Russian Generals of the Napoleonic Era

My newest podcast series will begin with the Russian Generals of the Napoleonic Era. This will be a multi-part series covering the great Generals and Field Marshall’s of both Russian and Soviet history. Part One will cover three of the six generals who would defeat Napoleon and liberate France.

The first one I talk about is Pavel Chichagov who was trained in military maters in both Russia and England. While he served brilliantly in many battles, he was best remembered for letting Napoleon escape over the Berezina River in 1812. There is some talk though that it was not his fault but the fault of the second of the Russian Generals I talk about Peter Kristianovich Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, the son of a Prussian aristocratic family became one of the most respected Russian Generals of the Napoleonic Era. Unfortunately for him, when the lead General Kutuzov died in 1813, Wittgenstein was given the position where he failed miserably.

Alexander Petrovich Tormasov was the third of the Russian Generals I covered in Episode 133. He was born to an old noble Russian family and was considered a great Russian for his help in rebuilding Moscow after Napoleon’s invasion.

Here are pictures of the three Russian Generals.

Alexander Tormasov Pavel_Chichagov-color Peter-christianowitsch-wittgenstein

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Great Northern War #11 Seminal Moment

King Charles XII of Sweden

Charles XII – King of Sweden during the Great Northern War

The Great Northern War was an important turning point in Russian history. While many do not consider it a very seminal or nexus point in the country’s history, I am of a very different opinion. If just a few things go wrong for Peter the Great, Russia would have been a whole different country today.

Sweden in the late-1600′s and early 1700′s was one of the most powerful countries militarily in all of Europe. After Peter I took control of the Russian throne in 1689, he decided that the Russian army needed serious upgrading and westernization. He understood that there were many enemies out there who would love to take control of the vast resources found in Russia. Many in Europe viewed the country as a backwater Oriental weakling. Peter saw this and made preparations for war which was to be part of Russian life for almost his entire reign.

The Great Northern War saw its beginnings in 1700 with the alliance of Denmark–NorwaySaxony and Russia. They were up against the young Charles XII of Sweden and his allies which included the Ottoman EmpireHolstein–GottorpPolish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and with some back and forth allegiance, the Cossack Hetmanate.

Early on in the war, the Russian’s and their allies underestimated Charles who was a mere 18 years of age when the Great Northern War began. He crushed the Danes and Norwegians along with Saxony early on leaving only Russia left to defeat. When he started his war with Russia, Charles XII had already given Peter I a crushing defeat at the First Battle of Narva. Luckily for Peter, Charles decided against pressing on instead heading south to knock out Poland. Peter now had time to regroup and rebuild his army. He learned from his prior mistakes and made sure he would never let Charles beat him like that again.

At home, Peter I was deeply unpopular among the conservatives throughout the country. From the boyar class down to the lowly peasant, his westernization program was met with disdain and hatred. In 1707, it reached a boiling point with the Bulavin Rebellion (which will have a podcast episode coming up on September 8th, 2013). With Peter off fighting with Charles XII in the Great Northern War, the rebellion was difficult to control. It is here we come up with a nexus moment that is found throughout history.

Charles had begun his invasion of Russia with a goal of taking Moscow in 1707. Strangely enough, Bulavin never made a connection with Charles and his invading army or the Ottoman Empire which would have loved to get back at Peter. There is very strong evidence that had these groups hooked up, Peter would have been in deep trouble.

The big seminal moment of course comes during the Battle of Poltava in 1709. Had Peter lost this battle, his hold on Russia would have been very tenuous. The Great Northern War became a win for Peter and allowed him to deal with internal issues. Unfortunately for the peasant class, the way Peter dealt with things was to become more oppressive.

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Time of Troubles #12 Seminal Moment

Time of Troubles

The Appeal of Minin during the Time of Troubles

The Time of Troubles, it could be argued, could be listed as the greatest threat to Russia’s existence but as for important events, I have it ranked only number twelve for a number of reasons. Granted, it was a troublesome time to be a Russian with the great famine killing one-third the populace of the country. It also saw the Bolotnikov Rebellion, which showed the great rift between the haves and the have-nots. And of course, its end gave us the first in a long line of Romanov Tsars.

When looking back at the Time of Troubles, you see a number of events within its time frame of that influenced the future of Russia. One of the most important ones is the edict by Tsar Vasily Shuisky to lengthen the time that serfs could be hunted down and returned to their masters from 5 years to 15. That would expand during later rulers but it set the precedent and locked the serfs down in no uncertain terms.

The Time of Troubles also marks the end of the Rurik Dynasty with the death of Tsar Feodor, son of Ivan the Terrible. The Rurik Dynasty had lasted from 862 – 1598, a period of over 700 years. Had Ivan not killed his more able bodied son Ivan Ivanovich, it may have lasted much longer and may not have had to suffer through the Time of Troubles.

It also marked one of the high points in Russian unity and pride, especially after the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612 under the leadership of Kuzma Minin, a Nizhny Novgorod merchant, and Prince Pozharsky. The groundswell of support was crucial in the survival of the country and had it not happened, we likely would not know the country of Russia as we know it.

While it is a critical time in Russian history, it ranks far below some of the others that I will be addressing in the coming weeks.

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Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich

Grand Prince Michael Romanov

Presumptive Tsar Michael Romanov

Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich was the youngest son of Tsar Alexander III of Russia. He was asked to be Tsar after Nicholas II abdicated in 1917 but he never accepted. He was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks and murdered in 1918 at the age of 39.

Born on December 4, 1878 at Anichkov Palace on Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg, Michael was the youngest of three boys with only one younger sister. Like his siblings, he had little real Russian blood in him as maternal grandparents were King Christian IX of Denmark and Louise of Hesse-Kassel. His grandmother on his father’s side was Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine).

After his grandfather, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, the family was moved to the Gatchina Palace which was 29 miles south of Saint Petersburg. It was considered a safer place for the family at the time.  Grand Duke Michael while leading a privileged life, did not live opulently at Gatchina. His father was a strict and solemn man who believed in discipline and a plainer life.

His younger sister Olga nicknamed him Floppy because of his propensity to flop into chairs; while his elder brother and parents called him Misha. While his father was a arch conservative, he was a loving man and his death when Grand Duke Michael was only 15 was hard on the boy.

He joined the military and was attached to the Horse Guards Artillery. Grand Duke Michael was third in line for the throne when Alexander III died but moved up one spot when his older brother George died in a motorcycle accident. At that moment, he was next in line until Nicholas and his wife Alexandra gave birth to the Tsarevich Alexei.

Michael’s romantic life was somewhat scandalous as he married a lower class woman, Natalia Sergeyevna Wulfert. Because of this, Nicholas II stripped Michael of his standing in the family and banished him from Russia until the outbreak of World War I.

Grand Duke Michael was a highly respected and popular military leader, unlike his older brother. He served his country well despite their woefully poor army. After the revolution caused his brother to abdicate, Michael was arrested on August 21, 1917 but released soon there after. On March 7, 1918 he was rearrested and executed on June 13th. He was the first of the Romanov’s to be murdered and certainly not the last.

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Ivan the Great – The Best Russian Ruler

Ivan the Great

Ivan the Great

Ivan the Great earned his sobriquet and makes his way on to my list as the best Russian ruler for a number of reasons. When I first put together my list, I had him behind both Alexander Nevsky and Peter I, but after careful review and research, he became my number one. The eldest son of Vasily II, he was the co-regent with his father to help solidify his family’s hold on to the throne. This was necessary as Russia was just leaving the period of their greatest civil war to date.

Because of the war, Ivan the Great felt a need to incorporate the previously independent city states into his realm as the Grand Prince of Moscow. Some of the principalities joined peacefully and willingly like Yaroslav and Rostov while others needed to be coaxed militarily. Novgorod and Tver were two of the states most resistant to Ivan’s pressure. After the battle at the Shelon River in 1471, Novgorod accepted Ivan the Great as their leader. Three years later, they tried to revolt again but were soundly defeated and their veche system (people’s assembly) was abolished.

It was after his total defeat of the Novgorodians that Ivan took the title of gosudar vseya Rusi or sovereign of all Russia. This was the first time that a Russian ruler had truly united his people. From here he also completely shed the yoke of the now weakened Golden Horde and stopped paying them any tribute. Khan Ahmad tried in 1472 and in 1480 to defeat Ivan the Great but failed both times. After the defeat of the Tatar’s at the Ugra River the yoke was finally overthrown.

What Ivan the Great also did was open up relations with countries to his west and south like Venice, Crimea, Hungary, Denmark and the Ottoman empire. He brought Italian architects to Moscow where the built the towers and walls of the Kremlin, something that remains to this day.

He also took on the idea of Moscow being the successor of Byzantium and of Rome when he married a Byzantine princess, Sophia Paleologue as his second wife. She bore Ivan the Great a son, who would become Vasily III. Ivan would go down in history as a shrewd politician and also earn the title of “gatherer of the Russian lands.”

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Stalin – #1 Worst Russian Ruler

Stalin

Joseph Stalin

My selection for worst ruler in Russian history is Joseph Stalin for a number of reasons. His barbaric rule, filled with paranoia and genocide, cost the lives of tens of millions of Russian and Soviet lives. The way Stalin handled his colleagues led to a group of men who, after his death in 1953, were unable to lead their country out of its morass. While he may have saved the Soviet Union from the forces of Nazi Germany, his brutality was unmatched except by a few.

Born, Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilli in 1879, the former Orthodox seminarian, became known in the revolutionary community as Koba before adopting the name Stalin. Arrested numerous times before the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, there are rumors of his being a double agent for the Okhrana (the secret police of the Tsarist regime). Any proof of this and anyone who knew about it was wiped out when he became head of the Soviet state.

When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin quickly consolidated his power base to take control of the USSR. Because he was a paranoid man, he found enemies in every corner and use the NKVD, led by Nikolai Yezhov to begin to systematically destroy anyone opposed to his rule. Time and again, numerous purges were carried out where tens of thousands of people were tortured, exiled or executed for real and more often, made up charges of treason. The show trials during the Great Terror of 1936-1939 purged all the Old Bolsheviks that Stalin believed could be threats to his reign. Only those who were totally subservient to him were allowed to live.

To his west, Nazi Germany was arming themselves and despite being warned that they intended to attack the Soviet Union, Stalin signed a non-aggression agreement with them in 1939. When Germany decided to break the agreement in 1941, Stalin’s policies of purging many of the upper echelon of the Soviet army caused a disaster at the front. The USSR was totally unprepared for the invasion and because of this, millions of people died. While he did rally the people and eventually crush the Germans, it was at an incredible cost.

Post World War II, when the Soviet people felt that their sacrifices would lead to a better life, Stalin kept them down trodden. Before his death, he planned another purge of his inner circle and potentially, another world war. Thankfully he died in 1953 before he could unleash another Great Terror. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, he left a group of neutered men to try to run the country. This eventually led to the failure of the communist system and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

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Peter I – #2 Best Russian Ruler

Peter I

Tsar Peter The Great

Peter I, better known to the world as Peter the Great, thrust Russia onto the world stage by westernizing it despite bitter opposition from both the boyars and the population at large. His immense personality and 6′ 8″ stature was an imposing figure over the vast Russian Empire, an empire he helped create. Peter I guided Russia towards Europe and away from its Oriental past. He also set the stage for Catherine the Great, Alexander I and II who were to take their country to its pinnacle.

Peter does not go without some major criticisms, issues that keep him from being my selection as the best ruler of all time. The large number of deaths that he caused with the building of St. Petersburg comes to mind. His parenting of his son, Alexei, who was to be his heir, was dismal. His son died in prison, having been convicted of trying to overthrow his father. Because of this, he threw the issue of succession into a gray area. This problem was “solved” by Paul I in a way that helped cause the demise of the Romanov dynasty under Nicholas II.

Even with these not so small issues, Peter, according to historian James Cracraft, led a cultural revolution that replaced the traditionalist and medieval social and political system with a modern, scientificEurope-oriented, and rationalist system.

His victories over Charles XII in the Great Northern War put Russia into the forefront as a global power. That and the numerous reforms to the government and to society, with the Table of Ranks being one of his major accomplishments. When Peter died on February 8, 1725, he had ruled Russia either alone, or with his half brother and sister Ivan and Sofia for forty two years. His mark on Russia continues to this day and has influenced all of the rulers of Russia after him.

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Nicholas II – #2 Worst Russian Ruler

Nicholas II

Emperor Nicholas II of Russia

Nicholas II, the son of the reactionary Tsar Alexander III, comes in as the second worst Russian ruler of all time. In my opinion, his lack of leadership, poor timing, and his clinging to a form of government that no longer fit the time, makes him one of the worst. The man was a very pious ruler but it could not make up for the pile up of bad decisions he made. The decisions led to the murder of his family and the end of over three hundred years of Romanov rule.

Now known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church, he was born on May 16, 1868 at Tsarskoye Selo, St. Petersburg. When he took over from his father in 1894, he represented a Russian leadership that was anything but Russian. When he was born, he was probably 97% German and only 3% Russian. To top it off, he married Alix of Hesse, another German princess which did not sit well with many in Russia.

Now, not everything that went wrong during his reign should be blamed on Nicholas as his father was the one who decided against training him for the position. This was done despite urgent pleas from Finance Minister Serge Witte. Alexander III believed that he was young and strong and that his son was too immature to handle the rigorous training. This was to prove a fatal mistake.

His list of mistakes is long starting with the decision to not go to the people after the tragedy at Khodynka Field during his coronation ceremony. From there, things only got worse. He allowed his country to go to two wars, the Russo-Japanese and World War I, despite his country being terribly ill prepared. His vacillation on the idea of forming a constitutional monarchy because of his steadfast belief in his God given right to be Emperor.

Looking back at the man, one cannot feel sorry for him as he is one of those truly tragic historical figures. Still, his ineptness led to a great deal of suffering for the Russian people with the coming of the Bolsheviks. I truly believe that he wanted to help his people, he just didn’t know how.

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Alexander Nevsky – #3 Best Russian Ruler

Alexander Nevsky

Saint Alexander Nevski

Alexander Nevsky, born on May 20, 1220 is in my opinion, the third best Russian ruler of all time. The grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest, his exploits against the Swedes and the Germans were legendary. He also placated the Mongols of the Golden Horde, protecting the people from their raids. In the opinion of many Russians, he stands as one of their favorite Russian rulers alongside Peter the Great and strangely enough, Joseph Stalin.

According to the Primary Chronicles, “By the will of God, prince Alexander was born from the charitable, people-loving, and meek the Great Prince Yaroslav, and his mother was Theodosia. As it was told by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Thus sayeth the Lord: I appoint the princes because they are sacred and I direct them.’ “… He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon … this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated …”

The Novgorodian people elected Alexander Nevsky to be their military leader as they were being threatened by the Swedes. At the Battle of Neva, Alexander when he was but 19 years old, defeated the Swedish Army, thus preventing an all out invasion. Even though he won the day, and was given the name Nevsky because of it, the jealous boyars pushed him away. He was recalled the following year as the Livonian Order once again invaded the area, and again Alexander repulsed them.

The importance of these victories cannot be understated. The Mongols had just invaded the region and the people were shell shocked. They needed a home grown hero and Nevsky was the man. While some thought that the Russian people should fight off the Horde, Alexander was shrewd and wise enough to know better. He knew that if he were to wage war with the Mongols, Russia could very well have been wiped off the face of the earth. Better to placate them by paying tribute than to risk the lives of his people.

In 2008, the Russian people voted Nevsky as both the greatest hero of Russian history and the greatest Russian of all time. High honors which are well deserved. If not for the accomplishments of the two men ahead of Alexander, I would have also made him number 1.

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Paul I – #3 Worst Russian Ruler

Paul I of Russia

Paul I of Russia, whose mother was Catherine the Great, clocks in as the third worst ruler in Russian history. Born on September 20, 1754, Paul Petrovich was supposedly the son of Tsarevich Peter and his wife Catherine. It is more than likely the actual father was Sergei Saltykov. When he was born, he was taken away from his mother and was raised by Empress Elizabeth until he was eight years old. When Elizabeth passed away in 1762 he was surrounded by tutors such as Nikita Panin but his mother had little to do with him.

His early childhood would shape his mind set as he became entranced with military parades and processions. This would become an abnormal obsession when he and his second wife, Maria Fiodorovna, lived at the estate at Gatchina. There, Paul had his own personal army, which he ruled over, sometimes quite cruelly.

After his mother died, he decided to reverse many of Catherine’s decrees, known as ukases. During his five year reign, Paul issued over two thousand ukases. It was his first domestic ukase in April of 1797 that lands him on this list as one of the worst Russian rulers. His idea of male primogeniture for the succession to the throne doomed the Romanov family. Instead of being able to select the best member of the family, male or female, the first born male had to become Tsar. The culmination of this rule was the ascension of Nicholas II, a man ill-suited for the position by his own admission.

While this ukase was a terrible blunder, if that was all Paul had done wrong, I would have dropped him down the list. Instead, he alienated the nobility with higher taxes, reintroducing corporal punishment for the nobility, and randomly sending people into exile to show off his unlimited power. He then angered the military by changing to a more Prussian model.

By 1801, his vacillation between supporting Britain or France was thought of as dangerous for Russia by many members of the court. A plot was hatched to remove Paul from the throne and replace him with his son Alexander, someone who Catherine had preferred. In March of 1801, A number of men stormed into his room and brutally murdered the Tsar. It is unlikely that his son was in on the assassination plan but was probably made aware that his father was to be taken off the throne.

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