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Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Gorchakov

June 15, 1798 – March 11, 1883
Aleksandr Gorchakov Aleksandr Gorchakov

Aleksandr Gorchakov  was a State Chancellor of Russia. He dedicated his career to denouncing the Paris Treaty, and helped Russia earn the right to resume its naval presence in the Black Sea.

Family background and education

On June 15, 1798, General-Major Mikhail Gorchakov, heir to an old and noble lineage, received a new addition to his family – his son Aleksandr. Right from birth, the little boy was headed for a  sunny future, thanks to his origin and influential relatives. Growing up, Aleksandr received a good education and read plenty of books, eventually mastering English, German and French. He was admitted to the prestigious Tsarskoe Selo lyceum, where the best professors of the country further shaped and developed Gorchakov’s natural talents. 

His class was full of other talents who later became bright minds in Russia: Gorchakov studied alongside Russia’s greatest writer and poet Aleksandr Pushkin, among others. Surrounded by such talent, Gorchakov also tried his hand at writing, and was modestly successful. But the young man had mapped out his career long before graduation, and his literary skills would merely support his work as a diplomat. His way with words served him well as he favorably negotiated some of the hardest issues Russia has ever faced.

Early career

After graduating from the Lyceum in 1817, Gorchakov was appointed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first five years of his work set a solid foundation for the rest of his career. In 1822, Gorchakov was sent to England as first secretary of Russian diplomatic mission, and three years later, he was transferred to Rome. He found the work rather simple and unchallenging and he spent a fair bit of his energies seeking a more serious job.

 In 1928 his efforts were rewarded, and he was appointed Counselor of the Russian embassy in Berlin; later that year, he was sent to Florence and Lucca. The young diplomat spent four years in Italy, devoting his free time to studying the Renaissance arts and Roman history.

Austrian mission

Aleksandr Gorchakov Aleksandr Gorchakov

In 1833, Gorchakov received a major appointment at the Russian embassy in Vienna. Austria was a key player in 19th-century European politics, so Gorchakov found himself swept up in crucial political events. Unlike his superior, who was under the sway of Austrian State Chancellor Metternich, Gorchakov tried to report objectively on current affairs in Austria, and attitudes towards Russia in the Viennese court.

Gorchakov reported that Austria was negotiating an alliance with England behind Russia’s back, in an attempt to decrease its influence in Turkey. The disclosure of such information didn’t sit well with the pro-Austrian leanings of Russian Chancellor Count Karl Nesselrode. Gorchakov was punished for daring to go against his superiors, and in 1838 was dismissed “to be used for other needs.” But he was never appointed to another position, and spent the next three years in limbo.


Gorchakov took that time to settle his personal life, and married the widow of Count Musin. The marriage was indeed a happy one – his wife’s influential relatives helped Gorchakov resume his diplomatic service. His first appointment was an ambassadorship in Germany, which lasted for 12 years. He put much of his effort into maintaining the 1850 German alliance, preventing both Prussia and Austria from gaining an upper hand. This balance insured Russia’s security in the West.

The Paris Treaty

In 1854, in the middle of the Crimean War, the 56-year-old Gorchakov was sent to Vienna as Russia’s new Ambassador. Two years later, the war concluded with humiliating peace conditions for Russia. England, France and Austria drew up a treaty in 1856 forbidding Russia to base any military arsenals or fleet on the Black Sea. Russia’s sovereign rights were severely limited, and Gorchakov had no power at the time to reverse the damage. His frustrations gave rise to his famous phrase: La Russie ne bouge pas; elle se recueille – Russia is not angry, it is focusing. 

Alaska purchase

In 1854, during the Crimean War, the US began negotiations over the sale of Alaska. Gorchakov had pondered the issue before, and was not against the proposal. However, he believed Russia needed more time to negotiate a better deal. He understood that Russia would eventually lose those lands anyway, since it didn’t have the strength to hold the territory indefinitely. This way, the country (whose treasury was emptied during the Crimean War) could salvage at least some profit.

Gorchakov also knew that certain influential members of the Royal family favored the deal, and he did not dare oppose them. In 1867, Alaska, which was roughly double the area of modern-day Ukraine, was sold to the US for $5,000,000.

State Chancellor of the Russian Empire

Meanwhile, Russia was undergoing more changes. Alexander II took the throne after the death of Nicholas I in 1856, and carried out a few reforms. One of them was appointing Gorchakov as the Foreign Minister of Russia.  The first thing Gorchakov did was draft a plan for Russia’s development, which focused on the country’s internal politics, and kept a low profile in the international arena. 

Russian foreign policy had one main goal: Restoring Russia’s prestige as the great power by cancelling the Black Sea clause of the Paris Treaty. It required a great deal of skill to accomplish the mission without sparking another armed conflict. Gorchakov was appointed the Imperial Chancellor of Russia in 1866. He became a striking contrast to his predecessor, German Count Nesselrode, who managed Russia’s foreign policy for decades without speaking any Russian.

Searching for solutions

Gorchakov, a man known for being smart and cunning, as well as energetic and industrious, employed all kinds of methods in his scheme – from direct pressure on his rivals to complicated diplomatic feints. In France, he managed to find allies against Austria; in Vienna, allies against Germany; in Germany, against France; in the USA, against England.

Prussia – the key for Russia

«Берлинский конгресс, 13 июля 1878» Горчаков сидит слева The Congress of Berlin, July 13, 1878. Gorchakov sits to the left

As much as Napoleon desired Russia’s support against Austria, he could not guarantee the success of the venture, as France itself was the initiator of the Black Sea ban. Besides, England’s consent was required as well.  Gorchakov kept seeking a country that could be the key to resolving this dire situation.  Soon enough Prussia turned out to be the lynchpin in his plans.

Prussia wanted Russia’s support in its efforts to unite Germany. Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, who had long been striving to unite Germany “with iron and blood,” made the first step. Bismarck sent negotiators to St. Petersburg, where it was agreed that Prussia would support any talks around the issue of lifting the most severe restrictions imposed by the Paris Treaty if Russia stayed neutral during Germany’s unification process.

Much to Gorchakov’s credit, throughout negotiations with each country, he kept Russia out of further armed conflict or any more unnecessary wars.

In the 1870s, Prussia was in conflict with Austria, which ended in the defeat of the latter. Next, Prussia was readying for war with France. Gorchakov took a cautious stance, and tried not to hinder Prussia’s plans. At the same time he remembered Russia´s pledge to Prussia – in case of Austrian and Hungarian resistance, Russia would offer its three-hundred-thousand-strong army to support Prussia.

Statue of Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov in St. Petersburg (Photo by A. Sdobnikov) Statue of Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov in St. Petersburg (Photo by A. Sdobnikov)

France suffered defeat in the subsequent conflict, which drastically changed the political dynamics of Europe. Gorchakov believed the time was ripe to renegotiate Paris Treaty, particularly the clause about the neutrality of the Black Sea.

Withdrawal from the Treaty

In 1870, Russia announced that it would no longer adhere to the Paris Treaty in regards to the Black Sea clause. France had just been defeated in a war, Prussia was supportive, and Austria and Hungary would not have risked attacking Russia while facing potential invasion from Prussia. England avoided any unilateral military actions at the time. Russia claimed the treaty was unfair, since other countries who were members of the neutrality pact still maintained fleets in the Mediterranean, and could easily move them to the Black Sea if needed.

Europe was shocked by the announcement, and called for a conference to review the treaty. Gorchakov managed to appease each country that opposed Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty. As a result, the London Convention was signed in 1871, allowing Russia to maintain a military fleet and build naval bases in the Black Sea.

Gorchakov’s legacy

Gorchakov had finally completed his life’s mission, experiencing his greatest triumph at the age of 70. This diplomatic victory strengthened Russia’s position in the international arena, while reinforcing its southern borders. The move encouraged economic growth, drove external trade and sped up the development of land surrounding the Black Sea.

To this day, Gorchakov is considered one of the most influential and successful statesmen of the 19th century. He was over 80 when he ended his career, and was succeeded by Nikolay Gers in 1882. Gorchakov died in happy old age in 1883 at Baden-Baden, and was buried in St. Petersburg.

Written by Olga Prodan, RT

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