Russian history: War and peace era
Napoleon sent packing
But Russia had to wait another decade to crush Napoleon’s might. His fatal Russian campaign began in June 1812. The Russians, under command of Mikhail Kutuzov, couldn’t hope to defeat him on a battlefield. They retreated, devastating the land behind them. But with the French heading for Moscow, Tsar Alexander I insisted on a major battle. On September 7, with the French army only 100 km from the city, the two armies met at Borodino Field. Neither side gained a decisive victory. Kutuzov withdrew his exhausted forces, while the Muscovites started a massive and panicked retreat. Napoleon’s army found Moscow empty and without supplies. To make things worse, a huge fire, rumoured to have been started by the Russians themselves, devastated much of the city. After waiting in vain for Alexander’s offer of talks, Napoleon decided to leave.
The French army soon faced an unusually cold and early winter. Worn out by harsh frosts, Russian attacks and a lack of food and shelter, the French were dealt a disastrous defeat. The Napoleonic wars inspired a Russian literary masterpiece – Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”.
Noble revolt to serf freedom
Russia emerged from the war more powerful than ever. But in December 1825 a group of young army officers – later called the Decembrists – attempted a coup. Their failed revolt was punished with Siberian exile. In noble solidarity, many of their wives followed them into the frozen wilderness, giving rise to the expression “Decembrist wife”. If you don’t know much about acts of Russian marital loyalty, the expression has come to symbolise a Russian wife’s devotion to her husband.
Ambitious liberal reforms were later attempted by Tsar Alexander II. A successful warrior and diplomat, he transformed the military, the administration and tax system, spurring Russia’s industrialization. He’s gone down in history as the Liberator-Tsar, freeing its 20 million serfs in 1861 – arguably the single most important event in 19th century Russian history.
But Alexander’s extraordinary battle to push his country forward was too much for some and not enough for others. The Tsar became a target of numerous murder plots. After several narrow escapes, Alexander II was fatally wounded in 1881 by a bomb in St. Petersburg.