Russian coalition that they formed in 1853 revealed that neither Austria nor Britain ever intended to show any gratitude for the “legitimist” exploits of Russia, as Nicholas I expected. For Russia, the disappointment was great, since it paid the heaviest price for the European stabilization, which preceded the Crimean war. The Napoleonic wars were led with much more barbaric cruelty in Russia in 1812, than in the rest of Europe. Obviously, the civilized Europeans in 1812 did not have any qualms about plundering “barbaric” Russians, and did not bother to provide compensations or excuses, as it was the case in Austria and Prussia in preceding and subsequent wars. However, the nineteenth century proved that attempts to exclude Russia from the European politics were counterproductive – for European powers themselves. Russia as the ultimate European conservative (a role traditionally played by our country during the last two centuries, with the relatively short break during the Sturm und Drang period of communist expansionism in 1919-1949) proved to be an indispensable part of the European “concert of powers.” The lessening of Russia’s role in the aftermath of the Crimean war marked Europe’s slow descent to the tragedy of the World War I.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.