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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