Gorchakov, Alexander Mikhailovich

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(17981883), Chancellor and Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, 18561881.

A descendant of an illustrious Russian aristocratic family, Alexander Gorchakov was educated at the lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo that is best known for his classmate, Alexander Pushkin. He excelled as a classical scholar and gained more than the usual fluency in Latin and French. He chose a diplomatic career, entering the foreign ministry under the tutelage of Count Karl Nesselrode, serving as minister to Stuttgart and Württemberg during the 1830s and 1840s and to the German Confederation, where he first met Otto von Bismarck. His promotion to Austrian ambassador during the Crimean War was a more serious test of his diplomatic ability and won his recognition as a worthy successor to Nesselrode. He was, nevertheless, a sharp critic, not only of the blunders that led to the war, but also of the peace terms that resulted. He consistently counseled caution on Russian involvement in the Balkans, a policy unheeded by his predecessors and successors, to Russia's and the world's misfortune.

As a true Russian following a German master, he rose to the occasion of the Russian defeat in the Crimean War to be Foreign Minister and Chancellor under Tsar Alexander II. In a period of vulnerability and weakness during the reforms of the tsar, he maintained a conservative-cautious front in European diplomacy, while gradually managing to nullify most of the ignominious restrictions of the Treaty of Paris (1856), such as the restrictions on warships in the Black Sea. His major subsequent accomplishments were to shield successfully the substantial Russian expansion in Central Asia (Turkistan) and the Far East (the acquisition of the Maritime Provinces) from European interference and to dispose of a costly and vulnerable territory in North America (Alaska) to the United States in 1867. His greatest accomplishment was the achievement of a dominant position for Russia in the Balkans through the treaty negotiations at San Stefano that concluded the Russo-Turkish War of 18771878 and at the Congress of Berlin that followed. His over-commitment to pan-Slavic and nationalist Russian goals, however, moved Russia into the center of Great Power rivalries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sowing the seeds for the debacle of World War I.

Much of Gorchakov's success in advancing Russia's European interests, however, could also be credited to Bismarck, who promoted German-Russian collaboration, supported Gorchakov's initiatives, and whose paramount role in European diplomacy overshadowed Gorchakov's. In response, Gorchakov willingly supported German aggression in Holstein and in the Franco-Prussian War, thus promoting Bismarck's creation of the German Empire. They were partners in both waging limited wars for expansionist gains and in preserving general peace through aggressive diplomacy, but the Russian chancellor clearly resented the appearance of a German domination of Russian policy. While Bismarck suffered dismissal by his own government in 1879, Gorchakov overstayed his tenure, becoming a senile embarrassment by 1881. Unfortunately for both major European powers, none would follow with equal skill, international out-look, prestige, and ability to compromise and maintain peace. It is perhaps no surprise that Vladimir Putin's "new Russia" recognizes Gorchakov as a statesman who successfully promoted Russian interests in international relations and, in his honor, awarded the annual "Gorchakov peace prize," in 2002 to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

See also: alexander ii; nesselrode, karl robert; pushkin, alexander sergeyevich


Jelavich, Barbara. (1964). A Century of Russian Foreign Policy, 18141914. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Kennan, George F. (1979). The Decline of Bismarck's European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 18751890. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norman E. Saul