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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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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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Dmitri Donskoi – #6 Best Russian Ruler

Saint Dmitri Donskoi

Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi

Dmitri Donskoi, whose 30 year reign from 1359-1389 as Grand Prince of Moscow and Vladimir was notable for many things but the most important was when he stood up to the Mongol’s of the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo. There, he defeated the army of  Mamai which marked the turning point in the relationship between the Horde and Russia. While Mamai’s successor Tokhtamysh, invaded Russia and sacked Moscow, the stranglehold on Russia was broken.

Now had this been the only achievement by Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi, he might have made this list but probably not this high. His reign saw a doubling of the territories of Moscow as well as building the first stone Kremlin around the city. This stone wall prevented the Lithuanian army which placed Moscow under siege twice under Algirdas. When a third siege was attempted the two side signed a peace treaty to end hostilities for the moment.

Born to Ivan II, also known as Ivan the Meek, Dmitri Donskoi was named regent when he turned nine years old. Effective rule over the country was in the hands of Metropolitan Aleksey. Over time, Dmitri settled disputes with other Grand Princes, especially Mikhail II of Tver. This unification of the princes and their solidarity with Dmitri Donskoi was a major factor in their ability to stand up to the Mongols of the Golden Horde.

When Dmitri decided to try to throw off the yoke of the Mongol’s, it was at a time that the Horde was suffering through a civil war. Still, was he strong enough to take on his mortal enemy? Two other figures were to play an important role in Donskoi’s victory Prince Jogaila of Lithuania and Russian prince Oleg of Ryazan. Both were enemies of the Grand Prince of Moscow and had pledged to help Mamai destroy Moscow once and for all. The only problem was that neither made it to the Battle of Kulikovo as Dmitri Donskoi attacked Mamai ahead of their arrival.

There are certain turning points in history and this was one of them. Had Donskoi held back his attack and allowed the armies of Lithuania and Ryazan join up with Mamai, we would have a far different history of Russia to recount if Russia would have survived at all. There would be many who would have moved Donskoi higher on the list because of this, but I feel that other Russian rulers had bigger influences on the country. Still, I struggled mightily on where to put Dmitri on my list.

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Elizabeth I – #7 Best Russian Ruler

 

Elizabeth I of Russia

Portrait of Elizabeth I of Russia

Elizabeth I (Episodes 40 & 41), daughter of Peter the Great and his wife Catherine I, was one of the most liked of the Russian Tsar’s because of her refusal to execute anyone during her reign. She also led Russia through two of Europe’s most important conflicts, the War of Austrian Succession (1740–8) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Elizabeth spent huge sums of money on  The Winter Palace and the Smolny Cathedral which are some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

She was born on December 29, 1709 to Peter the Great and his wife Catherine but their marriage was not announced until 1712. This caused Elizabeth’s enemies to later use this issue to claim that she was illegitimate. Her father’s intention was to have her marry young Louis XV of France but they declined as they felt that her mother’s low birth status was below them. Her eventual betrothal was to one Prince Karl Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp, son of Christian Augustus, Prince of Eutin. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Prince Karl died a few days after the betrothal.

When Peter II came to power in 1727, Elizabeth was banished from the court. Peter, the grandson of Peter the Great was controlled by the old boyar family the Dolgorukii’s who despise Peter the Great’s reforms. When Tsarina Anna took control, she was still not allowed to take part in the court. Her anger stewed in her but there was little she could do. If she married below her status, she would lose everything. But, much to her chagrin, no noble family would approach her as she had no standing at the Russian court. Because of this, she was said to have had numerous affairs with commoners over the years.

When she finally deposed Ivan VI in 1742 and had him locked up, with the help of the  Preobrazhensky Regiment, she asked them, “”Who do you want to serve? Me, the natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?” Elizabeth decided right away to clean up the corruption and get rid of the German advisers that many in the Russian hierarchy despised.

She then began to rule her country by starting with the signing the Treaty of Åbo, which arch enemy Sweden which ceded much of Finland to the Russian empire. Elizabeth was smart to surround herself with brilliant advisers, none more so than Aleksey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin. His deftness in foreign negotiations were important factors in helping Russia expand its borders.

Her handling of the major European conflict, the Seven Years War helped elevate Russia in the eyes of Europe. The main reason for Elizabeth’s intervention in the war was her deep dislike for the Prussian ruler, Frederick the Great. She would have succeeded in crushing him except that she died before she was able to complete the job.

During her reign she had to come up with an heir to her throne as she was childless. Her selection was Peter of Holstein-Gottorp her nephew. Next up was the choice of a bride which was settled on when Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst was selected and given the Russian name of Catherine in honor of Elizabeth’s mother. The child the two supposedly had would be known as Paul and will come up in the future as one of the worst rulers of Russia.

When Elizabeth died in December of 1761 (Old Calender), Russia had expanded greatly and had taken center stage in European politics. Her refusal to execute anyone led her to be loved by the people. While extravagant in her personal life, she did expand support for the arts and was one of the most prolific of the rulers in the building of churches.

 

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Alexander I – #9 On The Best Russian Ruler list

Alexander I, was the head of the Russian state when it was invaded by Napoleon. His patient leadership during the invasion and Alexander’s change from leading the army himself to relying on his more experienced generals was key to winning the war. Since I recently blogged on Alexander, instead of rehashing his life, you can read about it here.

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Cheka – Soviet Secret Police Created

The Cheka,  “The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage” was founded by decree on December 20, 1917 by Vladimir Lenin. In order to tighten his grip on power and to set the stage for the brutal Russian Civil War, Lenin formed the Cheka to terrorize his opposition. Led originally by Felix Dzerzhinsky, by 1922, tens of thousands of people were arrested, tortured, and or executed by the various Cheka groups.

The organizational structure of the Cheka was created in regions like the  oblastguberniyaraionuyezd, and volost Chekas. By 1922, there were hundreds of thousands of members of the Cheka, most in the fighting units in the Red Army. Their main targets were anyone associated with the old Tsarist regime, the clergy, anyone with any measurable amount of money or land holdings, and just about anyone who did not back the Bolshevik’s. People were encouraged to spy on their neighbors so anyone with a grudge against you could rat you out to a Cheka official which meant your death warrant was on its way.

Their goal, as Dzerzhinsky wrote in the Red Army journal Krasnaya Gazeta was, “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky … let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible…” After the attempted assassination of Lenin by Fanny Kaplan and the successful murder of Moisie Uritsky, both in 1918, the Red Terror was unleashed on the people.

Guided by Lenin’s belief that it was better to arrest 100 innocent people than to let one guilty person free. the Cheka was given a free hand to do whatever they pleased. You can imagine the kind of criminal minds that were allowed to perpetrate gross inhumane crimes against humanity. Into that, you have to understand that the White Army was as guilty of the same depravity as was the Red Army.

By 1922, the Cheka was reorganized and a new secret police agency, the GPU or OGPU was formed which morphed into the NKVD and eventually the KGB. Its legacy remains dark and foreboding, with countless shattered lives strewn in it wake. A sad part of Russia’s history.

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Decembrist Revolt

Decembrist Officers in Revolt

The Decembrist Revolt

The Decembrist Revolt was undertaken on December 26, 1825 to protest the ascension of Tsar Nicholas I to the throne after the death of his father Alexander I. When Alexander died, it was assumed that Constantine would take the throne so many officers pledged their allegiance to him. Constantine declined the role publicly but some of the officers did not know it or did not believe it. Nicholas I stepped forward but he was terribly unpopular so about 3,000 officers decided to take action.

The Decembrist Revolt was not a single event so much as a reaction to the post-Napoleonic war situation in Russia. For years, few Russians traveled abroad they only knew the system that was authoritarian, with supreme power held by the Tsar. They also knew a world where serfdom was the norm. When Russian troops chased Napoleon all the way to France, they began to notice that their world was an anomoly and that the outside world had a lot more to offer than Russia. The Decembrist movement was born out of this awakening.

The first group to form post Napoleon in 1816 was the Union of Salvation, or of the Faithful and True Sons of the Motherland. They were made up of liberal minded officers of the Imperial Russian Guard. Following a revolt by the Semenovsky Regiment in 1820 it was decided to go underground. Two factions developed, the Northern Society and the Southern Society. The later group was the more radical, led by Pavel Pestel. The Northern Society, based in St. Petersburg, was led by Nikita Muraviev, Prince S. P. Trubetskoy and Prince Eugene Obolensky.

At first, Alexander I thought liberal reform to be necessary but as time went on he felt that Russia was not ready and that a return to conservative authoritarian rule was the way to go. Repression of groups espousing liberal ideas was carried out by the Tsar’s secret police. This caused the officers to become even more radical in response.

Early on December 26th, about 3,000 men assembled in Senate Square to protest the ascension of Nicholas. The Tsar ordered over 9,000 soldiers to surround the officers and pressure them to leave. Insults flew from the rebels side but the Decembrist movement was in dissarray as Prince Trubetskoy, the supposed leader was no where to be found. His cold feet and later Colonel Bulatov’s, the supposed second in command doomed the movement.

Still the men refused to leave whereby an order to fire on them was issued. A cavalry charge was tried first, but because of the icy cobblestones, that was abandoned. Finally, Nicholas ordered the artillery corp to fire on the men creating havoc. As they tried to flee the scene many were killed when they crossed the Neva river which was shelled, causing the ice to break, drowning many of the men.

The Southern Society never got a chance to join the Decembrist movement as their leader, Pavel Pestel had been arrested the day before. While they tried an armed uprising it was suppressed quickly. Arrests were made with five sentenced to hanging and others to exile. When they tried to hang the five men, the ropes broke which would, according to tradition be seen as God’s commuting the death sentence. Nicholas would have none of that and ordered the men to be  hung again. This time the rope held and all died. It was to be the last execution ordered by a Russian Tsar.

The Decembrist movement may have failed but it began the rumbling of society that would eventually lead to the Russian Revolution in 1917. Dissatisfaction with the Romanov’s and their rule would grow, especially among the liberal intelligentsia  Men like Lenin, Herzin, and Bakhunin were born of the Decembrist movement.

 

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Alexander I of Russia

Alexander I of Russia

Tsar Alexander I

Tsar Alexander I, also known as Alexander the Blessed was born on December 23, 1777. His rule of Russia from March 24, 1801 following the assassination of his father Paul I, was a tumultuous one. The crowning glory of his reign of course was the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte during the Napoleonic Wars.

Born to Paul Petrovich Romanov and Maria Feodorovna née Sophie Dorothea, he was raised primarily by his grandmother, Catherine the Great. She had little faith in his father Paul which caused Alexander a great deal of difficulty later in his life. He tried to appease both his grandmother and his father which led to his doing the same when he became Tsar in 1801. Throughout his reign, Alexander tried to make everyone happy but he was also a master manipulator as well.

After the murder of his father Paul in March of 1801, Alexander assumed the mantle of the Russian Empire with a great deal of guilt. Some say he knew that the conspirators led by Counts Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen and Nikita Petrovich Panin were planning the murder, others thought not. It is clear that he knew of the plot to remove his unpopular father from the throne. It is equally clear that they did not tell him of their nefarious plans. Nonetheless, Alexander did take over (Episode 53) for his father at the age of 23 with the admonition “Time to grow up! Go and rule!” by General Nicholas Zubov.

Early on in his reign, Alexander began to try to reform the country especially the government. Led by the liberal  Mikhail Speransky reforms were drawn up and ready for action. Some of the reforms came to be, but for the whole, not a lot was done partly due to a problem that was cropping up in Europe; the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte to the world stage.

It was his battles with Napoleon (Episode 54) that made Alexander I the hero that he became to his people. Starting in 1807 and finishing in 1814, the war against Napoleon had its ups and downs but eventually, Alexander and his Russian army prevailed. After this though, the Tsar’s personality took a conservative and somewhat mystic turn.

In 1825, in the town of Taganrog Alexander supposedly died after a short illness. Rumor though has it that he did not die that he became the monk Feodor Kuzmich. Some in the Romanov family were told that the two men were one and the same and there is actually a book called Imperial Legend: The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I by Troubetzkoy that claims the same thing. Whatever the truth, his brother Nicholas I takes over for him and begins the slide that the Romanov’s never recovered from.

 

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Denikin – White Russian General

Anton Denikin

General Anton Denikin

On December 16, 1872, the son of a one time serf, Anton Ivanovich Denikin was born in Szpetal Dolny. This small village in what is now Poland, was once a part of the Russian Empire. This unlikely leader was part of anti-communist movement during the Russian Civil War (Episode 71).  He was to commit numerous atrocities, especially against the Jewish population. His push towards Moscow during the summer of 1919 almost toppled the Bolshevik’s but ultimately his army was defeated.

Anton Denikin was the son of a former serf, Ivan Efimovich Deniken who was forced into a 25 year tour of military service started in 1833. Eventually he would become an officer in 1856, retiring as a major. His father’s patriotic feelings towards the Tsar and the Russian Empire inspired Anton to go into the military himself. Another ideal that Denikin was to take from his father was his deep seated hatred of Jews.

Living in extreme poverty, Denikin began to take courses at Kiev Junker School in 1890.  He graduated in 1892 and applied to the General Staff Academy in 1895. Unfortunately, Denikin could not meet the academic requirements in his first two years there. He continued to try and seemingly had made it only to find out that they changed the rules. He plead his case to the Grand Duke who made him an offer to enter that Denikin felt was an insult to his integrity.

Over the following years, Denikin continued to move up the ranks. In 1905, the Russo-Japanese War began and by now he was a colonel. By the time World War I began, he was now a major general. It was here that Denikin began to show his mettle.

While he had the cushy job of being named Quartermaster General Brusilov‘s 8th Army, he wanted to go to the front. He was given his wish when he joined the 4th Rifle Brigade. He was to serve brilliantly. During the Brusilov Offensive he was to help win the last Russian offensive during the war.

With the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he joined the staff of  Lavr Kornilov. Not liking what they saw with the Provisional Government, Denikin participated in the  Kornilov Affair. He was arrested in September 1917 but escaped in October.  Denikin joined Grand Duke Nicholas, Kornilov and other Russian officers to mount opposition to the Bolshevik’s.

When Kornilov was killed, Denikin took over as Commander-in-Chief. His mission was to capture Moscow and in the summer of 1919 he almost accomplished it. The city and the Bolshevik revolution was saved by a deal made between Leon Trotsky and Nestor Makhno‘s anarchist Black Army. Makhno would later be betrayed by the communists but he served his purpose.

While in retreat, Denikin’s army began its legacy of atrocities against the Jewish population. Over 100,000 were murdered in the pogroms. By now, international pressure and support forced Denikin to resign. He eventually fled to France but ended up in the United States in 1945, dying there in 1947. Initially buried in France, his remains were brought back to Russia in 2005 at the behest of his daughter. He is now buried at the  Donskoy Monastery in Moscow.

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