ON December 6, 1741, La Chetardie wrote to Amelot, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, as to the prospects of a coup-d’état in favour of the Tsesarevna Elizabeth : “An outbreak, the success of which can never be morally certain, especially now that the Swedes are not in a position to lend a hand, would, prudently considered, be very difficult to bring about, unless it could be substantially backed up.” That very same evening, Elizabeth, without any help from without, over- threw the existing government in a couple of hours a thing carefully to be borne in mind, as most historians, relying on certain ex-post-facto statements by La Chetardie, have credited that diplomatist with a leading part in the revolution which placed the daughter of Peter the Great on the Russian throne.
As a matter of fact, beyond lending the Tsesarevna 2000 ducats, instead of the 15,000 she demanded of him, La Chetardie took no part whatever in the actual coup-d’état, which was as great a surprise to him as it was to everyone else. The merit and glory of that singular affair belong to Elizabeth alone.
Elizabeth Petrovna was born on December 18, 1709, at Kolmenskoe, near Moscow, on the day of her father’s triumphal entry into his capital after the victory of Pultawa. From her earliest years, the child delighted everyone by her extraordinary beauty and vivacity. Her parts were good, but, unfortunately, her education was both imperfect and desultory. She managed however to pick up some knowledge of Italian, German, and Swedish, and could converse in these languages with more fluency than accuracy. On the death of her mother, and the departure from Russia, three months later, of her beloved sister Anne (1727), the Princess, at the age of 18, was left pretty much to herself. As her father’s daughter, she was obnoxious to the Dolgorukis, who kept her far distant from the Court during the reign of Peter II. Robust and athletic, she delighted in field sports, hunting and violent exercise ; but she had inherited more than was good for her of her father’s sensual temperament; and the hoyden’s life, in the pleasant environment of Moscow, was the reverse of edifying.
During the reign of her cousin, Elizabeth effaced herself as much as possible, well aware that the Empress, of whom she stood in awe, regarded her as a possible supplanter. She was already so popular that the shopkeepers of Moscow frequently refused to take money from her when she bought their wares ; but she does not seem to have thought of asserting her rights to the throne till the idea was suggested to her by La Chetardie and his colleague, the Swedish minister, Nolcken, who communicated with her through her French physician, Lestocq. Frequent collisions with the Regent, Anne Leopoldovna, whom she despised, and with Osterman, whom she hated for setting her aside in favour of aliens and foreigners, though he himself owed everything to her father and mother, first awakened her ambition; but her natural indolence was very difficult to overcome. Not till December 5, 1741, when the Guards in the capital, on whom Elizabeth principally relied, were ordered to hold themselves in readiness to march for the seat of war, did she take the decisive step. That same night a hurried and anxious conference of her partisans, chief among whom were her surgeon Lestocq, her chamberlain Michael Vorontsov, her favourite and future husband, Alexis Razumovsky, and Alexander and Peter Shuvalov, two of the gentlemen of her house- hold, was held at her house. As a result of their deliberations, Elizabeth put on a cuirass, armed herself with a demi-pike, and, proceeding to the barracks of the Guards, won them over by a spirited harangue at 2 o’clock in the morning. Then, at the head of a regiment of the Preobrazhensk grenadiers, she sledged, through the snow, to the Winter Palace, where the Regent lay sleeping in absolute security, and arrested all her real or suspected adversaries, including Osterman and Münnich, on her way. The Regent, aroused from her slumbers by Elizabeth herself, submitted quietly and was conveyed to the Empress’s sledge. The baby-tsar and his little sister, with their nurses, followed behind in a second sledge to Elizabeth’s own palace. In less than half an hour, bloodlessly and noiselessly, the Revolution had been accomplished. Even so late as 8 o’clock the next morning, very few people in the city were aware that, during the night, Elizabeth Petrovna had been raised to her father’s throne on the shoulders of the Preobrazhensk Grenadiers.
At the age of thirty-three, this naturally indolent and self-indulgent woman, with little knowledge and no previous training or experience of affairs, was suddenly placed at the head of a great Empire, for whose honour and security she was primarily responsible, at one of the most critical periods of its existence. La Chetardie had already expressed his conviction (and his court implicitly believed him), that, when once Elizabeth was on the throne, she would banish all foreigners, however able, give her entire confidence to necessarily ignorant Russians, retire to her well-beloved Moscow, let the fleet rot and utterly neglect St Petersburg and “the conquered provinces ” as the Baltic seaboard was still called. Unfortunately for his calculations, La Chetardie, while exaggerating the defects, had ignored the good qualities of the new Empress. For, with all her shortcomings, Elizabeth was no ordinary woman. In many respects she was her illustrious father’s own daughter. Her very considerable knowledge of human nature, her unusually sound and keen judgment, and her diplomatic tact, again and again recall Peter the Great. What to her impatient con-temporaries often seemed irresolution or sluggishness, was generally suspense of judgment, in exceptionally difficult circumstances, and her ultimate decision was generally correct. Add to this that the welfare of her beloved country always lay nearest to her heart, and that she was ever ready to sacrifice the prejudices of the woman to the duties of the Sovereign, and we shall recognise, at once, that Russia did well at this crisis to place her destinies in the hands of Elizabeth Petrovna. It is true that, as La Chetardie had predicted, almost her first act was to disgrace and exile all the foreigners who had held sway during the past two reigns, including such illustrious names as Osterman and Münnich (January 29, 1742). But and this is her justification she placed at the head of affairs a native Russian statesman, whom, personally, she much disliked, but whose genius and experience she rightly judged to be indispensable to Russia at that particular moment.
Alexis Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin was born on May 2, 1693. Educated, with his elder brother Michael, at Copenhagen and Berlin, he adopted the diplomatic career, and, at the age of 19, served as the second Russian plenipotentiary at the Congress of Utrecht. From 1717 to 1726 he occupied the honourable but peculiar post of Hanoverian Minister to Russia, subsequently representing Russia at Copenhagen till the death of Peter the Great. For the next fifteen years, he was kept in the background and had to be content with the comparatively humble post of Russian resident at Hamburg, while his brother shone as Ambassador Extraordinary at Stockholm. Towards the end of the reign of Anne, Biren recalled him to Russia to balance the influence of Osterman; but he fell with his patron and only re-emerged from the obscurity of disgrace on the accession of Elizabeth. He drew up the Empress’ first ukaz and was made Vice-Chancellor at the end of the year ; but so insecure did he feel that, in February, 1742, he employed the good offices of the Saxon Minister, Pezold, to bring about a good understanding between himself and the reigning (and now ennobled) favourite, Lestocq, whom, at the bottom of his heart, he thoroughly despised.
It is a difficult task to diagnose the character of this sinister and elusive statesman, who took such infinite pains to obliterate all his traces. He seems to have been a moody, taciturn hypochondriac, full of wiles and ruses, passionate when provoked, but preferring to work silently and subterraneously. Inordinate love of power was certainly his ruling passion, but he had to bide his time till he was nearly fifty. He was a man who remorselessly crushed his innumerable enemies and never allowed himself the luxury of a single intimate friend. Yet, in justice, it must be added that his enemies were generally the enemies of his country ; that his implacability was actuated as much by patriotic as by personal motives ; and that nothing could turn him one hair’s breadth from the policy which he considered to be best suited to the interests of the State. And this true policy he alone, for a long time, of all his contemporaries, had the wisdom to discern and the courage to pursue.
The first care of the new Empress, after abolishing the cabinet-council system, which had been in favour during the reign of the two Annes, and reconstituting the Administrative Senate, as it had been under Peter the Great, was to compose her quarrel with Sweden, not only because the Finnish war was a drain upon her resources, but also because the political situation required her attention more urgently elsewhere. The sudden collapse of Sweden had come as a disagreeable surprise to the Court of Versailles ; and to baulk Russia of the fruits of her triumph, by obtaining the best possible terms for discomfited Sweden, was now the principal object of the French diplomatists in the north. La Chetardie was accordingly instructed to offer the mediation of France, and use all his efforts to cajole the Empress into an abandonment of her rights of conquest. Never for an instant did he doubt of success. For the first three months after the Revolution, he was, undoubtedly, the most popular man in Russia. “The first bow here is to her Majesty,” observes the English Minister Finch shortly after that event, “but the second is to Mons. de La Chetardie.” He saw the Empress almost daily, was closeted with her for hours, and was the only foreign envoy who enjoyed the privilege of accompanying her Majesty on her frequent religious pilgrimages. But when, in .February, 1742, he suggested to Elizabeth, at a private interview, that the victorious Russians should sacrifice something for the benefit of the vanquished Swedes in order to satisfy the honour of France, the Empress, very pertinently, inquired what opinion her own subjects would be likely to have of her if she so little regarded the memory of her illustrious father as to cede provinces won by him at the cost of so much Russian blood and treasure ? Bestuzhev, to whom the Frenchman next applied, roundly declared that no negotiations with Sweden could be thought of except on a uti possidetis basis. “I should deserve to lose my head on the block,” he concluded, ” if I counselled her Imperial Majesty to cede a single inch of territory.” At a subsequent Council it was decided to decline the French offer of mediation and prosecute the Swedish war with vigour. There is no need to follow the course of the campaign of 1742. The Russian advance, under Lacy and Keith, was a triumphal progress. By the end of the year all Finland was in the hands of the Russians. On January 23, 1743, direct negotiations between the two powers were opened at Abo ; and on August 7 peace was concluded, Sweden ceding to Russia all the southern part of Finland east of the river Kymmene, including the fortresses of Vilmanstrand and Fredrikshamn. Bestuzhev would have held out for the whole Grand-Duchy, but the Empress, fearful of the possible intervention of France and Prussia, overruled him. This was a great blow to France ; and La Chetardie, perceiving that he was no longer of any use to his employers at St Petersburg, presented his letters of recall, and quitted Russia (July, 1742).
The French Government had discovered that it had nothing to hope from Russia so long as Bestuzhev had the direction of affairs. Henceforth, it became the prime object of the Court of Versailles to overthrow him as speedily as possible, especially as it suspected him of a desire to aid the Queen of Hungary. This, indeed, was actually the intention of Bestuzhev. He was as well aware, as Osterman had been before him, that France was the natural enemy of Russia. The interests of the two States in Turkey, Poland and Sweden were diametrically opposed. Russia could never hope to be safe from the intrigues of France in these three border lands. Hostility to France being the norm of Russia’s true policy at this period, all the enemies of France were necessarily the friends of Russia, and all the friends of France were her enemies. Consequently, Great Britain, and, still more, Austria, as being a near neighbour and more directly threatened by France, were Russia’s natural allies; while the aggressive King of Prussia, who had the disquieting ambition of aggrandising himself at the expense of all his neighbours, and was in alliance with France, had also to be guarded against. It was. the policy of Bestuzhev, therefore, to bring about a quadruple alliance between Russia, Austria, Great Britain and Saxony to balance the strength of France and Prussia combined. But here, unfortunately, he was on dangerously slippery ground, where a single stumble meant irretrievable ruin, for the representatives of the three Russophil Powers above mentioned had all been active and ardent supporters of Anne Leopoldovna and had done their best to keep Elizabeth from the throne. Of this the Empress was, by this time, very well aware ; her antipathies, therefore, were very naturally directed against the ambassadors of Great Britain, Austria and Saxony, who had been her adversaries while she was only Tsesarevna ; and it required no small courage on the part of Bestuzhev to defend a policy, which, indispensable as it might be, was abhorrent to his sovereign for strong personal reasons. Moreover, nearly all the intimate personal friends of the Empress, headed by Lestocq, and extremely jealous of the superior talents and rising influence of Bestuzhev, were already in the pay of France and Prussia, and ready, at the bidding of the French chargé d’affaires, D’Allion, to embark in any project for overthrowing the Vice-Chancellor. The expedient finally adopted was a bogus conspiracy alleged to be afoot for the purpose of replacing on the throne the baby Prince Ivan (who since the Revolution, had been detained, provisionally, with his parents, at the fortress of Dünamunde near Riga), a conspiracy which, very ingeniously, was made to include most of Elizabeth’s former rivals, such as Natalia Lopukhina and the Countess Anna Gavrilovna, consort of Michael Bestuzhev, the Vice-Chancellor’s brother. The former Austrian ambassador, the Marquis de Botta, was alleged to be the chief promoter of the affair. The plot was “miraculously discovered ” by Lestocq and burst upon the Empress in August, 1743. After a rigid inquisition of twenty-five days, during which every variety of torture was freely employed against the accused, “the terrible plot,” says the English minister, Sir Cyril Wych, “was found to be little more than the ill-considered discourses of a couple of spiteful, passionate women, and two or three young debauchees.” Nevertheless, the two women principally concerned had their tongues publicly torn out before being sent to Siberia ; and the Russian minister at Vienna was instructed to demand Botta’s condign punishment. This was done at a special audience, whereupon Maria Theresa declared, with her usual spirit, that she would never admit the validity of extorted evidence, and issued a manifesto to all the Great Powers defending Botta and accusing the Russian Court of gross injustice.
Thus Lestocq and his principals had succeeded in estranging the Courts of St Petersburg and Vienna ; and the result of the “Lopukhin Trial ” was hailed as a great diplomatic victory at Paris. But the caballers had failed to bring Bestuzhev to the block, or even to “drive him into some obscure hole in the country,” as D’Allion had confidently predicted. At the very crisis of his peril, when his own sister-in-law was implicated, the Empress, always equitable when not frightened into ferocity, had privately assured the Vice-Chancellor that her confidence in him was unabated, and that not a hair of his head should be touched. But Bestuzhev had now a still more formidable antagonist to encounter in Frederick II of Prussia.
From the very beginning of his reign, Frederick II had rightly regarded Russia as his most formidable neighbour. She was also the natural ally of his inveterate enemy the Queen of Hungary. So early as June 1, 1743, he wrote to Mardefelt, his minister at St Petersburg : “I should never think of lightly provoking Russia ; on the contrary, there is nothing in the world I would not do in order always to be on good terms with that Empire.” A few months later, the neutrality, at least, of Russia had become of vital importance to him. Alarmed for Silesia (his most lucrative province which had cost him nothing and brought him in 3)000,000 thalers per annum) by the Austrian victories in the course of 1743, and especially disturbed by the Compact of Worms (Sept. 13) 1743), which seemed to him a renewed guarantee of the Pragmatic Sanction, he resolved to make sure of his newly-won possessions by attacking the Queen of Hungary a second time, before she had time to attack him. But how would Russia take this fresh and unprovoked act of aggression ? That was the question upon which everything else depended. Fortunately, “the Botta conspiracy” provided him with an opportunity of ingratiating himself with the Empress. He wrote an autograph letter to Elizabeth, expressing his horror at the plot against her sacred person, and ostentatiously demanded of the Court of Vienna that Botta, who had been transferred from St Petersburg to Berlin, should instantly be recalled. The Empress was much gratified, and showed it. But Bestuzhev had yet to be got rid of. “I cannot repeat too often,” wrote the King of Prussia to Mardefelt (January 25, 1744), “that, until that man has been rendered harmless, I can never reckon upon the friendship of the Empress.” And again (February 29), “It is absolutely necessary to oust the Vice-Chancellor. So long as he is in office, he will cause me a thousand chagrins.” Frederick, with the aid of his chief spy, the elder Princess of Zerbst (who in February, 1744, had brought her daughter Sophia Augusta to Russia to wed the Empress’ nephew and heir, the young Duke of Holstein), now set his hand to an elaborate intrigue for the undoing of the Vice-Chancellor. The Princess was assisted by all Bestuzhev’s other enemies, including La Chetardie, now back again at his post, Lestocq and Mardefelt. “Having regard to the way in which you have concerted measures with the Princess of Zerbst,” wrote Frederick to Mardefelt, in February, 1744, “I don’t see how the blow can possibly fail.” Yet fail it did ; and, as the year were on, and Bestuzhev still held his own, Frederick grew anxious, and then angry. He calls the growing influence of ce méchant homme “a mystery of iniquity” which he cannot solve. On June 4, he wrote to Mardefelt, “Pressing circumstances and the prompt execution of my designs absolutely demand that you should change your tactics a little and employ all your savoir-faire to win over the Vice-Chancellor”; and he authorised Mardefelt to spend as much as 500,000 crowns for the purpose. Then, trusting to the skill of Mardefelt and the potent influence of the 500,000 crowns, at the end of August he openly threw off the mask and invaded Bohemia at the head of 6o,000 men. By the end of September his troops had occupied the whole Kingdom.
In the extremity of her distress, Maria Theresa sent a special envoy, Count Rosenberg, to St Petersburg, to express her horror at Botta’s alleged misconduct, and placed herself and her fortunes unreservedly in the hands of her imperial sister. For two months Elizabeth hesitated, while the Lestocq-Mardefelt-Zerbst clique did all in its power to prevent any assistance from being sent to the distressed Queen of Hungary. But Bestuzhev was now much stronger than he had ever been. By the aid of his secretary, Goldbach, he had succeeded in unravelling La Chetardie’s cipher correspondence and furnished the Empress with extracts alluding in the most disparaging terms to herself. These Bestuzhev accompanied by an elucidative commentary. Furious at the treachery of the ever gallant and deferential Marquis, the Empress dictated to Bestuzhev on the spot a memorandum to La Chetardie commanding him to quit her capital within twenty-four hours ; and on June 17, 1744, he was escorted to the frontier. Six weeks later (July 26) Elizabeth identified herself emphatically with the anti-French policy of her minister, by promoting him to the rank of Grand Chancellor; their common friend, Michael Vorontsov, being at the same time appointed Vice-Chancellor. Bestuzhev now energetically represented to the Empress the necessity of interfering in the quarrel between Frederick II and the Queen of Hungary. He described the King of Prussia as a restless, agitating character made up of fraud and violence. He had violated the Treaty of Breslau. He was secretly stirring up Turkey against Russia. He had impudently used neutral Saxon territory as a stepping-stone to Bohemia. He had procured the dissolution of the Diet of Grodno to prevent his anti-Russian intrigues from being discovered, thus aiming a direct blow at the supremacy which Russia had enjoyed in Poland ever since the days of Peter the Great. In a word Prussia was now far too powerful to be a safe neighbour. The balance of power in Europe must be restored instantly, and at any cost, by reducing her to her proper place.
Bestuzhev so far prevailed as to persuade Elizabeth to receive the extraordinary Austrian envoy, Rosenberg, and promise to commit the Botta incident to oblivion. In the beginning of 1745 she gave a genuine proof of her reconciliation with Austria by bluntly refusing Frederick a succour of 6000 men, though bound by her last defensive treaty with Prussia to assist him. Bestuzhev then submitted to the British Government an intervention project, which was rejected as too onerous and exorbitant ; while Frederick, thoroughly alarmed, offered Bestuzhev 100,000 crowns if he would acquiesce in Prussia’s appropriating another slice of Silesia, an offer which the Russian Chancellor haughtily rejected. Frederick’s subsequent declaration of war against Saxony greatly agitated the Russian Court ; and three successive ministerial Councils (AugustSeptember, 1745), inspired by Bestuzhev, unanimously advised an armed intervention. Elizabeth thereupon signed an ukaz, commanding that the 60,000 men, already stationed in Esthonia and Livonia, should at once advance into Courland, so as to be nearer the Prussian frontier and ready for every emergency. A manifesto was also addressed to the King of Prussia, warning him that Russia considered herself bound to assist Saxony if invaded by him. But nothing came of it all. Bestuzhev relied for the success of his plan on British subsidies, but the British Cabinet, having already secured the safety of Hanover, by a secret understanding with the King of Prussia, had resolved upon neutrality. This too was the real reason why Great Britain had shrunk from committing herself to a quadruple alliance’ against Prussia as proposed by Bestuzhev. Elizabeth, who saw much more clearly than her minister on this occasion, bitterly reproached him for trusting too much to England ; while Frederick, certain, now, of the neutrality of England, proceeded to devastate Saxony, annihilate the Elector’s army, and dictate the Peace of Dresden (December 25, 1745). But the Prussian King was only just in time. Twelve days after the conclusion of the Peace of Dresden, and a week before the news thereof reached St Petersburg, a cabinet council, lasting three days, was held at the Winter Palace, the Empress presiding. At this Council it was unanimously resolved that Bestuzhev should inform Lord Hyndford, the English ambassador, that, if the Maritime Powers would advance Russia a subsidy of six millions, she would at once place 100,000 men in the field, and end the German War in a single campaign.
But Great Britain would not go so far, and the King of Prussia remained unmolested.
Hampered as he was by the backwardness of England and the misgivings of his own sovereign, Bestuzhev could not prevent the conclusion of a peace which he detested ; yet the menacing attitude of the Russian Chancellor had so far impressed Frederick as to make him moderate his demands in spite of his recent victories. Moreover Frederick now played into Bestuzhev’s hands by indulging in one of those foolish jests for which he had often to pay so dearly. Before departing for Saxony, he had requested the mediation of Russia and Turkey at the same time, remarking with a sneer, at a public reception, that, in his opinion, the mediation of a Turk was every bit as good as the mediation of a Greek. Elizabeth was wounded in her tenderest point. That she, the devout mother of all the Orthodox, should be placed in the same category with the descendant of the false Prophet revolted her ; and her sentiments towards “the Nadir Shah of Berlin,” as she called the King of Prussia, underwent a complete change. She had hitherto accepted his effusive compliments without suspicion ; but now Bestuzhev gave her frequent glimpses into the deciphered correspondence of Frederick where the references to herself were by no means flattering. Thus political antagonism and private pique combined to make Elizabeth the most determined adversary of Frederick II.
The triumph of the Austrian party at St Petersburg dates from the conclusion of the defensive alliance of June 2, 1745; whereby each of the contracting parties agreed to aid the other, within three months of being attacked, with 30,000 men, or, in case Prussia was the aggressor, with 6o,000. Frederick saw in this compact a plan for attacking him on the first opportunity, and, in the course of the same summer, made another determined attempt to overthrow Bestuzhev with the aid of Lestocq, Vorontsov, D’Allion and Mardefelt. But the plot recoiled on the plotters; and the Prussian minister, Mardefelt, received his passports. Bestuzhev’s subsequent endeavours to round off his system by contracting an alliance with Great Britain were less successful, Great Britain being by no means so eager to unite with Russia as Russia with her. “The King,” wrote Chesterfield to Hyndford, ” cannot guarantee to the Queen of Hungary possessions which she herself has relinquished.” Nevertheless the victories of Marshal Saxe in the Austrian Netherlands, and the consequent danger of Holland, at last drew Russia and Great Britain more closely together ; and the pressing question of the advance of a Russian auxiliary corps to the Rhine engulfed all others. After long and vexatious negotiations, in the course of which Bestuzhev hotly declared that he saw he was about to become ” the victim of his own good intentions towards an ungrateful Court,” which squabbled over thousands for the alliance, while France would have given tens of thousands for the simple neutrality, of Russia, the British government virtually agreed to his demands. By the Treaty of St Petersburg (December 9, 1747), the Empress, besides agreeing to hold a corps of observation, 30,000 strong, on the Courland frontier, at the disposal of Great Britain for £100,000 a year, consented to send another corps of 30,000 to the Rhine, on condition that £300,000 a year were paid for the troops by England and Holland, four months in advance, as well as 150,000 rix-dollars for their maintenance during their passage through Europe.
On January 28, 1748, the day after the exchange of the ratifications, Prince Repnin, at the head of 30,000 Russians, began slowly to advance through central Europe, so slowly, indeed, that the Courts of London and Vienna were loud in their complaints to the Russian ministers. But, in truth, the subsidiary corps had already accomplished all that was required of it. The news of the approach of Repnin’s army induced France, despite her brilliant victories, to accelerate the peace negotiations; and, on April 30, 1748, a preliminary convention was signed between the Court of Versailles and the Maritime Powers, at Aix la Chapelle, subsequently confirmed by the formal treaty of October 18, to which Austria and her allies reluctantly acceded.
Never yet had Russia stood so high in the estimation of Europe as in the autumn of 1748 ; and this commanding position she owed entirely to the tenacity of purpose of the Grand Chancellor. In the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles, Bestuzhev had honourably extricated his country from the Swedish imbroglio ; reconciled his imperial mistress with the Courts of London and Vienna, her natural allies; re-established Friendly relations, on a firm basis, with those powers ; freed Russia from the yoke of foreign influence ; compelled both Prussia and France to abate their pretensions in the very hour of victory ; and, finally, had isolated the restless, perturbing, King of Prussia by environing him with hostile alliances.
The seven years which succeeded the War of the Austrian Succession were nothing more than an armed truce between apprehensive and dissatisfied adversaries, nothing more than an indispensable breathing-space between a past contest which everyone felt to have been inconclusive, and a future contest which everyone knew to be inevitable. Both the Peace of Aix and the Peace of Breslau had been forced from without upon active belligerents. In the first case the unexpected intervention of Russia had arrested the triumphal progress of the French armies ; in the second, the sudden desertion of England had compelled defeated but still defiant Austria to surrender her fairest province to the King of Prussia. The consequences of these prematurely suppressed hostilities were an unnatural tension between the various European Powers, a loosening of time-honoured alliances, and a cautious groping after newer and surer combinations. The determining factor of this universal distrust was the King of Prussia, who alone had profited by the struggle which had convulsed Europe. But Frederick himself was uneasy in the midst of his triumphs, and, far from diminishing his armaments after the war was over, prudently increased them. He had nothing to fear, indeed, for the present from exhausted Austria ; but the attitude of Russia continued to be as menacing as ever. Bestuzhev did not leave his redoubtable antagonist out of sight for a moment ; and the diplomatic struggle between them was carried on with ever increasing acerbity, principally in Sweden, Poland and Turkey.
In Sweden the joint efforts of the British and French Ministers in the course of 17503 prevented Russia from fastening a quarrel upon Sweden, who was supposed at St Petersburg to be about to amend her vicious constitution at the suggestion of the King of Prussia. Frederick, on the other hand, incensed beyond measure by an imperial rescript issued by Bestuzhev, ordering all Russian subjects belonging to the Baltic Provinces but actually in the Prussian service, to return to their homes, deliberately slighted the Russian resident Gross, who was thereupon (October 25, 1750) recalled, and diplomatic intercourse between the two countries ceased.
In Poland and at the Porte, Great Britain and Russia acted together, and their ambassadors successfully resisted all the intrigues of France and Prussia. Purely oriental affairs, however, were of minor importance during the reign of Elizabeth; and even in Poland the one constantly recurring question, the desirability of abolishing the liberum veto, excited no more than a languid interest. The Elector of Saxony, in his own interests as King of Poland, desired the abatement of this nuisance; but he dared not move without the consent of Russia, and Russia would consent to no reform of the Polish constitution which might resuscitate her ancient but now moribund rival.
All this while, Bestuzhev had been doing his utmost to promote his favourite project of a strong Anglo-Russian alliance with the object of “still further clipping the wings of the King of Prussia.” The negotiations began in 1750, when Great Britain, not without reason, feared that Frederick was about to attack Hanover. But the Empress, who displayed throughout a truer political instinct than her Chancellor, was indisposed to risk a rupture with Prussia simply for the sake of Hanover. For three years, therefore, she returned no answer to the British demands. At last, in May 1753, the negotiations were reopened at the urgent instance of Bestuzhev; but still no progress could be made till June, 1755, when Sir Hanbury Williams arrived from London with secret instructions to conclude a new convention with Russia as speedily as possible. On September 19, 1755, the convention was signed. By the tern-is of it, Russia engaged to furnish an auxiliary corps of 55,000 men for a diversion against Prussia in return for an annual subsidy from Great Britain of £500,000, besides £100,000 a year for the maintenance of an additional corps on the frontier. This convention was to be ratified two months after signature ; but, at the last moment, Elizabeth could not make up her mind to ratify it. She suspected, not without reason, that England required a large proportion of the Russian contingent to fight her battles on the Rhine and in the Low Countries, and she was not disposed to divert her troops thither. Not till February 1, 1756, were the ratifications signed ; but the Empress never forgave Bestuzhev for the vehemence and petulance by means of which he forced her hand on this occasion. Yet the very treaty which it had taken nearly six years to negotiate had already become waste paper. A fortnight before the exchange of the ratifications, an event had occurred, at the other end of Europe, which shattered all the cunning combinations of the Russian Chancellor, completely changed the complexion of continental politics, and precipitated a general European war.
Hitherto, broadly speaking, the balance of power in Europe had hung upon the rivalry of the houses of Bourbon and Hapsburg, the determining cause of most of the wars which had convulsed the continent since the days of Richelieu. But the last of these wars, the War of the Austrian Succession, had had strange and unforeseen consequences. Instead of benefiting either France or Austria, it had called into existence a new Great Power in the shape of Prussia. France had sought to make a tool of the young Prussian Monarchy, but the young Prussian Monarchy had reversed their respective parts and made a tool of her august and somewhat contemptuous patron and ally. The natural result of this disagreeable surprise was the drawing together of Austria and France, both now animated by a common dread and distrust of Prussia. This astounding volte face was accomplished, not without difficulty (for the prejudices of ages could not be overcome in a moment), by the Austrian Chancellor Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz.
But Frederick had been beforehand with his adversaries. Recognising the fact that decadent France could no longer be profitable to him, and alarmed by the rumours of the impending negotiations between Great Britain and Russia, he calculated that the chances, on the whole, were in favour of the superior usefulness of an English alliance, and (January 16, 1756) signed the Treaty of Westminster with Great Britain, generally known as the German Neutrality Convention, whereby the two contracting powers agreed to unite their forces to oppose the entry into, or the passage through Germany, of the troops of any other foreign Power. The Treaty of Westminster precipitated the conclusion of the Franco-Austrian rapprochement. On May 2, 1756, a defensive alliance was signed at Versailles between the French and Austrian governments. On the same ‘day a secret treaty, for the ultimate partition of Prussia, was signed between the same two Powers ; and to this treaty Russia, Sweden and Saxony were to be invited to accede.
The position of the Russian Chancellor was now truly pitiable. He had expended all his energy in carrying through an alliance with Great Britain which was now only so much waste paper. He had repeatedly predicted that Prussia could never unite with Great Britain, or Austria with France, yet both these alleged impossibilities had actually taken place. No wonder if the Empress lost confidence in him, especially as he clung obstinately to a past condition of things and refused to bow to the inexorable logic of accomplished facts. He was well aware that if Great Britain could no longer be counted upon for help against Prussia the assistance of France would be indispensable ; yet so inextinguishable was his hatred of France, that he could not reconcile himself to the idea of an alliance with that Power in any circumstances. Consequently, his whole policy was henceforth purely obstructive, and therefore purely mischievous.
His first act, on recovering from the shock of the Treaty of Westminster, was to propose to the Empress the establishment of a Konferentsia, or Cabinet Council, as a permanent and paramount Department of State, to advise her on all matters relating to foreign affairs. This he did to compel his opponents to shew their hands openly, instead of secretly intriguing against him. At its second session the Conference decided that England’s treaty with Prussia had nullified the Anglo-Russian conventions. At its third session, it determined to invite the Courts of Versailles, Vienna and Stockholm to co-operate with Russia “to reduce the King of Prussia within proper limits so that he might no longer be a danger to the German Empire.” It then ordered the army to be mobilised at once, so that Austria might also be spurred on to more rapid action ; and the Austrian ambassador was instructed to inform his Court, without delay, that her imperial Majesty was ready to conclude a definite treaty with France whenever invited to do so. Thus the very Council which Bestuzhev had called into existence worked steadily against him from the first.
Great Britain did all she could to counteract the rapprochement of Russia and France; and Hanbury Williams, her minister at St Petersburg, went the length, during a temporary illness of the Empress, of forming a conspiracy to place on the throne the Grand-Duke Peter and his consort the Grand-Duchess Catherine, both of whom were known to be friendly to the King of Prussia. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, however, at the end of October, Elizabeth’s health improved and all Williams’ schemes to prevent the conclusion of the Franco-Russian alliance instantly collapsed. On December 31, 1756, the Russian Empress formally acceded to the Treaty of Versailles, at the same time binding herself, by a secret article, to assist France if attacked by England in Europe ; France at the same time contracting a corresponding secret obligation to give Russia pecuniary assistance in the event of her being attacked by Turkey. The secret articles of the partition treaty, as between France and Austria, were not, however, communicated to the Court of St Petersburg.
It is certain that at this crisis of his life the King of Prussia was by Sao means so well informed as usual. Indeed, during the first six months of 1756, he acted upon incorrect, or at least incomplete information, and was for a long time in the dark as to the true nature and magnitude of the peril he knew to be impending. He was well aware, all along, that Austria meant to attack him at the first opportunity, and that Saxony would go with her; but not till towards the end of June did he suspect the existence of the Franco-Austrian League, and, till the end of August, he flattered himself that British influence would prove stronger than Austrian influence at St Petersburg. He was also mistaken, or misinformed, as to the relative attitudes of Russia and Austria. He was, for instance, under the false impression that Austria was urging on Russia against him, but that the latter Power was not prepared and would postpone an invasion till the following spring, whereas in reality it was Russia who was urging on dilatory and timorous Austria.
At the beginning of June, Frederick learnt from the Hague, that Russia had definitely renounced her obligations towards England. Early in July he told Mitchell, the English envoy at Berlin, that Russia was lost to them, and at once resolved to begin what Bismarck has called “a preventive war’,” certainly his best policy. On August 31, 1756, he invaded Saxony with 6o,000 men, drove back the Austrians into Bohemia (battle of Lowositz, October 1), and occupied the whole Saxon electorate, which he ravaged and blackmailed mercilessly. The Seven Years’ War had begun.
It is beyond the scope of this book to enter into the details of the struggle. Here only the salient events, so far as they affected the policy of Russia and the general situation, can be very briefly adumbrated.
The lack of good generals, a fact due to the neglect, during the last three reigns, of Peter the Great’s golden rule of forming a school of native generals by carefully training promising young Russian officers beneath the eye of intelligent and experienced foreigners, was the cause of Russia’s inefficiency in the field during the first two campaigns. In 1757, the Russian Commander-in-Chief, Stephen Apraksin, accidentally gained the battle of Grossjagersdorf (August 29), one of the most casual. victories on record, won as it was by the sheer courage of raw troops suddenly attacked by an enemy whom they were marching to outflank. During the rest of the campaign Apraksin did nothing at all but march and counter-march.
The great political event of the year 1757 was the resumption of diplomatic relations between Russia and France. In June, 1757, the new French ambassador, Paul Galluchio de L’Hôpital, Marquis de Chateauneuf, arrived at St Petersburg at the head of an extraordinarily brilliant suite. His charming manners, ready wit and truly patrician liberality made him a persona gratissima at the Russian Court ; and, in conjunction with the new Austrian ambassador, Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, he carried everything before him. It was through their influence that Apraksin and his friend Bestuzhev were arrested, early in 1758, on a charge of conspiring with the Grand-Duchess Catherine and her friends to recall the army from the field and hold it in readiness to support a projected coup d’état in case of the death of the Empress, who, on September 19, 1756, had had a slight apoplectic stroke after attending mass at the parish church of Tsarkoe Selo. Bestuzhev’s enemies had instantly connected the illness of the Empress with the almost simultaneous retreat of the army, though we now know for certain that the two events were entirely unconnected. The retreat of the army had been ordered by an unanimous council of war, held a full fortnight previously to the Empress’ seizure ; while it is obvious that the Chancellor, especially in his own very critical position, had no object in sparing his old enemy, the King of Prussia. Bestuzhev succeeded in clearing himself completely of all the charges brought against him. But the Empress, while admitting his innocence, shewed that she had lost all confidence in him ; he was deprived of his offices, and banished from Court. He was succeeded as Grand Chancellor by Michael Vorontsov, an honest man of excellent intentions but mediocre abilities.
The campaign of 1758 was a repetition of the campaign of 1757. After occupying the whole of East Prussia, Apraksin’s successor, General Fermor, on August 25, defeated Frederick at Zorndorf, one of the most murderous engagements of modern times, 34 per cent. of the total number engaged being placed hors-de-combat. But Fermor was incapable of making any use of his victory, even after being strongly reinforced ; and, at the beginning of October, he retired behind the Vistula.
The increasing financial difficulties of the Russian Government, in 1759, prevented the army from taking the field till April ; and, on May 19, the incurably sluggish Fermor was superseded by Count Peter Saltuikov, an officer of no experience, who hitherto had been mainly occupied in drilling the militia of the Ukraine. Frederick the Great communicated this new appointment to his brother Prince Henry, with more than his usual caustic acerbity. “Fermor,” he wrote, “has received by way of appendage one Soltykoff who is said to be more stupid and imbecile than anything in the clod-hopper line which Russia has yet produced.” Yet this same “clod-hopper” was, within three weeks, to reduce the King of Prussia to the last extremity.
Although suddenly pitted against the most redoubtable captain of the age, without having ever commanded an army before, Saltuikov seems to have accepted his tremendous responsibilities without the slightest hesitation. On July 9, he reached headquarters; on July 23, he defeated, near Kay, the Prussian general Wedell, who had attempted to prevent his junction with the Austrians ; early in August he united with Laudon at Frankfurt on Oder ; and, on August 12, the allies annihilated the army of the King of Prussia at Kunersdorf.
” Only a miracle can save us now,” wrote the Prussian Minister Finckenstein to Kniphausen, the Prussian ambassador at London, a few days after the catastrophe. At the urgent request of Frederick, Pitt at once made pacific overtures to Russia on behalf of Prussia, and proposed a peace congress to be held at the Hague. On December 1 2) the Empress delivered her reply to these pacific overtures. She declared that she and her allies were equally desirous of peace, but of a peace that should be honourable, durable and profitable. Such a peace, she opined, was impossible if things were allowed to remain on the same footing as they were before the war. After this it was plain to the British Ministers that no more could be said at present, and the war must proceed.
Frederick was only saved from instant destruction by the violent dissension between Marshall Saltuikov and the Austrian Commander-in-Chief, Count Daun, who refused to take orders from each other and thus wasted all the fruits of Kunersdorf. Indeed Saltuikov was so elated by his astounding victories that he even refused to submit to the orders of his own court. In spite of urgent rescripts commanding him to follow up his successes without delay, he absolutely refused to remain in Silesia a day longer than October 15, as ” the preservation of his army ought to be his primary consideration.” At the beginning of November he deliberately marched off to his magazines at Posen.
It is not too much to say that from the end of 1759 to the end of 1761 the unshakable firmness of the Russian Empress was the one constraining political force which held together the heterogeneous, incessantly jarring, elements of the anti-Prussian combination, and prevented it from collapsing before the shock of disaster. From the Russian point of view, Elizabeth’s greatness as a ruler consists in her steady appreciation of Russian interests, and her determination to promote and consolidate them at all hazards. She insisted, throughout, that the King of Prussia must be rendered harmless to his neighbours for the future, and that the only way to bring this about was to curtail his dominions, and reduce him to the rank of a Kurfurst. Russia’s share of his partitioned dominions was to be the province already in her possession, Ducal Prussia’ as it was then called; a very moderate compensation for her preponderating services and enormous sacrifices. On January 1, 1760, the Empress told Esterhazy that she meant to continue the war, in conjunction with her allies, even if she were compelled to sell all her diamonds and half her wearing apparel ; but she also declared that the time had come when Russia should be formally guaranteed the possession of her conquest, Ducal Prussia. The Court of Vienna was much perturbed. Maria Theresa was well aware that France would never consent to the aggrandisement of Russia, yet she herself was in such absolute need of the succour of the Russian troops, that she was obliged to yield to the insistence of Elizabeth. Accordingly, on April 1, 176o, fresh conventions were signed between Austria and Russia, providing for the continuation of the war and the annexation of Ducal Prussia to Russia. When Louis XV categorically refused to accept these conventions in their existing form, and compelled Maria Theresa to strike out the article relating to East Prussia, the Empress-Queen added to the conventions so amended a secret clause, never communicated to the Court of Versailles, virtually reinstating the cancelled article (May 21, 1760). The British ministers were as apprehensive as the ministers of France lest Russia should claim any territorial compensation from Frederick II, for, in view of the unyielding disposition of the King of Prussia, such a claim meant the indefinite prolongation of the war, or, which was even worse and far more probable, the speedy and complete collapse of the Prussian monarchy.
Frederick II has told us that in 176o the Russians had only to step forward in order to give him the coup de grâce. Once more, however, he was saved by the imbecility of the Russian generals. In the course of the campaign of 1760, Saltuikov’s mind became unhinged by his responsibilities, and he was superseded by Alexander Buturlin. The occupation of Berlin (October 9-12), which was a financial rather than a military operation (the heavy contributions levied on the Prussian capital helping, as they did, to fill the depleted Russian treasury), and the second abortive siege of Kolberg, were the sole incidents of the campaign.
If France and Austria had only with the utmost difficulty been persuaded to continue the war at the end of 1759, it may be imagined with what feelings they faced the prospect of yet another campaign at the end of 1760. Even in Russia itself there was now a very general desire for peace. On January 22, 1761, the French ambassador at St Petersburg presented a dispatch to the Russian Chancellor from Choiseul to the effect that the King of France, by reason of the conditions of his dominions, absolutely desired peace, especially as the King of Prussia, being at the end of his resources, would now doubtless listen to any reasonable propositions. On the following day the Austrian ambassador presented a memorandum to the same effect. In her reply of February 12, Elizabeth declared that she would not consent to any pacific overtures until the original object of the league, “the essential and permanent crippling of the King of Prussia,” had been accomplished. This reply was accompanied by a letter from Elizabeth to Maria Theresa rebuking the Court of Vienna for its want of candour in negotiating with France behind the back of Russia, and threatening, in case of a repetition of such a violation of treaties, to treat with the King of Prussia directly and independently. Elizabeth was not, however, averse from a peace-congress sitting while the war still went on, though she was firmly opposed to anything like a truce as being likely to be “extremely useful to the King of Prussia.” To these pro-positions the allies yielded after some debate. A fresh Russian note, in the beginning of May, laid it down, as an imperative necessity, that France should leave America and the Indies alone for a time and concentrate all her efforts upon the continent. Thus Russia was assuming the lead of continental affairs not only in arms but in diplomacy also.
The equally uncompromising attitudes of Russia and Prussia rendered another campaign inevitable; and, despite the leisurely strategy of the third Russian Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Buturlin, it resulted disastrously for Frederick. During it he lost two first-class fortresses, Schweidnitz in Silesia, and Kolberg in Pomerania, both of which he had deemed impregnable. It is clear from his letter to Finckenstein of January 6, 1762, that he now gave himself up for lost : “Methinks,” he wrote, “we ought now to think of preserving for my nephew, by way of negotiations, whatever fragments of my possessions we can snatch from the avidity of my enemies. Be persuaded that if I saw a gleam of hope…of re-establishing the State on its ancient foundations, I would not use such language, but I am convinced that…it is impossible.” This means, if words mean anything, that Frederick had resolved to seek a soldier’s death on the first opportunity, and thus remove the chief obstacle to a peace for want of which Prussia was perishing. He was spared the heroic sacrifice. A fortnight later, he received the tidings of the death of the Russian Empress, who had expired on January 2, 1762 and he knew he was saved. Almost the first act of Elizabeth’s nephew and successor, Peter III, a fanatical admirer of Frederick, was to reverse the whole policy of his aunt, to grant the King of Prussia peace on his own terms (May 5, 1 762)) and contract a regular defensive alliance with “the King my master.” Four months latex (July 9) Peter. was overthrown and made away with by his consort, Catherine II, but the change came too late to modify the situation. Despite her enormous expenditure of blood and money, Russia gained nothing but prestige from her participation in the Seven Years’ War.