Written by Vladimir Moss



     St. Petersburg and Moscow, liberalism and autocracy, the false “inner church” of Masonry and the True Church of Orthodoxy: these were the forces that divided Tsar Alexander’s heart between them, making his reign a crossroads in Russian history. Finally he was forced to make his choice for Orthodoxy by the appearance in Russia of that incarnation of the despotic essence of the supposedly democratic revolution – Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Tsar Paul had been murdered with the connivance of the English ambassador in St. Petersburg, Sir Charles Whitworth. Knowing this, Alexander “did not trust the British…, and much that Consul Bonaparte was achieving in France appealed to his own political instincts. Provided Napoleon had no territorial ambitions in the Balkans or the eastern Mediterranean, Alexander could see no reason for a clash of interests between France and Russia. The Emperor’s ‘young friends’ on the Secret Committee agreed in general with him rather than with [the Anglophile] Panin, and when Alexander discussed foreign affairs with them during the late summer of 1801, they received the impression that he favoured settling differences with France as a preliminary to a policy of passive isolation.”[1]

    However, the influence of Napoleon on Alexander began to wane after the Russian Emperor’s meeting with the Prussian king Frederick William and his consort Queen Louise in June, 1802. The closeness of the two monarchs threatened to undermine the Tsar’s policy of splendid isolation from the affairs of Europe, and alarmed his foreign minister Kochubey, as well as annoying the French. But isolation was no longer a practical policy as Napoleon continued to encroach on the rights of the German principalities, and so Alexander replaced his foreign minister and, in May, 1803, summoned General Arakcheev (known as “the Uniformed Ape”) to strengthen the Russian army…

    In 1804 the Duc d’Enghien was kidnapped by French agents, tried and executed as a traitor. (It was of this act that Talleyrand made the famous remark: “It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake!’) “Alexander was enraged by the crime. The Duc d’Enghien was a member of the French royal house. By conniving at his kidnapping and execution the First Consul became, in Alexander’s eyes, a regicide. Nor was this the only cause of the Tsar’s indignation. He regarded the abduction of the Duke from Baden as a particular insult to Russia, for Napoleon had been repeatedly reminded that Alexander expected the French authorities to respect the lands of his wife’s family. His response was swift and dramatic. A meeting of the Council of State was convened in mid-April at which it was resolved, with only one dissentient voice, to break off all diplomatic contact with France. The Russian Court went into official mourning and a solemn note of protest was dispatched to Paris.


    “But the French paid little regard to Russian susceptibilities. Napoleon interpreted Alexander’s complaint as unjustified interference with the domestic affairs and internal security of France. He entrusted the reply to Talleyrand, his Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a bland statement appeared in the official Moniteur: ‘If, when England prepared the assassination of Paul I, the Russian Government had discovered that the organizers of the plot were no more than a league away from the frontier, would it not have seized them at once?’ No allusion could have been better calculated to wound the Tsar than this deliberate reference to the circumstances of his own accession. It was a rhetorical question which he found hard to forgive or forget. A month later news came from Paris that the First Consul had accepted from the French Senate the title of Emperor. Now, to all his other transgressions, Napoleon had added contempt for the dynastic principle. Resolutely the successor of Peter the Great refused to acknowledge the newest of empires.”[2]

    Alexander now formed a defensive alliance with Austria and Prussia against France (there were extensive negotiations with Britain, too, but no final agreement was reached). The Tsar and his new foreign minister, the Polish Mason Adam Czartoryski, added an interesting ideological element to the alliance. “No attempt would be made to impose discredited regimes from the past on lands liberated from French military rule. The French themselves were to be told that the Coalition was fighting, not against their natural rights, but against a government which was ‘no less a tyranny for France than the rest of Europe’. The new map of the continent must rest on principles of justice: frontiers would be so drawn that they coincided with natural geographical boundaries, provided outlets for industries, and associated in one political unit ‘homogeneous peoples able to agree among themselves’.”[3]

  Appealing to peoples over the heads of their rulers, and declaring that states should be made up of homogeneous ethnic units were, of course, innovative steps, derived from the French revolution, which presented considerable dangers for multi-ethnic empires such as the Russian and the Austrian. Similarly new and dangerous was the idea that the nation was defined by blood alone. None of these ideological innovations appealed to the other nations, and the Coalition (including Britain) that was eventually patched up in the summer of 1805 was motivated more by Napoleon’s further advances in Italy than by a common ideology.

      In 1805 the British defeated Napoleon on sea at Trafalgar. However, it was a different story on land. At Austerlitz the Russians lost between 25,000 and 30,000 men killed, wounded or captured – a serious blow to Alexander, whose retinue had assured him of victory. And this was only the beginning. In 1806 Napoleon routed the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt, and in 1807, after an indecisive but bloody conflict at Eylau, he defeated the Russians at Friedstadt. Alexander had suffered huge losses, and almost the whole of Europe up to the borders of Russia was in the hands of the French…

      Two religious events of the year 1806 gave a deeper and darker hue to the political and military conflict. In France Napoleon re-established the Jewish Sanhedrin, which then proclaimed him the Messiah. Partly in response to this, the Holy Synod of the Russian Church called Napoleon the antichrist, declaring that he was threatening “to shake the Orthodox Greco-Russian Church, and is trying by a diabolic invasion to draw the Orthodox into temptation and destruction”. It said that during the revolution Napoleon had bowed down to idols and to human creatures. Finally, “to the greater disgrace of the Church of Christ he has thought up the idea of restoring the Sanhedrin, declaring himself the Messiah, gathering together the Jews and leading them to the final uprooting of all Christian faith”.[4] He was “the Beast of the Apocalypse”, said Alexander, the diabolic enemy of Orthodoxy and the champion of the Jews.[5]

     In view of this unprecedented anathema, and the solemn pledges he had made to the King of Prussia, it would seem to have been unthinkable for Alexander to enter into alliance with Napoleon at this time. And yet this is precisely what he did. “Alliance between France and Russia,” he said, “has always been a particular wish of mine and I am convinced that this alone can guarantee the welfare and peace of the world”.

     “’I desire that a close union between our two nations may repair past evils,’ Alexander instructed Prince Dmitri Lobanov-Rostovsky, his envoy to Napoleon. ‘An entirely new system… and I flatter myself Emperor Napoleon and I will understand each other easily provided we deal without intermediaries.’ They agreed to meet at Tilsit, where their engineers erected a white pavilion on a specially constructed raft in the middle of the Niemen river, the border between their empires. ‘Few sights will be more interesting,’ wrote Napoleon. He was right. The division of Europe between two emperors, based on an expedient friendship, made this one of the most famous summits in history.

      “As Alexander prepared to meet his vanquisher, accompanied by [his brother, Grand Duke] Constantine, he was under no illusions. ‘Bonaparte claims I’m only an idiot,’ he soon afterwards wrote to his sister Catiche [Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna]. ‘He who laughs last laughs best! And I put all my hope in God.’ After his disastrous rush for glory, Alexander was entering a long game. He could hardly believe what was about to happen, as he told Catiche: ‘Me, spending my days with Bonaparte! Whole hours in tête-à-tête with him!’ Alexander’s practice in duplicity qualified him well for the seduction of Napoleon. ‘He possessed to a high degree,’ wrote his courtier Baron Korff, ‘the facility to subordinate men to himself and penetrate their souls while hiding all his own feelings and thoughts.’

    “On 13 June, Napoleon was rowed across to the raft so that he was there to meet Alexander when he disembarked from his side. The two men embraced, then Alexander said, ‘I will be your second against the English.’ Napoleon was delighted. ‘Those words changed everything.’ They turned together and disappeared through the pavilion door surmounted with Russian and French eagles and elaborate ‘A’s and ‘N’s’, to talk for two hours in French without interpreters. Alexander pleaded for Prussia, which he wished to save not only out of chivalry for its queen [Louise, to whom he was close] but as an essential ally.

   “The younger emperor, still only twenty-nine, was ‘not dazzled by false confidence’ but was happy to learn from ‘this extraordinary man’ who ‘liked to show me his superiority in imaginative sallies’. For his part, Napoleon, the elder at thirty-eight, could not help but be a little patronizing, yet he was utterly charmed. ‘My dear, I’ve just seen Emperor Alexander and I’m very pleased with him, a very handsome, good and young emperor,’ he told Empress Josephine. ‘More intelligent than is commonly thought,’ he later decided, ‘it would be hard to have more wit than Alexander, but there’s a piece missing and I can’t discover which.’ Alexander was somewhat seduced by the genius of his era. Napoleon’s ‘light-grey eyes’, he later recalled, ‘gaze at you so piercingly that you cannot withstand them.’

    “On the second day, Frederick William was allowed to sit in silently on their discussions, when he no doubt learned that Prussia was to be harshly diminished. After the meeting, a hundred guns saluted and Alexander joined Napoleon in Tilsit. Each night, the three monarchs dined together, with Napoleon and Alexander bored to tears by the lumpish Prussian; they would say good night – and then, like a secret assignation, Alexander would steal back to join Napoleon for long talks into the night.

    “Alexander sought peace without losing honour or territory. Napoleon sought mastery over Europe with a junior partner. These sons of the Enlightenment were dreamers as well as pragmatists. War, Napoleon explained, was not ‘a difficult art’ but ‘a matter of hiding fear as long as possible. Only by this means is one’s enemy intimidated and success not in doubt.’ Alexander praised effective republics and criticized hereditary monarchy which he regarded as irrational – except in Russia, where local conditions made it essential. Napoleon, the parvenu emperor who had been elected by plebiscite to the throne of a guillotined king, defended heredity to the dynastic autocrat who had acquiesced in paternal regicide. ‘Who is fit to be elected?’ asked Napoleon. ‘A Caesar, an Alexander only comes along once a century, so that election must be a matter of chance.’

     “’At Tilsit, I chattered away,’ admitted Napoleon. As the two of them bargained over new kingdoms and spheres, Alexander asked for Constantinople. ‘Constantinople is the empire of the world,’ replied Napoleon gnomically. ‘I called the Turks barbarians and said they ought to be turned out of Europe,’ he recalled. He played on Alexander’s fantasies, suggesting a joint march eastwards to take Constantinople and then attack British India. ‘But I never intended to do so,’ Napoleon admitted later. Alexander, who understood the game, later called this ‘the language of Tilsit’.

      “In 25 June, Lobanov, Paul’s minister Kurakin and Talleyrand signed the Treaty of Tilsit. Alexander lost no territory but relinquished the Ionian Islands and Wallachia and Moldavia, recognized Napoleon’s brothers as kings of Westphalia and Naples, and promised to blockade England. Prussia suffered grievously, but Alexander refused to annex Prussian Poland. Instead, Napoleon created a grand duchy of Warsaw, a possible Polish base against Russia.

    “’God has saved us,’ Alexander boasted to Catiche.

   “’As long as I live, I shan’t get used to knowing you pass your days with Bonaparte,’ Catiche replied. ‘It seems like a bad joke.’ A worse joke was mooted. Napoleon’s marriage with Josephine was childless so, keen to found his own dynasty, he contemplated divorce. Talleyrand sounded out Alexander about a marriage to Catiche, who was already considering matrimony with another suitor, Emperor Francis of Austria, but the tsar thought him dull – and dirty. ‘Then I can wash him,’ replied Catiche, who added that he certainly would not be dull after marrying her. When Napoleon was mentioned, ‘I wept hot tears like a calf,’ she admitted. ‘Princes are of two kinds – worthy people with scant brains and clever ones but of hateful character.’ The former were preferable but ‘if the divorce came about’ and Napoleon asked for her, she ‘owed that sacrifice to the State’. Napoleon was not yet single – but Catiche, to avoid him, had to marry fast.

     “As they parted, Alexander invited Napoleon to St. Petersburg: ‘I’ll order his quarters warmed to Egyptian heat.’ The summit resembled one of those short love affairs in which both lovers promise eternal love even though both know they will ultimately return to their real lives. Looking back at the end of his life, Napoleon reflected that ‘Perhaps I was happiest at Tilsit.’ As for Alexander, his days with Napoleon seemed ‘like a dream’, he told Catiche. ‘It’s past midnight and he’s just left. Oh I wish you could have witnessed all that happened.’ But given his appalling hand, ‘Instead of sacrifices, we got out of the struggle with a little short of lustre.’”[6]

    To speak of not having to make sacrifice when so many men had been killed in recent battles was extraordinary, and Catiche was having none of it: “We shall have made huge sacrifices and for what?... I wish to see [Russia] respected not in words but in reality, since she certainly has the means and right to do so. While I live I shall not get used to the idea of knowing that you pass your days with Bonaparte. When people say so, it seems like a bad joke and impossible. All the coaxing he has tried on this nation is only so much deceit, for the man is a blend of cunning, ambition and pretence…”[7]

    The Prussians, too, were dismayed at Alexander’s betrayal of their recently signed treaty with him. Queen Louise of Prussia, who was very close to Alexander, wrote to him: “You have cruelly deceived me”. And it is hard not to agree with her since, with Alexander’s acquiescence, Napoleon took most of the Prussian lands and imposed a heavy indemnity on the Prussians, while Alexander took a part of what had been Prussian territory in Poland, the province of Bialystok. The only concession Alexander was able to wring from the Corsican was that King Frederick should be restored to the heart of his greatly reduced kingdom “from consideration of the wishes of His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias”.

    “As the days went by with no clear news from Tilsit,” writes Palmer, “the cities of the Empire were again filled with alarming rumours, as they had been after Austerlitz: was Holy Russia to be sold to the Antichrist? For, whatever the fashion on the Niemen, in St. Petersburg and Moscow the Church still thundered on Sundays against Bonaparte.”[8] Metropolitan Platon of Moscow wrote to the Tsar warning him not to trust Napoleon, whose ultimate aim was to subjugate the whole of Europe.[9] In other letters, Platon compared Napoleon to Goliath and to “the Pharaoh, who will founder with all his hosts, just as the other did in the Red Sea”.[10]

     Of course, in view of his crushing military defeats, Alexander was in a weak position at Tilsit. Nevertheless, if he could not have defeated his enemy, he did not have to enter into alliance with him or legitimize his conquests, especially since Napoleon did not (at that time) plan to invade Russia. Nor did he have to damage Russian commerce by joining Napoleon’s “Continental System” against England, “a major miscalculation… For the merchants of Petersburg and Riga his secret pledge at Tilsit was an error of judgement they found hard to forgive.”[11]

     To explain Alexander’s behaviour, which went against the Church, his Allies and his own mother, the Dowager-Empress, it is not sufficient to point to the liberal ideas of his youth, although those undoubtedly played a part. It is necessary to point also to a personal (or demonic) factor, the romantically seductive powers of that truly antichristian figure, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon had seduced a whole generation of young people in Europe and America; so it is hardly surprising that the Tsar should also have come under his spell. But rarely could such a seduction have had such profound geopolitical consequences – if the seducer had not over-reached himself in 1812…

     `Montefiore continues the story: “While society plotted against his French policy, Alexander welcomed Napoleon’s ambassadors, first Savary, duc de Rovigo, and then Armand de Caulincourt, duc de Vicenza, as if these Bonapartist henchmen were his friends. Then, as chinks started to show in French invincibility, Napoleon invited Alexander as his star guest at a new summit.

     “’My Alexander,’ wrote his mother, begging him not to go, ‘you’re guilty of criminal self-deception.’

     “’We will do everything to prove the sincerity’ of Russia’s ‘tight alliance with France, this fearful colossus,’ replied Alexander to his mother – until ‘the moment when we will calmly observe his fall. The wisest policy is to await the right moment to take measures.’ He could only follow ‘the indications of my conscience, my essential conviction, the desire that has never left me to be useful to my country.’

     “On 17 September 1808, Alexander… was greeted by Napoleon five miles outside Erfurt. As well as the two emperors, there were four kings and a constellation of other German princes attending this three-week demonstration of the panoply of Napoleonic power – but it was all about Russia and France. During their eighteen days together, the two emperors banqueted, hunted, danced and attended illuminations and the theatre: when one of the actors onstage in the play Oedipus declaimed ‘A great man’s friendship is the gift of the gods’, Alexander turned and presented his hand to Napoleon to the applause of the entire audience. Napoleon, a born actor himself, half admired Alexander’s Thespian talents, calling him the ‘Talma of the North’ after the top French actor.

     “But Napoleon grumbled because Alexander had become ‘stubborn as a mule’. Alexander was treated to his first Napoleonic tantrum, with the imperial foot stamping on the imperial hat. ‘You’re violent and I am stubborn,’ said Alexander. ‘Let us talk and be reasonable – or I leave.’ Napoleon noticed that ‘he plays deaf when things are said he is reluctant to hear.’ Alexander was slightly deaf, but there was plenty he did not wish to hear. The Russians disliked the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and Napoleon’s Continental System, a blockade of British trade which was damaging the Russian economy. Alexander took the opportunity to demand rewards. Napoleon offered Russia the very same titbits offered by Hitler to Stalin in similar circumstances in 1939: Moldavia and Wallachia ‘as part of the Russian empire’ and Finland, then a Swedish duchy. ‘It’s not right that the beauties of Petersburg should be interrupted by Swedish cannon’, Napoleon generously reflected. In return, Alexander promised to uphold the Continental System against Britain and support Napoleon if attacked by Austria.

     “Yet Alexander’s vision of himself as a European crusader was encouraged by a traitor at the heart of Napoleon’s court. Napoleon had recently sacked his foreign minister, the lame and reptilian Talleyrand. He still admired ‘the man with the most ideas, the most flair’, though he had recently called him ‘shit in a silk stocking’ to his face. Now appointed to the sinecure office of vice-grand-elector, Talleyrand secretly betrayed him to the tsar – for cash. ‘Sire, it is up to you to save Europe,’ he told Alexander, ‘and you won’t manage unless you resist Napoleon. The French people are civilized, their sovereign is not; the sovereign of Russia is civilized, but his people are not. Thus it is up to the sovereign of Russia to be the ally of the French people.’

     “Napoleon had one more demand. ‘I tell you of one of the most grievous plights in which I ever found myself,’ Alexander told Catiche. ‘Napoleon is obtaining a divorce and casting an eye on Anne.’ Their youngest sister Annette was just fourteen. ‘Mother,’ wrote Alexander, ‘showed more calm over it than I should have believed.’ Maria concluded, ‘How wretched would the child’s existence be united to a man of villainous character to whom nothing is sacred and without restraint since he does not believe in God? And would this sacrifice profit Russia? All of that makes me shudder.’ Alexander thought ‘the right course is hard to choose.’ Napoleon did not realize the Russians regarded him as a fiend. ‘I’m happy with Alexander: I think he is with me,’ he told Josephine. ‘Were he a woman, I think I’d make him my lover. 

     “That love was soon to be tested. After his return, Alexander was more interested in promoting reform at home and seizing his own prizes abroad to rescue his damaged prestige. He launched his Swedish war to gobble up the Swedes’ province of Finland which would safeguard the approaches to Petersburg. By February 1808, the Russian troops were floundering so Alexander sent in Arakcheev. The Vampire reorganized the armies, enabling Alexander’s best generals, the dependable Mikhail Barclay de Tolly and the ferocious Prince Bagration, to cross the ice and assault Stockholm. The Swedes agreed to cede Finland, which became a Russian grand duchy until 1917. ‘The peace is perfect’ Alexander boasted to Catiche, ‘and absolutely the one I wanted. I cannot thank the Supreme Being enough.’

     “Napoleon now discovered the limits of his Russian alliance. In April 1809, Emperor Francis again went to war against Napoleon. Alexander fulfilled his promises by despatching 70,000 troops but with instructions not to help the French in the slightest. ‘It’s not an alliance I have here,’ fulminated Napoleon. ‘I’ve been duped.’ At Wagram, Napoleon defeated the Austrians.

     “In November, Napoleon offered Alexander a settlement of the Polish question – in return for his own betrothal to Annette. ‘My sister could not do better,’ said the tsar to Caulaincourt. Alexander started negotiating a ‘reciprocal agreement never to permit the re-establishment of Poland’. The French agreed, but when Alexander insisted that Annette could not marry for two years, Napoleon reneged on the Polish deal, and instead married Emperor Francis’s daughter Archduchess Marie-Louise. Annette was saved from the Corsican ogre, but the Romanovs had been insulted. 

     “As for Napoleon, he started to despise Alexander with that special hatred reserved for the beloved mistress who ends a cherished affair. Napoleon insulted him as ‘a shifty Byzantine’ and ‘a Greek of the lower empire, fake as a coin’… Yet every ruler in Europe had to dissemble their real views and compromise with Napoleon: it was Napoleon’s Icaran vanity that deluded him into believing that any of them meant their diplomatic expressions of loyalty. Alexander was a pragmatist living (and trying to stay alive and on his throne) in dangerous times who survived because of that same versatility which others might call dissembling. ‘His personality is by nature well meaning, sincere and loyal, and his sentiments and principles are elevated,’ observed Caulaincourt, ‘but beneath all this there exists an acquired royal dissimulation and a dogged persistence that nothing will overcome.’

     “Alexander and Napoleon were now preparing for war…”[12]


September 21 / October 3, 2019.


[1]Alan Palmer, Alexander I, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974,  pp. 63-64.

[2] Palmer, op. cit., pp. 81-82.

[3] Palmer, op. cit., p. 84.

[4]V.F. Ivanov, Russkaia Intelligentsia i Masonstvo: ot Petra I do nashikh dnej (The Russian Intelligentsia and Masonry from Peter I to our days), Harbin, 1934, Moscow, 1997, p. 260.

[5] Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Romanovs, London: Vintage, 2011,p. 289.

[6] Montefiore, op. cit., pp. 289-292.

[7] Palmer, op. cit., p. 139.

[8] Palmer, op. cit., p. 138.

[9] K. A. Papmehl, Metropolitan Platon of Moscow, Newtonville: Oriental Research Partners, 1983, p. 84.

[10] Papmehl, op. cit., p. 125.

[11] Palmer, op. cit., p. 140.

[12] Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 292-296.

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