Alexander of Russia: Napoleon's Conqueror
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Troyat, Henri. Alexander of Russia: Napoleon’s Conqueror. Translated from French by Joan Pinkham. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982.
Alexander I, son of Paul I and grandson of Catherine the Great
was the czar who, in 1804, invited the farmers who became known
as the Black Sea Germans to come to South Russia. This was not an
event significant enough to earn more than a passing reference in
this scholarly but interesting biography.
Alexander¹s grandmother had enlisted enlightened mentors to
guide him. Most significant was Frederic Cesar Laharpe, a Swiss
teacher, who influenced him toward a more democratic outlook throughout
his life, though, once Alexander became czar, Laharpe suggested
that he tighten both his image and rule. Alexander and his near-age
brother Constantine were taught geography by Simon Pallas, a naturalist
and geographer who had visited the Volga colonies and the southern
steppes, so it is reasonable to believe that they knew in detail
about this area and its possibilities.
Historically, Alexander I is known as the czar who engineered the
conquest of Napoleon. Napoleon had great ambitions that included
the takeover of vast territories, including Russia. His armies were
defeated by an aggressive scorched-earth strategy and then by a
terrible Russian winter, for which they had been unprepared. Alexander
and his allies followed Napoleon¹s army into France, placed
a traditional monarch on the throne, and occupied Paris for a time.
When Napoleon gave it yet another try, England was key to defeating
him at Waterloo. Battles also took place in South Russia during
this time, but since Alexander was not personally involved, Troyat
does not go into detail about them.
Much of the book revolves around Alexander¹s struggle with
democratic vs autocratic ideas (the latter most often prevailed),
his numerous battles, his involvement in diplomacy and treaties,
his personal life, and his complex, increasingly mystical religious
life. Alexander died in Taganrog on the Sea of Azov, where, in failing
physical and psychological health, he amused himself by looking
at German and Dutch (this would have been Mennonite) villages. An
alternate story has it that he faked his death and ended his life
as a reclusive holy man, but Troyat believes his actual death at
Taganrog is the more likely story.
Since biographers of czars tend not to pay much attention to the
fortunes of peasants, don¹t expect to learn the story of the
Germans in South Russia from this book. But it will build background
knowledge about the times during which they settled there.
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