Russia and the Napoleonic War

The Napoleonic War profoundly changed the way Russians regarded their own country. Victory over Napoleon, not only in Russia itself, but all the way to Paris, strengthened Russia's sense of its own greatness as an empire and great power.

The Napoleonic War profoundly changed the way Russians, both in the elite and in the prostoi narod , regarded their own country. Victory over Napoleon, not only in Russia itself, but all the way to Paris, strengthened Russia's sense of its own greatness as an empire and great power. Already in the eighteenth century it had made good its claim to be in the first rank of European great powers. Now it became the arbiter of Europe's destinies. Russians' sense of being a 'chosen people', which lies deep in their culture, was fortified. Alexander I saw himself, with good reason, as the saviour of Europe, with responsibility for the peaceful and God-fearing future of all its countries, and the eradication of the atheism and nationalism propagated by Napoleon. He took the initiative in setting up the Holy Alliance, which was to ensure 'the principles of peace, concord and love, which are the fruit of religion and Christian morality', as he wrote to Count Lieven, his ambassador in London. 

Yet this sense of pride in national greatness was tinged with anxiety about Russia's internal future. More Russians than ever before had travelled abroad – in military uniform, of course – and they had seen other European countries with their own eyes. Particularly among the officer corps, they began to fear that the Russian way of life was inferior in many respects to what they had experienced there. They worried that autocracy and serfdom were unworthy of a great nation. This was when 'the West' (with a capital letter) became a criterion with which to measure all Russia's achievements.

Some of those officers had formed close relationships with their own soldiers while on campaign, and felt they should be freed from serfdom to become full citizens of the empire. Such officers were inspired by the original ideals of the French Revolution, and also by the secret societies which led the anti-French movements in several European countries, such as the Tugendbund and Carbonari. In the following years they formed similar societies, with names such as Union of Salvation and Union of Welfare, where projects were discussed for abolishing serfdom and introducing constitutional government in Russia. In December 1825 some of these officers tried to use the interregnum caused by the sudden death of Alexander I to seize power. They were poorly organised, and were soon suppressed. But this was the first example of a rebellion motivated by a belief in western political ideals.

The Napoleonic War also posed the question: what is the Russian nation, and what is its relationship to the state? The war revealed the strength and depth of patriotic feeling among ordinary Russians, including serfs. Some serfs tried to volunteer for the army, partly out of genuine patriotism, but partly because they expected as a reward to be freed from serfdom. Alexander was worried by these sentiments, and he forbade the formation of volunteer units. He even diverted a good number of his troops to deter serf rebellion in provinces threatened by the French. Alexander and most of his advisers considered serfdom essential to the continued strength of Russia as great power. In his early years, Alexander had considered gradually abolishing it, but the Napoleonic War finally determined him not to do so.

In many ways, then, the Napoleonic War determined the main conflict lines of Russian politics for at least half a century to come, until a second Alexander abolished serfdom and established the foundations of civil society.

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