Alexander Bezborodko

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Prince Alexander Andreyevich Bezborodko (Russian: Алекса́ндр Андре́евич Безборо́дко; 14 March 1747 – 6 April 1799) was the Grand Chancellor of Russia and chief architect of Catherine the Great's foreign policy after the death of Nikita Panin.

Ukrainian origins[edit]

A Ukrainian by birth, Alexander Bezborodko (Ukrainian: Олександр Андрійович Безбородько) was born at Hlukhiv on 14 March 1747, and educated at home and in the seminary at Kiev. He entered the public service as a clerk in the office of Count P. A. Rumyantsev, then governor-general of Ukraine, whom he accompanied to the Turkish War in 1768. He was present at the engagements of Larga and Kagul, and at the storming of Silistria.

On the conclusion of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) the field marshal recommended him to Catherine II, and she appointed him in 1775 her petition-secretary. He thus had the opportunity of impressing the empress with his brilliant gifts, the most remarkable of which were exquisite manners, a marvellous memory and a clear and pregnant style. At the same time he set to work to acquire the principal European languages, especially French, of which he became a master. It was at this time that he wrote his historical sketches of the Tatar wars and of Ukraine.

His activity was prodigious, and Catherine called him her factotum. In 1780 he accompanied her on her journey through Novorossiya, meeting the emperor Joseph, who urged him to study diplomacy. On his return from a delicate mission to Copenhagen, he presented to the empress "a memorial on political affairs" which comprised the first plan of a partition of Turkey between Russia and Austria. This document was transmitted almost word for word to Vienna as the Russian proposals. He followed this up by Epitomised Historical Information concerning Moldavia. For these two state papers he was rewarded with the posts of "plenipotentiary for all negotiations " in the foreign office and postmaster-general.

Career under Catherine II[edit]

From this time he was inseparably associated with Catherine in all important diplomatic affairs, though officially he was the subordinate of the vice-chancellor, Count Ivan Osterman. He wrote all the most important despatches to the Russian ministers abroad, concluded and subscribed all treaties, and performed all the functions of a secretary of state. He identified himself entirely with Catherine's political ideas, even with that of re-establishing the Greek empire under her grandson Constantine. The empress, as usual, richly rewarded her comes with pensions and principalities. In 1786 he was promoted to the Governing Senate, and it was through him that the empress communicated her will to that august state-decoration. In 1787 he accompanied Catherine on her triumphal progress through South Russia in the capacity of minister of foreign affairs. At Kanev he conducted the negotiations with the Polish king, Stanislaus II, and at Novaya Kaidaniya he was in the empress's carriage when she received Joseph II.

The second Turkish War (1787-92) and the Swedish war with Gustavus III (1788–90) heaped fresh burdens on his already heavily laden shoulders, and he suffered from the intrigues of his numerous jealous rivals, including the empress's latest favorite, A. M. Mamonov. All his efforts were directed towards the conclusion of the two oppressive wars by an honorable peace. The pause of Verela with Gustavus III (14 August 1790) was on the terms dictated by him. On the sudden death of Potemkin he was despatched to Jassy to prevent the peace congress there from breaking up, and succeeded, in the face of all but insuperable difficulties, in concluding a treaty exceedingly advantageous to Russia (9 January 1792). For this service he received the thanks of the empress, the ribbon of St Andrew and 50,000 roubles.

On his return from Jassy, however, he found his confidential post of secretary of petitions occupied by the empress's last favorite, Prince Zubov. He complained of this "diminution of his dignity" to the empress in a private memorial in the course of 1793. The empress reassured him by fresh honors and distinctions on the occasion of the solemn celebration of the peace of Jassy (2 September 1793), when she publicly presented him with a golden olive-branch encrusted with brilliants. Subsequently Catherine reconciled him with Zubov, and he resumed the conduct of foreign affairs. He contributed more than any other man to bring about the downfall and the third partition of Poland, for which he was magnificently recompensed.

Grand Chancellor of the Russian Empire[edit]

But diplomacy by no means exhausted Bezborodko's capacity for work. He had a large share in the internal administration also. He reformed the post-office, improved the banking system of Russia, regulated the finances, constructed roads, and united the Uniate and Orthodox churches. On the death of Catherine, Emperor Paul entrusted Bezborodko with the examination of the late empress's private papers, and shortly afterwards made him a prince of the Russian Empire, with a correspondingly splendid apanage. On the retirement of Osterman he received the highest dignity in the Russian Empire - that of imperial chancellor.

Bezborodko was the only Russian minister who retained the favor of Paul to the last. During the last two years of his life, control of Russia's diplomacy was entirely in his hands. His programme at this period was peace with all the European powers, revolutionary France included. But the emperor's growing aversion to this pacific policy induced the astute old minister to attempt to "seek safety in moral and physical repose." Paul, however, refused to accept his resignation and would have sent him abroad for the benefit of his health, had not a sudden stroke of paralysis prevented Bezborodko from taking advantage of his master's kindness. He died at St Petersburg on 6 April 1799.

Personal qualities[edit]

In private life Bezborodko was a typical Catherinian, corrupt, licentious, conscienceless and self-seeking. But he was infinitely generous and affectionate, and spent his enormous fortune liberally. His banquets were magnificent, his collections of pictures and statues unique in Europe. He was the best friend of his innumerable poor relatives, and the Maecenas of all the struggling authors of his day. Sycophantic he might have been, but he was neither ungrateful nor vindictive. His patriotism is as indisputable as his genius.

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Preceded by
Ivan Andreyevich Osterman
Imperial Chancellor of Russia
1797 — 1799
Succeeded by
Nikita Petrovich Panin (acting)