Reform and Autocracy: 1801–1876
Tsar Alexander I, leader of the European response against French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, has been called the “savior of Europe” and the “reformer of Russia.” Alexander's reign began with the great hope of providing relief for the common Russian people. It ended in frustration and revolt. His sincere early efforts to resolve Russia's internal problems were diverted so he could work to curb the insatiable ambition of Napoleon. After a series of battles, Alexander and Napoleon agreed to peace at Tilsit (now Sovetsk, in western Russia) in 1807.
Napoleon agreed to assist the tsar in “liberating” the Balkans, and gave Bessarabia (Moldova) to Alexander. Napoleon also encouraged Alexander to seize Finland in 1809. Alexander demanded control over the Bosporus Strait (the outlet of the Black Sea controlled by Turkey). He did not gain this prize, however. Alexander had expanded Russian influences into the Caucasus region and central Asia in hope of gaining control of the Ottoman Empire. Alexander captured Tiflis (Tbilisi) in 1801 and Baku in 1806 prior to the Treaty of Tilsit. Still unsatisfied, Napoleon ordered a 600,000-man French army to invade Russia in 1812. Napoleon captured Moscow, but lost the war because of the brutal Russian winter and the Russians' “scorched earth” policy. Alexander rode into Paris, France, at the head of his troops on March 31, 1814. Russia gained the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (Poland) as a result of the Vienna Settlement of 1815.
Exhausted from the demands of government, Alexander I died in December 1825. Soon after his death, a revolt by army officers and nobles who were called the “Decembrists” failed. Hopes of reforming Russia died with them. Nicholas I, who succeeded Alexander I, resisted all attempts at social reform. He used censorship and repression to stifle independent thought. Determined to play a leading role among the powers of the world, and in need of cotton for Moscow's textile industry, Russian troops moved into central Asia and captured Tashkent (in Uzbekistan) in 1875. To secure eastern Siberia and a Russian presence on the Pacific Ocean, all Amur River provinces were annexed and the city of Vladivostok was founded in 1860.