28 November 2015
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The noble struggle of 1812 has lessons for us today

Article by Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko in Russia Now supplement of The Daily Telegraph

If you walk past the Russian embassy Bayswater Road, London, you can see the sculpture of an eagle on a double column at Orme Square. Not everybody knows that this is a memorial to the Russo-British efforts in the war against Napoleon. It was erected in June 1814 when Londoners enthusiastically greeted Russian Emperor Alexander I and his military commanders Field Marshal Barclay de Tolly and Cossack General Platov. Their visit marked the allied victory over Napoleon's forces (though the final French defeat at Waterloo was still a year away).

The story began 200 years ago, when on June 24, 1812 Napoleon's 600,000-strong Grand Armée crossed Russia’s western border. The 1812 campaign, named the Patriotic War by the Russians, is known to the British mainly through Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, which recounts how the seemingly invincible Corsican tasted defeat.

Initially outnumbered by the French, the two Russian armies retreated, avoiding major battles. They eventually joined forces at Smolensk, where Field Marshal Kutuzov took command over the Russian forces. The bloodiest battle was fought on September 7 at Borodino, a little more the 60 miles west of Moscow. The Russians consider it their victory although the Russian army had to retreat after a battle that was inconclusive in the military sense.

Tolstoy was right when he wrote that at Borodino “the Russians won a moral victory”. Both armies suffered crippling damage, two out of three casualties were killed by cannon fire, and Kutuzov let Napoleon enter Moscow, which was soon ravaged by fire. Meanwhile, the Russian army was gathering forces, the militia and guerrillas made life unbearable for the invaders, and in October Napoleon fled Moscow.

The rump of the Grand Armée was defeated in a series of engagements, the last of them being the disastrous crossing of the Berezina River. Before the end of the year, several thousand demoralised French soldiers were expelled from Russia, and in 1813 Alexander I led the European coalition to restore peace, stability and the balance of power in Europe, which was crucial for Russia’s development.

Thus, the road to Waterloo began at Borodino. Aside from diplomatic and military co-ordination of the war effort, we have a lot of other common legacies to celebrate. For example, Russia's war minister and army commander Michael Barclay de Tolly, as his name suggests, came from a Scottish family. And the most magnificent monument of the war, the Military Gallery in the Winter Palace, comprising more than 300 images of Russian commanders of the period, was the work of the acclaimed British painter George Dawe. His work earned him more fame in Russia than in his native England. Portraits of Alexander I by British artists are also kept in Windsor and Apsley House.

It is especially significant to me that, here in London, I can shake hands with descendants of Russian soldiers and statesmen who won the crucial victory in 1812. One of them is Dominic Lieven, author of the brilliant Russia Against Napoleon and descendant of one of my predecessors, Prince Christopher von Lieven, who was in London between 1812 and 1834.

This 200-year anniversary of the war against Napoleon is a reminder that Russia and the United Kingdom were allies in 1812, confronting together common challenges, each doing its bit in the opposite extremes of the continent, and putting aside the mutual distrust, which was rife, like in some other periods of our history. Still, the leaders of 1812 were able to make the right decisions, prioritising what was most important and what was secondary. We waged a just war to defend our countries' sovereignty, not against the French nation but against the aggression personified by Napoleon.

Emperor Alexander I made an enormous effort to establish the Concert of Europe – which was the United Nations of its day – and urged Europe's monarchs to treat their peoples and each other in a Christian way, for he believed that ties of brotherly love were stronger than coercion by force of arms or law. He also made a desperate attempt in 1812 to mediate between the then warring nations of Britain and United States to ensure that the forces of important allies were not distracted by overseas conflicts.

Russia invested a lot in this principled foreign policy though the late 19th century was not an age of idealism. Thus, we saw the unnecessary Crimean War, which paved the way for German unification as a Greater Prussia and the countdown to the First World War.

Perhaps Britain should once more look at the lessons of 1812-1815, now that all of us in the Euro-Atlantic area share common threats and challenges. In a twist of history, we have been able to heal the discords with the French (as we did later with the Germans) and now Moscow and Paris enjoy a high degree of mutual trust and co-operation.

For Russia, the Patriotic War of 1812 was more than another armed conflict. It was an unprecedented cause of liberation for the whole of Europe, and it gave rise to a social and political awakening for Russian society. It shaped Russian patriotic sentiment and pride, and gave us a greater awareness of our Europeanness, of our national stakes in the peace and unity of Europe, which Fyodor Dostoyevsky would later call “European nostalgia of the Russian soul”.

To commemorate the anniversary, our embassy, together with the Russian community in the UK and our British friends, has prepared a series of commemorative events. In a symbolic gesture, the first of them was the performance of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with gunfire by HMS Belfast on Victory Day, May 9. In this way, the famous light cruiser, which led Arctic convoys in the Second World War when our nations struck an alliance again, resonated with much earlier common glory and sacrifice. I am sure the spirit of 1812 will live on.


26.11.2015 - Ambassador Yakovenko responds to Russian media question on Britain's renewed National Security Strategy

Question: The recent announcement by the British Government of the outcome of its 5-year Review of the National Security Strategy has attracted a lot of criticism. Russia features prominently in some key provisions of the document. What could you say on that? Answer: I'll start with Russia's place in it. Unfortunately, we witness what I would call inertia of the rhetoric, that is no longer reflective of the reality, which has been evolving fast. Still, it is now less categorical and diffuse, which may be a sign of changing attitude. Hope, it is going to be the case.

18.11.2015 - Syrian solution demands truly inclusive compromise (article by Ambassador Yakovenko for the Daily Telegraph supplement, 17 November 2015)

Upon Russia’s insistence, a truly inclusive multilateral process was launched in Vienna on Oct. 30 to help find a compromise solution to the Syrian crisis. Iran, a major player, took part for the first time, as well as China. All agreed to the U.S., Russia and the U.N. co-chairing the meeting. Heated exchanges took place on the issue of President Bashar al-Assad’s future. As was the case three years ago, this could derail the entire process. But ultimately it was agreed to disagree on that issue. Lack of agreement on this subject resulted in three more years of bloody impasse. We should know better than that this time. All the more so that those are the differences between the outside players. Why not leave it to the Syrians to decide?

17.11.2015 - Welcoming points at the Russian-British business forum, dedicated to the 95th anniversary of the establishment of the Russian Trade Mission in the UK (17 November, 9.00, Royal Garden Hotel)

Ladies and gentlemen! I am delighted to welcome you at the Russian-British Business Forum, dedicated to such a significant date – the 95th anniversary of the establishment of the Russian Trade Mission in the United Kingdom. It gives me special pleasure to congratulate our colleagues on this occasion, since this trade delegation established to promote trade links with the United Kingdom in 1920 and headed by People's Commissar of Foreign Trade Leonid Krasin became the first in history Soviet Russia's trade representation abroad. In fact, it set an example for a whole network of Russian trade missions abroad, which are still successfully operating. Ever since its establishment the Trade Mission has continued to work hard to promote business relations between Russia and Great Britain. It helps companies in both countries to find partners and enter each other’s markets.

29.10.2015 - Russian Embassy on the Times editorial

Your editorial, which accompanied Ambassador Yakovenko’s interview (26 October) is full of grossly misleading statements on Russia’s foreign policy. May I set the record straight before your readership?

23.10.2015 - Letter of Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy A.Kramarenko to the “Financial Times”

Letter of Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy A.Kramarenko to the “Financial Times”

21.10.2015 - Letter of Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy A.Kramarenko to the “Guardian”

Letter of Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy A.Kramarenko to the “Guardian”

19.10.2015 - Why Russia had to intervene in Syria (article by Ambassador Yakovenko published in The Independent)

Combating international terrorism has long been one of the top priorities of Russia's foreign policy. We have been consistently advocating genuinely global efforts in countering that evil. The fight against terrorism must be conducted on a universal legal basis, starting with the UN Charter. That is why Russia has been unable to join the US-led “global coalition” against Isis. The coalition was established in circumvention of the UN Security Council, and its operations in Syria violate the sovereignty of that country.

13.10.2015 - "Russian airstrikes won't solve the crisis" because they are Russian? (article by Andrey A. Pritsepov, Consul General of the Russian Federation in Edinburgh, published in "The Scotsman")

Having read your leader comments "Russian airstrikes won't solve crisis" from 30th September and "Effort needed to rein in lone wolf" from 2nd October I cannot help but notice that they represent a U-turn compared to your previous instalments (for instance, from 17th July "Conservatives made to look very bad again" and from 21st July "PM needs to do more to beat IS").

12.10.2015 - Letter to the Editor of The Sunday Times

On 11 October 2015 The Sunday Times published the article “RAF ready to shoot down Russian aircraft over Syria” which referred to “three senior Cabinet ministers and senior Defence sources”. Given clarifications from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, stating publicly that “reports about RAF rules of engagement in Iraq are inaccurate”, one may conclude that your newspaper was spreading rumours, which could have grave consequences for our bilateral relationship with Britain, and far beyond.

11.10.2015 - Answer by Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko to Russian media question regarding Syria

- Can you comment on the British media reports that UK Government has given the green light to RAF pilots participating in the operation against ISIS in Iraq airspace, to shoot down Russian combat planes? - These media reports are worrying, as they refer to senior Cabinet members. We have urgently requested explanations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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